Well, this update has been a long time coming.
I’ve been buried in composing the new piece for this project since we got the green light to move ahead with it – thanks, New Music USA! It took about six months, but the piece, titled “Play”, is finally done and both Fireworks and the ESYO are deep in the rehearsal process in preparation for our residency that starts Feb. 8.
The piece ended up being much bigger than initially planned: its close to an hour long and in four movements, each one in a different style, and each exploring a different facet or expression of a single melodic idea. As the theme moves from style to style, the ensemble gets to improvise in different contexts, and in the third movement, members of the orchestra, and at times all the musicians of the orchestra, get to improvise along with us. I wanted to make sure that the orchestra had a chance to improvise with us, and I wanted to find a way to force them to get “off the page” and really try to communicate and interact with each other in a playful, creative way. My solution was to have the third movement be completely improvised around a set of parameters, but with no written music, along the lines of the work of the Scratch orchestra, the Fluxus movement, and many other ensembles and composers that have worked with improvisation and varying degrees of freedom in their performances and compositions. It was a bit of a shock for the orchestra members at first — none of them had ever done anything like this before — but, much to their credit, they have been very open to it and it is going to be thrilling for Fireworks to do this with them.
I’m very excited to finally hear it all together next week!
Some more information from the program notes for the piece below:
The concept for Play was born when Helen Cha-Pyo, conductor of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, approached me about mounting a collaborative project with Fireworks Ensemble. As we brainstormed ideas, we often returned to our shared concern that the creative, collaborative aspect of music-making, so vital to the development of a sense of excitement in performing with others—and to a lasting passion for music, is often overlooked in the formation of young musicians. Through these discussions we arrived at the idea of creating a residency that would introduce the young, classically-trained musicians of the ESYO to the concepts and techniques used in improvisation. The goal was to help the orchestra approach their playing creatively, take risks and ownership of their musical choices, express themselves more freely, and embrace the joy in making music with others. I had been interested for some time in creating a piece for Fireworks and orchestra, and in finding ways to show off the improvisation skills of Fireworks, so I suggested creating a new piece for the combined groups that would allow the young orchestra musicians not only to play alongside Fireworks in a collaborative setting, but also to experience first-hand the stylistic variety, the solo- and group improvisation techniques, and the process of creative collaboration that the ensemble brings to its repertoire and performances. Consistent with my programming for Fireworks Ensemble and my own previous body of work, I hoped to create a piece that would embrace a wide stylistic palette and explore the ways in which musicians relate to one another in different musical styles (like composed concert music, popular music, and jazz) and in a variety of musical contexts (like chamber music, solo playing, and orchestral playing).
During the initial stages of composition, I received word that my first music teacher and long-time friend and mentor, Joanne Sohrweide, had died. Though at first I was terribly saddened by this news, as I continued to reflect, I found my thoughts turning instead to the joyful, exciting, and humorous experiences we had shared during my time studying with her, and on the profound impact she had on my life and my musical development. It was natural that the feelings that I experienced while reflecting on my time with Joanne would find their way into my music, but since I was in the process of composing a piece to be used as an educational tool and to be performed by young musicians (about the same age as I was when studying with Joanne), it seemed only right that I go a step further and dedicate the piece to Joanne’s memory, and make the sources of my inspiration for some the music more transparent.
“Music for Children” (the title of the first movement) was the name of the early childhood music program in which Joanne first introduced me to what would eventually become my vocation. The title also eludes to the light, playful nature of the music and to the fact that the music was written for a student orchestra. Ironically, the movement contains the most challenging music in the whole piece, and as a result is most definitely not “for children” to attempt — unless by “children” one means incredibly talented, skilled, and dedicated young musicians such as those of the ESYO. The principle theme of the piece, heard at the outset in the flute, takes the guise of a funk rock groove for much of the movement and forms the foundation for solos by bass and guitar.
The second movement, “Changing Voices,” was inspired by a pivotal moment in my musical development under Joanne’s tutelage: an audition for a junior high school musical that abruptly, dramatically (and mercifully) ended my musical theater career. About half-way through my singing audition, the tender and agile boy soprano that had helped me land leads in several previous musicals and even a TV commercial as a child suddenly transmogrified into a frightful teenage baritone. I will never forget the look on Joanne’s face — a combination of shock, pity, and amusement — at the sounds coming out of the Frankenstein monster before her that once had been her student. Though traumatic for me at the time, the experience now registers as a fond memory of the innocence of my earliest musical experiences, and it is that sentiment that the second movement attempts to capture. The title can also be heard as a reference to the musical material itself, in which overlapping arpeggios create constantly evolving, undulating chords within a continually shifting orchestral fabric. This texture of changing (musical) voices creates a canvas for piano, violin, and cello improvisations.
The third movement, entitled “Play,” contains no written music at all. Instead, the soloists and orchestra are instructed to create the music themselves (to improvise) based on “inspirations” — suggestive words or phrases chosen either in advance or at the time of the performance — designed to trigger a creative and musical response. Each soloist is given a separate “inspiration” and is allowed to explore and respond to it musically, first alone, and then in dialogue with one or more other players. The conductor, acting as a kind of referee in this musical free-for-all, may decide when to start or end the improvisatory discourse, or to shape the music using hand signals.
The final movement presents the main musical theme of the piece in the context of traditional European concert music from the 18th and 19th centuries. A short fugue on the principal theme for double bass, cello, and violin soloists is followed by a passacaglia — a sequence of chords over which the soloists are given the opportunity to improvise — and then by a rondo in which the theme is presented in a fast, 19th century-style scherzo. Alternating sections for orchestra and soloists culminate in an exuberant finale in which all of the combined forces have an opportunity to “play” together.
Though far-reaching stylistically, Play is essentially monothematic, with almost all of the material derived from a motive consisting of an ascending minor second leap followed by a descending scalar figure. Rather than developing the material using the traditional methods (modulation, motivic transformation, and so on), however, I allow the material to evolve into transformations that suggest a particular musical style, and then work within that style for a section of the piece. In Play, each of the styles that the theme “arrives” at also become frameworks for improvisation by the ensemble members.
I am grateful to New Music USA for helping to make this project possible, to Helen Cha-Pyo and the ESYO for their talent, encouragement, and help bringing it to fruition, and to its dedicatee, without whom it would, quite simply, have been inconceivable.