death speaks was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, specifically to go on a program with the little match girl passion. The opportunity came without many other parameters, so there were a lot of questions I had to answer. Would the new piece be for an existing ensemble or some group I would assemble for these performances only? Would it relate to little match girl, musically or emotionally, or would it start from its own place?
Something that has always interested me about the little match girl story is that the place where we are left emotionally at the end is so far away from where the match girl is. We are all weeping at the end and yet she is happily transfigured, in the welcoming arms of her grandmother in heaven. The original story switches starkly back and forth at the end, between her state and ours, perhaps in order to show us just how far away from redemption we are; it is Andersen's way of making us feel left behind.
This reminded me of certain other stark comparisons between the living and the dead. I remembered the structure of Schubert's beautiful song "Death and the Maiden" in which the text is divided in half; the first half of the song is in the voice of the young girl, begging Death to pass her by, and the second half of the song is Death's calming answer. This seemed to be the same division as in the Andersen story — the fear of the living opposed against the restfulness of death.
What makes the Schubert interesting is that Death is personified. It isn't a state of being or a place or a metaphor, but a person, a character in a drama who can tell us in our own language what to expect in the World to Come. Schubert has a lot of songs with texts like these — I wondered if I assembled all of the instances of Death speaking directly to us then maybe a fuller portrait of his character might emerge. Most of these texts are melodramatic, hyper-romantic and over-emotional; one of the knocks on Schubert is that he often saved his best music for the worst poetry. Nevertheless, I felt that taking these overwrought comments by Death at face value just might lead me someplace worth going.
I went alphabetically in the German through every single Schubert song text (thank you, internet!) and compiled every instance of when the dead send a message to the living. Some of these are obvious and some are more speculative — Death is a named character in "Der Erlkönig," the brook at the end of Die Schöne Müllerin speaks in Death's name when it talks the miller into killing himself, the hurdy gurdy player at the end of Winterreise has long been interpreted as a stand-in for Death. All told, I have used excerpts from 32 songs, translating them very roughly and trimming them, in the same way that I adjusted the Bach texts in the little match girl passion.
Art songs have been moving out of classical music in the last many years — indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert's sensibilities now lie, a better match for direct storytelling and intimate emotionality.
I started thinking that many of the most interesting musicians in that scene made the same journey themselves, beginning as classical musicians and drifting over to indie rock when they bumped up against the limits of where classical music was most comfortable. What would it be like to put together an ensemble of successful indie composer-performers and invite them back into classical music, the world from which they sprang?
I asked rock musicians Bryce Dessner, Owen Pallett, and Shara Worden to join me, and we added Nico Muhly, who, although not someone who left classical music, is certainly known and welcome in many musical environments. All of these musicians are composers who can write all the music they need themselves, so it is a tremendous honor for me to ask them to spend some of their musicality on my music.
My piece depart is also a meditation on death. A group of doctors in a French hospital felt frustrated that they could do so little to comfort the relatives of the departed. They imagined it might help if the bereaved could see their loved ones one last time, in a calm and peaceful setting. With the help of the Fondation de France they commissioned Italian artist Ettore Spalletti to create a morgue, and they commissioned musical scores from the composer Scanner and from me. What I think is most noble about this project is not that the space or the music can really make the pain any easier to bear, but that the doctors felt morally compelled to try everything in their powers to ease the suffering around them. It's a beautiful idea.