Musical Dice Game (2005)

Variations on Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel, K.516f

Duration:  15 minutes
Two string quartets; Two string orchestras

Commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in honor of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth
Premiere Performance:  April 20, 2006; Dallas Symphony Orchestra;
Andrew Litton, Conductor


Dice Game a Winner; Listening to new classical compositions can be dicey, but this is a sure thing.
Contemporary classical compositions can be something of a crapshoot for even the most jaded concert-goer.  But rest assured that Maestro Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra rolled nothing but sevens and elevens when they presented the world premiere of Musical Dice Gameby Robert X. Rodríguez.  Commissioned by the DSO in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, the 15-minute work for string orchestra is based on a fanciful Mozart chamber piece that employed dice to determine its parts.  The primary difference between the original and this new work is that, in Rodríguez's version, the game is fixed. There is nothing random about the tautly structured composition. Especially interesting was the positioning of the players in this work. Litton had equal numbers of violins, violas, cellos and double basses to his right and left. One side of the stage frequently played against the other.  The work also has a "spiraling" feel that gave it an exceptional sense of forward motion. It was one of those rare new compositions that audiences will want to hear again... There is no chance of rolling snake eyes at this concert.

                                                                  Punch Shaw, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram

The piece starts with a recognizably Mozartean voice, but as different versions of the minuet are superimposed, the textures become complex and passingly dissonant. Soaring themes, too, and bits of poignancy, rise. There’s much to arrest the ear.”
                                                                 Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News

Beautiful! Having been persuaded/challenged by the DSO to go where angels fear to tread, Rodríguez created a composition guided by Mozart’s stochastic Würfelspiel rules that is notable for its novelty and sheer musicality… superbly constructed... a moving piece of music in its own right, and one that also invites us to critically rethink Mozart’s own compositional methods and computational composition in general.
                                                                  Chamber Music Today

Composer’s Note:

Musical Dice Game (2005) was written in response to a commission from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in honor of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth (1756/2006).  I based my score on the Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game), K.516f in the Köchel catalogue of Mozart’s music.  Even though Mozart probably did not compose it, we know that Mozart was fascinated by games and that in 1787 he wrote down instructions for creating such a composition.  K.516f consists of 16-bar minuet for keyboard with eleven harmonically interchangeable versions of each bar.  To construct minuets, one rolls a pair of dice 16 times in order to determine which version of each bar to play. There are potentially 45,949,729,863,572,161 (45 quadrillion, 949 trillion, 729 billion, 863 million, 572 thousand, 161) minuets, which would take 100 billion years to perform.

It was not the element of chance, but the staggering multiplicity of possibilities that attracted me to this musical game. I considered Pascal’s phrase, "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie"  (The eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me), and I set out to depict those quadrillions of minuets filling Pascal’s “eternal silence,” their permutations colliding endlessly through time and space in a vast, cosmic continuum.  Einstein rejected Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle by saying that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  My Musical Dice Game depicts both an ordered universe and an unpredictable one: sometimes the themes evolve slowly, with smooth and easily recognizable connections, and sometimes they change more quickly, with radical, unexpected turns from one variation to the next. 

I chose to write for strings.  Einstein played the violin, and some scientists describe the basic building blocks of matter as string-like objects.  More importantly, however, I wanted to present multiple versions of the same idea: hence my decision to utilize only one timbre, strings being the most numerous and homogenous timbral group of the orchestra.  Since Einstein described time and space as sharing properties, relative to the speed and location of objects, I have divided the strings into two spatially separated orchestras, playing the minuets in different locations and sometimes at different speeds, as in the minuet scene for three orchestras in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  In order to have as many independent voices as possible, I added two solo string quartets.

The music of Mozart was an important source of inspiration for me, particularly the 18th-Century Classical/Apollonian ideal of satisfaction at the reconciliation of opposing structural and dramatic elements. Mozart’s Serenata Notturna K. 239 for String Quartet, String Orchestra and Timpani and his Serenade K. 286 for Four Orchestras were useful models of his masterly use of contrasting instrumental forces.  Other aspects of Mozart’s music to emulate were his unique “singing allegro,” as in the opening of his Symphony in G-minor K. 550, his multiple layers of contrapuntal richness, as in the Finale of the Jupiter Symphony K. 551, and, most importantly, the vast emotional range: exuberantly playful one moment, sensuously lyrical the next, then, suddenly, darkly demonic.

Musical Dice Game begins with the first solo quartet playing the first half of one minuet; the two orchestras and both quartets then join to play all eleven versions of those bars at once; the second solo quartet continues with the second half of the minuet, followed by all eleven versions of those bars, again played by all forces simultaneously.  Eleven continuous variations follow, based on the harmonies and principal melodic motifs of the original dice game.  I most often used the game’s versions for throwing a five, six, eight, nine or, particularly, a seven.  Since, by the laws of probability, those numbers are the most likely to be thrown, they have the most melodically distinctive variants.  In the first few variations, the themes and harmonies are given in their simple, original forms; then, as the piece progresses, the minuets are disguised, and the music grows more and more chromatic, complex and rhythmically asymmetrical.  In the final variation, a synthesis is reached between the Mozartean themes and their transformed versions, as the original minuets return, superimposed over the varied material in a festive musical layer cake.