The following notes accompany the August 12, 2018 Of Other Worlds concert program.
In Terra was commissioned by Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music for the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra, Larry Rachleff, music director, for the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concert in the Fall of 2016. It also commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Shepherd School of Music.
The idea of layers of history conjured for me the various epochs and layers within the earth’s crust, and the sometimes slow, sometimes violent changes that take place over time. Thinking of these various rock layers embedded within the earth, the opening is marked “reverberant, subterranean” and the low instruments of the orchestra are featured—hence the name In Terra, meaning in earth. These layers are represented musically by the various motives in the piece, which are stacked upon each other towards the end of the piece. This is an idea I used in a previous work, Strata, and a third piece will be added based on the same premise. These three movements together will eventually form a larger symphonic work, though each movement may stand on its own as a single work.
Commissioned by Britten Sinfonia, Muziekcentrum Frits Philips and Tapiola Sinfonietta,
with support from Arts Council England.
PART I THE HEREAFTER (1892)
I believe in the Hereafter. Material appetites or love for the real don’t beguile me. It’s not habit but instinct. The heavenly word will be added
to life’s imperfect sentence, otherwise inane. Respite and reward will follow upon action. When sight is forevermore closed to Creation,
the eye will be opened in the presence of the Creator. An immortal wave of life
will flow from each and every Gospel of Christ—wave of life uninterrupted.
NEAR AN OPEN WINDOW
In the stillness of an autumn night, I sit near an open window, for entire hours, in a perfect, voluptuous tranquility.
The gentle rainfall of the leaves descends.
The keening of the perishable world resounds within my perishable nature,
but is a dulcet keening, rising like a prayer. My window opens up an unknown world. A fount of fragrant memories, unutterable, appears before me.
Against my window wings are beating—chill autumnal exhalations
approach me and encircle me and in their holy tongue they speak to me.
I feel vague and wide-embracing hopes; and in the hallowed silence of creation, my ears hear melodies,
hear the crystalline, the mystic music of the chorus of the stars.
PART II SEPTEMBER OF 1903 (1904)
At least let me be deceived by delusions, now, so that I might not feel my empty life. And I was so close so many times. And how I froze, and how I was afraid;
why should I remain with lips shut tight; while within me weeps my empty life, and my longings wear their mourning black. To be, so many times, so close
to the eyes, and to the sensual lips, to the dreamed of, beloved body. To be, so many times, so close.
JANUARY OF 1904 (1904)
Ah this January, this January’s nights,
when I sit and refashion in my thoughts those moments and I come upon you, and I hear our final words, and hear the first.
This January’s despairing nights, when the vision goes and leaves me all alone. How swiftly it departs and melts away— the trees go, the streets go, the houses go, the lights go: it fades and disappears, your erotic shape.
PART III 27 JUNE 1906, 2 P. M. (1908)
When the Christians brought him to be hanged, the innocent boy of seventeen, his mother, who there beside the scaffold had dragged herself and lay beaten on the ground beneath the midday sun, the savage sun,
now would moan, and howl like a wolf, a beast, and then the martyr, overcome, would keen “Seventeen years only you lived with me, my child.” And when they took him up the scaffold’s steps and passed the rope around him and strangled him, the innocent boy, seventeen years old,
and piteously it hung inside the void, with the spasms of black agony— the youthful body, beautifully wrought— his mother, martyr, wallowed on the ground and now she keened no more about his years: “Seventeen days only,” she keened, “seventeen days only I had joy of you, my child.”
IMPOSSIBLE THINGS (1897)
There is one joy alone, but one that’s blessed, one consolation only in this pain. How many thronging tawdry days were missed because of this ending; how much ennui.
A poet has said: “The loveliest music is the one that cannot be played.” And
I, I daresay that by far the best life is the one that cannot be lived.
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn
Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) is music in the shape of a solar system, a collection of rococo loops that twist around each other within a larger orbit. The word “sinfonia” refers to baroque works for orchestra but also to the old Italian term for a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval stringed instrument with constant, wheezing drones that are cranked out under melodies played on an attached keyboard. It’s a piece that churns and roils, transforming the ensemble into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy flung recklessly into space. Originally composed for chamber orchestra, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered on their Green Umbrella Series. The full orchestra version was premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in 2016 and later performed by the BBC Symphony on the 2017 Proms Festival.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, a thirty-acre private garden in the Borders area of Scotland created by architect and architectural critic Charles Jencks, is a joining of terrestrial nature with fundamental concepts of modern physics (quantum mechanics, super-string theory, complexity theory, etc.). In his recently published book The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Jencks writes:
“When you design a garden, it raises basic questions. What is nature, how do we fit into it, and how should we shape it where we can, both physically and visually? Some of these questions are practical, others are philosophical, and the latter may not occur to us while laying out a garden, but they are implied. When in 1988 I started designing a garden with my wife Maggie Keswick, at her mother’s house in Scotland, we were not concerned with the larger issues, but over the years, they came more and more to the fore. The result has been what I have called ‘The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.’ The reason for this unusual title is that we—Maggie, I, scientists, and then friends that we consulted—have used it as a spur to think about and celebrate some fundamental aspects of nature. Many of these are quite normal to a garden: planting suitable species which are both a pleasure to eat and easy to grow in a wet, temperate climate. And others are unusual: inventing new waveforms, linear twists, and a new grammar of landscape design to bring out the basic elements of nature that recent science has found to underlie the cosmos.” 1
These ‘unusual’ aspects of Jencks’ garden were my motivation for musical composition. I have long been interested in modern physics, and it seemed proper for music to participate in this magnificent joining of physics and architecture. I discovered The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in January of 2004, and after a month or so of sketching, I composed four movements (The Zeroroom, Soliton Waves, The Snail and the Poetics of going Slow, The Nonsense). That set, titled Impressions from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, was premiered by Robert Spano and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in 2004. In 2007, I resumed work on the piece and composed seven additional movements. In 2015 and 2017, I added four additional movements, bringing the total movement count to thirteen with an overall duration of one hour and forty-five minutes. It was always my intention that the piece be performed either in its entirety or in subsets, with any number of movements in any order being selected for performance. This relates to the way in which one experiences the garden’s myriad ‘pathways.’
During the Cabrillo Festival performance, you will hear the first quarter of the work. Notes on the five movements that comprise this part follow below.
The Zeroroom is the formal entrance to the garden. It is a fanciful, surreal cloakroom flanked by an orderly procession of tennis racquets that appear to be traveling through the wall in a ‘quantum dance,’ and large photographs that progress from our place in the universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, to the precise position of the garden in the north of Scotland. At the end of this corridor is a door with a mirror under which is inscribed ‘IUIUIUIUEYEWEYEWEYEWEYEW.’ Over the mirror is a pair of eyes carved into the mirror’s wooden frame. One is compelled to place one’s eyes against the carved eyes for a view to the garden. When doing so, the first object one sees in the garden is a Yew tree. I composed a work in which a succession of episodes emerge from and acquiesce to a “cosmic cloud,” depicting a similar journey from the macro view of the universe to the micro view of the yew tree.
In many respects, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is a garden of waves with images of soliton waves being the most prevalent. They are found in the fine iron fence-work, the small and large land sculptures and in details of the stonework that abound in the garden. A soliton wave has the special property of being able to join with other waves, combine to create new waveforms, and then emerge completely unchanged, with no ‘memory’ of having joined or passed through other waves. My second movement, Soliton Waves, features many waves that are readily heard as musical ideas that pass among instrumental groups. After an initial wave courses through the orchestra from low to high, a melodic line is presented in the strings propagating smaller waves throughout the orchestra. This ‘wave’ has both a diatonic component and a chromatic component, each of which assumes a prominent role in two large development sections that depict the joining of soliton waves in the creation of new waveforms. Ultimately, the original musical-wave reemerges completely unchanged.
The Snail and the Poetics of Going Slow is Jencks’ title for his large land-object, which is the garden’s signature feature: a smoothly realized turning of the earth into a spiraling, double-helix mound. I chose to focus on the serene quality of this majestic garden structure.
Symmetry Break Terrace/ Black Hole Terrace is a single movement that explores these two striking features of the garden. I chose to combine the two terraces into a single movement after observing many common features in their respective designs. Additionally, their similar geometric shapes, relative proximity to each other and the continuity they create in the overall garden layout strongly suggested a multi-segmented, single-movement musical form.
The Willowtwist is a jazzy movement featuring the trumpet and trombone. Jencks’ Willowtwist is a shiny, metallic structure composed as a complex (or compound) Mobius strip. The music reflects this shape by turning back on itself in cyclical arcs studded with surface details that are also circular.
–Michael Gandolfi and Nick Jones
1 Charles Jencks. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (London: Francis Lincoln Ltd. 2003), p. 17