A Live One: Alternative Energy out!

One of classical music’s best-kept secrets is let out of the bag this month.  With the digital release of two commissions by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony – my Alternative Energy and Anna Clyne’s Nightferryanyone with a laptop can be reminded of an oft-overlooked fact: the CSO & Muti are one of America’s most essential and vibrant leaders in new-music.

Surprised?  Hopefully not, as both Muti and the CSO have a long history of bringing new music to life.  But if you are indeed surprised to hear that Maestro Muti can rock out to 6-channel surround sound while keeping the CSO locked to his every beat, I have a hunch why.  You likely don’t live in Chicago, maybe read just the NY press, and therefore only know about just one element of this fabulous dream-team.  I love Verdi too, yet there’s so much more – but let’s start with the release, which is killer!


Once you download it (it’s digital-only, available at iTunes), the first thing you notice is the nifty cover art.  It nicely combines the spinning motion of a particle accelerator (conjured in Alternative Energy) and the watery imagery of Anna’s Nightferry, beautifully capturing the sense of journey that each piece evokes, despite their very different languages. And then you hit play, and you’ll hear stunning performances by some of the world’s finest new music performers, stunningly mastered by multi-Grammy-winning sound engineer David Frost.

It’s a dream team bringing to life my biggest piece, an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years.  Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.

These worlds are conjured by a variety of symphonic effects.  A blues fiddle accompanied by car parts dominates the ‘old-time’ first movement (the principle percussion, Cynthia Yeh, plays a ‘car part drumset’ assembled from scraps collected at a junkyard, while concertmaster Robert Chen conjures his inner Appalachian).  Actual recordings of Chicago’s FermiLab particle accelerator appear in highly dramatic form in the present-day movement (think: massive machines waking up all around you).  Surreal and trippy microtonal sonorities take us to the edge of a future industrial wasteland in China’s Xinjiang Provience.  And gently out-of-tune, gamelan-sounding figuration, complimented by surround-sound jungle recordings and future birdsong, brings us to the far-off rainforest where the piece ends.

The piece takes the sprawling, imaginative approach to form reminiscent of Berlioz or Liszt, but with a soundworld informed by the Digital Age.  My approach, in short, has evolved well beyond the initial influences of techno and EDM that arose from  my DJ work.  I still love DJing, and you’ll certainly hear plenty of dark techno in the third movement; but I’ve found many creative new ways to expand the orchestral palette as well.

That Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have given the piece such dedicated attention speaks volumes about them both.  The premiere performances were just the beginning – they took it on tour in California; then to Michigan; then to Carnegie Hall; and now the release.  Muti and the CSO have also given the royal treatment to Anna Clyne, my colleague in the post of composer-in-residence at the CSO, and they’ve presented more new music than just us (for example, the Solima double cello concerto this season).  As the maestro told me when we first rehearsed this piece, he treats every new work as if it were written by an old master, spending dozens of hours pouring over every detail.  His scores of Alternative Energy and The B-Sides are covered in markings and notes, and he disarmed me a few times by noting very obscure errors in, say, the second bassoon part. His new-music chops have come from a long history with living composers, notably with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Many composers know that he worked through some extremely complex post-serialist music there, but some remain unaware.  That is probably understandable, since memories are short and Muti’s career has been long.  He is a dynamic figure whose interests have evolved over the years, but just because he can conduct Verdi better than anyone doesn’t mean he can’t teach us a lot about living composers.  Think about what a special challenge it was for this man to stand in front of his orchestra and a surround-sound array of speakers.  As he told me, “I’m an old dog, but I want to learn new tricks!”

Beyond the maestro, the CSO itself has one of the world’s most important histories with living composers.  The position of composer-in-residence was invented by the CSO when John Corigliano was brought on in the 1980’s; it was subsequently duplicated all over the country.  This position is the most substantive I’ve encountered anywhere: in addition to all the work with the orchestra, the composer is given a free hand to develop the MusicNOW series.  This 30-year-old series has become a real phenomenon, with upwards of a thousand people turning out on Monday nights to hear a completely new take on the new-music format.  That’s quite something if you think about it. Anna and I have been grateful for the guidance and freedom given to us by Martha Gilmer, Nick Winter, Gerard McBurney — and, of course, the maestro as well.  Muti instructed the entire organization to reach deeper into the Chicago community, and while I’m not sure he was expecting us to start pulling tons of techno freaks from the EDM scene, I know that he’s happy with how we’ve expanded.

Few people outside of Chicago are aware of this.  The CSO has become such a Ferrari for visiting conductors – the place to do staples of the repertoire – that the field, collectively, sometimes thinks that the CSO masters only the old-school.  The Chicago critics know exactly what’s going on with new music at the CSO, with detailed coverage by folks such as John van Rhein and Andrew Patner, but you’d never know it from reading east-of-the-Hudson critics.  It was bold of Muti to travel to Carnegie Hall with Alternative Energy, a half-hour of electro-acoustic trippiness.  But all one notable fellow wrote was, “Muti offered a kind of flashback to the programs of yesteryear” with barely a mention of anything but Franck.  That kind of casual inaccuracy propagates a myopic view of an orchestra that is so much more than a showcase for “faded classics.” Everyone wants to advance the storyline they are already familiar with.

We think of a handful of orchestras and ensembles as new-music leaders, but there are many that are doing amazingly provocative stuff.  It’d be nice if those who consider themselves tastemakers could take a little look around.  Look at Detroit: those revolutionary webcasts have yet to receive their due nod from the tastemakers.  Look at almost every concert in San Francisco.  Look at regional places, such as Sioux City (Ryan Haskins)  or Portland (Robert Moody). The CSO, too, could do more to showcase its important impact of the new-music life of this country; but we’re getting there.  The Resound release is one example, and Anna and I are very thankful to everyone for making it happen.