Garages of the Valley

Much of the Digital Age was dreamed up in the most low-tech of spaces. The garages that dot the landscape of Silicon Valley housed the visionaries behind Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Google.  Within the bright Valley’s dark garages, the great inventers of our time conjured new worlds propelled by an aspirational, affirmative vision of an interconnected civilization.  All this in a windowless cube without insulation: that’s where imagination steps in.

I looked to those garages when starting to write a new piece for the St Paul Chamber Orchestra which will be premiered this month (the work is also commissioned by the Toronto Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony and will be performed by them later this spring).  Maestro Edo de Waart will be conducting, and his celebrated tenure at the San Francisco Symphony was one reason my mind went to Silicon Valley (he lived not far from it when many of those garages were bursting with energy).

The other impulse was a desire to shake up my own reality.  Unusual forms and images often pull new sounds out of me – from my ‘energy symphony’ to a recent chamber work conjuring running bamboo – and I was looking for a way to synthesize new sonorities with a paired-down, unplugged orchestra.  “Workshops of the tech visionaries” challenged me to write vigorous and visceral music that would also be filled with a kind of digital exoticism.

I’d been listening to the electronic-sounding (but entirely acoustic) music of Gérard Grisey, one of a long line of ingenious and disagreeable Frenchmen.  His music has two elements that stop me in my tracks: its beautifully effective microtonality, and its stasis.

The two work in tandem, as a listener needs to enter a more meditative listening zone in order to fully enter the fractal-like world of microtones.  (If your piano had 188 keys instead of 88, but covered the same range, you’d have microtones – ie, tiny intervals.)  They can sound unpleasant as hell in the wrong hands, but Grisey uses them to achieve extraordinary sonic effects.  I wanted in.

I also wanted energy: lots of it.  We all have an image of zillions of lines of computer code whizzing down a screen, and I needed a way to bring that to life in a fresh and evocative way.  Churning out figuration is not my specialty – that’s best handled by the Brooklyn minimalists – so I got busy figuring out how to develop on that front.

The resulting 10-minute work is the lean kind of piece I’ve been hoping to write for some years.  It’s dedicated to Edo, who first encountered my music at a Chicago Symphony concert of Alternative Energy, and it will be a great honor to work with such a legendary figure.  Stay tuned for excerpts, info about the St Paul premiere, and the upcoming performances!