Strange Creatures

I’ve got Joshua Bell surrounded — by a devil and a spaceship.

Next weekend at the marvelous Sun Valley Symphony, I’ll happily be the peanut on the bill of a concert that features the reigning prince of the fiddle performing the Bruch concerto.  The concert resembles a three-course meal: the appetizer is the world premiere of Devil’s Radio, for large orchestra; the main course (of course) is Josh; and I return with a dessert of Mothership, my electro-acoustic opener that is colonizing a new corner of a concert program (the end).

Two things pushed me into this commission: music director Alasdair Neale, the stellar maestro well known in San Francisco and beyond; and a mammoth orchestra.  How big?  Quadruple winds, extended brass, huge percussion: yup, this one goes to eleven.  In the past, I’ve declined to write for such large forces, favoring the more standard double- and triple-winds to offset my usual addition of electronics.  But this work is acoustic, and orchestras do need short works for this instrumentation – and hey, I needed a hell of a band to conjure a devil.

Devil’s Radio, an darkly exuberant fanfare, takes its title from a colorful Southern phrase: “Rumor is the devil’s radio.”  I’ve always wanted to summon that strange radio, filled with errant grooves and vainglorious fanfares.  When Alasdair alluded to the sprawling forces available, my ears perked up.  It certainly sweetened the deal that many of the Sun Valley Symphony musicians are familiar to me from the San Francisco Symphony and elsewhere.  And adding Mothership to the concert, Alasadair managed to do what no other orchestra has done: prompt me to bring my family.  (My five-year old is pretty sure I peaked at Mothership.)

In addition to gearing up for that premiere, I’ve also been tweaking the electronics for Alternative Energy in advance of the SF Symphony performances September 10-13.  Bringing this ‘energy symphony’ to life with Michael Tilson Thomas marks the final week of the Beethoven & Bates festival, which let’s face it is the coolest-sounding festival I’ll ever be associated with.  While the piece has been performed often since its premiere two years ago, these performances will be recorded for a forthcoming CD release, so I’m tinkering with the electronics and making sure every spin of the particle accelerator is in the sweet spot.

But more than anything else this summer, I’ve been hard at work on Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a new work for Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony.  This 25-minute (unplugged) work stretches my music harmonically and texturally more than any other piece.  That was certainly the point of the form: in choosing a trippy Borges book about mythical creatures, I wanted to push my music into an explicitly surreal and imaginative direction.  The idea is to take the highly colorful ballet form – lots of short character pieces – and hit them each with a little drop of LCD.  At the moment, I’m facing off with all seven creatures in the insane finale – when the first twenty minutes collapse into five.  (Currently, the animals are winning.)

Summertime is nice, but I’ll admit I’m itching to get back to Chicago and out of my head a little bit.  Not one to wish away the present, however, I’ll happily cling to my flip-flops a bit longer.