heavyweight was commissioned as an encore for an orchestra concert. In particular, it was commissioned to follow one of my favorite pieces of all times, Symphony #5 by Jean Sibelius. One of the problems with writing an encore to follow the Sibelius is that it already has a coda that functions sort of like its own encore – the last movement of the symphony has a titanic and beautiful tune that repeats and builds to its climax, which is then followed by a section made entirely of several dramatic, explosive chords separated by long, taut, emotionally expressive silences. I heard a performance once, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, in which the silences between the chords felt so long that the coda seemed to take up as much time as the entire rest of the symphony. Amazing. For my piece I began by imagining how I might take one of those last, great chords apart, breaking it up into accenting groups, which I could rearrange. So I did. And then I added a few things of my own.
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 have never been much of a nature guy. Probably my favorite nature experience happened when our kids were young, when my wife and I rented a summer cottage in Vermont. It was a very modest place but there was a little balcony off the bedroom that looked right out on a mountain, and I would sit there for hours, staring at the view. I wasn’t close enough to see any detail, or to differentiate among the plants or rocks or features, or to get my feet dirty. (This is really about as close to nature as I ever want to get….) What impressed me so much about the view was how unchanging it was. It was rugged and beautiful and far away and imposing and timeless, and it was that way every time I looked at it. Its dependability seemed to be a big part of its strength.
Of course, time is different for different things. Our lives don’t last very long, so our experiences and our attentions – and our music – tend to fill up with things that pass through us or by us very quickly. Mountains, on the other hand, don’t change too fast. Their lives seem eternal to us. Maybe it’s useful for us occasionally to contemplate the eternal.
I have worked with So Percussion for a very long time now and I know them really well. When I got the opportunity to write a concerto for them I wanted to make it specifically for them, for the things that they have been concentrating on for the past few years. They are frequently theatrical, they invite found objects into their performances, they build their own instruments, etc. I wondered if I could make the unusualness of their musicality the centerpiece of this concerto, but how could an orchestra of 'normal' instruments doing mostly 'normal' things find common ground with them? My solution was to set up a kind of ecology between the soloists and the orchestra, using the orchestral percussionists as 'translators.' An idea begins with the soloists on an invented instrument, the percussionists in the orchestra hear the solo music and translate it into something that can be approximated by more traditional orchestral percussion, the rest of the orchestra hears and understands the orchestral percussion, and they join in. The opening, for example begins with the soloists snapping twigs, which the orchestral percussionists translate into woodblocks, marimba and xylophone, which the orchestra takes up and embellishes, eventually overwhelming the soloists. This process of finding something intricate and unique, decoding it, regularizing it, and mass producing it reminded me of how a lot of ideas in our world get invented, built and overwhelmed, so I decided to call it 'man made.'
Kate Ericson, to whose memory wed is dedicated, was a young conceptual artist and a close friend of my wife. In her hospital bed, just before she died, she was married to her boyfriend and longtime collaborator, Mel Ziegler. A wedding is usually a joyful event, full of hope and optimism, but this wedding of course had something much darker hovering around the joyfulness. In my piece, the four independent lines of the piano part are made of small changes - a half step up, a whole step down, and each line by itself is not that interesting. Put together, however, they allow the music to rock oddly back and forth between major and minor, between consonance and dissonance, between hope and despair.
One of the horrifying things about growing older is that your friends don't all grow older with you. People get sick and then they die. You watch, you try to comfort them, and then you try to comfort yourself. The true horror is that after a while your memories begin to fade. How long can you hold on to the sound of a voice, the memory of a strange event, a bittersweet feeling, a silly story?
I was friends with all the dedicatees of the enclosed set of pieces - some were closer friends than others - and I have very personal memories of my dealings with them that I don't want to fade. Each of these little pieces highlights some aspect of my relationship with each friend. I hope this will help me hold on to these memories just a little while longer.
There are a few ways to approach these pieces. In one respect they are inventions, each an intellectual and philosophical exploration of one distinct, mechanical way to make music. They are also little etudes, as each one highlights a different technical concern, such as overlapping arpeggios (Spartan Arcs), polyrhythmic counterpoint (Wed) or strange cross-hands (Cello). The way I choose to look at them is as laboratories for larger works. If I can incorporate the music or the ideas or the techniques of these little pieces into other works then I am in some way keeping something of my friendship alive.
I wanted to make a piece about the inner thought process of a person who is not sure how, or why, to live. to do this I needed a text that felt like a litany of questions and statements and possibilities for self exploration, and I hit upon the idea of making the text out an internet search. the libretto for this piece is made up entirely from the results out of an internet search of the phrase AND I WILL MAKE IT, setting to music every iteration of that phrase plus whatever words follow it, in the order in which it appeared in the search - that day, that very moment. 'and I will make it, and I will make it waste, and I will make it fit, and I will make it snow, and I will make it proud, etc....' the weight of these statements accumulates until it begins to feel like the story of a single person, convincing himself or herself that life is worth living.
A cellist and her voice become separated from each other, and they struggle to reunite in a post-apocalyptic spiritual environment. world to come is a kind of prayer—introspective and highly personal. It is a meditation on hope and hopelessness, asking fundamental questions about the death and life of the soul.
concerto (world to come) was written for Maya Beiser and commissioned by Saint Paul Films and Swedish Television for the choreographer Pontus Lidberg.
There is a big gulf between the way that classical music teaches us to experience emotions and the way that our emotions are actually felt.
We have a great tradition in Western music of embracing great swings of temperament and mood – we have no problem thinking that a piece can move seamlessly from something that is whisper-soft to ear-splittingly loud. When I think of how my life actually works, however, I don’t think of it in terms of giant emotional leaps from one extreme to another – most of my emotional range is not from extreme bliss to gut-wrenching misery and back, all in a short period of time; my range is much more narrow, and too slowly changing for that. In my piece darker I wanted to make a piece of music that more closely matches my own emotional narrative than the narrative we have inherited from the dramatic music of the past.
darker is in many ways more like an object than a piece of music. It is a long, slow passing from something mostly even and pleasant to something a little less pleasant. My piece, like life, expends a lot of effort to go a very short distance, from beautiful to a little less beautiful, from a little light to something a little darker.
darker is dedicated to the memory of Jeanette Yanikian.
For various different reasons, when Donald Nally contacted me and asked if I would write a work for his choir, The Crossing, I got it into my head that I wanted to do something political. I remembered back in my lefty days reading a very passionate and intelligent speech by Eugene Debs, the pioneering 19th century American Socialist and founder of the International Workers of the World, in which he addresses the court that has just found him guilty of sedition, for speaking out against American participation in World War I. What I love about this speech is that it is both critical of the political world the Debs lives in and at the same time optimistic about it. He sees the problems around him and yet is confident that through dedication things can be improved. I wanted to try to capture this duality of feeling in my setting of the text – the clear-eyed recognition that things are not what they should be, the hopefulness that, with hard work, things can be made a lot better.
statement to the court is dedicated to ASCAP's Fran Richard, with whom I have been talking politics for over 30 years.
Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act Delivered by Eugene Debs, September 18, 1918
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change-but if possible by peaceable and orderly means. Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison.
I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
In this country - the most favored beneath the bending skies - we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child-and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity.
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. This order of things cannot always endure.
Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.
I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the Southern Cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
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.
loud love songs is about love, and about the struggle for love. My goal was to make an overtly emotional work out of very unlikely materials, focusing on percussion instruments that have traditionally been found only in the background of classical music. My concerto brings these instruments to the foreground and highlights the struggle of the soloist to breathe life into them. In this way it is as much a piece of theater as a piece of music.
The reason why the psalms are so central to religious experience is that they are a comprehensive catalogue of examples of how to talk to the Almighty, not by a prophet or a priest but in the voice of a single person out in the world, with problems and concerns not unlike those faced by real people in all times. Of course, it’s like reading one side of a correspondence—we can read David’s letters but the letters back are the ones we really want to see.
I am not a religious person. I don’t know how to pray. I do, however, know some of the times and places and formulas that are supposed to make prayer possible. Sometimes I find myself sending those messages out. And then I wait, secretly hoping that I will recognize the response.
My first thought for this piece was that I could somehow “borrow” my favorite running piano line from the beginning of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, bringing into the concert the piece that had introduced me to the idea of psalm setting, many years ago. More recently I have been setting the entire book of psalms, in an evening-length work for solo piano called psalms without words. I have been transcribing my own cantillation of the psalms—the rhythms, the accents and the pacing of the Hebrew. I used a similar strategy to convert the prayer before setting the psalms into the music for how to pray.
I think one of the reasons our commercial culture likes all music to be fast and snappy is because in fast music it is harder to recognize the passing of time. You listen to the tunes, to the catchy phrases, but you are not allowed to feel just how time slips away. Slow music is good for contemplation but is probably terrible for business, so you don't get much of it in your daily life. One of the noble things you can do in a piece of 'serious' music is allow for an experience that can't happen in your everyday life. the passing measures is that kind of experience.
My pieces are not conventionally virtuosic, but they are very hard. One of the things that interests me very much is how certain mechanical musical tasks force players - and listeners - into a kind of concentration that can be spellbinding. The intense concentration necessary to coordinate the ensemble in Grind to a Halt is a kind of virtuosity in itself.
Grind to a Halt is dedicated to the memory of my teacher Jacob Druckman.
The source of the title is a story told in 18th-century Europe about the Chinese Imperial family. It was said, among the colonial powers, that the Chinese ate the brains out of living monkeys. Actually, this is but one example of the many rumors, lies, and insults which preceded armed conflict between East and West. Some of these now seem funny, and most are quite brutal.
In my piece, it is not important to hear how families of instruments act out this cultural friction, although that is, in fact, how the work is made. One lesson of the story is that, in history, horror and humor are often joined. My work tries to find the line that separates the two, and perhaps even crosses it.
eating living monkeys is dedicated to Hans Werner Henze and The Cleveland Orchestra, who gave its premiere in a slightly different version. Parts of this work appeared in the earlier Flaming Youth, the first work commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony for its award-winning First Music program.