Anthology of Fantastic Zoology

A violin section that richochets like dominos; a movement that is an exact palindrome; a symphony that collapses upon itself: welcome to my zoo.

The largest piece I’ve ever written comes to life this month at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti – and unlike my other large works, this half-hour work involves no electricity.  But in this vivid setting of Jorge Luis Borges’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, the psychedelic bestiary is so teeming with strange creatures and wild sonic effects that you might half-imagine you heard electronic sounds.  Underpinning this is a sprawling form unlike anything I’ve composed.

A master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, Borges was the perfect writer to create a compendium of mythological creatures (several are of his own invention).  The musical realization of this is eleven interlocking movements, an expansive form inspired by French and Russian ballet scores.  In between evocations of creatures familiar (sprite, nymph) and unknown (an animal that is an island), brief “forest interludes” take us deeper into the night, and deeper into the forest itself.   The trick of the piece is that all of the animals fuse together at the end, when the preceding 25 minutes collapses in an epic finale in which all the animals fuse together.

I’ve often been drawn to exotic forms that challenge me to create new sounds.  One of the intriguing things about ballet scores is the highly colorful, distinctive nature of each movement.  Even if you hadn’t heard The Nutcracker a thousand times before the age of six, you’d still be recognize the music of each toy – from the Sugar Plums to the Russian Dolls.  Addictive melodies, surprising harmonies, fluorescent orchestration: it is very hard to create memorable and original music like that.  The CSO’s Gerard McBurney guided me to the Russian concept of jarkos, which loosely translates as “etched.”  A musical idea that is ‘etched’ has a highly distinctive melody and harmony, and it’s brought to life by Technicolor orchestration.  In the Anthology, I wanted to combine that bright, etched sound with a surreal approach.

Spatial possibilities are a bracing new element I encountered in this piece, with the opening “Sprite” hopping from music stand to music stand, even bouncing offstage.  For a few years, I’ve looked at the violins and wondered whether I could shoot music across them, stand by stand.  I imagined a motif spinning from the concertmaster outwards, something like a miniature relay race at high speeds.  The sprite would become the perfect vehicle for this onstage spatial effect.

Another intriguing challenge was creating an exact palindrome.  “The A Bao A Qu” is a serpentine creature that slithers up a tower; gloriously molts at the top; then slides back down – and I wanted this movement to mimic that mirrored life cycle.  I’ve never heard a musical palindrome that works musically and actually sounds like a palindrome – as if the record suddenly spins backwards.  I spent a vast amount of time searching for material that could be perceptively reversible on both the micro and the macro level.  So there are miniature cells that work in both directions, but also big interruptions that return in the reverse.  There is a ridiculous gong that announces the creature at the beginning that, in the end, swooshes backwards.

The biggest challenge of all was changing the rules as the piece unfolded.  After a collection of shorter movements, including frolicking “Nymphs” and a horse-hunt in “The Gryphon,” the movements start to grow in size, the forest interludes get darker, and everything starts to run together.  The sprawling finale occurs at the witching-hour moment between midnight and dawn.  This movement collapses the entire work upon itself, as all of the animals fuse together in the darkest, deepest part of the forest.  The sprites bounce around the stage, the palindrommic animal flashes forward and backwards, the Gryphon shoots tongues of fire – and the Zaratan, an animal that is an island — devours them all.

In the virtuosity the piece requires of soloists and sections, it resembles a concerto for orchestra, and every note was written with specific players in mind.  Many of the players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have become dear friends, as has Maestro Riccardo Muti – whose unique abilities as a musical dramatist inspired the piece from beginning to end.  If you are in Chicago, please come and hear my swan song for this great orchestra.