Written in 1968 for clarinet and piano, Linoi exhibits two preoccupations of Harrison Birtwistle. The first is an affinity for the clarinet, which Birtwistle studied as a youth. The second, and by far the more essential is the composer's obsession with myth, especially the myths of Classical antiquity. In Greek, Linoi is the plural form of the name Linos, or Linus. There are, in fact, several Linuses in Greek mythology, but the two most prominent ones are closely tied to music. One Linus was the son of Apollo. The other Linus, revered as the inventor of both rhythm and melody, replaced the flaxen (in Greek: "linon") thread, used for lyre strings, by animal gut.
This genealogy, perhaps precariously laden on a misunderstood transmission-pun, receives a sophisticated treatment in Birtwistle's austere but powerful work. As the father of melody and harmony, Linus inhabits the general trajectory of the piece -- a series of three expansive, filament-like lines in the clarinet, each of which begins in a near silent quasi niente and expands with frighteningly persistent concentration into the upper registers; initially, the clarinet reaches its apogee and suddenly breaks off the line into rhythmic bursts of trills. Meanwhile, the piano, treated extremely sparingly, suggests Linus' flaxen double by playing inside the instrument, plucking its strings in imitation of a harp.
The journey Linoi takes, however, is much darker than this mere description, and brings to bear the fate of Linus, whose lyre (which as a symbol unites both gods) the mythic Herakles actually employed (according to one tradition) to murder the musician -- hence Birtwistle's lament for Linus. And hence the third great melodic expansion of the ten-minute piece, in which the piano suddenly crushes the clarinet (now in its highest register) with tragic clusters plucked deep in the bass; the clarinet slowly descends into a moribund slumber amidst the lower piano's tam-tam-like blanket.
Like so many of Birtwistle's pieces from the mid-'60s, Linoi transcends a modish flirtation with myth by going beyond a mere myth "program." Like the larger Tragoedia, Linoi doesn't just act mythic, it sounds mythic. Its gestures feel authentically archaic, not "neo-archaic," its lines not written, but engraved in stone.