Monday, December 15, 2014

The Unintentional Symphony


I wish I could take credit for every great idea that I turn into a piece, but the truth is that not all of the best ideas are mine. Sometimes an idea is the brainchild of someone else. The Mythology Symphony is one of these ideas.

Stage 1: Becoming Medusa

Back in 2007, I received a commission to write a piece for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The DSO had a concertmistress instead of a concertmaster (who sits in the first chair of the 1st violin section). This got me thinking – could I write something that would highlight her? I was on a Greek mythology kick at the time, having just written a large string quartet about Gaia (the Greek personification of Mother Earth), and that got me thinking about Medusa. Most stories I’ve read depict Medusa as a hideous gorgon with snakes for hair and eyes that turn the unfortunate gazer to stone. But how did she get that way? With some research, I learned she started as a beautiful human who made the poor decision to seduce a god in Athena’s temple. So I crafted a piece that would portray Medusa’s beauty as well as her metamorphosis into a gorgon. At this point, I thought Becoming Medusa was a fifteen-minute, stand-alone piece that was complete when the DSO premiered it.

Stage 2: The Lovely Sirens and The Fates of Man

A few years later, the Albany Symphony selected me to be composer-in-residence for the 2009-2010 season. The residence included a performance of Becoming Medusa along with a commission for a new piece. When I was in the early planning stages of the new piece that was tentatively titled Forces of Nature and had nothing to do with Greek mythology, David Alan Miller (the Symphony’s maestro) sent me an email. He proposed that I add more movements to Becoming Medusa to create a symphony; moreover, he suggested I create a “Mythology” symphony in which the companion movements are about other female characters from ancient mythology. Miller’s email was a true “a-ha!” moment for me. I hadn’t considered writing something so massive as a symphony! Miller’s idea immediately took hold. I revisited some of the other Greek female characters I had researched while looking into the story line for Becoming Medusa, and decided to compose two movements for the Albany commission: The Lovely Sirens, whose lovely voices lure sailors to their deaths, and The Fates of Man, which depicts the three sisters of fate who weave the threads of life for all of humanity.

Stage 3: Penelope Waits and Pandora Undone

By the time the Albany Symphony premiered The Lovely Sirens and The Fates of Man, it was clear to me that the piece needed something more. There was so much dramatic music in the existing three movements that I realized the symphony lacked sufficient “down” time. My solution was to add two more movements – one right after Becoming Medusa (the first movement) that would consist of calm, slow music, and one at the end of the piece to alleviate the tension of Sirens and Fates, as well as to give the symphony a proper conclusion (neither Sirens nor Fates consists of good ending material, as Sirens ends on a moment of extreme tension and Fates stops abruptly mid-phrase). But without an orchestra lined up to premiere the new movements, I waited. The wait was over in 2012, when Henry Fogel, Dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University (where I’m on faculty) stepped into my office and announced that the CCPA Orchestra would record my orchestral works for Cedille Records. We made an arrangement for the CCPA to commission the final two movements and I started composing. Penelope Waits (the second movement) tells the story of Queen Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who patiently waits twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan Wars. Pandora Undone, the fifth and final movement, is in turns both lighthearted and serious as the music depicts a young, na├»ve Pandora who opens a box that allows all evils to escape into the world.

Sometimes projects start off as my idea, sometimes as someone else’s. Over the years, I have found that inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone. Had I not been open to David Alan Miller’s idea of writing companion movements for Becoming Medusa, I wouldn’t have a complete symphony today. The piece has a total duration of 43 minutes, and the final ordering of the movements stands as follows:

I. Becoming Medusa (2007)
II. Penelope Waits (2013)
III. The Lovely Sirens (2010)
IV. The Fates of Man (2009)
V. Pandora Undone (2013) 

The Mythology Symphony will receive its world premiere on January 27, 2015 by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra at the Harris Theater of Performing Arts under the baton of maestra Alondra de la Parra. This is a free concert. For more information, please visit the Harris Theater website.