The Long Game

Sending a satellite into space takes vision, madness, collaboration, and patience. These are also important elements, too, in the less celestial field of classical music – for this is a world of long gestations and late payoffs. Much time is required to compose a new piece, and years may pass before it enjoys widespread appreciation or is released on CD. And then one day, many years after the work’s conception, some happy news might come beaming back: for me last month, this came in the form of two Grammy nominations.

One of the nominated recordings, the San Francisco Symphony’s Bates: Works for Orchestra, includes two works that are almost ten years old. When I started Liquid Interface, I was living on Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in 2006, a less seasoned composer and human than I am today. But the piece nonetheless demonstrates many topics of ongoing fascination for me.

The most obvious is the addition of electronics, and my approach to this new element has evolved significantly over the span the pieces on these recordings. Certainly the influence of downtempo electronica can be heard in Liquid Interface’s opening movement, which conjures the calving of glaciers by shattering huge blocks of symphonic textures over massive trip-hop beats; but the more important element of the electronics is the theatricality it brings to the symphony’s form. That was an early revelation for me.

Actual recordings of glaciers hitting the Antarctic open the work; samples of water droplets become a quicksilver beat track; and processed recordings of a hurricane explode in the climax. This is where it becomes impossible to separate form and content – ie, the narrative of a work, and the sounds used to articulate that narrative – and where an expanded soundworld enables more imaginative forms. In Liquid Interface, I pushed the electronic sounds to behave with the richness of orchestral sounds, to carry not only rhythm and harmony, but place and context.

That approach underlies both of the other works on the SFS CD in different ways. The B-Sides uses a completely different form: five brief touchdowns on surreal planets, from the north shore of Kauai to the outer atmosphere of Earth. Each movement uses specific musical techniques to realize a mini drama.

For example, “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)” imagines a melody that evaporates at cadence points. The woodwinds sing a bending melody that, at each pause in the phrase, is enveloped in a cloud of string harmonics that float upwards. The central movement, “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” sets an actual NASA spacewalk to music, and I found it to be the most challenging but also the most rewarding movement to compose. The human ear behaves peculiarly when it hears speech; it kind of relegates everything else to deep background. At first I was a bit distressed at moving the orchestra from being the primary focus, but I eventually realized that this created a magnificent opportunity to surprise the listener by having the orchestral reassert itself. In this movement, you hear the astronaut exit the spacecraft – and then the orchestra takes over. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a key mentor in my exploration of form and content, and his commissioning of The B-Sides gave me a big opportunity to try a new approach.

The final work on the SFS CD, Alternative Energy, exploded this narrative approach to the orchestra. The piece is an ‘energy symphony’ that moves one hundred years ahead with each of the four movements, from Henry Ford’s scrapyard to a post-energy future in Iceland. The key in the great programmatic music of history, from Tchaikovsky to Berlioz to Corigliano, is to make the musical materials as vivid and memorable as the narrative. This requires highly distinctive musical materials that push the orchestra into new territory. Alternative Energy requires a small junkyard to be assembled in the percussion section, haunting the concertmaster who plays a bluesy fiddle concerto. As the piece unfolds into the present day and then an imagined future, you can hear the idée fixe melody and the junkyard rhythmic motif transform into larger and more extreme versions.

Both in its theatrical use of orchestral sounds to articulate extra-musical narrative, and its connection the Chicago Symphony that commissioned it, Alternative Eenrgy is worth considering alongside the other Grammy nominated recording, Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.

Riccardo Muti premiered both works, and his highly attuned approach to musical drama certainly informed both works. Having led the opera house at La Scala for several decades, Muti knows how to wring the most dramatic sounds out of an orchestra. I wrote him a purely acoustic piece that was highly informed by my years working with the power and drama of electronics.

Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is a setting of the book by Luis-Jorge Borges, a master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, who created a marvelous compendium of mythological creatures. My musical realization of this is eleven interlocking movements, an expansive form inspired by French and Russian ballet scores. In between evocations of creatures familiar (sprite, nymph) and unknown (an animal that is an island), brief “forest interludes” take us deeper into the night, and deeper into the forest itself.

Each narrative puzzle prompted novel musical solutions. In “Sprite,” the riffs hop from stand to stand, shattering the normally monolithic string section into several dozen soloists; a musical palindrome conjures a serpentine creature that slithers up and down a tower; and “Sirens” are evoked by two offstage violins who seduce their colleagues one by one.

The trick of the piece is that all of the animals fuse together at the end, when the preceding 25 minutes collapses in a thunderous 10-minute finale that occurs at the witching-hour moment between midnight and dawn. The sprites bounce around the stage, the palindrommic animal flashes forward and backwards, the Gryphon shoots tongues of fire – and the Zaratan, an animal that is an island, devours them all.
Heard together, the works on these two CDs show a decade of exploration of symphonic sounds and form, and as much as I appreciate the Grammy nominations, the biggest honor was simply having these pieces recorded to begin with. Recording new symphonic music is a very big leap for any orchestra, and it’s nice when their efforts can bring some recognition. These two orchestras, the SF Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have been essential partners in my musical development, as have their maestros.

If you want to take a listen to either CD, you can find both here.  Enjoy!