Hell’s Gate was commissioned by the Hellgate High School Symphonic Band, John H. Combs, conductor. The title “Hell’s Gate” started as a simple twist on the name “Hellgate”. “Hellgate” is the name given to a section of Missoula, Montana where the Clark Fork River flows through a mountain pass. Local Indians suffered many surprise attacks by rival tribes at this place, leading French settlers to give it the name “Hell’s Gate”. Over the years the “s” has been dropped, and the name has become a local commonplace, losing much of its psychic and cosmic force.
Having come up quickly with a title for my piece, I had to muse for a long time on its implications. The immediate picture that comes to mind is “The Flaming Gates of Hell”, and the desire to avoid these at all costs! Whatever one’s religious beliefs, the “gates of hell” can be taken psychologically to mean any extremely difficult point of transition in the maturing process of a person, one that cannot be avoided but must be gone through. These occur throughout the life, but one of the scariest is the transition into young adulthood. And so I offer this piece as a gift to my young friends who are at that point of life. I offer it as well to anybody making a hard transition of any kind.
The piece is something of a soul journey, the soul being represented by the trio of solo saxophones, and especially the solo alto saxophone. The soul is plunged willy-nilly into the fierce struggle of life. It survives, and responds with a deeply mournful and upwardly struggling and yearning attitude. With this attitude come first visions of the religious nature of the human being, and first hints of wholeness. Life overtakes, and the struggle is joined in earnest. The soul is driven to the extremes of its ability to endure, until in the middle of this there is a memory of the early vision of wholeness. The soul responds in agony, and then bursts into full and passionate awareness of its own nature. Reconciled to its connection, the should opens to the full power of its earthly life. At this point of opening I have placed the Lutheran hymn tune “Christ, dubist der helle Tag” (“Christ, you are the bright day”) – a beautiful metaphor, regardless of your cultural tradition, for the passage into self-awareness. I was further compelled to use this tune because of the last two words of its title: “helle Tag” = “Hellgate”!
The work ends with the soul – the alto saxophone – transformed. It plays a quiet and beautiful solo song.
Program note by David Maslanka