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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Five-ring Concerto for Turning Point Ensemble completed

Well friends, it's been an intense home stretch for my new chamber concerto for the Turning Point Ensemble. I finished the piece exactly one week ago – which I managed to announce on Twitter – and then went straight into copying parts and finalizing details of the score. But I didn't even come up with the title until just a few days ago!

I always think that the writing is the hardest part: so much energy required to conceive of the ideas, get the writing for the instruments working optimally for them to communicate with the audience, and so on, but then comes staring at the full score and the individual parts trying to make sure there are no errors, omissions, etc., and that requires a completely different brain. Lucky thing too, because my creative brain is pretty tired by the end of the piece! So the parts took four full days to complete. It's funny: the music notation software companies, like Sibelius and Finale, advertise that the parts are created (linked) as you write the piece, making everything sound so effortless. It sells the product, but in reality, there are cues to write in, page turns to calculate, formatting issues, etc. Maybe I should write fewer notes!

So in the end, I have written a five-movement concerto for chamber orchestra, in which the three sections of the orchestra – string, winds, and brass – compete with one another (one could say). I haven't designed or designated a "winner" of this competition. That would be a game the audience could play with the piece.

The plan for the music has not changed since my October 5, 2009 post to this blog in which I outlined five movements. The only change came in the feeling of the second movement, which had initially been inspired by the short-track speed skating. In the end I think it evokes the whole movement of speed skating, whether on the oval short track or on the long track. So, the movements are:

1. Curling
2. Speed Skating
3. Skeleton
4. Freestyle skiing
5. Hockey

In that post, I spoke about "sonifying the actual rhythms of the winter sports." This has remained true through the completion of the remaining three movements.

First reading of Five-ring Concerto; Owen Underhill conducting;
at Seycove Secondary School, North Vancouver, BC
For the October workshop, I had only the first two movements complete. At the workshop, I worked with the musicians to create an incredible sound for the Skeleton movement. We worked at adding details to the musical sketches I had written. Here is a sport that is experienced in polar opposite ways depending on whether you are a television spectator, or you are at the track. I've never attended an Olympic event of any kind – and couldn't even conceive of getting tickets for our own Olympics with the crazy prices (and so on). So my experience of the Olympics is probably a lot like most of us: we know it through broadcast media. Watching past Olympic Skeleton events on youtube, I was struck by the incredible noise that these atheletes endure on their sleds. For the broadcasts of the Skeleton runs, the atheletes agree to have microphones attached to their sleds. So the television audience hears a continuous noise of the sled against the ice of the track for the entire duration of the run. By contrast, those on the side of the track will wait in silence and anticipation for the rider to round the corner just before where they stand, and then their moment of taking in the Skeleton event goes by in a matter of seconds, with a swish and a rumble. I have had to imagine this, since the youtube videos I saw didn't really have much to speak of in the way of audio when they showed the camera on the audience.

The short movement of my piece called "Skeleton," begins with a representation of the common pre-race tension with the use of low, sliding strings. Then the race is "announced" by brass and after the short run to get going, the athelete jumps on the sled and all hell breaks loose in the ensemble. All of the musicians work together to create a dense continuously moving – yet in a way static – texture that represents this "life of the microphone on the sled" experience. Then, in the only clear nod to camera techniques in the composition, there is a "jump-cut" to the audience-on-the-track perspective. This will strike many as the most "avant-garde" of the movements, drawing as it does from the kinds of textures found in the orchestral works of Xenakis, Penderecki and Ligeti from the 1960s.

(An aside for the techno geeks: the microphone, attached to the sled, actually gives us an entirely unique sonic experience of the Skeleton run that doesn't exist outside the "life of microphones" story. Certainly, the athelete does not have their ear attached to the sled!)

The fourth and fifth movements create the gestures and movements of freestyle skiing and hockey. The former features the bumpy ride to the bottom of the ski run with the two jumps in the middle that launch the skier into the air to a sudden slow turning motion – again a play of opposites, from extreme exersion to suspended animation. "Hockey" begins with a big canonic resonating chamber, a technique found in several of my other works (see Prismophony for guitar quartet, third movement, and the opening to Raven Steals the Light for orchestra, to give two examples.) Once the puck is dropped, a new kind of music ensues that is a different kind of resonating chamber: the entire music is constructed from dominant seventh chords, but this time the geometry of hockey is everywhere: curves, zigzags, straight-lines, deek moves. There are no random walks here or other mathematical tricks to create this type of music. I composed entirely from chromatic chord progressions using a common-tone technique found in music from Wagner through Debussy, Scriabin and Stravinsky, though the musical energy is much indebted to the rhythmic energy of the latter.

An invitation to the reader to attend.

The concert on which my new work will be performed for the first time is a fantastic, ideal concert program to hear my work. The program features Arnold Schoenberg's early Chamber Symphony Opus 9 for 15 solo instruments, and the Canadian premiere of Pulitzer-prize winning American composer
John Adams’ exhilarating Son of Chamber Symphony. John Adams and I share a connection that goes back to my student days at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I studied with him and heard him conduct the premiere performance of his break-through work "Shaker Loops." But it's more than that. There is an energy in Adams personality and music that resonates with my own. He feels like a kindred spirit. Please come to the concert, hear the great Turning Point Ensemble, and come by to say hello after the concert, especially if you are a regular reader of this blog!

Learn more about the concert and buy tickets.
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