Please Try This At Home

It’s such a rare and cherished opportunity to write for orchestra, and rarer still to have the pieces make it onto a CD. The infinite variety of sounds and the real-time collaboration of so many people distinguish the medium from any other, but it also makes recordings so hard to pull off.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been very fortunate to have so many orchestras join me in an exploration of new symphonic sounds, whether enhanced by electronics or unplugged—yet until this moment, very few pieces could be heard outside the concert hall. So the release of a new album from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is an incredibly special moment for me,  a moment when folks can finally listen to my symphonic music in their own home.  The CD includes several of my most-performed works in addition to ones that marked artistic breakthroughs for me:

Rusty Air in Carolina – the oldest work on the album – was the first time I pushed the electronics beyond the beat-driven realm of techno. The conceit of Rusty Air is to have the concert hall visited by the humid ambience of North Carolina, where I attended Brevard Music Center as a teenager, and pair those sonorities with fluorescent orchestral textures: bright metallic percussion with the high-frequency crickets at the high end of the spectrum; fluttertongue flutes and trumpets chirps with katydids in the middle; and a humid brass chorale drifting through the low end.

BMOP CD cover

The entrance of swells of cicadas drives the work to a midnight blues section, where an insectoid beat grooves along with the orchestra. The lush melody that appears at the climax links all the ambient clouds of the opening, and in fact it was the first thing written in the piece. I knew the clouds would be more meaningful if they could be linked by an invisible tune that we don’t hear until later. That’s an architectural approach that owes much to my mentor John Corigliano, though the work’s soundworld is as much informed by the atmospheres of Ligeti as the blues of Gershwin.

The epiphany for me in this piece was imbuing the electronic sounds not only with rhythm, but with drama: they could take you to a place, they could introduce content into a work that a traditional symphony could not. That dramatic touch can also be heard in the snippet of Pima Indians that emerges in Desert Transport, which conjures a helicopter ride across the Arizona landscape.

Desert Transport collides a “machine” piece and a “pastoral” piece. Music about nature has existed for centuries, from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 to Debussy’s La Mer, but music about machines also has a robust history. Honegger’s Pacific 231 evokes a steam locomotive, and pieces from Adams’ Short Ride to Rouse’s Infernal Machine are familiar to audiences.

The idea to collide these natural and technological motifs occurred to me at the Arizona Music Festival, where a local helicopter pilot took me on a tour of the stunning desert landscape. The journey begins with a two-minute orchestral accelerando that evokes a helicopter liftoff, and the continually quickening tempo proved quite an enticing compositional challenge. But the ultimate destination of the work is the mystical heights of Montezuma’s Castle, a Native American cliff-dwelling thousands of feet over the desert floor. To capture the true essence of the desert, I felt the work needed to pay homage to the Pima Indians who inhabited it. I found a beautiful field recording of them singing and, after gratefully receiving permission, I wove it into the mystical Sedona section of the piece. Even in a brief appearance, electronics can take the orchestra to a magical space. The field recording features a soulful singer and the gentle rhythm of an accompanying rattle.

The album’s title work, Mothership, occupies a special place in my life not only because of the exposure it gave my music, but because it was the first time I wrote a real concert opener. Works such as Rusty Air were written almost as anti-openers, a young composer pushing back against the notion of a quick-footed overture. It turns out it’s hard to write an original opener – a short, energetic work that occupies its own soundworld. Looming behind Motherhsip’s composition was Michael Tilson Thomas, who commissioned the piece as director of the YouTube Symphony. YouTube had given me only one parameter – to include improvisation – so I designed the piece around the idea of a mothership being ‘docked’ by virtuosos. One of the soloists from the premiere, Su Cheng, returns in this recording, playing an array of guzhengs (a Chinese zither) in the second half of the piece. In the beginning we hear Jason Moran, the amazing jazz pianist who runs Kennedy Center Jazz, on FM Rhodes. Having two improvisers from outside classical music on Mothership is in keeping with the spirit of its premiere, and I am very honored to have both of these gifted musicians on the disc.

Two completely unplugged works are included, the brief and energetic Attack Decay Sustain Release and the longer Sea-Blue Circuitry. The latter shatters the jazz harmonies and rhythms that I absorbed from such an early age (thanks to my father’s records), with grooves hiccupping from measure to measure as rapidly as data quietly flashing on the silicon innards of a computer. I have always admired jazz harmony as the most complex music we can still feel, and this work pixelates jazz harmonies in a pointillistic way.

Taken together, these five works provide a look into a part of my musical world that I’ve been eager to record for a long time. They are superbly brought to life by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an American treasure. This group has done an immense amount to document and disseminate new symphonic music, and they play like rockstars. Check out their other recordings, from Andrew Norman to Matthew Rosenblum. And if you want to check out this one, please order it on iTunes, Amazon, or from BMOP itself.  For once, I don’t need a concert hall (only your living room).