The Last Question was commissioned by Paul Nolen (consortium leader), Bob Eason, Dan Graser, Joe Girard, Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, Tim McAllister, and Zach Stern
This work for soprano saxophone and piano is inspired by theories and literature concerning the life cycle of the universe, one of the frequent topics of conversation that would come up when I would be casually chatting with my colleague and friend for whom this piece is written, Paul Nolen. The first movement, Big Bang, is about the leading theory of how the universe began. From a single point of matter, energy, and time, the entirety of the universe exploded forth. Over the course of billions of years, formless matter condensed and cooled into the galaxies, stars, and planets we know today.
The Big Crunch is the theory that the universe will eventually stop expanding and its immense gravity will cause it to collapse into itself. I use shifting registers to represent this collapse throughout the course of the second movement. The scherzo-like third movement, Big Freeze, refers to the theory that the universe’s expansion will not slow down in the future, resulting in all matter radiating its energy away into the vacuum of space until everything is cold and inert. Beginning fast and buoyant, the music eventually falls apart and fades away into obscurity, leaving the saxophone alone at the end.
Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Last Question, is an episodic narrative that reaches far into the future. Over and over, humanity asks the question, “how can entropy be reversed?” to a super-computer. Countless generations pass and the universe progresses towards inevitability – galaxies drift apart and stars begin to die. The question is posed over and over, with the computer unable to give a meaningful answer with how much information it has at the time. I do not wish to spoil the ending, so I encourage you to read the whole short story. This final movement introduces a hymn-like chorale that frames each episode of the story, alternating with quotations of the previous movements. As time passes and the universe dies away, the texture thins more and more until the saxophone, representing the entire history of the universe, is finally left alone.