Last spring I posted some MIDI tracks of songs from the musical theater production I wrote music for at The Evergreen State College in Olympis, Washington- “The Blooming Season,” a Chinese-inspired new work with book and lyrics by the prodigiously talented Nick McChord. Refer to that previous post for details on the plot and how the production came to be.
Here I offer four tracks for your listening consideration, all based on Kunqu opera tunes from “The Peony Pavilion” – the most famous Chinese opera ever and the plot source for part of our new show. Our show opened with the first track here: “I Believe.” I took the Kunqu opera tune and altered it for modern, American ears and the musical theater style. Nonetheless, our Chinese director Rose Jang, herself an accomplished amateur performer of Chinese opera, immediately recognized the tune in my adaptation of it! This short song opened the whole show and is sung here by Erin Calata.
Next is a suite “I was a Pretty Girl” that evolves from a solo song, sung by a woman who thinks she is dying of unfound love and falling into a dream, to the ensemble number she conjures up in her erotic fantasy. The script called for a ’60’s flower-power number so I channeled “Hair” and the final section of this is the result. Notice that the opening solo song uses the same tune as the one above that opened the show. Thematic transformation! The singers are Kathryn Claus Burke, Leean Conley-Holcom, Erin Calata and playwright Nick McChord.
Next is the song sung by this same girl upon waking and discovering that the wonderful fantasy was not real. This is another “transformed” Kunqu opera tune from “The Peony Pavilion.” The rising opening motif, outlining a second-inversion minor triad, struck me as very memorable and usable 400 years later far, far from China… The singer is Kathryn Claus Burke.
Finally, another transformation for you- here is the same tune but now done up like a Eurobeat club dance tune. The script suddenly calls us into the present in modern Beijing for a scene about struggling artists, pollution and media censorship, in which the woman character again faces losing love… Listen for the same second-inversion minor triad opening motif. The singer is Leean Conley-Holcom.
My most excellent PLU music colleague, wind ensemble conductor Ed Powell, asked me last spring to write a slow movement piece for his upcoming tour to Tennessee in January 2015. He also suggested we try to crowd-source the commission fee so as to allow smaller schools with smaller budgets to participate in the fun of commissioning a new piece. By keeping the buy-in fee low and advertising it to 6500 members of a national conductor’s listserve we received 62 requests to join and the piece was on!
Ed suggested using PLU’s Lutheran connection and heritage as a starting point, reminding me of several other very beloved pieces based on chorale tunes- in particular two by Eastman Conservatory composer Warren Benson from the 1970’s. Ed’s particular favorite chorale tune is “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as used by Bach in his Saint Matthew Passion. In that monumental composition Bach uses this tune as a continually recurring and therefore unifying device, changing the degree of harmonic intensity in the four-part choral settings as needed depending on the changing emotions of the Passion story.
With all this in mind, I began, as I usually do, by thinking about everything I knew about this project. The chorale tune of course, but also the fact that of the 62 schools that had signed on as commissioners, some were very high-end conservatories with ensembles full of both graduate and under-graduate music majors while others were high schools in small towns with limited resources and probably limited pools of players. The technical demands on the players could not be too high but the musical meaning had to be deep enough to attract the energy and passion of players at all levels. A slow movement of perhaps 10 minutes duration has to be very careful in its unfolding- that’s a long time for an audience to sit and listen with no fast energy to keep them engaged. Band audiences range from the music majors at big universities to mom and dad in the gym at the high school spring concert. All needed to be served in a way that was meaningful.
What sort of creative space was enclosed by these various precompositional givens? That is usually one of the most creative and interesting parts of the compositional process for me- defining the piece by the borders created by that which is known and then finding within that space the conceptual heart of the piece. Working this way allows me to dialog and bounce off of ideas outside myself for a much richer set of possibilities to consider. It also keeps me mindful of the extent to which composing is an act of service to one’s community, particularly to those who requested the piece.
I thought about the title of that chorale- at least the title often associated with it now in the US- “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” This caused me to return to a theme that had haunted me for a number of years as former PLU students of mine had joined the military and had done multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan while their spouses waited anxiously at home. For those at home, their “sacred heads” are constantly in danger and far, far away. For them, there is nothing to do but hope and pray and wait. This then became the conceptual heart I was searching for and I titled the piece “For Those Who Wait.” It is a dialog with two of Bach’s harmonic choral settings of the tune, one more calm and the other intensely chromatic.
The piece is structured in four sections that all run together: chorale fragments, chorale variations, chorale statements, and again chorale fragments. Compositionally, it takes the tune and its harmonizations and puts them through a series of intervallic processes. The intervals are increasingly “crushed” down so that the original rising fourth of the tune becomes a third and even a second with the following intervals in the tune similarly squashed. This creates different affects ranging from background concern, to gritted teeth, to an all-out nightmare version of the chromatic harmonization in which I added a rising contrapuntal line in the upper winds and had the percussion bell instruments play increasingly hysterical aleatoric lines. Between all the emotion, the sax quartet plays like the angelic organ we desire to calm us down and sing to us of beauty and peace and comfort. In the end of the piece, the inchoate fragments of the opening return, but do not quite vanquish the anxieties and we are left with the sound of a gong ringing into silence as our waiting goes on…
This recording is from the PLU Wind Ensemble’s recent January, 2015 tour to Tennessee and is the first recording ever made of this piece. I hope more recordings are shared with me from the 62 scheduled premieres coming up this year! This has been an immensely satisfying project for me, working with Ed Powell and his great students, working with band directors all over the country, and being able to celebrate and honor my PLU students and all those who wait for those in harm’s way.
In November 2014 the Northwest Sinfonietta premiered a piece I wrote for them called “Wolfgang at the Gates.” I knew that the performance would include Mozart’s “Paris” symphony- the one he wrote while shopping for a job in that city in 1778. He was there with his mother, who spoke no French and was desperately lonely and isolated and increasingly infirm. At age 22 Mozart was no longer the child prodigy and was finding it hard to recapture the interest of the Paris audience which had so fawned on him when he was 6! The public was still smitten with the music of Gluck, even thought that master had returned to Vienna to write for the Austrian court. His primary patron in Paris had obtained for him a commission for a symphony to be premiered at a concert series in June and Mozart worked hard to try to meet the exact taste of the audience.
The premiere was a success, with Mozart almost teasing his audience with a particular device which seemed to be in fashion that season- the “three strikes of the bow”- a declarative rhythm that opens a piece decisively. Mozart opens both the first and third (final) movement with this device, though in the third movement he delays its entrance for a few bars and then delivers it, probably with tongue firmly in cheek. His overly anal-retentive patron suggested to Mozart after the premiere that perhaps the audience hadn’t liked the middle movement quite as much as the other two and that perhaps he should write another middle movement for the second scheduled performance. (Imagine telling Mozart to try again!) But ever the entrepreneur, he dutifully did write an alternative middle movement which he claimed in a letter to his father to like even better than the original one.
Alas, in the midst of this writing and re-writing, Mozart’s ailing mother finally succumbed and died in early August, to the absolute despair of her son. Mozart was not only miserable at the death of his beloved mother but terrified of the response from his father. The mother had been sent to watch over the son, but clearly the son was also supposed to take care of his mother! We can see Mozart’s nervousness about telling his father the news in the fact that he sent a letter to his father after the death in which he mentioned nothing about it. Only a few days later did he screw up his courage to share the dreadful news.
My piece “Wolfgang at the Gates” is a tour inside the mind of Mozart as he composes this symphony. All the themes of the resulting symphony are present, but in fragments, as though yet unformed. Also present are fragments of music by Gluck, whose music was ever-present and popular in the Paris salons and concert halls Mozart desired to penetrate. As he works, and his mother declines towards death, Mozart battles in his mind between the cheerful tunes his symphony must present and the thoughts of doom pressing on him both by career failure and his mother’s health. The second act of Gluck’s famous opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” is called “At the Gates of Hell” and depicts Orpheus reaching the underworld seeking to return his beloved Euridice to the land of the living. I imagine Mozart identifying with this scene, and thus his mind keeps returning to Gluck’s “Dance of the Infernal Spirits” and, of course, the famous aria “che faro senza Euridice”- what will I do without my Euridice?
In my piece, we begin with the “three strokes of the bow,” as does Mozart’s symphony, but then hear the timpani thunder out a darkness, as though Mozart is unable to continue in this cheerful vein. A three-note “doom” motif sounds in the strings, and then fragments of Mozart’s musical material try again and again to get the symphony started. Gluck and Mozart swirl and intersperse through two climaxes and intervening slower, softer sections dominated by “che faro…” All the tunes of Mozart’s two outer movements are touched upon before the theme of the slow lyrical second movement is finally discovered and allows Mozart to see his way to a conclusion. We reach the ritual cadential material, as required by the taste of the day, but the timpani has the last word- rolling ominously, or sadly, before concluding with that same “three strokes of the bow” with which this whole process had begun.
In the premiere concert, the Northwest Sinfonietta opened with two sets of dances from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, followed by Samuel Jones’ fabulous and romantic “Cello Concerto” with soloist Julian Schwartz. After intermission “Wolfgang at the Gates” was followed immediately by Mozart’s “Paris Symphony.” The effect was as I had hoped. After hearing my piece, one had the eerie sensation of knowing quite a lot about the symphony as it unfolded- almost as if we had been there looking over Mozart’s shoulder and sharing sad beers with him as he worriedly composed. Of course, “Wolfgang at the Gates” stands on its own as a 13 minute piece for chamber orchestra, but I really hope other conductors will consider pairing it with its famous companion piece for a truly striking concert experience.