Illuminations

(2007)
Inspired by works of Saul Steinberg.
video

Christopher Kendall and I had been talking off and on about a new work for the 21st Century Consort since the spring of 2002, after their premiere of The Devil’s Handyman, inspired by the sculptures of H. C. Westermann, which were on exhibit at the Hirshhorn at the time of the performance.

In March 2006, he noted that the Consort would be performing this year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and that there would be an exhibit of the works of Saul Steinberg on display at the time of the group’s April 2007 concert. Did I know Steinberg’s work? (Yes.) Would I be interested in another visual art-inspired piece for the Consort? (Yes.) And for something completely different: what would I think of including a “percussion” part for tap dancer? (Hmm… sure; why not?)

In early January 2007, I met with Christopher, Peter Robinson, and actor/dancer David Covington to flesh out the details of the new piece. We discussed which of the more than 100 Steinberg images might speak in music, then, as it was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, David demonstrated his portable tap-dance floor in a courtyard on the campus of the National Cathedral, where we were meeting. Armed with this inspiration, I went home to Winchester, ready to get to work.

Saul Steinberg is best known for his art published over nearly sixty years in The New Yorker. More than cartoons, these works were called “illuminations” by the artist. I finally settled on fifteen, originally intending each to be the focus of a separate short movement. Things don’t always work out as intended: the fifteen became eleven, with seven grouped together to exemplify the third of the five-movements piece.

David and I spent time talking by phone and via email about how the tap dance would be used. “Cassino” spoke to him, rhythmically, so he took that image to develop a piece of dance for which I’d then write the music. I composed “November” and “Identity,” then he choreographed them. The piece opens and closes with movements without dance.

The instrumentation is the “Pierrot” sextet, so named because five of the instruments are those used by Arnold Schoenberg for his early twentieth-century masterpiece, Pierrot Lunaire. This ensemble is most expressive and diverse and has been my instrumentation of choice for the past twelve years. I’m fascinated by the Fibonacci series (a numerical sequence in which, after the first two numbers (0, 1), each succeeding number is the sum of the previous two. The result is a spiraling pattern that yields interesting asymmetrical balances when applied to things like phrase structure and musical form.

Press for “Illuminations”

“…Thomas Albert’s ‘Illuminations,’ for sextet with tap dancer, was absolutely stunning. …Albert’s music shone with imagination and pure, shimmering beauty. It was illuminating in every sense of the word.”

– The Washington Post
Instrumentation
Duration
18:14
Premiere
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, April 2007

21st Century Consort, Christopher Kendall, artistic director: Sara Stern, flutes; Ed Cabarga, clarinet; Elisabeth Adkins, violin & viola; Rachel Young, cello; Tom Jones, percussion; Lisa Emenheiser, piano; David Covington, tap dancer
Commission
Christopher Kendall, artistic director
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