2011-12: What Lies Ahead

My idyllic summer of composing, cocoon–like, in Northern California is now beginning to morph, taking flight in a gratifyingly busy season of concerts around the country. Here’s a quick flyover:

Two large works will be premiered, one commissioned by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony (where I enter my second year as composer-in-residence), and the other commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (where I am serving as Project San Francisco Artist in Residence). Both commissions deepen relationships with two orchestras that have figured prominently in my life over the past several years — and I am still waist-deep in writing both!

For the CSO, writing Alternative Energy comes on the heels of a wonderful set of performances in May, when Maestro Muti conducted my symphonic suite The B-Sides at Symphony Hall. I’d already had the wonderful experience of hearing the CSO perform my Music From Underground Spaces the year before, and of working with some of the superb musicians in chamber settings, so at this point I am writing for family members.

Alternative Energy will be biggest work to date, an ‘energy symphony’ structured in four movements that are each separated by a hundred years. It starts with the invention of the automobile in a Midwestern junkyard, moves through present-day Chicago (using recorded samples from FermiLab, the massive particle collider), and thereafter continues into the near- and distant-future. Having experienced Muti’s keen sense of drama up close, not only in my music but in Berlioz and Verdi, I am using the electronic component in the most theatrical manner thus far. (Think: particle collider recreation spinning around the audience.)

San Francisco’s new piece came about because of my work with MTT, who has conducted several new works lately, and because of the amazing SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. After hearing my Sirens premiered by the superstar chorus Chanticleer, Ragnar suggested a big new choral work. Michael wanted to premiere it on the return of the famed Mavericks Festival, which set everyone’s hair on fire ten years ago, and all I needed was an idea.

Enter Mass Transmission.

The increasing confluence of technology and human activity is taken for granted today, with round-the-clock Twitter feeds and Skype chats between Australia and California (cf: Mothership premiered in Sydney; small child in Oakland). But what about the first time technology bridged oceans? That is the subject of Mass Transmission, which sets early radio transcripts to music in a work for chorus, organ, and electronics.

In the early 1920’s, a massive transmission facility in northern Europe had a direct line of contact with a tiny island in Java. Over crackling transmission signals sent between the height of civilization and the indigenous world of the Dutch West Indies, soldiers stationed abroad were able to hear their children’s voices for the first time. This ethereal work, which will showcase the SFS Chorus and Paul Jacobs on organ, will reveal shimmering choral sonorities through a quivering static field.

In addition to these new works, the old ones live on in performances by longtime supporters. Leonard Slatkin conducts the Detroit Symphony in The B-Sides, Robert Moody conducts the Portland Symphony in Rusty Air in Carolina (also on the docket in Charlotte and elsewhere), and works such as Mothership and Sea-Blue Circuitry move through various orchestras around the country.

On the curating front, where I have been spending increasing time in recent years, a great deal of my energy will be directed to Chicago, where I have been working with composer Anna Clyne to find the world’s most compelling composers and bring them to the CSO’s MusicNOW series. Using all the lighting and stagecraft of Chicago’s Harris Theater, we have been hard at work drawing thousand-strong crowds to hear multi-medium chamber concerts. Transforming the concert experience has also been the goal of Mercury Soul, a collaboration with Maestro Benjamin Shwartz and director Anne Patterson. The event is a DJed party superimposed onto a concert of new music, with the audience roaming freely throughout the large space. Begun in the large clubs of San Francisco, the project is now being invited by institutions such as the New World Symphony to transform spaces. We offer two big shows in the new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall in Miami this season.

That’s it in a nutshell. Check back soon to see the new website!