Cyclone is an ambitious work for percussion ensemble featuring a quartet of marimbists (sharing two facing instruments) who are accompanied by piano and 7 multipercussionists. The piece was commissioned by Lewis Norfleet, director of the Union High School percussion ensemble from Camas, Washington, to be premiered at their performance at the 2010 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois.
Cyclone was inspired by events encountered by my close friend Ryan Dahlem and his father John during their expedition to summit Mount Everest in the spring months of 2010. During this time I found myself somewhat obsessed with their journey, fascinated by the determination required and the physical toll high altitudes inflict on these dedicated souls. It’s not just a trip to Nepal and up the mountain with a tour guide, but rather months of rigorous training, several weeks of acclimatization and conditioning on numerous climbs to median camps (and back down), and ultimately hoping for an ample window in the weather at the 29,029-foot summit before monsoon season arrives.
During the days leading up to their summit bid, Cyclone Leila was gaining momentum over the Bay of Bengal and threatening weather conditions for Himalayan climbers. It was during this time of optimism and excitement that climbers were conditioning and methodically preparing their bodies for the task of walking to the highest point on earth, unaware that the jet stream could bring conditions rendering their attempt futile. Amid some unusually dangerous conditions that even led their Sherpas to advise against continuing the expedition during their final ascent, Ryan and John prevailed in summiting and descending safely. Above 25,000 feet (known as the “death zone”), climbers are at great risk, even in optimal conditions, so making it back alive despite the storm was a real victory. They were so badly beaten by the weather, exhaustion, and altitude sickness that they are unable to recollect blocks of time during their descent, a time during which 80 percent of the deaths occur. Incidentally, John and Ryan became the oldest father/son team ever to summit Everest.
Without intending to be literal or programmatic, Cyclone primarily consists of two parts. The first part represents the optimism and determination inspired by the goal of climbing the world’s highest peak. First and foremost, the marimbas introduce the main device of circular motion by way of quick, repetitive 6-note figures which overlap between the facing marimbists. Frequent echo effects are meant to imply a grandeur and spaciousness to the environment. A driving rhythm and structured melody comprise this section, with perhaps a slight sense of uneasiness to the harmonic structure - hope mixed with some anxiety.
As part two takes over midway through the work, the tonality changes leading to a much more vulnerable and unpredictable energy that doesn’t relent. The marimbas generally remain the focal point throughout, but the accompaniment becomes even more active, utilizing a variety of fast-switching and frenetic colors from each multipercussion setup. As the intensity increases toward the final climax, the four marimbists embark on a relentless flurry of contrapuntal 16th-note activity. During this time, they each continually ascend the instruments, volleying with each other’s positions, as well as physically running around the instruments as their ascension persists within the circular and violent roundabout.