MIRACLES & RHAPSODIES
2.27.16 │ Tsai Performance Center │8 p.m.
In Search of the Miraculous
In Search of the Miraculous takes its title from a book by P. D. Ouspensky (1878-1947); for me, the phrase conveniently describes composers in the act of composition. My process of writing music always begins as a rational enterprise of design and construction, but many of the music’s attractive characteristics develop from intuitions I can’t explain. In the end, no matter how extensively I apply technical knowledge and calculation, they merely provide a framework for unpredictable,
evanescent, magical phenomena in sound.
Ouspensky’s book records teachings of the charismatic cult leader G. I. Gurdjieff (1866–1949). A geometric figure in one of the book’s illustrations caught my eye: the enneagram, a figure comprising nine equidistant points along a circle, connected by various straight lines to create a figure of bilateral (rather than radial) symmetry. I have based the form of the piece on the enneagram.
The work comprises nine mutually contrasting passages of music, arranged so that the end of music #1 overlaps with the beginning of music #2, the end of music #2 overlaps with the beginning of music #3, and so on, suggesting a trip along the circumference of the enneagram. The peak of each section incorporates some reminiscence of previous music or foreshadowing of later music, in a manner corresponding to the chords that connect the nine points of the enneagram. Thus, as one
musical motive begins to fade, the next is already underway, and as each attains its peak, it simultaneously recalls an earlier idea and foreshadows a later one.
The specific character of each music derives partly from its number; for example, music #3 is based on a three-note motive (derived from the call of a wood thrush), outlining an equal division of the octave by three (that is, an augmented triad). Some of the characters refer to specific musical styles: #4 presents a lopsided disco groove, #6 recalls West African polyphonies, and #9 imitates a festive parade samba; others present more generic manifestations of “two-ness” or “seven-ness.”
I mention all of this only to explain the relationship between the work’s title and its form. It doesn’t really matter whether listeners are consciously aware of these connections; in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. My goal wasn’t to create a puzzle for listeners to solve; rather, I wanted to create music that would exhibit certain symmetries and connections, that would offer energy, beauty, shimmer, and wit, but that would ultimately ask more questions than it answers. In order to write a convincing samba which would include not only appropriate syncopations but a variety of durations and stresses, I cobbled together a text to set as the melody, even though the words aren’t heard in the orchestral version. The “verses” are a sampling of Gurdjieff’s aphorisms, translated into Portuguese, and the “refrain” (heard at the beginning and end of the work) is similarly derivative:
Estes são alguns fragmentos
De um ensinamento
Em busca do milagroso,
Seu Jorge o descobriu no Oriente
E dito os segredos pra Ouspensky:
As danças, as canções, o Eneagraminha,
O Trabalho, o Quarto Caminho.
These are some fragments
Of an unknown teaching:
In search of the miraculous,
Mr. George discovered it in the Orient
And told the secrets to Ouspensky:
The dances, the songs, the enneagram,
The Work, the Fourth Way.
The work ends, enigmatically, on the words “The Work.”
In Search of the Miraculous was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra with the generous support of The Helen F. Whitaker Fund.
In 1975 the Public Broadcasting System stations in New York and Washington endeavored to create a
revolutionary format for a daily evening news program. It would take one major news story and cover
it in depth through interviews, analysis, and commentary. The anchors were to be Robert MacNeil in
New York and Jim Lehrer in Washington. I was invited to submit an entry for the theme music for this
program. At my request a meeting with the principals was held where I played records and discussed
the type of music that would be appropriate. It was decided that the music should be
“contemporary” sounding with rock influences. The following days I submitted three pieces, of which
the second was chosen to be the theme. A recording session was then planned and the music was
recorded the following week. The instrumentation was two trumpets, two horns, and a “rock” rhythm
section that consisted of electric guitar, electric piano, electric (Fender) bass, and percussion. The
result was a Jazz-Rock Waltz in five-bar phrases, which became the Theme Music for the
MacNeil/Lehrer Report. This music was subsequently nominated for an Emmy Award but lost out in
the finals to the theme for another show for which I had also done the arrangements, orchestrations,
Eight years later the show, already a PBS network staple, was to be enlarged to an hour. It was
decided that the theme music was to be retained but was to be “upgraded” to a more “classical”
format. A symphonic orchestra was to be used and the “Jazz-Rock” influences were to be
downplayed. The result was the music that we hear today, although all the thematic materials
remained true to the original.
When the opportunity arose for me to create a large orchestra work based on the MacNeil/Lehrer
Theme I jumped at it because I enjoy working with materials that are familiar both to me and to my
audience. After all, how many “serious” composers can work on new music that is already familiar to
listeners throughout the United States and Canada?—which leads me to the structure of the music at
hand. I will give you a road map through the Variations:
Variation I: Introduction. Since I was working under the assumption that the thematic materials are
already familiar to most listeners I felt that it was not necessary to state the Theme at the beginning,
nor was it necessary to state it in its entirety until such a time when it was emotionally or structurally
satisfying to do so; hence, the first variation uses the theme in a dissembled form and then gradually
reassembles it until it is stated completely.
Theme: Part I. This is the statement as it appears at the top of the television program. Added to that is
the “tail,” a suspended chord in the strings, which on television leads to the next news segment but
here leads to a fuller statement of the Theme.
Theme: Part II. The Theme now appears in a more complete form, scored for woodwinds.
Variation II. The last three notes of the theme are used as a basis over which horns and trumpets play
a richly chorded melody.
Variation III. This variation is an extension of the previous one, only scored for winds, strings, and drum
Variation IV: Echoes takes the fifth and sixth notes of the theme and builds a structure out of
reverberations of the two notes.
Variation V: The Twelve Wind Variation is a scherzo featuring the woodwind section in a fugue of
sorts. Also heard are three triangle players.
Variation VI: The Percussion Variation is an argument between two timpani players as to which one is
playing in the right key! These two are being egged on by the piano and the snare drum. A crowd
gathers as the rest of the orchestra yells louder and louder until it is proven that neither timpanist is
right. The trumpet then plays the theme (in the correct key).
Theme: Part III. The theme is now played in the full version (including the “Bridge”), the way it appears
under the crawl at the end of the television program.
Variation VII: The material from the “Bridge” section of the theme is heard in large blocks of sound
played very softly.
Variation VIII: The Hamilton Variation (Kaleidoscope). Tom Hamilton is an avant-garde composer and
electronic-genius friend who writes music where the thematic material is programmed into his
synthesizers and then is allowed to feed upon itself to form permutations or is triggered by him to form
other permutations. Sometimes the changes are only textural and sometimes they occur as changes
in the materials. The effect is often kaleidoscopic, where the colors and forms change as they turn
from themselves. I have tried to simulate these effects with an orchestra. Instruments or combinations
weave in and out. Colors are constantly changing through the addition or subtraction of instruments.
Repetition is one of the basic elements and gives this variation a minimalistic aura.
Variation IX: This features the strings in what is an inversion of the theme, a device used successfully by
many composers—most notably Rachmaninoff in his Paganini Variations [also on tonight’s program],
which leads me to an aside comment. The theme is inadvertently similar (intervallically) to the famous
Paganini theme that has inspired many composers, and therefore has led me into some curious traps
as I was composing.
Variation X is an enlargement and continuation of Variation IX. (Note that Variation II and Variation III
were also materially connected.) This movement flies off to a high place and holds until we hear the
Variation XI: Finale begins with a long G chord over which all the materials are recapitulated and
built to a grand climax. At the very end the “tail” that is never resolved on television is resolved for us!
Roy Ellsworth Harris created works in all major genres except opera, and he is today perhaps best
remembered as one of America’s leading composers of symphonies; he wrote some fourteen,
spanning the years 1933 to 1975. His Third Symphony, in one movement, was especially well received,
and he adopted a similar approach in his Symphony no. 7 (1951, rev. 1955), which the NEP performed
Reputedly born in a log cabin in Oklahoma on Lincoln’s birthday, Harris became widely regarded as
perhaps the most quintessentially American composer during the New Deal era. At that time,
President Roosevelt, at his wife’s urging, instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA), under
which the Federal Music Project (FMP, 1935–43) provided munificent government support to
composers and performing artists that may be considered revolutionary today.
Harris’s first symphony, commissioned by the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitsky,
who had sought a “big symphony from the West,” was titled Symphony 1933. According to a major
review, that work reflected “an American composer of the spacious Western deserts” as opposed to
one “depicting the age of machinery.” In 1935, Harris composed A Farewell to Pioneers: Symphonic
Elegy, which he described as “a tribute to a passing generation of Americans to which my own
father and mother belong. Theirs was the last generation to affirm and live by the pioneer standards
of frontiersmen . . . who seemed to crave the tang of conquering wildernesses and wresting
abundance from virgin soil.”
It was with his Third Symphony, premiered in February 1939 by the Boston Symphony under
Koussevitsky, that Harris gained his widest recognition. Its style fascinatingly reflects his earlier studies
of Gregorian chant, organum, and Renaissance masters as well as his own patriotic feelings. Set as a
single movement, it smoothly divides into five major sections he outlined thus:
I. Tragic—low string sonorities.
II. Lyric—strings, horns, woodwinds.
III. Pastoral—woodwinds with a polytonal string background.
IV. Fugue—dramatic. Brass-percussion dominating. Canonic development of materials from
Section II constituting background for further development of Fugue.
V. Dramatic-Tragic. Restatement of violin theme of Section I: tutti strings, brass, and percussion
developing rhythmic motif from climax of Section IV. Coda—development of materials from
Sections I and II over pedal tympani.
This work has enjoyed numerous performances and recordings over the years, perhaps most notably
those by Leonard Bernstein, who as a student at Harvard had reviewed a 1939 performance and
who had expressed a “strong desire to hear the Harris again, because it greatly excited me.”
—Raymond H. Rosenstock
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Although Rachmaninoff left Russia in 1917, never to return, he remained a Russian musician to the
core. Shortly before his death, after some twenty-five years of exile that ended up in Beverly Hills, of
all places, he wrote: “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or
Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as
naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my
temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music. . .
What I try to do when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my
heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods
become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”
The Rhapsody, one of the few major compositions that date from Rachmaninoff’s years in exile,
despite its title is a tightly structured and brilliant set of variations on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s
caprices for solo violin, written some hundred years earlier. This melody had attracted composers as
varied as Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, but Rachmaninoff manages to cast it in a dazzling succession
of twenty-four transformations that range from the playful to grotesque to sublimely yearning. Along
the way he mixes in the plainchant tune of the Dies irae, from the Mass for the Dead, grounding what
could be a mere display of virtuosity with a reminder of mortality.
Rachmaninoff was most famous during his lifetime as a pianist, particularly as a performer of his own
demanding concertos. This work, which some critics consider a fifth concerto in all but name, was
premiered in November 1934 with the composer at the keyboard and Leopold Stokowski conducting
the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was an immediate success, and it has been challenging pianists and
delighting audiences ever since.