Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How "Flight of Icarus" Became a Collaborative Project

Some pieces are very straightforward – they don’t have much of a backstory, nor do they easily lend themselves to collaborative experiences. Some, however, do. In 2012, I wrote a saxophone quartet named Flight of Icarus. From the beginning, I knew this would be a very unique piece. The piece is already taking on a life of its own, which I am greatly enjoying!


With the Capitol Quartet at the premiere.
Several factors played a role in the crafting of my piece Flight of Icarus. When David Stambler and the Capitol Quartet commissioned the piece, David told me they’d like a piece that’s really “out there.” That’s just the kind of thing a composer likes to hear – I can get really experimental! I started out by brainstorming a list of sounds that saxophones could make. Several ideas sprung to mind - air tones, pitch bends, flutter tonguing, multiphonics, and microtones. Then I asked myself, which sounds could be developed into more than just a passing effect? While creating this list, I kept thinking about one of the very first works I ever composed. It was a saxophone quartet called Soaring Eagle. While I remember only a few measures of the piece, the concept of soaring was still captivating to me; it seemed that air tones and flutter tonguing could lend themselves to the sound of beating wings, while pitch bends could emulate the call of birds. 

Also around this time, I set Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Not They Who Soar for choir (click here to read the poem). The main motive of my choral setting contained two rising perfect 5ths, which I thought would sound just as glorious on saxophones as it did with singers. So I asked David if I could quote a section of the choir work in the saxophone piece (he was fine with it). 

Additionally, I’ve had a longtime interest in Greek mythology. The idea of soaring and the sound of beating wings could be put to great use in the tale of Deadalus, the architect and engineer, and his son Icarus. On the island of Crete, Daedalus had built a maze for King Minos. Minos imprisoned a Minotaur (a half-bull, half-human creature) within the maze and annually sacrificed Athenians to the creature. Angered by this, Deadlaus helped another king to successfully navigate the maze and kill the Minotaur. When Minos sent his army after Deadalus, he and his son Icarus affixed wings crafted of wax and feathers to their backs and took to the sky. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too low, so the waters would not weigh down the feathers, nor too high for the sun to melt the wax. Icarus, however, was so elated with the thrill of flying that he drew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and Icarus fell to his watery demise. Icarus’ ascension towards the sun became the first movement (titled Icarus Ascending). In addition to using air tones, flutter tonguing, and pitch bends in this movement, I also incorporated multiphonics to depict Icarus’ fall to the ocean. For the second movement (titled Deadalus Mourns), I employed microtones and pitch bends to illustrate Deadalus’ grief over the death of his son.

Because of the large amount of effects used in the piece, I needed far more interaction with the musicians than usual. In particular, Capitol Quartet member Christopher Creviston spent a lot of time playing effects over the phone for me, as well as sending me photos of his suggestions for how to notate sounds that I wanted. The Capitol Quartet premiered Flight of Icarus in March of 2013.

Expanding Icarus into a Multi-Media Collaboration

In the spring of 2014, Mark Engebretson of the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet contacted me and said they planned to program the piece later in the year. Mark asked if he could share the piece with a few other artists to see if there might be interest in turning the performance into a multi-media event. This sounded great to me, and soon after, filmmaker Michael Frierson and choreographer Jan Van Dyke (of the Van Dyke Dance Group) joined the collaboration. Jan brought two female dancers from her company in to Michael's studio at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to do some filming. I asked both artists for their thoughts on how they developed their component of the project:

From the left: filmmaker Michael Frierson, choreographer
Jan Van Dyke, and the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet

Michael Frierson:

The most interesting aspect of the Icarus story for me is actually his father Daedalus who was an engineer of sorts and seemed to have a knack for invention, including the Labyrinth where the Minotaur was kept and of course the wings he built to escape from Crete. The historical footage I included is from a WWII test of a rolling explosive device called the Panjandrum.  I had kept that footage in my mind since 1987 when I first saw it -- it's unforgettable footage that shows a piece of technology destroying itself. The footage seemed to mirror Daedalus' doomed experiment with wings:  they both seemed to carry the idea of a failed reliance on technology. Placing the dance elements against the footage was a choice of convenience -- a graduate student had built a large paper "room" in the television studio on campus for another project, and projecting the footage on that surface for the dancers to interact with seemed the simplest way to combine the two.

Jan Van Dyke: 

As the choreographer, I knew in advance that my work would be edited sharply, chopped up, timing changed, background altered, not necessarily shown with the music I had worked with.  As a result, I responded with movement that seemed to represent emotion -- hope, surprise, despair, waiting, tension, etc. including an effort to portray a relationship between the two dancers. Michael then worked with the material I provided, putting it to the music which was already set.  It was a real collaboration in one sense, since I did have a say in what Michael was doing, but the music was a given and my work did not relate to that in any linear way except in mood.

Michael created a video component for the first movement in which two female dancers and the Panjandrum are both presented onscreen (click here to view the video). For the second movement, Michael had a still image of the Panjandrum visible while the same two dancers now appeared onstage; they slowly worked their way from one side of the stage to the other. Jan focused on repetitive movements for the dancers; their movements ultimately climaxed in one dancer subjugates the other by pushing her down to the ground. I found Michael's and Jan's additions to be quite captivating, with each collaborator’s own interpretation of Icarus adding another layer of meaning to the original story. 

Screen shot from Michael Frierson's video for movement I. Icarus Ascending.
Click here to view the video.
As a composer, seeing one of my works reinterpreted through other artists' eyes is always an amazing and fulfilling experience. I look forward to seeing what new meanings future ensembles and collaborators add to the story of Icarus as more groups take up the piece!