In 'Youth' Paolo Sorrentino had the great idea to make a movie about a composer, who is played in the film by Michael Caine. Paolo and I spent a lot of time talking about what the music in the film could mean. It became clear to me that Paolo needed the music to be the doorway into the emotional life of the character, that we would learn different things about the character from his music than from his words. It is a beautiful trope of the film that the composer would use words to communicate with other people but would use music to communicate with himself.
'Simple Song #3' is a communication across a very long distance, the entire creative life of the composer. Paolo needed the song to explore both ends of this communication - the young man who wrote it, when he was full of optimism and love, and the older man, whose life and love have changed. I thought of the song as a kind of time capsule, something to help us measure the distance all our lives must travel, on our way to age, from youth.
I wrote a melody that I really liked. It seemed to go on forever, never repeating exactly, never locating in a particular place, never giving away too much about its shape, or where it came from, or where it was going. Then I started asking myself - what would happen to this irregular, free flowing tune if it was superimposed over other more regular elements? How much regularity would have to be added before the piece changed its character entirely? How much of a march rhythm, for example, would have to be added before the perception of the piece changed from odd melody to ordinary march? I wrote this piece to find out.
forced march is dedicated to Donnacha Dennehy, after Samuel Beckett my closest friend in Ireland.
pierced was commissioned by the ensemble Real Quiet – Felix Fan, cello, David Cossin, percussion and Andy Russo, piano, as a concerto for their ensemble and string orchestra. I was trying to imagine a way the soloists and the orchestra could relate to each other that would not be old-fashioned. I liked the idea of an opposition between them but I didn't want the kind of competition that traditional concerti generate, where the soloists try to struggle with the orchestra for the supremacy of their ideas. What would it be like to make two almost completely separate musical worlds, in which the musical material from one world was needed in order to decode the meaning of the material of the other? I imagined, for example, a dissonant, chromatic line in one ensemble and a tonal chord progression in the other – maybe we would perceive the two as related and necessary to each other, but the material in each world would remain distinct. There would be a wall between them – they wouldn’t hear or influence each other but we could hear their separate contributions mixed together. (And it goes without saying that the combination of materials that we hear would have to sound whole.)
The idea I came up with was to imagine a wall that wasn’t completely solid, but was more of a permeable membrane, a kind of filter or fabric between the soloists and the ensemble – most sounds and notes and tunes would stay in their respective worlds but some sounds might be able to pass through easily and virtually unchanged. Because of this image of a fabric separating the musicians I had the idea that at some points the fabric could be pierced, or maybe even ripped, as parts of the material moves from one musical grouping to the other.
pierced was premiered 12 June 2007 by Real Quiet and the Munich Chamber Orchestra, Christoph Altstaedt, conductor. The version for solo strings was premiered by Real Quiet and the Flux Quartet, conducted by Alan Pierson.
''O Isis and Osiris'' is Sarastro’s aria at the start of Act 2 of The Magic Flute, in which he calls upon his gods to watch over the trials to which our hero Tamino will be subjected. Mozart’s melody at this point is beautiful, lush and supportive, but I have always felt that if I were Tamino I would be terrified about the mystery about to unfold in front of me. In my piece I have taken all the notes from Sarastro’s aria and rearranged them, in order to put some of the mystery back into it.
My wife and I have three children, so we have had a bit of practice with names. We went through hundreds of possible names for our kids, each representing some kind of strength or history or character trait, each linked to a different hope or tradition. There were bible names, the names of kings and queens, famous explorers, hippie names - at one time I voted to name my kids Mountain, Wheat and Leaf... We also looked at old Puritan names, like Charity, or Submit, or Industry, and of course in this category we considered the name of Cotton Mather's brother, Increase. We really liked it - it's full of determination and optimism. It's what you wish for as a future, for a child, for a community, or, for that matter, for a new performing ensemble. We ended up not using it for one of our children, but I still think it's a great name.
increase was written for, and premiered by, Alarm Will Sound -- Alan Pierson, conductor.
''I fought the law'' was commissioned as a companion piece to the chamber version of ''The Unanswered Question'' of Charles Ives. I know this piece has many revolutionary features; I have always felt, however, that it is one of Ives' least courageous works. I guess I have never really believed that a few spooky flutes could represent me and my problems in the depiction of the struggle of human existence. What bothers me the most is the passivity of Ives' conception of human struggle in general—Ives watches the strings who watch the flutes who watch the trumpet. The piece has an already-defeated feeling to it. Where is it shown that this struggle means anything, that life is a never-ending fight to find an answer, even if that answer can never be found? Then I remembered a line from a rock and roll classic—''I fought the law and the law won.'' It is just as futile as an unanswered question but not nearly so pathetic.
My piece ''street'' was written for the Dutch wind group Orkest de Volharding. This ensemble was organized by Louis Andriessen as a hip, dynamic, no-nonsense street band. What occurred to me while writing my piece was that the actual street was there long before Louis imagined what sort of ensemble should be standing upon it. What sort of music would a hip, dynamic, no-nonsense street band have played if it had been standing on that street 400 years earlier, founded not by Andriessen but by, maybe, Sweelinck, for example? Just as Louis created for Orkest de Volharding a complete musical world out of a few fundamental musical concepts, my piece concentrates on a few 16th Century ideas - most notably ideas about vocal lines, suspensions and scale - focusing in on them relentlessly until they take over the entire piece.
People seem to like a lot of things happening in a piece of music: fireworks, excitement, fancy technology. These things can be great, but sometimes, as a composer, it's tiring to know that everyone wants so many things all of the time. In ''slow movement'' I just wanted to write a piece in which nothing happens. Well, something happens: a kind of dim spotlight is focused on the fundamental musical experience, marking out the inexorable passage of time. I wrote ''slow movement'' for Icebreaker in 1993, and it was the first time I made a piece using this approach. Since then I have made several others, most notably ''the passing measures'' for bass clarinet, women's voices, and amplified orchestra.
I said something mean to a friend of mine once. My only excuse was that it must have been my evil twin who had said such a horrible thing. I immediately started thinking about how within each of us there are dramatic competitions between good and bad impulses—sometimes the desire to be kind is in a strange equilibrium with the desire to be cruel. My piece ''my evil twin'' explores the relationship between these competing impulses. Scraps of relentlessly happy melodies struggle to be heard behind angry walls of sound. It is almost as if the presence of the naïve melodies infuriates the other instruments and they search each melody as it goes by, looking for ways to destroy it.
''my evil twin'' was commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, which premiered it in 1992, and I revised it in 1996. It is dedicated to my friend Mark-Anthony Turnage. Coincidentally I met him when we were both students at Tanglewood in 1983.
[The potato] begins its life at its most coherent, losing its shape and substance with the growth of its sprouts. The sprouts will, of course, become other potato plants, but, seen from the point of view of the potato, they are agents of death and decay. A piece based on the life of the potato, such as my composition, ''spud,'' might begin with the coherence of all musical voices and move towards their independence, much in the way that a series of variations might bear successively less resemblance to their theme.