Three Mobiles (chamber orch.)

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Length / year

12' - 2003


soprano saxophone and string orchestra


John Metcalf’s Three Mobiles is also essentially cyclical in nature. A helpful note by the composer explains that “the harmony in these pieces is entirely diatonic and moves through a 36-chord sequence with the bass descending each time by a single step. Like a mobile, therefore, the essential structure remains the same as the surface pattern changes”. Made up, obviously enough, of three pieces, of which the outer two are quicker than the central one, the work clearly references the conventions of concerto too. A lucid and elegant piece, Three Mobiles has affinities with French music for saxophone by composers such as Milhaud, Françaix or even Jolivet. Gerard McChrystal’s work was exemplary and conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie ensured an attractive balance between soloist and orchestra (strings only) and some well judged tempi. The rhapsodic second piece was beautifully articulated, just enough acid sharpening its sweetness and the dialogue between saxophone and strings in the brief final piece was wittily handled. Three Mobiles is not one of Metcalf’s major works, but it fitted perfectly into this well designed programme.
Glyn Pursglove - musicweb-international

Performance history

World Premiere
(Location TBC)
September 2003
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Pierre Andre Valade - conductor
Gerard McChrystal - saxophone

European Premiere
St. Jakob Church, Ljubjlana, Slovenia
6th July 2006
Savitra Chamber Orchestra
Matjaz Rebolj - conductor
Gerard McChrystal - saxophone

First Broadcast
Radio 3 - Afternoon on 3
3rd March 2008
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Grant Llewelyn - conductor
Gerard McChrystal - saxophone

Programme note

Since my music sometimes wears its heart on its sleeve I have frequently employed quite limited material and rigorous structures to counterbalance this - simple ‘white note’ harmony and palindrome to give just two examples. When making choices such as these, I have simultaneously aimed for a certain lightness or playfulness of expression so, although the music is, in certain senses, very strict, in others it is the very opposite. Works like 'Light Music' for piano (four hands) and the palindrome for six pianos 'Never Odd or Even' typify this approach and so, by slightly different means, does 'Three Mobiles'.

In sculptural terms a mobile is a three dimensional object with moving parts. Those parts never change in essence but, as they move, are seen in a seemingly endless series of different combinations and perspectives. This is the effect I have tried to achieve in this piece. I have taken a series of 36 chords, all diatonic to E flat major. Some are common chords, while most have one or more notes added to the basic triad. The chords have a further ‘logic’ in that the bass of each successive chord moves down step by step. Using them as a basis, I have constructed the three movements in the manner of classical variation technique adding a ‘free’ melody on top drawn from notes of the current chord. In this way I have tried to replicate the qualities of mobiles in terms of sound.

Mobile 1 is fast and lively; it has repeated chords overlayed with polyrhythms. In a further attempt to represent the concept of the piece, the material is presented in the same rhythmic and metric format three times. Mobile 2 has a slow walking bass over which combines with a very free, almost jazz-inflected melody conveying a feeling of calm and tranquillity. Mobile 3 is very playful and light and moves swiftly through and around the now familiar harmony.

'Three Mobiles' started out as a piece with piano accompaniment. It was commissioned by the Machynlleth Festival with funds made available in part by the Arts Council of Wales and was first performed on 21st August 2001 by Gerard McChrystal with Dan Moriyama (piano). The piece was revised in 2003 (when this version for String Orchestra was made) and again in 2006.