“Bridges” for orchestra was originally composed in 2006 as a chamber work for two clarinets, erhu, and pipa with influences drawn from the folk music of China and America. The orchestral version was commissioned by Nan Washburn and the Michigan Philharmonic and premiered in 2014.
This suite is organized around five actual bridges: Railroad Trestle Bridge in Galax, Virginia; Stone Bridge Over a Reflecting Pool in Suzhou, China; Golden Gate Bridge; Brooklyn Bridge; and Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge.
Railroad Trestle uses the motoric rhythm of a train and the sound of a fiddle and banjo playing country music. Stone Bridge is based on a traditional Chinese song called Moli Hua or Jasmine Flower. Golden Gate Bridge recalls the folk music of the 1960’s and 70’s in California, particularly a song by Joan Baez. Brooklyn Bridge brings together a second meaning of the word “bridge” in that it refers to the “B” or “bridge”section of a be-bop standard, Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Mackinac Bridge is based on an American folk song, “The Water is Wide.”
On the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, I composed this work as the sun was rising over the ocean in the mornings and gently sifting through the clouds against the lingering fog. As the piece developed, it took on a shape of its own and gradually became centered around diminished chords and the interval of a tritone (diminished 5th). I love these chords for their angst and for their sadness, but also for their flexibility.
My piece is very textural in nature; and yes, it does have a melody of sorts, and yet this melody comes and goes, and is never quite grasped until the end. Portions of it are repeated and spun out creating layers of sound without the heaviness of form. It is indeed a depiction of mist, where one minute you see things and the next they are gone. As you move through the piece, you find that the trumpet is also an antagonist, creeping in with a haunting cry; a reminder of things unsettled. Throughout the piece, we are quietly searching. We search for a tonal center for stability, and also for a melody that will make us feel fulfilled. Once found, we hold them for an instant, and then like the clouds and like life itself, they are gone. We are warmed by their presence and saddened by their loss.
I hope that you will reflect upon your own memories of life’s quiet moments as we enjoy the New York premiere of this new work together. “Mist” is not a piece to be analyzed, but rather a piece to be experienced and absorbed. As you listen, release your mind, embrace your emotions, close your eyes, and allow the mist to creep in.
This work explores issues of scale. I have always been fascinated by the very large, the very small, and most of all by the sensory experiences induced by juxtaposing myself in such situations. Standing in front of a mountain feels very different from standing in front of a bookcase. The experiences are different in kind; our kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and haptic senses are radically brought into play.
Scale has to do with the interrelation of parts, and is different from size. A work can be very large and at the same time of an intimate scale. Joyce’s “Ulysses” would be a classic example: it is a large book, but its component parts work together on a level commensurate with the whole. Conversely, Beckett’s “Imagination Dead Imagine” (a full novel of four pages) or Giacometti’s small-sized sculptures exhibit a tremendous scale. They impart a sense of vastness that borders on the vertiginous.
In music, the problem of scale is directly connected with the problems of sound, movement and, above all, time. Henri Michaux wrote, “Together, all these movements, actual or potential, occupy psychic space. Into this space you can enter.”
The title “Terminus” is that of a short story by the great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006). Lem’s writings have given me much food for thought over the years, and “Terminus” in particular provided elements that are buried deep within the structure of this music.
My work is in no way an attempt to translate Lem’s text into music. (I don’t believe such a thing is possible, in any case.) However, certain aspects of the story provided generative elements that catalyzed the process of composition. If there are similarities, they are not intended to be explicit. The one exception is the end: the final two minutes of music contain references that will be apparent to any reader of Lem’s haunting tale.
The idea for 4th Box of Maps first occurred to me while in Venice. The Basilica of San Marco is the obvious Venetian destination for a musician, and indeed it was inspiring to stand where Willaert and Gabrieli made their polychoral music over four centuries ago. I’m sure that reawakened my interest in site-specific antiphonal music.
More important to me, however, were certain things I noticed while wandering in that great labyrinth of a city. First, all Venice city maps are necessarily incomplete: The maze of streets and canals is too dense. To preserve legibility, a map must leave things out – sometimes up to a third of the streets in the city. Each map omits different streets, however, so you often find yourself in a place that doesn’t seem to exist, until you check another map. The implication is that there is a Platonic ideal of Venice, of which you can only catch glimpses. In addition, the topological changes around each corner (wide streets to narrow alleys, open piazza to confined courtyard, stone to water) produce changes in the ambient sound of the city. This is yet another, more subtle map, invisible but audible. As a result of all this, I had a curious sense of being simultaneously in several cities, all very similar but no two identical. Also, I became intensely aware that I was creating my own map – the map of my own journey, my own experience as I turned left instead of right, looked here but not there, or retraced my steps at a different time of day.
Venice changed my sense of place. I realized that every space and every time implies many maps, some not at all obvious. When I began to explore the Sanctuary of the Broadway Presbyterian Church, I found the variety of visual and acoustic perspectives highly suggestive. Though a concert is a communal event, each concertgoer creates his or her own map of their journey, listening from different vantage points, concentrating on different elements, experiencing different parts of the physical space, directing their attention to different people in the audience or onstage, and letting their mind wander at different times to different places.
Finally, I took inspiration from a short poem by Erica Jablon. In just a few lines, she touches so many of these ideas:
Pillars of leaves circle the rustling garden
White, they remember the moon’s theater
Remember the white stones
And the dark pool
The imagery evokes a particular place and time. But below the surface, the poem’s rhythm, internal correspondences, repetitions and almost-repetitions open up a complex and ambiguous world: maps within maps.