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Axis: Philadelphia

An explosion reverberates throughout a city's past and future.


Ars Nova Workshop will commission a work from composer/performer Lea Bertucci entitled “Axis: Philadelphia,” dealing with a massive explosion in June at the largest oil-processing plant on the East Coast. The facility, until recently owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), is located in a densely populated section of Philadelphia, occupying more than two square miles. The impact of the plant’s long history in the city—environmentally, economically, and catastrophically— reaches back to 1905. This most recent fire resulted in an explosion that sent metal fragments flying—one of them of about 38,000 lbs., approximately the size of a fully loaded Greyhound bus, flew across the Schuylkill River and landed on the opposite bank.

A few days after the event, PES announced that they were closing the site, after nearly 115 years in operation. The immediate impact of the closure has been the elimination of 1,000 jobs— mostly well-paid union jobs, many of them filled by those from the economically challenged surrounding areas. Public discourse following the event has been split among those describing the negative health impacts of the plant against those lamenting the loss of the well-paying jobs the plant provided.

Now the plant sits empty, partially destroyed. It has always been a divider in the city: north/east of the plant lies rapidly gentrifying South Philadelphia, and a bit further on the prime real estate of Center City; south/west, economic challenges are clearly visible. When active, prevailing breezes generally meant that the environmental impact from toxic releases were suffered mostly by those poorer areas. Standing massive and abandoned, the physical marker of the plant looms over these neighborhoods, a reminder that the environmental consequences have yet to be reckoned with while the economic lifeline that it offered has been pulled.

Enter Lea Bertucci. Lea is a composer fluent in once-inhabited spaces, out-scale buildings that stand as markers to human industry and cooperation but that remain after their useful life. She is a scientist of spatial sound, or as The Wire puts it: “She colludes with the acoustics of specific spaces, agitates the air and sets molecules buzzing, mapping and savoring ambient quirks and irregularities.” Her most recent composition explored a grain silo that exemplifies so many industrial sites in the United States: once active, noisy, loud, and filled with kinetic energy, it now lays dormant as a hulking concrete corpse. Lea captured new, never-before-heard sounds, reactive to the space’s unique acoustics, to create an event that evoked a human’s profoundly personal interaction with an inanimate space through the medium of sound.

Lea brings this same sensitivity and sense of experimentation to this project. “Axis: Philadelphia” will use string orchestra, percussion, and brass, mixed with field recordings of ambient sound from the site and surrounding area: the Schuylkill River, buildings and neighborhoods, and interviews with local residents. These elements will build a unique sonic tapestry that explores the looming physicality of the refinery over present-day life and a history that continues to reverberate in the city.

Project Media

Warp And Weft [from Resonant Field]
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Features: Lea Bertucci

“Inside the echoey concrete tower [in Silo City], which hummed with activity during Buffalo’s industrial heyday…, sounds can take about 12 seconds to die out, allowing Bertucci’s droning horn to create layers upon itself, painting in Rothko strokes. The slow, oozing sounds become an expression of the empty building’s own bereavement and mourning…Bertucci [recorded] during a partial solar eclipse in 2017; she worked with the experimental filmmaker Bradley Eros to pair five minutes [of the performance] with eclipse imagery.”–New York Times

Mass of Dissolution (for percussion trio); Commissioned by the American Composers’ Forum and written for Tigue Percussion, 2019. Premiered 1/24/19 at The Kitchen, NYC.
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Features: Lea Bertucci

An incantation against the blind violence of military-industrial power, MoD combines extended techniques for percussion, dislocated fragments of traditional American drum corps music, and an array of percussion instruments, from tympani to triangle to random metal objects, used to evoke the sound of helicopters, engines, and alarms: all industrial tools used in modern warfare. Direct musical references to Wilcoxen’s All American Drummer become a machine so tightly wound that eventually the apparatus seizes and violently disassembles itself.

Acoustic Shadow II, Brass (for brass ensemble, electronics, alto saxophone, percussion, and 8-channel sound)
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Features: Lea Bertucci

A performance/sound installation in the enclosed hollow body of the Deutzer Bridge in Koln, Germany. An 8-channel speaker system distributed throughout the bridge was “activated” by three instrumental performances over the course of a week. Fragments of performances were captured by microphones, then played back in the space as a continuous installation. The result was a loop of overlapping moments, creating a continuous sonic accumulation–a musical performance with no clear ending.

Start and End Dates



Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Project Created By

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Winner of the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming and Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best of Philly” award, Ars Nova Workshop (ANW) is an internationally recognized jazz, experimental, and new classical music presenter founded in 2000. ANW explores the intersection of many forms of contemporary music, “has made Philadelphia a welcome stop for premier avant-garde jazz” (Spin Magazine), and has been…


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