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The Circular Ruins : music inspired by the writings of Jorge Luis Borges

by Shaun Rigney (2003)

Score Sample

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Audio Sample

Performance by Atticus String Quartet from the CD Selected Works by AMC Represented Artists, vol. 92.

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Selected Works by AMC Represented Artists, vol. 92.


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Selected Works by AMC Represented Artists, vol. 92.

Library shelf no. CD 2931 [Available for loan]

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Work Overview

The string quartet The Circular Ruins takes its name from a story in the collection entitled Labyrinths by the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986). In The Circular Ruins, Borges, ever fascinated by themes of eternity, the labyrinth, circularity, reality and illusion, writes modelling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake ; and although the protagonist in this story is actually attempting to dream another being into existence, Borges might well have been writing about any act of creation - composition, for example, or the performance of a musical work. My use of the title also alludes to musical matters of a technical nature. Circularity is embedded in the nature of western classical music. The structure of the harmonic series (the acoustic division of a vibrating string or length of pipe into tones called fundamentals and partials) is implicated in the structure of western key signatures. Musicians often refer to the 'cycle of fifths' to explain how the movement from one key to another is established in so-called tonal* music. One may start at the simplest key (C major) and arrive back where one began after travelling in a circle of fifths through all of the sharp key signatures (in one direction - arbitrarily, let's say clockwise) or all of the flat key signatures (in the other direction, say anticlockwise). For mathematical reasons concerning the ratios of the tones in the harmonic series, there is actually a small difference between the terminus and the starting tone once one has passed through this cosmic circle; the "beginning" and the "end" do not exactly coincide in nature. This difference is called the Comma of Pythagoras, and I have often wondered what Borges would have made of this tantalising fissure in the Platonic world. The cycle of fifths was especially important during the so called 'Classical' era of western music. But since the beginning of the twentieth century (roughly speaking) this structural element has become gradually less crucial (another 'circular ruin'). The mathematics of the harmonic series no longer provides the axioms on which composers are expected to base their systems - yet the harmonic series remains a sort of fixed truth on the ever shifting sands of harmonic allegiances. At the conclusion of the Borges story, set deep in the jungle amongst the circular ruins of a temple to a forgotten god, the man who has been attempting to dream a new being into existence discovers that it is he who has been forged in the dream of another. (*Music you can whistle, or if you prefer, hum)

Work Details

Year: 2003

Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, cello.

Duration: 14 min.

Difficulty: Advanced — Extensive use of harmonics

Contents note: In 2 parts.

Commission note: Commissioned by Flinders Quartet.

First performance: by Atticus String Quartet — 2 Mar 11. fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC


The Circular Ruins

Source: performed by the Atticus Quartet



Performances of this work

2 Mar 11: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC. Featuring Atticus String Quartet.

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