Upon hitting Alabama soil for performances of Liquid Interface with the Mobile Symphony this month, I headed straight for the iconic BBQ joint known as The Brick Pig. You roll down Old Shell Road and look for the smoker stationed out front, gently leaking sweet pecan-wood smoke. A tiny shack greets you. Inside, friendly I-ate-here graffiti covers every square inch (and not many inches at that). Whether you get the rack, the pulled pork, or the chicken, you’ll soon experience meat with a depth of flavor that comes only after a few days in the brick pit out back. The shabby surroundings seem to verify the authenticity. BYOB.
A few miles away is an entirely different spot, Dreamland, whose neon and glass sparkles with the shine of new construction. While the original spot in Tuscaloosa is as much of a shack as the Pit, Mobile’s version is a comparative estate. This is the result of the success of the franchise, which is older and more pedigreed than the Brick Pit. Dreamland is nationally known, on just about every BBQ shortlist. I’ll always side with the shack turning out the deeper smoked flavor; but hey, it’s ‘Bama, and there’s room for both.
In comparing ‘big-budget pedigree’ versus ‘hole-in-the-wall,’ my mind drifted, pecan-smoke style, to the symphonic world which I inhabit. Sure, I absolutely loved when the National Symphony gave the flashy premiere of Liquid Interface years ago, or when the LA Phil played it under John Adams or the Chicago Symphony under Jaap van Sweden. The big-name orchestras – the Dreamlands – bring top-notch musicianship and shiny prestige to the table, and that brings one’s music to the attention of the national community.
But I am just as happy that, in just one recent week for example, a slew of Brick Pits played my music. From the Boulder Philharmonic (Rusty Air in Carolina) to the Oakland Symphony (Mothership) to Mobile and others, these are wonderful orchestras that certainly aren’t shabby; but they don’t have Dreamland budgets. There’s a gratefully high volume of performances of my symphonic works that cannot attend most of them, so I have to rely on my spies to get an idea of how things went (or post-mortems with the conductor, or archival recordings etc). But one thing is consistent: regional orchestras come with a soulfulness, a depth of flavor, a sincerity and warmth. If your music can work in front of those players and audiences, where encounters with new music are more rare, it’ll work anywhere.
That doesn’t mean you write easy music or easy-listening. Liquid Interface is goddamn hard (music about water often comes with a zillion notes). Rusty Air in Carolina piles clouds of ambient, fluorescent textures atop one another that, like the buzzing insects of the South, rub against each other with a strange friction. Mothership, being an opener, is certainly more user-friendly, but its electro-acoustic soundworld is a completely left-field experience almost anywhere that hasn’t played Rusty or other electro-acoustic works of mine.
Getting the electronics to work without a hitch in dozens of Brick Pits is the result of a Manhattan Project on my end (with kudos to software developer Barry Threw and music distributor Bill Holab). But it’s given me an infinite new palette of sounds. My work on expanding the orchestral soundworld has been as much indebted to the San Francisco and Chicago Symphonies as it has been to, say, the Winston-Salem and Portland Symphonies.
So when I kick off the Beethoven & Bates Festival early next year with the MTT and the SFS, I’ll certainly enjoy the sparkle of the fine establishment. But I won’t forget about that pecan-wood smoke drifting down Old Shell Road.
Getting into space is hard, but throwing oneself into deep orbit is much harder.
The premiere of a new work — say, Alternative Energy, for orchestra and electronica in 2012 — can feel like a trip to the moon. The thrill of a premiere of a large work by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony felt, at the time, like the pinnacle of a long journey — and it was, to be sure. But perched on the edge of one planet, one then focuses on various others deeper in the solar system.
How does a composer launch a new work beyond the premiere?
Alternative Energy certainly is not in deep space yet, but it has managed to float beyond the beyond the gravitational pull of its first performances, on various programs of orchestras large and small this season. Other works, from Liquid Interface to Mothership to the Violin Concerto, continue to keep my publisher busy. With all these, my efforts to bring the music to different audiences began before the first notes were written and continue to this day:
First off, have a good premiere. That means, in essence, spend a lot of time writing the piece. Even with a prestigious orchestra, symphonic commissions are not movie scores, and composers so often accept every project in order survive. But unless you’re writing in self-replicating style (say, indie-rock-infused post-minimalism), you can only write a few orchestral works. For me, a symphonic project needs at least a year from conception to double-barline. There’s the pre-compositional work, which in my case involves a great deal of fantasizing about wild forms and new sounds. There’s the composition itself, with all its wonderful and annoying twists and turns. And there’s the post-compositional stage, with the crushing task of orchestrating (and, in my case, sometimes a great deal of electronic mastering). The symphonic field, with its legion of picky performers, quickly sniffs out whether a work has been given due time. Go slow.
Then, it’s important to polish and buff the piece after the premiere. This seems obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to snuggle up again to a new work after spending a year on it. But I’ll venture that no symphonic work, not a single one, has ever survived a premiere without some edits. With Alternative Energy, I made all manner of edits to the blues fiddle solo in the first movement. Now it really pops, even with a junk percussion ensemble and the orchestra chugging beneath. But that’s with the benefit of hearing it many time, from the premiere to tours in California, Michigan, and New York. My rule is that I should change the parts if I have to tell an orchestra the same thing more than once.
Next it’s time to think small: a piece doesn’t enter the repertoire only through the Big Five. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have long-term relationships with the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, but I still put the same importance on the fifth performance with a small orchestra than in a flashy premiere. Regional orchestras teach you a lot about how the piece will sit with musicians on a lean budget, in front of audiences with a little experience with new art. (This is particularly important for works with electronics: if you can make it work on a shoestring in a small town, you can do it anywhere.)
And besides, the symphonic world is a family, and each branch of the family tree can bring your music into contact with future collaborators. The Mobile Symphony, for example — which is playing Liquid Interface in November — hosted me many years ago as their composer-in-residence. But before that, when I was just a teenager, they performed my first orchestral work. There’s a long list of those kinds of relationships, from Winston-Salem Symphony to Oakland to Richmond to Phoenix (which has performed more of my music than anyone). Between my distributor, my management, and me, those groups and many others are always update-to-date with my new work.
Lastly, be real and have good friends. Riccardo Muti has become a friend and important collaborator; so has Robert Moody. The latter commissioned my first piece, took it around the country, and has continued to program my music as he’s risen to new heights. Both are Southern in their own way; both appreciate a letter and face-to-face time. Michael Tilson Thomas has become a close friend and a cherished inspiration for new work — and I also value his counterpart across the Bay, Michael Morgan at the Oakland Symphony. The latter is performing Mothership this season and has programmed several works over the years. With both Michaels, I’ve stayed interested in everything they are doing, not just my music. It’s easy in a world of Twitter and Facebook to only think about our own lives, but having a genuine interest in others serves one personally, artistically, and professionally.
And crucially on this journey into deep orbit: turn on your radar. A website should act as a map for orchestras, presenting your catalogue very simply and cleary, with short clips and specific info. Now that I’ve become a curator, constantly hunting for new music for the Chicago Symphony and for Mercury Soul, I’ve become very appreciative of clarity. So, in a nutshell: write hard, edit much, and let your friends know. With some luck, that can lead to new ones.
After the nonstop traveling of last season — which at one point had me flying straight from a Mercury Soul DJ gig (in a semi-wrecked state) to a morning rehearsal of Liquid Interface — this summer has been a welcome stretch of composing in California. For the past few months, I’ve been composing a cello concerto for the exceptional Joshua Roman, a solo piano piece, and a large ensemble piece for the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series. That’s a lot to write, but my commute has been the short distance from my bedroom to the studio (and sometimes to the backyard, if I need to listen to some music while attacking a row of tomato plants). That beats United Airlines any day.
This seasonal rhythm has become important for me. Summertime is when I get a big start on composing the most demanding pieces on the docket, when I listen to a slew of music in consideration for various curating projects, and when I simply recharge on the domestic level. So even while keeping a full schedule of composing, I’ve been able to obsess about herb-garden soil amendments and get a start on surfing. All well and good, because things are now kicking into high gear for the 2013-14 season. Here’s a flyover:
SFS Beethoven & Bates Festival. Without question, this is the coolest-sounding festival I’ll ever be associated with (though Berlioz would have me peaking like egg whites). My ongoing partnership with the San Francisco Symphony continues this season and next, when my three biggest works — Alternative Energy, Liquid Interface, and The B-Sides — will be performed alongside works of what’s-his-name. Next to the Beethoven, my ‘energy symphony,’ ‘water symphony,’ and surreal symphonic suite will create both harmony and friction. On one level, the large-scale and dramatic nature of my music makes it a logical programming choice with Beethoven, who invented the narrative form with the 9th Symphony. When a chorus appeared in the finale, suddenly the symphonic form included text — and this merging of content and abstract medium opened the symphony to later explorations by Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz. My music often brings unusual narrative forms to life, but with an electro-acoustic palette and a completely different stylistic sensibility than the 19th Century symphonists. It’s a provocative programming choice from the most gifted and offbeat mindfreak the world knows, Michael Tilson Thomas.
Chicago Symphony & MusicNOW. This season marks the third of my 5-year residency with the country’s Ferrari of orchestras, the Chicago Symphony. A hot-off-the-press work for cello ensemble comes to the CSO’s MusicNOW series, which has become a phenomenon that’s pulled in huge audiences from well beyond classical music. Listening to today’s wealth of wonderful new music has been one of the great pleasures of curating this series with Anna Clyne. But we’ve also had an incredible time learning about elaborate stagecraft and concert presentation. It’s an immersive experience with dynamic digital program notes, pre- and post-concert DJing, and the best musicians around.
Violin Concerto. Anne Akiko Meyers continues her amazing run with my Violin Concerto, with an upcoming recording session with the London Symphony and Maestro Leonard Slatkin. (You can also catch performances this season with the Chicago, Detroit, and Richmond Symphonies.) In addition, the SFS will be recording all three of my pieces from the Beethoven & Bates festival for release next season. And finally, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will release Mass Transmission, about early long-range radio transmissions between a mother and daughter, next spring. In total, these CDs will slake a deep thirst on my end — though after so long without any symphonic CDs, having three big ones might make me a little drunk.
Mercury Soul. It began as a self-produced club show in San Francisco, but in five years Mercury Soul has become the country’s definitive “alt-classical” event. Fusing performances of classical music into an evening of DJing and surreal visuals, the show returns to the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies after packed shows with the CSO and Pittsburgh Symphony last spring. Mercury Soul is new music to new ears in new ways. Click here for more info.
Oldies, which do the real work. No matter how busy things get for me, the heavy lifting is always done by my catalogue: Mothership is opening many a concert these days; Rusty Air in Carolina is still bringing the buzzing ambience of the South to orchestras; The B-Sides is appearing in whole or part in various places; and acoustic works such as Sea-Blue Circuitry remind everyone that “you don’t need EDM to have a good time.” (And in the case of the electro-acoustic works, more often than not the orchestra and a percussionist handle it on their own with ease).
If you’re new to the site, please sign up for my once-in-a-blue-moon newsletter below. Right now I’m in that zen-gardening state, but when you next hear from me, my hair will be afire as the season revs up. Until!
A languid sea breeze tumbles through the house as I write, the wetsuit’s drying on the porch, and my score of Alternative Energy lies on the kitchen table. A tall glass of cold-brewed ice coffee nurses me out of the morning’s thrashing on the surfboard. I’d planned to wake up and orchestrate, but the sun was out early and the break at 38th Street was mellow enough for a newbie. So I played hooky for a few hours out on the Pacific, then returned to prepare for the afternoon’s rehearsal at the Cabrillo Festival.
This is how all music festivals should roll.
One of the greatest summer festivals happens every year in one of the greatest beachtowns, headed by the leading maestra of our time, Marin Alsop. It’s such a pleasure to be returning to Santa Cruz for my fourth summer, bringing my ‘energy symphony’ to a place that has taken me in like family. The Cabrillo Festival is the best marriage of music, musicians, and mindset I’ve encountered.
For one thing, it’s the only symphonic festival exclusively devoted to American composers. The festival provides a crucial platform not only for world premieres, but for the crucial repeat performances of recent works. Everyone from Christopher Rouse to Phillip Glass to John Corigliano, not to mention countless younger composers, have had the good fortune of a “thermal lift” from Cabrillo. If a work’s premiere is like the bird’s beating of wings at liftoff, the “thermal lift” into higher altitude is the important second and third performances. Pieces of mine such as Rusty Air in Carolina and Liquid Interface have received superb performances by this crackerjack new-music orchestra, and it’s helped bring those works to the attention of rainmakers in the field.
Additionally, the festival enables important networking between composers and conductors. This is where I met the wonderful conductor Carolyn Kuan, who subsequently conducted Alternative Energy with the Toronto Symphony and will be taking it to the Hartford Symphony next season. She’ll also be conducting this performance, and it’ll be a joy to bring this piece to life a second time with her.
Another ingredient in the success of Cabrillo is the positive attitude of the musicians. Players in any other orchestra would gripe if they played ten new pieces a week. (That’s ten times more than anywhere else.) But the musicians at Cabrillo are here because they love new music. They love the adventure and challenge of a new piece. They actually like living composers. The nurturing of this warm vibe among the players takes years of careful work, from selecting the right players to selecting the right music. It is a strange and special alchemy indeed, and it is rare in the symphonic world.
But there are some clues for other orchestras looking to create strong morale. Last night’s young composers concert was a great example of how Cabrillo keeps their players and audiences happy even while presenting challenging new works. For one thing, the pieces were of the highest quality. Faculty composer Kevin Puts chose a diverse set of composers who all have a knack for orchestra writing: Holly Harrison, David Biedenbender, and Daniel Schlosberg. We’ve all experienced orchestra readings that seem a poor use of the orchestra’s time, with highly awkward symphonic writing further compounded by notation problems. Those reading sessions are useful to composers, but they do try an orchestra’s patience. Cabrillo garnered such a vast number of submissions that it had the luxury of picking pieces of the highest quality. That keeps everyone happy.
The last piece of the puzzle is the audience. In general, people of the West Coast approach art with a greater openness than elsewhere, but here in Santa Cruz it’s with an especially joyous sense of adventure. The crowds show up at almost every rehearsal, they even stop you on the street with questions about your music. They’re curious, upbeat, and loyal to a festival that has been bringing great music to their town for decades.
So if you like new music; if you run a festival; if you play in an orchestra; or if you love the orchestra but are uninitiated in contemporary music — then come to Santa Cruz in August. You can catch some waves in the daytime and experience some magic at night.
Two water symphonies, a club show, and a fanfare. That was last month.
It began with an inevitability I’d hoped to avoid: going straight from a DJ gig to the airport to attend a symphonic rehearsal the next morning.
Mercury Soul had just exploded with the Chicago Symphony to a packed house at Metro. As always, it was a thrilling, trippy, and immersive classical / club experience — on the scale of a 1000-person wedding. This seemingly free-flowing event is actually run on a minute-by-minute, gulag-style production timeline. I am on-call starting at the 6pm tech/dress rehearsal, spinning records by 9pm, and wrapping up around 2am. Our director/designer Anne Patterson is mapping both DJ sets and classical performances to imaginative lighting and projections, and Maestro Benjamin Shwartz is cueing me across a bouncing club with Frank Zappa-style hand signals. It was our third thrilling show in Chicago, and we had an explosive crowd that jam-packed the finest club in town — but I was ready for bed.
Sleep was never a part of the plan, however. Awaiting me for the dress rehearsal of Liquid Interface was the Winston-Salem Symphony and its wonderful music director, Robert Moody. Given the tight schedule, I most certainly would have declined to attend this particular performance were it not for Robert, who is a dear friend and long-time collaborator. Almost twenty years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school and he a young-gun maestro, he commissioned my first symphonic work. So I absolutely couldn’t miss an opportunity to perform with him and his wonderful orchestra. But it meant no sleep.
And no sleep after a wedding-level expenditure of energy is a challenge. Fortunately, my flight went off without a hitch; I touched down in the nostalgia-laced humidity of Carolina with a solid hour to spare before rehearsal; and they sounded superb.
Liquid Interface, which I wrote extensively about last month, is my first large-scale work, a kind of Symphony No. 1 (though you will never wring a numbered piece out of me). It has plenty of challenges on the micro and the macro level. The piece needs a killer drum set player for the Dixieland movement (writing a movement about the destructive power of water, I simply couldn’t resist paying homage to New Orleans). Being a water symphony, the work has a great deal of rapid, quicksilver figuration in the woodwinds that conjures water in various forms. And the electronic component, while straightforward as always in my music, requires some sharp ears from the conductor.
That Robert pulled off Liquid with such panache was hardly a surprise, as he has performed the piece beautifully with several other orchestras. Nonetheless, I was still overwhelmed by the especially moving performance, augmented by real-time video projections that were an imaginative addition to the concerts.
A few weeks later, however, I was considerably more nervous in advance of the Chicago Symphony rehearsals. True, the CSO musicians know my music intimately; also true, Maestro Jaap van Sweden has a stellar reputation that precedes him. But I am always a bit nervous when a conductor from the Old World first encounters my electro-acoustic music. Though Jaap currently conducts in Dallas, his Dutch roots are far from my own — and it takes a special combination of flexibility and inflexibility to lock to techno rhythms and morphing environmental sounds.
He had me at the first run-through.
Too few conductors have the kind of real-world musical experience of Jaap. For twenty years he served as concertmaster of one of the finest orchestras in the world, the Concertgebouw, so he’s become the ultimate “musician’s conductor.” Rarely does he speak during rehearsals; most of the action is with the baton. For Liquid, he took the surprising approach of running it straight through not once, but twice. No comments, no notes. At first that struck me as strange, since there are always comments one can give the players. But he was focused on the big picture first; the details came once that was in place.
As I took my bow after the fourth performance, I knew Jaap van Sweden to be one of the finest conductors in the field. Just to add some more nerves to the evening, Maestro Muti had just flown in and was sitting, Pope-like, in Box F. But there was not a smidgeon of pomposity. After all, he just wanted to hear his band from the audience. Rarely does one spot conductors in the audience of any concert, and I can only imagine the wealth of information he came away with about his players and his hall.
After a brief stop in New York to record Mass Transmission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, I headed back to sunny California to write music. On the docket for this summer is a cello concerto for the amazing Joshua Roman.
But first, I had to take a quick bow for a brief fanfare for the San Francisco Symphony’s outgoing board president. At less than four minutes, the title of Attack Sustain Decay Release is almost as long as the piece itself. I wanted to infuse equal parts celebration and humor into this little ditty, much in the spirit of the honoree John Goldman. Short pieces are not my specialty — not enough time to get trippy — but I still had fun putting it together.
Hearing that wonderful orchestra got my mind racing to next season, when the SFS will perform not only Liquid Interface, but Alternative Energy and The B-Sides on their Beethoven & Bates Festival. Time to get the tux to the cleaners!
How do you tell a story with music?
This month has me fixated on Liquid Interface, a ‘water symphony’ from 2007 that is touching down in several parts of the country. Narrative has always fascinated me. Works of mine before and after Liquid Interface have incorporated programmatic concepts, but this was my first big one, a kind of Symphony No. 1.
Once was a time when massive symphonic works unfolded against opium-laced stories of love and death. Berlioz mastered the programmatic approach in Symphonie Fantastique and others, but the true beginning of ‘story music’ began with the inclusion of chorus in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Suddenly, a symphony had text — context, content — that enriched the musical experience with humanistic calls for peace.
The great battle of ‘program music vs. pure music’ brought out many critiques of this approach that are still reprised these days. Camps as disparate as serialists and minimalists repeat the same macho lines about the superiority of ‘pure music.’ Brahms said as much, and he certainly knew a thing or two. But given the choice, I’d always go with Wagner, and besides — it’s never a good idea to argue for artistic purity, simply because music has never been pure. There is no music that exists in a vacuum. One usually hears a title, glances at the movement titles if not the program notes, or (outside classical music) catches some lyrics of the song.
Like many artistic endeavors, the approach hinges on the execution. And the best examples of the narrative approach are driven by the musical curiosities of the composer.
Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 is, yes, a musical conjuring of a steam locamotive. But its wonderfully searing, grating, and sometimes electronic-sounding textures bring the train to life so distinctively, it doesn’t matter if you know what it’s about or not. You’ll know once you hear it.
John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 is, yes, a heartfelt and heart-wrenching meditation on AIDS. But it articulates this vision through music so utterly original and extraordinary that the narrative, even such a weighty one, is often at the service of the music. Memories of a friend who played nostalgic piano waltzes becomes a vehicle for stylistic counterpoint (more or less invented in this piece). Orchestral illustrations of rage become highly precise layerings of accelerating and decelerating rhythms. In short, the music wasn’t composed to connect the narrative dots. Rather, the story became an imaginative way to unify a hugely diverse musical endeavor.
Despite a few shining examples, however, the programmatic approach is too rare these days. Sometimes I feel like a one-man-band trying to bring back some ancient forgotten dance, but there’s excitement in that too. From Liquid Interface or Alternative Energy (a symphony that travels through greater and ever powerful forces of energy), from the buzzing insects of Rusty Air in Carolina to the NASA spacewalk at the center of The B-Sides, I love infusing sprawling narrative ideas with the power of the orchestra and the drama of electronics.
When the Maestro Jaap van Sweden gives the downbeat of Liquid Interface to the Chicago Symphony, we’ll be in the Antarctic hearing glaciers calve. Yes, actual recordings of glaciers smashing into the ocean are used. But those wonderful field recordings can’t just appear like sound design in a movie; they must be brought to life by the orchestra. So the first movement is entirely about huge frozen chords floating up through the orchestra and exploding high in the woodwinds.
The piece’s journey through the states of water allowed me to explore morphing orchestral sonorities. For example, what happens when water moves from the small-scale to the large-scale, from the playful to the dangerous? “Crescent City” takes a solo melody and follows it with an ever-increasing wake. This accumulating trail begins, innocently enough, in the manner of Dixieland swing. But it soon masses into a huge sonic wave that ultimately floods the piece. (“Crescent City” is the nickname of New Orleans, as well as the name of a tsunami-ravaged town in California.)
For it to all come together like this, both music and concept have to be developed simultaneously. A key skill to develop is sizing up the musical reality of a narrative idea well before notes are written. The sonic illustration of an image should always be fresh and surprising — but also identifiably related to the image. My summer dawn in Rusty Air in Carolina is, indeed, twinkling with blue light — but it’s also lugubrious with low-brass humidity.
And finally, I try to know when the form can bend to the intense pressures of real notes — and when the notes need to change. If conceived at the same time, music and narrative should survive that. That is best when the music is tightly held together by specific musical relationships on many levels. Leitmotifs are alive and well, thank you (and sometimes dancing to techno).
Does it always work? Hopefully not every single time, otherwise I’d stick to some low-risk process like serialism or minimalism. On that note, stay tuned for info about the upcoming premiere of Difficult Bamboo, a Pierrot-ensemble work that conjures an idyllic West Coast landscape invaded by running bamboo: bent-note lyricism slowly overrun by a pulsing, fast-replicating opponent. We’ll see if it works.
And that, as the say, is the story.
When the aliens figure out that Earth is worth invading — the advance UFO team eerily appearing in the sky, a battalion of spacecraft quietly descending to scout our defenses — let’s hope they drop in over an outdoor symphonic concert. What they would see is a species working together with such joy, precision, and ingenuity that they would surely beat a fast retreat out of our atmosphere. More frightening than nukes would be the finale of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony: almost a hundred humans synthesizing a variety of resonating instruments — each one a masterpiece of engineering — into a stunning, beautiful whole. That’s an Earth on a good day.
Just last week I heard Leonard Slatkin and the Pittsburgh Symphony tear through that piece, and I experienced the same kid-like joy at watching this strange and wonderful creature — the orchestra — that never leaves me. I had just finished performing my piece The B-Sides, played as well as I’d ever heard it, and yes I did have a bit of dark rum in the dressing room after I walked offstage. So I was pulsing with the energy of a nice performance, plus some sugar-cane warmth, when I slipped into the audience for the second half. And I thought about the medium.
Why work in such a sprawling, complex, and, yes, unwieldy artform?
Why, indeed, when it takes so many years to get a piece released on CD? The San Francisco Symphony, for example, will be recording this piece next year, along with Alternative Energy and Liquid Interface. This is a moment I’ve awaited for many years, and it’s happening on a grand scale with an orchestra I am in love with. Next season’s Beethoven and Bates festival at the SFS certainly gives the works a bright platform (though such a pairing makes my knees tremble). But wouldn’t it have been easier to write poetry or paint?
After all, there are so many people involved in the symphonic medium. These are not the easiest people to deal with either. They are musicians, they have more training than a heart surgeon, and they will often remind you of that fact. (For example, my harp parts make harpists dance like the King of Pop in order to work the pedaling fast enough, much to their chagrin.) And as the symphonic world has seen again recently, orchestras might not play if they are not happy. An orchestra on strike, as San Francisco was for a few weeks, does not exactly project the happy-species-working-together that we’d like those aliens to see.
But what a thing it is when it all works together.
In Pittsburgh, for example, the musicians play from the back of the orchestra, without the usual problem of the acoustic delay between strings and brass/percussion. The fifty feet between, say, the timpani and the first violins often produces out-of-sync playing in even the best orchestras. Not in Pittsburgh; they’ve evolved that straight out of their genes. The chimney-sweep rhythm on sandpaper blocks that opens The B-Sides, for example, was perfectly in line with the quiet, mercurial orchestral riffs around it. The clicking typewriter of “Temescal Noir” (played by a percussionist) locked right in with the swing rhythms of the bass clarinets. It’s a crackerjack group, and Leonard draws wonderful sounds out of them.
I now head back to Steel City for Mercury Soul, my club/classical project. It will be interesting to work with the same players outside of Heinz Hall. We’ll be at Static, a club in the Strip district. The openness of the space, its combination of dance floor and generous lounge seating, and its crystal clear sound system reminds me of San Francisco’s Mezzanine. That’s where Mercury Soul was born five years ago with members of the San Francisco Symphony, and the show has grown and changed considerably.
With my co-conspirators Benjamin Shwartz (conductor) and Anne Patterson (director/designer), I have realized the necessity of highly dramatic production elements to guide the audience’s focus from DJing to classical sets. You need lots of big lighting changes to cue everyone that a string quartet is about to play. The electro-acoustic interludes that transition between these worlds have become longer and more textural, and the programming has started to look both backwards and forwards. In Pittsburgh, for example, we have a very old work (Biber’s Battalia) and a very new one (a sinfonietta I composed for the event call The Rise of Exotic Computing). So while the show appeals to musical adventurers in a Burning Man kind of way, the production draws on some of the crowd-control tropes of rock opera.
This many moving parts is both exhilarating and exhausting, but it’s what I love about the medium. We are not just synthesizing sound, of course, but a lot of human emotion and passion. It is beautiful, intoxicating, and humbling to be swept into that larger body.
If you are reading this an haven’t been to an orchestra concert lately, go. It is, well, the greatest show on Earth (just ask the aliens).
Mason & violinist Anne Akiko Meyers discuss the creation of his Violin Concerto, premiered last Dec in Pittsburgh. She is performing it again Dec 6 & 7 with the Detroit Symphony.
Premiered by Anne Akiko Meyers & the Pittsburgh Symphony, the concerto exists at the intersection of earthy rhythms and long-lined lyricism.
• Violin Concerto recorded by London Symphony,
• 2014: SF Symphony gives Beethoven & Bates festival
• CSO MusicNOW premiere Dec 16: Carbide & Carbon
• Named 18th recipient of Heinz Medal in Humanities
September 21st, 2011
DJing at Chicago’s Metro in May >> GALLERY