Alternative Energy

And we have liftoff.

After a full year of composing, editing, proofing, and — yes, mixing at Skywalker Studios (more on that in a bit) — I finally reach the premiere of Alternative Energy this month.  Maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony give the work’s first performances at Symphony Center in Chicago (Feb 2-4 & 7) before taking it to California (Feb 14 in SF, Feb 17 in Orange County, Feb 18 in San Diego).

I decided to go big.

Alternative Energy is 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).  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-town, gamelan-sounding figuration, complimented by surround-sound jungle recordings and future birdsong, brings us to the far-off rainforest where the piece ends.

Like the tone poems of Berlioz or Liszt — though very different in sound — this piece uses an idée fixe, or melody, to link everything together.  This tune is heard on the fiddle, which conjures a figure like Henry Ford working in his junkyard, and is accompanied by a ‘phantom orchestra’ that trails the fiddler like ghosts.  The accelerando cranking of a car motor becomes a special motif in the piece, a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever-more-powerful energy.  Indeed, this crank motif explodes in the electronics in the second movement, where we arrive at present-day Chicago.

In order to recreate the sound of a particle accelerator booting up, I travelled up to FermiLab (an enormous facility north of the city) and wandered around making recordings of the machinery involved in splitting atoms.  Huge power surges, epic hydraulic releases, alien-sounding high frequencies, you name it. Then I manipulated those sounds in my studio back in California, ultimately visiting Skywalker Studios to properly mix these sounds in a surround-sound environment.  Gary Rydstrom, a famed sound designer who works with folks like George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, provided invaluable help in recreating the effect of the accelerator ‘waking up.’  Hip-hop beats, jazzy brass interjections, and joyous voltage blasts bring the movement to a clangorous finish.

Zoom a hundred years into a dark future of the Xinjiang Province.  On an eerie wasteland, a lone flute sings a tragically distorted version of the idée fixe, dreaming of a forgotten natural world.  But a powerful industrial energy simmers to the surface, and over the ensuing hardcore techno, wild orchestral splashes drive us to a catastrophic meltdown.  As the smoke clears, we find ourselves even further into the future: an Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet.  Gentle, out-of-tune pizzicato accompany our fiddler, who returns over a woody percussion ensemble to make a quiet plea for simpler times.

Quite a lot of ground to cover — I’ll give you that.

But it can be done.  Symphonies can have both sonic inventiveness and narrative imagination — as long as the music drives the enterprise.  A mere glance at the movement titles should be enough to set the stage, and then it’s all about the orchestra.  Even the electronic component — the newest element of the piece — is at the service of the orchestra, of which it is just another section.

Whether this piece pulls it off is yet to be seen.  If you want to find out, please come!  Here’s the info.