April Showers

When it rains, it pours. April has me in a variety of cities at work in a variety of mediums, from symphonic to opera to club. California’s big rainy season very much seems, to me at least, to be accompanied by a storm of notes.

The Philadelphia Orchestra performed Alternative Energy at the start of the month under the baton of the astonishing Yannick Nezet-Seguin. This exceptionally gifted maestro designed an entire program around my ‘energy symphony,’ and performing with this legendary orchestra one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.

Yannick wove Alternative Energy’s subject matter and compositional approach throughout the program. Bookending the concert were two pieces about Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus. Both Beethoven and Liszt depict fire in their own ways, with Liszt especially effective in using novel orchestral effects to evoke the imagery. He staggers violent accents across the strings, for example, to create an explosive musical surface.

These pieces not only relate to my work’s depiction of energy, but they also relate to my narrative approach. The great programmatic symphonists of the 19th Century – Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner – pointed to Beethoven as the first to integrate extra-musical content into symphonic form. The 9th Symphony does this most dramatically with the inclusion of a chorus; at that moment, with the appearance of text, a symphony could suddenly be about something.

Those 19th Century symphonists were drawn to imaginative forms because they often needed to invent new sounds to bring the stories to life. While the composers draw from literature and mythology, the medium of course is music – and the goal always is always create wild new sounds to move the listener. The 20th Century saw this approach discarded in favor of process-driven approaches such as serialism and minimalism, which spin small cells into large forms. As I’ve revived the narrative approach, I’ve looked to the sounds of the 21st Century to tell new stories in new ways.

This makes my music a natural fit for Yannick, a master musical dramatist who, in 2020, takes the helm of the Metropolitan Opera. I was amazed to see how vividly he brought Alternative Energy to life, conducting it as joyfully and naturally as if he’d been living with it for years. He pulled all the subtleties out of the work while also intuitively understanding its techno heart. I love this dude.

Next up was the Guggenheim Museum’s sneak peak of my opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Santa Fe Opera brought most of the cast to the “Works & Process” series for two nights of performance and discussion. Now that the heavy lifting is behind me (mainly), it was such a pleasure to chat onstage with the librettist Mark Campbell and director Kevin Newbury.

We discussed the fundamental challenge at the heart of Jobs’ life: he changed human communication by shrinking it onto beautiful sleek devices – but people are so complicated. Life is does not operate with one button. You can’t swish away an unacknowledged daughter or pancreatic cancer with the swipe of a finger. Jobs’ journey to a deeper understanding of human relationships was guided by his wife Laurene, who is the critical character in this story.

I next head to the Kennedy Center, where the National Symphony Orchestra performs Liquid Interface, my ‘water symphony,’ on April 20 & 22 under the baton of Cristian Macelaru. This is especially meaningful for me because, ten years ago, the piece was premiered by the very same orchestra. It’s exciting to bring back a work that was written well before my post began as composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center, and with a rising star in the conducting world.  I’ve fallen in love with the place and all its possibilities, and the NSO lies at the heart of it. Many NSO musicians play on my KC Jukebox series, which presents new music in fluid, immersive formats. It’ll be cool to join them onstage.

And finally, on April 28, Mercury Soul returns to the San Francisco’s DNA Lounge for a “California Mystics: From Reich to Burning Man.” This classical/club show has gathered strong momentum in SF, presenting the city’s finest indie classical ensembles alongside awesome DJs. This show examines visionaries of California, from Lou Harrison to Terry Riley to Steve Reich, with special appearances by DJ Derek Hena and electric violinist Homer Hsu from Pink Mammoth. Burning Man very much exemplifies the maverick, iconoclastic streak in West Coast music history, and we’re very thankful for the participation of two energizing Pink Mammoth members.

That’s April. Tune in next month for a preview of my new JFK piece.