Composer Caveman

Composers are social extremophiles. Whether working in classical, film, rock, or jazz, all composers alternate between long solitary stretches and sudden bursts of interaction. We need spend vast amounts of time inside our heads to create the music that, at some point, will be played and heard by lots of other humans. I’ve come to enjoy this alternation, as it gives a kind of sun-up/sun-down rhythm to life.

Just now I’m emerging from a cave-dwelling period, during which time I have been finishing Auditorium for an April premiere with the San Francisco Symphony. Now I venture into the sunlight for performances with the Baltimore Symphony and at the Kennedy Center, two great institutions only an hour apart but unique in their own ways.

The cave I’m peering out from is haunted by the sounds of ancient instruments. Auditorium begins with the premise that an orchestra, like a person, can be possessed. This piece haunts the San Francisco Symphony with ghostly processed recordings of a baroque ensemble, with the electronic part comprise entirely of original neo-baroque music I’m composing and recording with the San Francisco Conservatory’s period instrument ensemble under Corey Jamason. Essentially it is a work for two orchestras – one live, one dead – and it has been challenging me and fascinating me for me the past nine months.

There are lots of stunning works in the repertoire that approach old music, from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. This piece turns the idea on its head by using actual period instruments in an electronically-processed manner – having the baroque group swoosh onstage, play a beautiful chord, then reverse backwards and whip offstage like an apparition. The goal of the work is to explore not only the musical mannerisms of the baroque and classical periods, but also the unique sound of the actual instruments of that period, and it happens April 27-29.

So, trailed by the sounds of harpsichord, traverso, natural horn, and theorbo, I head to Washington D.C. and Baltimore for bright lights and loud noises.

Up first is the 100th Anniversary of the Baltimore Symphony with Marin Alsop, who I’ve had the good fortune to work with in California for many years at the Cabrillo Festival. Mothership with Baltimore is especially exciting for a couple of reasons. It’s nice to work with Marin on her home turf and see how vibrant her orchestra is. The musicians seem fully behind her and the community has very much embraced the orchestra (a particularly stunning moment occurred last year when the BSO offered a free public concert in the midst of the Freddie Gray riot). It’s also cool to encounter two stunning improvisers from the Baltimore music scene, Tim Grey and Chris Jacobs, who will solo in the work’s improvisatory sections.

Both with its electro-acoustic soundworld and its optional inclusion of improvisors, Mothership has allowed orchestras to push beyond the perceived boundaries of the medium, and it was exciting to hear from BSO resident journalist Rick O’Bannon about the work’s status in the repertoire. My goal has always been to evolve the orchestral palette, so it’s nice to see that a piece involving several new elements can join the other fine works on O’Bannon’s list.

After Baltimore, I head through the Beltway to my artistic home base, the Kennedy Center, for the next KC Jukebox concert, “Of Land & Sea.” This “new music in new formats” series got off to great start in November, when a sellout crowd turned out for our opening concert that explored ambient music through the ages (from Satie to Eno, and everything in between). Seeing five hundred Washingtonians turn out for a very left-field event inspired me and many of my colleagues at the Center. There seems to be more of an appetite for imaginative new experiences in Washington than anyone might think, and we’re looking to explore that in the Jukebox series and other cool endeavors happening there.

“Of Land & Sea” is example of the kind ‘through-curated’ experience that the Kennedy Center is uniquely equipped to create. The program features music inspired by geography, from the Alaska tundra (John Luther Adams) to the jungles of Peru (Gabriela Frank), from the Colorado Rockies (my Red River) to Hawaii and the ocean (Rouse and Puts). Around this, we are creating social platforms that integrate into this eco thematic: a pre-party hang with jungly set set design and lighting, and a more involved post-party featuring DJ Moose (Daniel Ssebowa Musisi) spinning world beats amidst an evolving backdrop of environmental imagery related to the works on the concert. Like all of the Jukebox events, projections run throughout the event, including the cinematic program notes floating in and out during the concert.

If you are in DC on February 22, please join us – you’ll catch me out of my cave for a moment, and you’ll catch a cool show!