Program Notes from “Characters” premiere:
Christopher Kendall, music director of the 21st Century Consort, suggested a multi-media work focusing on the relationship between music and words using Amy Young’s poems, “Characters.” Subsequent discussion quickly identified the need for a projected graphic component as well, making this our most ambitious collaboration yet, combining my music with Amy’s marvelous poems that beautifully personify the letters of the alphabet and Wendall Harrington’s thoroughly engaging visual take on both.
This has been an entirely long-distance collaboration, involving many emails, telephone conversations, exchanges of previous works to get an idea of how each of us thinks about Art (with a capital “A”), but no face-to-face meetings. Amy’s work of course was done first, and was a convenient inspiration for both Wendall and me. As it worked out, Wendall did story boards for most of the poems before I had gotten much music written, so I had those as well to inform my musical choices. As I finished a movement, I posted a computer-generated recording online for the others, closing (in a way) the collaborative circle, but also creating new opportunities for shared insight.
The compositional challenge for me was that Characters would be a work of 26 movements, twice as many as I had ever done for a single work. Christopher and I had several discussions about how to create a sense of direction, momentum and form. I ultimately took inspiration from Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with its 21 movements presented as three groups of seven: Characters is divided into four groups, seven, seven, six, six. To help unify the work, three earlier movements share content with later ones: “I” and “T” have the same form, harmony, and melodic gestures, as do “D” and “X,” while “A” and “N” use the same accompaniment harmonies and rhythms. In several instances, the poetry or images brought to mind other music, leading me to indulge my delight in musical quotation: there are fragments, melodies, chords and rhythms from Schubert, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Ives, Gershwin, Lennon and McCartney, Craig Carnelia, birdsongs, a drum cadence and a Latin hymn. There is even a self-quote: those familiar with my first Consort piece, The Devil’s Handyman, will recognize “W” as a reborn “Swingin’ Red King.”