March Madness

What makes a maverick?

This question was posed to me so many times over the past month, a whirlwind of music-making that stretched from San Francisco to Michigan to Miami to New York.  As one of the two composers commissioned to write new pieces for the San Francisco Symphony Mavericks Festival, I couldn’t simply wave away the question — even though, to be sure, I’d always rather discuss the music itself rather than the label attached to it.

And to be sure, “Mass Transmission” is not a wild-eyed, Left Coast freakshow of a piece.  It’s not a blizzard of notes (à la “Alternative Energy”), nor a variegated exploration of surreal landscapes (à la “The B-Sides”). The piece is spare, lyrical, and direct: the true story of a mother and daughter communicating over long-distance radio transmissions in 1922.

Scored for chorus, organ, and electronica, the piece has no wall of orchestral figuration to hide behind.  While the choral writing is layered and harmonically elusive at times, it provides singable lines and warm harmonies.  So those looking for their hair to be set afire by the most-notes-per-square-minute encountered something quite different.

What “Mass Transmission” does attempt to do, however, is find new ways to tell a hauntingly beautiful story about human warmth processed through cold technology.  The text is an obscure publication by the Dutch government about the world’s first long-distance transmission facility.  Built in the 1920’s, it connected the motherland with its colony in the Java (where Dutch children were sent to work as pages while their parents remained back home).  Parents were allowed a few minutes every month to hear the speak with their children over these transmissions.

That dramatic juxtaposition required some musical ones: superimposing, for example, the toccata-esque organ music of the Dutch Telegraph Office with ethereal, emotional choral writing.  Paul Jacobs, celebrated as one of the greatest living organists, went into overdrive in these mechanistic passages, providing a mad-scientist virtuosity over which the chorus wove heartfelt lines.

These two worlds are seen through a haze of short-wave radio static, a sonic version of a theatrical scrim.  (Old radio sounds are eerie and alluring — like electronic purring — and much richer than the white-noise on today’s FM radio dial.)  This electronic soundworld morphs into the completely different texures of Javanese gamelan in the middle of the piece, which is a setting of the diary of a Dutch girl about her childhood in the jungle.  Out of tune gongs, light drumming, and jungle noises mingle while the organ lays low.  The final movement returns to the Telegraph Office, where the mother remarks how much this strange experience has changed her.

The piece came off beautifully, and the rest of the Maverick Festival showcased the wide variety of new thinking coming from American musical minds:

Edgar Varèse’s “Ameriques” still sounds as if its ink were wet — so fresh and exuberant, it does just about everything a piece of orchestral music could possibly do.  The SFS took 14 percussionists on the road for that piece alone.

John Adams’ “Absolute Jest,” which required a ‘solo string quartet’ to be stuffed into that burgeoning tour-bus, is a psychedelic trip through Beethoven fragments.  It’s like speeding through a complicated freeway merge and almost colliding with a vanload of madmen.

David Del Tredici’s “Syzegy” is my favorite post-serialist music, a complete showpiece for soprano and ensemble that pushes the extremes of every instrument involved.

Lou Harrison’s “Organ Concerto” brilliantly combines two disparate sonic worlds — a pipe organ and a battery of strange percussion — in a way that sounds absolutely organic.

John Cage’s “Songbook” — well, that piece may just be too ‘mavericky’ for me, but it was a huge, courageous endeavor to bring on the road.  Devoting an entire half of a symphonic concert to a piece of performance art ­was a maverick move in itself.  It’s cool to open a Carnegie Hall concert with, well, a wild-eyed West Coast freakshow.

Thanks to the SFS for including me in this exceptional festival; to Maestro Donato Cabrera for bringing “Mass Transmission” to life; and to three wonderful choruses which devoted so much time to a new and challenging work.