Mass Transmission & Mavericks

Ever seen a sandcrab scurry from one hole to another?  That’s me right now!

Most of my year is spent in my cottage studio, where I roam unshaven in pajamas while laboring on new compositions.  When the premieres occur, I emerge blinking from my hole, the bright light of the real world hitting both me and the piece.

As it happens, the current period has lots of bright light: last month was the Chicago Symphony premiere of Alternative Energy, this month is the San Francisco Symphony premiere of Mass Transmission. It is being showcased on the Mavericks Festival in San Francisco and taken on tour to New York and Ann Arbor.

Blink, blink!

Mass Transmission tells the true story of a distantly-separated family communicating over the earliest radio transmissions.  It is a kind of 1920’s-era Skype: on one end of the line is a Dutch girl sent to be a page in the colonial government of the East Indies — and on the other end of the line is her mother, thousands of miles away in the Dutch Telegraph Office.  Scored for chorus, organ, and electronica, the piece intimately examines the warmth of human emotions pulsing through a mechanistic medium.

Two obscure texts are set to music.  I came across an old, anonymous publication by the Dutch government that compiled recollections and transcripts of these communications.  This gives us the mother’s perspective and forms the outer movements.  The central movement gives us the daughter’s perspective of jungle-life in Java, drawn from recollections by Elizabeth van Kampen about her early years there.

The chorus sing these texts, comprising the ‘animal warmth’ of the piece, while the electronics give us a ‘musical scrim’ of static and short-wave radio sounds.  The organ connects the two: sometimes it supports the chorus, sometimes it plays the toccata-like music of the Dutch Telegraph Office.

The biggest challenge: creating something original, moving, and provocative within the confines of a chorus.  I love choral music — my introduction to classical music came through the choir of St. Christopher’s School in Virginia — but the medium poses significant challenges.  Unlike instrumentalists, singers produce their pitches themselves, so a composer cannot simply hurl any succession of notes at them.

The biggest buzz: writing for superstar organist Paul Jacobs. The organ is, after all, the world’s oldest synthesizer, the only instrument capable of blasting-out an orchestra.  Paul’s participation in this piece highly informed the composition of it.  Think: hair-on-fire toccata evoking the mechanistic world of the telegraph. 

And yes, writing for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was a zinging buzz too.  Chorus master Ragnar Bohlin, after all, was the person who made this piece happen: when he heard the SF Symphony premiere The B-Sides and Chanticleer premiere Sirens in the spring of 2009, he immediately suggested we take a piece to Michael Tilson Thomas.  It is the third piece I have written with Michael in mind — after The B-Sides and Mothership — and it was a joy to compose, perhaps my most personal piece.

Mass Transmission is dedicated to my wife Jamie and my son Toliver, who are always at ‘the other end of the line’ when I ring them up from various cities. The piece happens March 15-17 in San Francisco, March 22 in Ann Arbor, and March 29 in New York. Please come if you can!