Fall arrives with its shimmering mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. We look both forward and backward. Shorter days with brisk temperatures & distant wood-smoke stir up sepia-toned memories, while the exciting rollout of a new season brings out a chipper game-face on everyone. For me right now, this past/future dichotomy is set in relief: while I end my five-year tenure at the Chicago Symphony, I look ahead to a bustling 2015-16 season heralding a new artistic base for me at the Kennedy Center. There are also debut symphonic CD releases, the SFS premiere of work about ancient music, and several iterations of my classical/club project Mercury Soul. So let’s set nostalgia aside and take a quick flyover of what’s to come:
Embarking on a three-year post as the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, I return to a part of the country I love and to an institution that loomed large in my musical upbringing across the Potomac in Virginia. President Deborah Rutter has breathed new life into the center and has reasserted the artist’s role in its mission, creating a new position that extends across the constellation of arts institutions – from symphony to opera to ballet to jazz to theater. A composer is one of the few life-forms capable of first-hand encounters with all of those fields, so making connections between the constituents will be a top priority.
Over the next three years, I will be composing, curating, and DJing in a giant building with so many wonderful spaces. My curatorial work will be animated by a singular mission: to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways. One example of that is KC Jukebox, a new series focusing on new music in new formats. Our kickoff event on November 9, Lounge Regime, inhabits different lounges spread out across the top floor of the Center that explore the history of ambient music. Grab a cocktail and check out 21st downtempo electronica, 1970’s California minimalism, 1930’s Parisian furniture music, and a few surprises. Ambient music is unique in its shifting from background to foreground, and the ways it has been explored in different eras is fascinating. We’re putting word out to local DJ’s to send us their IDM / ambient mixes for possible inclusion in this concert and others throughout the season, so hit me up with some abstract DJ mixes if you have them.
The Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra will be playing several works this season, from Mothership in early December to the Violin Concerto in April. The latter concerts include a special night of the newly-inaugurated NSO DeClassified series in which I’ll participate as both composer and DJ. It’s very cool to be working again with the orchestra that commissioned and premiered my first symphony, Liquid Interface. That’s the piece which Riccardo Muti used as the basis of my appointment at the Chicago Symphony – so, it all comes full circle. The National Symphony has a robust commitment to new music and I look forward to hearing a ton of concerts.
While I’ll be dropping into my new artistic home in D.C. on a monthly basis, I’ll still be living, composing, and surfing (or trying) in San Francisco. After fifteen years here, I’ve found Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony to be amazing artistic partners, so it’s especially exciting to look to the April premiere of Auditorium conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. Imagine a modern orchestra haunted by memories of its former self, coming in the form of imaginatively-processed recordings of ancient instruments that flicker throughout the orchestra. Like Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, this work will be programmed alongside 18th Century works. I’m currently having a ball colliding two different tuning systems – and dance music across the centuries (is tech-house the new bourée?).
Also on the West Coast is the premiere of Gramophone Depot for the Eugene Symphony’s 50th Anniversary. My first exposure to American music came through my father’s perpetually-spinning swing and jazz records. The warm vinyl crackle that emanated from his taxidermy-filled mancave carried the sounds of Gershwin, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, and many others, and to this day those are still some of my favorite harmonists (along with the French). Gramophone Depot collides those memories with lively rhythms of electronica (acoustically conjured) that have informed my music.
The European Premiere of my Violin Concerto this month under Leonard Slatkin features the stunning Anne Akiko Meyers, who has graciously performed the work dozens of times over the past three years. She will be performing in Lyon, the homeof Berlioz’s former orchestra. I loved performing with them last season and am so thrilled they are giving the European premiere of this work because, well, I am a Berlioz fanatic. Another premiere just happened this summer: Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony brought to life Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a kind of concerto for orchestra in which each instrument conjures different mythological creatures. Shortly thereafter Marin Alsop followed with the West Coast premiere in a stunning, Technicolor performance.
Symphonic CDs – finally!
Working as a symphonist has its ups and downs. The huge palette, the varieties of interpretation, the interaction with so many different communities – that’s great. Getting your music recorded – that’s like continental drift. Orchestras aren’t as limber as garage bands. So it is one of the biggest moments in my life to have a debut orchestral CD from the San Francisco Symphony appear this Spring. It will include my three largest electro-acoustic works: Alternative Energy, The B-Sides, and Liquid Interface, drawn from Michael Tilson Thomas’s performances of the work during last year’s Beethoven & Bates Festival. Complementing this is a CD of some of my most-performed works, from Mothership to Desert Transport and Rusty Air in Carolina, by the stunning Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Expect to see that next month.
Mercury Soul: post-classical rave
Curating has become a significant focus for me over the years, with the residencies at the Chicago Symphony and the Kennedy Center being great opportunities to explore new presentations of new art. The beginning of my curating life was Mercury Soul, an “classical music rave” that has happened at clubs throughout the country. Interspersing classical sets between thumping DJ sets, Mercury Soul brings the deep experience of classical music to a new generation with powerful stagecraft and production.
Next month, on October 2, we present not one but two shows at the famed Ruby Skye in San Francisco. A general-audience show at 9pm will be preceded by a late-afternoon show for public high school students. Teenagers are often left out of classical music outreach, yet they are first in line to be the next generation of listeners. We’ll follow this teenage show with a general-audience event, when we hope to draw out the Mercury Soul sleeper-cells who have supported us in the past.
All My Children
Many of my grown ‘children’ – ie, older pieces – continue to live their lives in the symphonic circuit. Joshua Roman performs my Cello Concerto in Fort Worth, and he is such an impossibly gifted yet down-to-earth dude that everyone should drop what they’re doing to see him. Mothership appears on special events in a couple of places, from the Louisville Orchestra’s Festival of American Music series to the Baltimore Symphony’s 50th Anniversary gala. Garages of the Valley is continuing its European walkabout with performances by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra under the direction of longtime supporter (and master maestro) Robert Moody, who also performs Rusty Air in Carolina in (of all places), North Carolina. In many ways, the continued performances of older works by regional orchestras are more important to me than anything else, and I am very grateful for the vast grassroots network of American orchestras.