25 July 2020
Musicians have a rather unique relationship with sound. We are always keenly aware, I think. There’s not really any such thing as “background noise.” It all comes through loud and clear. I have a Synesthetic response to sound that is additionally unique, and causes me to experience all sound (not just music) through sight and touch. (For more information, see my post “Confessions of a Synesthete”)
Because my eyesight has always been quite poor, my memories are more vivid through sound and touch. For instance, when I see names in my address book or think of friends and family, I don’t imagine their faces as much as I recall the timbre of their speaking voice. When I remember pinnacle moments in my life, I remember sound and atmospheric elements (temperature/weather, surface textures, etc.) more accurately and immediately than my visual impressions of these events.
In my most recent composition, I attempted to convey atmospheric elements about some of the more impactful places I’ve visited in my life. I just completed the work, a concerto for viola with chamber orchestra entitled simply “Spaces.” It has five movements (I had sketches for 12, originally), each titled by the space conveyed through the music. Program notes and photos are below. Pictured above is one of two dedicatees for the work: Derek Reeves, principal violist of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. The photo shows (L to R) Derek, myself, and brilliant composer Stewart Copeland , both of whom have served as helpful soundboards for my ideas during this composition process. I am also deeply grateful to my dear friend (and MSO concertmaster) Elizabeth Smith for her careful scrutiny and guidance regarding string techniques. The other dedicatee is Jen Drake, principal violist of the Boise Baroque Orchestra.
MIDI-rendered recordings follow program notes and photographs for each movement. As soon as the composition is premiered (probably a little over a year from now), I will replace these computer generated recordings with live ones. For now, the robotic MIDI sounds will have to suffice.
Program Notes for “Spaces”:
I am fascinated with the sound of the viola, especially its wide pitch and timbre range. It makes a lovely solo instrument, and yet there are so few concerti written for it. So, I decided to offer up a composition of my own for this highly versatile and unique member of the string family. With this composition, I hope to convey the atmosphere of five spaces that have had a profound impact on me through sound.
I. Green Room. In any performance space, the “green room” is where the featured musician prepares to go onstage. Traditionally, these rooms were green, hence the name; however, they vary in color nowadays.
This movement offers a humorous nod to virtuoso Niccolò Paganini and composer Hector Berlioz. In 1833 Paganini, best known for his pyrotechnic feats on violin, had purchased a Stradivarius viola and commissioned a concerto from his friend Berlioz. The composer obliged with the beautiful and expansive piece “Harold in Italy,” but Paganini felt the work would not exhibit enough of his technical virtuosity, so he refused to play it. This is a setting of what I imagine their argument would have sounded like set to their own tunes. Berlioz’ voice sings themes from “Harold in Italy” as if trying to convince Paganini of its musical merit and beauty. Paganini responds with his own very famous Capriccio No. 24, a tremendously virtuosic theme and variations for violin, as if to say “why couldn’t you compose something like this, Hector?” As with most arguments, there are moments where the themes interrupt one another and are heard simultaneously.
Specifically for me, the opening of this movement reflects my green room experience at Carnegie Hall in May of 2001 as I was preparing to conduct there for the first time. I can remember thinking about Leonard Bernstein nervously pacing the floor in that same tiny room, about to make his own 1943 debut with the NY Philharmonic, filling in on short notice (with no rehearsal) for ailing Maestro Bruno Walter. Bernstein later described the experience as being dream-like, and he really didn’t remember much of it. Similarly, what I remember most is the sound of the musicians warming up and tuning onstage before I made my entrance. Their cacophony swirled around me like a tornado of color that threw my adrenaline into overdrive. I remember breathing very deeply and reminding myself not to rush my tempi. Beyond that, everything is a bit of a blur; but my mind is immediately transported back to the Carnegie Hall green room every time I hear an orchestra tuning up.
II. Stadium. I grew up in a family of baseball fans. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love playing or watching baseball. We lived near Kansas City, Missouri, home to Kauffman Stadium, one of the most beautiful in the world. This movement is a play-by-play aural illustration of my first experience attending a Royals game with my dad. The musical sentences are an odd length (10 measures instead of 8), to convey the sporadic, excited gait of a child tugging at the hand of a parent who won’t walk fast enough. It includes many familiar reminiscences: ascending the steps and escalators that reach to the sky, squeezing past people apologetically to get to the correct seats, the echoing of our national anthem as it bounces from one concrete wall to another, the food vendors shouting and selling their wares, the crack of the bat as it hits the ball, and the cheers in response. After the game, we come down the steps and happily make our way back to the parking lot, hoping to return to the stadium again soon.
III. Sanctuary can mean a lot of things. I had the wonderful experience of visiting Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England during a 7 a.m. Druid healing ceremony which had an extraordinary impact on me as the sun rose and the fog lifted across the boulders, even though I was an observer rather than a participant. I also remember hearing Benedictine monks singing in perfect organum at a monastery in Italy, which is expressed through one of my favorite Gregorian chant tunes: “Sanctus” (Holy) from Missa XI, orbis factor in the Liber Usualis. From Tibetan monks to Baptists in Tennessee, humans seem to yearn for a spiritual connection through places of worship. Sanctuary in the broader sense is what I find most compelling here: a safe refuge at times when we are most vulnerable. This movement explores all types of sanctuaries, from gothic cathedrals to home and family, and even shelters for those who find themselves displaced, endangered, unwelcome, or exiled.
IV. Aviary. When I search for true peace, I listen to birds. This movement comes from my love of birdsong as I remember leisurely walking through an aviary for the first time years ago. It is intentionally more atmospheric than melodic in nature. The upper strings and woodwinds represent various bird noises while the lowers offer nature’s foundation of soil, plants, and trees. The harp is the breeze and dewy atmosphere through which the violist strolls, basking in the sensory elements of the space.
V. Buttery-Bar. Although I don’t drink much alcohol and I haven’t found a beer I like anywhere, I still enjoy the unique sound of a lively pub. This movement is reminiscent of a specific pub in Stratford upon Avon called The Black Swan (or The Dirty Duck, depending on the door through which you enter). Since Medieval times, the Buttery Bar refers to the shelf that protrudes from beneath a cut-away window in a pub or pantry door. This is traditionally where the ale is handed to thirsty customers. Even now, many universities in England have a “Buttery,” which is an on-campus cafeteria or pub. There’s a slow build up as weary patrons drag themselves in after a long day of work, but once the musicians start playing and the ale begins flowing, everyone’s spirits rise. It’s a wonderful communal lift that can only be found among friends and neighbors (or college cronies) whose lives are much like our own. Together, we find a way to put hardships on hold long enough to celebrate good company, food, and beverage.