The following notes accompany the August 11, 2018 Notes from a Journey concert program.
On the northwest coast of Italy by the Ligurian Sea are five small fishing villages clinging to the steep cliffs. These are called Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, and between the villages are paths connecting them through the mountains. In August 2011, I visited this area and as soon as we arrived, I knew that I wanted to write music about it. The result is a work that can be described as a “walking tour” among the small villages: Riomaggiore with its high waves; Manarola with its clock tower; Monterosso, where sunbathers stressfully hurried to secure a place on the beach and open up their colorful beach umbrellas, as if in a scene in a Fellini film; Vernazza, with its watchtower and cliffs; and lastly, Corniglia, where the night sky was filled with stars.
The work is scored for solo piano and large orchestra with a particularly large percussion section. It is in four movements: Molto Allegro, Scherzo (Vivace), Appassionato (Andante), and Allegro. The last two movements are linked together.
While the work is basically tonal (centered in B flat), there are many atonal sections, and, in the trio of the second movement, a section of strict twelve-tone writing. The rhythms throughout the work are highly irregular and meters change often.
The first movement (Molto Allegro), the largest in scope, uses Sonata-Allegro form in an original way. After a few bars of introduction by the brass section, the solo piano enters with an extended cadenza accompanied by percussion and harp, introducing the first theme—a savage three-note motto. This highly energetic section reaches a peak climaxed by a piano run which concludes on the orchestra’s opening note—E. A sudden pianissimo for the full orchestra introduces a change of tempo and mood. The following long, lyrical orchestral tutti introduces and expands the movement’s second theme—a cantabile melody first heard in the solo horn—and shortly builds to a large orchestral climax. A sudden change of tempo begins the development section, in which two opposed metamorphoses take place: each theme is separately developed, transforming the aggressive three-note motto into a lyrical theme, and the lyrical theme into a savage motto. In other words, each one becomes the other. The cadenza in the recapitulation leads to the second theme in its original lyrical form, followed this time by a diabolic coda that brings the movement to an end.
The second movement is a short scherzo that spells the emotional tension generated in the first movement and to be continued in the third. Three short repeated chords form the scherzo’s motto, which is based on the superimposition of major and minor thirds. This interval of a third forms the building block of the movement. The trio is based on a twelve-tone row derived from the piano figures in the beginning of the movement. This tone row, however, is not an atonal one, being strongly centered on E. The recapitulation of the original material leads to a whispered conclusion of the movement.
In the third movement (Appassionato), all the themes are based on six notes. The form is arch shaped, building to a peak and diminishing to a quiet pizzicato strings and a hushed single-note piano melody which leads directly into the final movement.
The final movement (Allegro) is a rondo. Its major theme—a fugato—utilizes orchestral and piano tone-clusters as an integral part of its structure. The three subsections of the movement incorporate the major themes from the earlier three movements. The first subsection reiterates the slow third-movement theme (now played at a fast tempo); the second subsection (a buildup of the coda) recalls the scherzo’s material; and the final section at the end of the coda brings back the original three-note motto of the first movement, joining to end the concerto in a burst of virtuosic energy and color.
Sean Shepherd’s Melt was co-commissioned by the Grand Teton Music Festival and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. GTMF presented the world premiere performances on July 27 and 28, 2018, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles. GTMF Board of Directors commissioned the work in honor of Sylvia Neil’s vision, tenacity, and leadership as Board Chair, 2014-2017. Sean Shepherd has provided the following program note:
It is rarely simple to speak to questions of “how” and “why” regarding the music one writes, but the impetus behind Melt is one I can describe with relative ease. The places—Jackson Hole and Santa Cruz—in which Melt will first be performed are both very special to me, and while I’ve written pieces that are a response of one kind or another to various places, this piece, this response, and in the end, this message, is different.
Glaciers are profoundly elemental to the development of the landscapes of Northern California and Western Wyoming, it need not be said to any native. And it’s one of the most obvious signs for any visitor that the mountains that they’ve carved like the most noble of sculptures are no mere hills. The great naturalist John Muir was the first to point this geological reality out, to initial derision from scientists of his day and the great surveyor of Yellowstone, Ferdinand V. Hayden, began taking steps to protect the area immediately upon seeing it. And while 11 glaciers (ice that never fully melts with the changing seasons, usually in alpine or arctic climates) still currently exist in Grand Teton National Park, the vast changes that have already occurred within just a few lifetimes means that, in places like California and Wyoming, the mighty ice-scoop of nature will for certain go The Way of the Dodo.
Melt is, plainly and simply, a lament, from no more than a powerless bystander. The tempo indications in this single slow movement are marked “Frozen,” “Drowning,” “Liquid,” and “Final,” and may or may not be taken literally. As a result, the piece might be heard as program music—a musical melting, chaos, and reformation in an altered state—or, in purely emotional terms: an exploration of feelings about these lands I have known my whole life. I myself have found my agony over ice turning to water in itself a kind of personal surprise, but when I think of the glacially slow tragedy unfolding before our eyes, all I can do is put my head down and cry.
Melt is dedicated to my friend Cristi Măcelaru, who gives the West Coast premiere at the Cabrillo Festival on August 11, 2018. Donald Runnicles and the Grand Teton Music Festival present the world premiere on July 27, 2018. I am grateful to both of these organizations for jointly inviting me to expound on a topic (in every way) so near to me.
This work is the eighth Cabrillo Festival commission made possible by composer John Adams and his wife Deborah O’Grady, in support of emerging young composers; the commission was funded by their Pacific Harmony Foundation. Composer Peter Shin has provided the following notes:
Hypercolor is a self-portrait of elusive wakefulness and sleep states. Concentrated pigments of disparate musical languages, moods, and timbres flow in rapid-fire succession: from the synthetic boost of caffeine-riddled energy augmented by the polished vibrancy and hip-hop-inflected borrowings of my shameless K-Pop gym playlist; to the sterilizing mid-afternoon brain fog epitomized by focused, off-kilter repetitions; to the bouts of euphoria awash in lush and soft-focus strings; to being restlessly flung into and out of the vast and fragile suspension of temporality through gentle whisperings in Yoga Nidra sleep meditations—these transient moments reshape and synthesize into a singular body, at once in deep trance and teeming with inundating hyperactivity.
–Peter S. Shin
Abstractions is a suite of five movements inspired by five contrasting contemporary artworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art and from the private collection of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, whom this music honors.
1. Marble Moon—inspired by Sara VanDerBeek‘s Marble Moon (2015)
2. Auguries—inspired by Julie Mehretu’s Auguries (2010)
3. Seascape—inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Caribbean Sea, Jamaica (1980)
4. River—inspired by Ellsworth Kelly’s River II (2005)
5. Three—inspired by Brice Marden’s 3 (1987-88)
In drawing inspiration from these artworks, I have tried to capture the feelings or imagery they evoke, the concept of the work, or the process adopted by the artists. Such examples are the filtered blues and the contrast between light falling on the earthy stone and the mysterious moon that characterize VanDerBeek’s Marble Moon; the long, arching lines, compact energetic marks, and dense shifting forms of a system on the verge of collapse in Mehretu’s Auguries; the serene horizon with rippled water in Sugimoto’s Seascape; the stark juxtaposition of the energetic black and white lines that enlarge Kelly’s brushstrokes in River II; and the lines, which, inspired by Asian calligraphy and the structure of seashells, appear to dance in Marden’s Three? Above 3.
Some common threads between the artworks are their use of limited color palettes, references to nature, and the capturing of time as a current that flows—distilling and preserving it so that we can contemplate it as the viewer. I was also attracted to the structures of these works—for example River II and Auguries, which at first sight could be seen as random, and even chaotic, are in fact created within a sense of order—they feel both dynamic and structural.
Thank you to Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony for this wonderful opportunity to write music in honor of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, and to Kristen Hileman, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum Art, for her generosity of time and knowledge.
More information about these artworks by Kristen Hileman:
Marble Moon (2015)
Digital chromogenic color prints
During her childhood in Relay, MD, Sara VanDerBeek and her family observed a total eclipse by projecting it through a hole in a piece of cardboard onto a neutral surface, creating a rudimentary pinhole. They then used a regular still camera to photograph the projected image. VanDerBeek discovered the picture as an adult visiting her family home and re-photographed it, all the while reflecting on the various memories and meanings it represented. Through technical processes, cameras capture unique moments in time foregrounding some details and obscuring, even “eclipsing” others. Likewise, memory grasps at emotions and experiences, filtering and altering the past along the way. In the work Marble Moon, VanDerBeek juxtaposes her re-photographed image with a recently taken photographic detail of light falling on the marble architecture of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Together, these pictures present a series of symbolic contrasts: earthly stone alongside the mysterious moon; a familiar and tactile material alongside a rarely seen and distant occurrence; and an enduring substance alongside a fleeting phenomenon.
12-part color etching with liftground aquatint and spitbite
Julie Mehretu embodies the complexity and interconnectivity of the contemporary world with her arresting abstract vocabulary. The artist’s dynamic compositions of long, arcing lines and compact, energetic marks might suggest the spectacle of ambitious architectural structures, as well as a visualization of the informational and technological networks that define today’s culture. In Auguries, the dense and shifting forms further convey the crescendos of a musical orchestration or the naturally choreographed movement of flocks of birds. The latter could explain the reference to auguries, or signs of the future, of the work’s title. In some traditions, the appearance and activities of birds were interpreted as omens. The frenetic and ambiguous sense of space in Mehretu’s print also evokes a system either on the verge of collapse or formation—a condition ripe with provocative implications if applied to such aspects of the early 21st century as the global economy, climate change and environmental sustainability, and international political and military affairs.
Caribbean Sea, Jamaica (1980)
Gelatin silver print
For Hiroshi Sugimoto, an artist who explores the concept of time through the medium of back-and-white photography, the sea represents a primordial force from which life emerged. The vast expanse of time represented in the story of our planet’s bodies of water provides a counterpoint to the typical view of photography as a means for documenting a single “decisive moment” in time. To achieve a sense of timelessness in his Seascape series, Sugimoto carefully chose the vantage point for shooting his subject so that the horizon line divides each composition perfectly in half, always creating harmoniously balanced rectangles of light and water that show no signs of human presence. The artist’s large format camera and long exposure times capture details of atmosphere and texture that are perceptible within these larger forms. There is a sense of beauty and the sublime in Sugimoto’s photographs, which resonates with the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko.
River II (2005)
Two lithographs clear-coated and mounted on two aluminum panels
Ellsworth Kelly explored the relationship of color and shape in celebrated paintings, prints, and sculpture from the 1950s to his death in 2015. Although he developed a distinctly abstract vocabulary, the monochromatic blocks and arcs of evenly applied color that characterize his paintings were informed by observations of the world, including its architectural details, the play of light and shadow, and natural forms. The energetic black and white lines of the lithograph River II evoke the dynamic surface of water and also demonstrate another of Kelly’s interests: the role that chance can have in arriving at compelling compositions. Intrigued by cut-down pieces of trial proofs that he had rejected for a print project, Kelly enlarged and repeated four of these fragments—each depicts the details of his own brushstrokes—to create an eight-section grid.
3 (1987-88) referred to as Three in movement title (artwork vs musical work different?)
Oil on linen
3 is one of a series of twelve works in which Brice Marden introduced webs of elegant, subtly colored lines into his painting. Inspired by Asian calligraphy and the structure of seashells, the marks were made with Marden standing at a distance from the image’s surface, holding a long-handled brush at the end of his out-stretched arm in a manner that physically engaged the artist’s entire body in the act of painting. The importance of gesture in making these paintings, as well the distribution of non-representational line and color all over the image field is reminiscent of the work of Jackson Pollock, an influential Abstract Expressionist painter.