I’m astonished to say it: my largest piece is being released on recording almost year to the day from its premiere. Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a psychedelic bestiary teeming with strange creatures and wild sonic effects, is out now on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Resound label, just short of the work’s one-year birthday (click here for purchase info).
For a symphonic composer, that’s a very special birthday present. Consider that my most-performed work, Mothership, took almost six years to find its way onto anyone’s iPod. Or that the beautiful recent San Francisco Symphony disc includes what I consider to be my first symphony, the almost ten-year Liquid Interface. Working with orchestras, a composer feels like a tiny version of a film studio: from conception to premiere to recording can take an eternity, owing to the complexities of such a human-heavy medium. So the quick release of Anthology marks a rare moment when a wide audience can check out the latest monster I’ve created (six of them actually).
Anthology is a setting of the book by Jorge Luis Borges, a master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, who created a marvelous compendium of mythological creatures. My 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 collapse in a thunderous 10-minute finale.
In its colorful evocation of different creatures, the work resembles a concerto for orchestra in its focus on different soloists and sections to conjure the various animals. This became quite a valentine to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony with whom I worked for five years as composer-in-residence, and especially to Maestro Riccardo Muti.
Muti is a master musical dramatist, a man with an innate understanding of the relationship between music and theater and, by extension, the human condition. At so many rehearsals over the past half-decade, I sat with fellow composer Anna Clyne and watched him draw surprising textures from the orchestra with just a few words or gestures. A seemingly light-hearted comment about the beach completely transformed Strauss’s Aus Italien; a remark about the strange cello-bassoon melody in Verdi’s Macbeth turned the soundworld several shades darker. Rarely-heard works such as Berlioz’s Lélio, which included not only singers but actor Gerard Depardieu, showed the maestro at the helm of a massive musical-theatrical steamboat. Many of symphonic music’s most audacious ideas have come out of opera and theater, and I’ve found a similar inspiration in setting unusual forms to music.
So I gave the maestro a copy of Borges’ book and started running ideas by him: could the sprite hop from stand to stand, shattering the normally monolithic string section into several dozen soloists? Could a serpentine creature that slithers up and down a tower be conjured by an exact musical palindrome? Could the sirens be evoked by two offstage violins who seduce their colleagues one by one? Sometimes the maestro would just smile; sometimes his face would slightly change, and he’d offer very specific advice (avoid over-precision in the siren movement, which attains a fuzziness due to the offstage players).
The biggest challenge was changing the rules as the piece unfolded. After a collection of shorter movements, including some 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. Engineering that finale required that I create a half-dozen interlocking themes at the outset, and a heavy lift of musical planning made possible by the teaching of my mentor John Corigliano.
With the release of this work, I’m hit with a rush of nostalgia for my friends and colleagues at the Chicago Symphony. Timpanist David Herbert takes a starring role as the Gryphon on thirteen drums. Clarinetists Stephen Williamson and John Yeh frolic as nymphs. Percussionist Cynthia Yeh conjures the A Bao a Qu on all manner of percussion. Chris Martin gets us all high with his piccolo trumpet, with the rest of the brass section soaring underneath him. Cellists Ken Olsen and Brant Taylor get seduced by the sirens, along with everyone else in their section.
An orchestra is, at its most basic, a vehicle of many human personalities. I’m deeply grateful to this one.
To purchase a copy of the album, visit iTunes here:
To stream the album on Apple Music: