For Flute, Clarinet, Vibraphone, Piano, Violin and Violoncello
Six was actually written with seven musical virtuosi in mind: a sextet of performers, plus composer/conductor Peter Eötvös, for whom the piece was commissioned. Barnson’s intention was that the metric modulations should be complex enough to require the maestro’s direction to coordinate the chamber ensemble.
Those metric modulations also point to the work’s central influence. The commission came with the suggestion that the work be a “variation” of some kind—any kind—and Barnson decided, in honor of Elliott Carter’s centenary, to write a variation of sorts on Canaries, Carter’s celebrated rhythmic exercise for solo tympanist.
That etude specifically serves as a structural template for the first movement of the work, but Carter’s influence is also audible in Barnson’s use of a certain combinatoriality to pattern the interactions between the different instruments. Six stages an encounter between each possible combination of any of the six instruments—sextet, quintet, quartet, trio, duo—even if the encounter is only a fleeting one.
Carter exerts decidedly less influence over the harmonic materials of the second movement, which, for all the sextet’s furtive meanderings, refer constantly back to the underlying drone of a simple D-minor triad.
-Daniel Stephen Johnson