Lots of music (& an orangutan)

It’s the last day of 2011.  My wife and son are napping peacefully.  I am shuffling about downstairs, wistfully remembering former New Years Eve parties that, through the prism of parenthood, seem as distant as hobbits and dragons.

Yes, life has changed over the past year.

Amidst a happy storm of composing new works, performing old ones, curating, and DJing, I have added ‘7am toddler body-slamming’ to my activities.  (Toliver greatly enjoys challenging me to wrestle, often just before I’ve had my first sip of caffeine.)  Having a baby graduate into toddlerhoold is certainly my biggest change of 2011, probably on the level of having an orangutan thrown through your living room window, but several significant musical events came to pass as well.

Alternative Energy was written.  This ‘energy symphony’ spans four movements and hundreds of years, beginning in an 1896 Midwestern junkyard and traveling through greater and ever more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler life.  While the Chicago Symphony has played several of my works on seasons past, Alternative Energy is the first written expressly for this orchestra and Maestro Riccardo Muti as part of my composer-in-residency.  Its composition occupied me for much of 2011, and I found my approach to integrating electronics into the orchestra evolving and, perhaps, maturing.  The sounds coming from the speakers are as carefully crafted as the sonorities in the orchestra, and the influences reach far beyond techno.  If you find yourself in Chicago or California in February, please come take a listen to my biggest piece to date.

Also in 2011: Mass Transmission was written.  This third piece for Michael Tilson Thomas uses not an orchestra but a chorus, supported by organ (the hands and feet of the amazing Paul Jacobs) and electronics.  An intriguing bit of early radio history brought about this work, which tells the story of far-separated parents and children speaking over the first wireless radio transmissions.  Actual transcripts and recollections of the 1920’s communications between Holland and Java are set to music in an eerie and intimate twenty-minute work.  Having this piece commissioned as part of the SF Symphony Mavericks Festival was a great honor, and it is especially exciting bringing the piece on tour with the SFS to New York and Michigan after the March premiere in California.

There was the premiere of Mothership by the YouTube Symphony at the Sydney Opera House.  While Mothership is not as grand in scope as other symphonic works of mine, it satisfied a long-elusive goal: writing a gripping opener.  Works like The B-Sides and Liquid Interface grapple with large concepts over long time spans, but I was overdue to write that 9-minute barn-burner.  In the process, I learned (again) that the simplest thing is the hardest thing.  Much credit goes to Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, who leaned on me to create something both challenging and immediately engaging.

I also learned that high production values are not antithetical to the artform.  The YouTube Symphony was probably the most elaborately produced classical event ever, and certainly the one seen by the most eyes.  The field of classical music, replete with century-old instruments and innovations based around natural acoustics, has an understandable mistrust of this kind of Hollywood-style showbiz. But the digital age offers powerful tools to us as creators and communicators.  Using YouTube to corral a stunning group of musicians from around the globe, bringing that orchestra to life with imaginative lighting and projections, then webcasting it live to millions of people — that was just plain cool as hell.

So yes, production became a major part of my life in 2011.  Not just with YouTube, but also with Mercury Soul (my classical/club project) and with MusicNOW (the Chicago Symphony’s new-music series).

Mercury Soul expanded beyond San Francisco clubs in 2011, with shows at Miami’s New World Symphony (in the magnificent Frank Gehry concert hall) and at a massive warehouse with musicians of the Chicago Symphony.  The project reimagines the concert experience through the lens of large-scale club events, dropping in short sets of classical music into an evening of DJing and surreal stagecraft.  Much like a wedding, the event seems fun and spontaneous to those freely roaming around, dancing, and having drinks; to those running it, it’s a NASA space shuttle launch, with musicians appearing around the space at precise moments, techno morphing into Bela Bartòk, and specially composed electro-acoustic interludes guiding the audience from one musical world to the next.  Production can a wonderful tool as long as it serves a musically substantive and compelling idea, and that’s something that Maestro Benjamin Shwartz and director Anne Patterson and I will continue to emphasize when planning Mercury Soul’s 2012 shows (Jan 20 & March 23).

And the CSO’s MusicNOW series really blossomed into the immersive, theatrical new-music experience that Anna Clyne and I have been dreaming about.  When challenged with a beautiful but cavernous 1,500 person space to present contemporary music, we looked up — at the lighting rig and projection screens.  If you were to visit a MusicNOW concert in March or May 2012, you’d find cinematic program notes, stunning Chicago Symphony musicians performing exciting new works from all manner of styles, and thousand-person crowds tumbling into the lobby to catch DJ Striz of ‘ill measures’ for the post-party.  We are fortunate to have the full support of Muti and the Chicago Symphony in creating an warm, inviting, and yes trippy vibe at the Harris Theater.

It’s still 2011.  The orangutan and his mother are still napping.  But not for long on both fronts: soon, a Violin Concerto will emerge from a little cage, soon a song cycle for Phoenix will get to my desk — and yes, soon I will launch across the room with a 2-year-old clinging to my neck, a minefield of perfectly folded laundry dotting the king-sized landscape we are about to destroy (“Come on, guys, not in the clothes!”).  But before all that, let’s just take a moment to reflect on the passing of another year of life, love, and art, with all their ups and downs.

To all those great adventurers from 2011 who, in their own quiet ways, often made the best moments possible.