James Bonney: Chaos Theory


Composed between 2000-02, James Bonney’s Chaos Theory was commissioned by the University of Nevada Las Vegas Wind Orchestra. Scored for the unusual pairing of electric guitar and wind orchestra, Bonney writes in his programme notes: 


One day, seemingly out-of-the-blue, my good friend Eric Whitacre asked me if I was interested in writing a piece for the University of Nevada in Las Vegas Wind Orchestra. Well, he didn’t have to ask me twice! I was soon put in touch with the director, Tom Leslie, and when he asked what I had in mind, I decided to go on a limb. I told him I wanted to match the power and intensity of the wind orchestra with an electric guitar. He responded without hesitation, expressing his excitement and enthusiasm for the idea.

In this piece, I wanted to fuse progressive/hard rock intensity with classical sophistication. I wanted to blur the line between something precise and mathematical and something primal and visceral. And I wanted pay homage to a some of my musical influences: Rush, Beethoven, Metallica, J.S. Bach, Led Zeppelin, Shostakovich, Iron Maiden, Igor Stravinsky, King Crimson, George Lynch, Augustin Barrios-Mangore, John Petrucci (Dream Theatre), Frank Zappa, Anton Webern, and Steve Vai.

There are numerous improvisational sections, which afford the soloist a great deal of freedom for interpretation (herein lies the “chaos”). In performance, the ensemble’s rhythm, intonation and articulation should be tight; but far more importantly, the interpretation must be aggressive and ferocious. Chaos Theory can be performed in its entirety, or the third movement can be programmed by itself.

Because of its variety of tonal color and wide dynamic range, I believe the electric guitar has a role in contemporary concert music. That role has only begun to be explored. While this piece presents the guitar primarily as a lead/solo instrument, it has infinite possibilities for incorporation into a large ensemble, and I hope to explore that more fully in the future.”


The Music
Movement I

The concerto opens with a foreboding rumble with extra percussive hits. The guitar enters right away and the first theme is heard. The sparse accompaniment soon grows into a richer texture that aptly supports the electrified soloist. The rock influence is certainly heard through this distortion as the tone becomes clearer throughout the movement. Bonney utilises the whole brass section throughout the duration of this movement, with the low brass adding to the foreboding atmosphere. The mathematical solo theme comes to a repetitive end as the ensemble comes to their climax. 


Movement II

Leading straight into the second movement, the tubular bells lead into a somewhat ‘Stairway to Heaven’ opening theme from the soloist. The dark undertones of this movement are fleshed out by Bonney, with the fluctuating atmosphere paying dividends. The clean tone of the guitar pierces above the wind ensemble, with Bonney’s influences from Dream Theatre and Led Zeppelin speaking clearly. The beauty of this movement leads perfectly into the chaos of the finale. 


Movement III 

The longest of the three movements, the finale opens with a rumble similar to that of the opening movement. Once again experimenting with atmosphere, Bonney utilises the low brass and percussion. As the trumpets rise and fall, the tam-tam rumbles and the ensemble grind to a halt. The eerie harmonics played on the guitar at this point intertwine with the upper woodwind, who flirt around the soloist. As the distortion kicks in, the heavy rock influences begin showing once more. 

As the chaos unravels, Bonney plays with the dynamics, rising from huge louds to very quiet points. The syncopation heard in this movement is intricate and the quick shifts between syncopation and straight playing is playful and clever. The soloist begins to showcase their skills from the central section onwards, with both the soloist and ensemble kicking it up a gear as the music becomes more intense. The repetitive sections are effective as Bonney hones in on each phrase. As the climax is reached, the soloist starts their virtuosic cadenza. Influences from Metallica and Van Halen come to mind during the cadenza, with a number of classic rock techniques being executed. The low brass are the first to come back in, with the ensemble pushing the big chords towards the finish line of the concerto. The final chords are bold and complete the concerto with the power it deserves. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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