A game player has three responsibilities: Gobble up the dots. Travel through the maze. Avoid the ghosts.
Of course, “Pac-Man” can get progressively more complex, but in its simplest form, one keeps a hand on a joystick, dashing the iconic pizza-minus-a-slice shape around the sharp turns of the path, always one wrong move away from being killed.
Although the arcade game, released in 1980, wasn’t the inspiration for Chicago-based composer James Stephenson when creating “Chase Sequence,” it’s certainly a fitting analogy, particularly when Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra will perform the piece Saturday in a concert that closes its “Unchambered” series in a season titled “Games People Play.”
Just as the four ghosts verge upon the yellow blob, four brass players use their instruments to try to catch up to the remaining member of the ensemble, who at the time is the initiator of the musical phrase.
“I remember walking around, and this lick came into my head,” said Stephenson, who became a full-time composer in 2007 following his career as a professional trumpeter in the Naples Philharmonic in Florida. “It’s what starts out the piece, and I figured, wouldn’t that be fun if one trumpet plays it and another is playing it just after.”
ROCO Unchambered: Chase Sequence
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main
Details: $25; 713-665-2700 or roco.org
The repetition of this lick, a pattern or phrase consisting of a short series of notes, served as a device that inspired him musically when writing the nine-minute work in 2011 for Valor Brass, a Washington, D.C.-based group composed of five members in the United States Marine Band.
The quick, exhilarating passage keeps the momentum of the piece moving forward, although at one point, the running temporarily slows to a walk. There is still a sense of restlessness, but creating contrast, the musicians move into an off-kilter bluesy sound set to a mixed meter, as if taking a slight breather before launching back into full-swing pursuit mode.
The ensemble has some leeway in setting the pace, so in the middle section, they may decide to take it down a notch, exaggerating notes and therefore digging deeper into the anticipatory mood, Stephenson explained. On the other hand, if the technique feels solid under the musicians’ fingertips, they might perform the fast notes of the chase even faster.
“There are all these varieties that are possible, but that’s what we composers love, or at least I do, if musicians take a piece of music and make it their own,” he said. “It’s a very energetic piece with a lot of notes. The brass players will be busy, that’s for sure.”
And as if that’s not enough excitement, the program at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston will also include other works for quintet by composers like Reena Esmail, Bruce Adolphe, Anthony DiLorenzo and Alexandre Brasolim, as well as an arrangement of classic tunes by trumpeter and curator George Chase.
The concert, in its entirety, will certainly clear up any misconception that brass is only fanfare. These instruments — two trumpets, a horn, a trombone and a bass trombone — contain a variety of color that are capable of much more than short musical flourishes, and “Chase Sequence,” in particular, will demonstrate the facility, strength and endurance that is required of these brass players.
“You know when you throw open the curtains and you’re blinded by white light on a bright, sunny day? It’s that sort of thing,” Stephenson says. “The piece just starts with this blast of energy. Nobody will be able to sit back and relax while this piece is being played.”
Whether the ghosts will catch Pac-Man, though, remains to be seen, or in this case, heard.
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.