Automotive Passacaglia for piano and percussion (1988)
Available in two versions:
Piano and two percussion (official version)
Piano and percussion

Duration 15 minutes Commissioned and premiered by Marc-Andre Hamelin - piano, Chris DeViney - percussion, February 24, 1989, Settlement Music School, Philadelphia, PA
Audio Sample
(Performers: James Tocco, Russell Burge, James Culley)

Recording available on “Same Rivers Different” by Michael Fiday, Innova Recordings (

Program Notes

The title of Automotive Passacaglia was actually lifted from a Henry Miller essay of the same name, which contained the following wonderful quote:

“It was the first time I’d ever seen what makes a car go.  It was
rather beautiful, in a mechanical way.  Reminded me of a
steam calliope playing Chopin in a tub of grease.”

Outside of providing me with a convenient title, the music has little to do with the essay.  The title itself, however, is relevant in two regards.  First, it is a passacaglia, i.e. a variation form in which a passacaglia “theme” is repeated in one form or another throughout the work’s entirety.  I envisioned Automotive Passacaglia ‘s 12-note theme as a vehicle which transports the listener through diverse musical terrain, first taking shape in the middle register (muted piano and percussion) before gradually branching out and gaining momentum during its course.

Second, the title does refer to a rather stubborn obsession with rhythmic propulsion (or “motor rhythm”) which occurs in almost all of my music.  In this case the rhythmic excitement takes place against the backdrop of an underlying metric pattern which operates throughout: each phrase of the passacaglia theme consists of 13 beats organized into patterns of 4+3+6, a rather instinctive choice made with regard to how I felt the piece should “breathe” (4=exhalation, 3=inhalation/tension, 6=exhalation/repose).

Automotive Passacaglia was composed for and is dedicated to Marc-Andre Hamelin.


“…clearly structured, colorful and unflaggingly compelling work…” – Philadelphia Inquirer

“…spellbinding.” – Gramophone Magazine

“a loopy perpetuum mobile that imaginatively creates the illusion of speedy travel.” – AllMusic