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City of Industry

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Cranks and Cactus Needles

Cranks and Cactus Needles was inspired by the sound of ancient 78 RPM records, and the pops, scratches, skips, and warps that occur as they deteriorate. As to the title, "Cranks" refers to the crank handles of old record players that had to be wound up before a 78 could be played, and "Cactus Needles" are the sharp cactus spines that were sometimes used as cheap phonograph needles. The musicians are instructed to play the piece "distant and ghostly, like a victrola down the hall", and use uneven vibratos, imperfect repeats, and unpitched scrapes to evoke the decaying music of this anachronistic technology. The piece was commissioned for a premiere at ISCM World Music Days in Luxembourg by the Swedish ensemble "The Pearls Before Swine Experience", and developed with violinist George Kentros.

Almost Truths and Open Deceptions

featuring Peter Swanson, cello

Almost Truths and Open Deceptions is titled for the almost-unisons (almost truths) that clash and glissando towards a mass of open D strings (open D-ceptions). It is the culmination of several years of working with cellist Felix Fan, and getting to know his dynamic playing and unique energy. I used microtones and almost-unisons to enhance the harmonic palette of a piece that includes aggressive, almost out of control tutti sections; mysterious buzzing trills; atmospheric undulating half steps; rough, scratchy timbres; and driving, rhythmic pizzicati.

The piece originally came to life as a chamber concerto for seven musicians: strings, piano, and percussion. The piano part was aggressive, rhythmic, and cluster-heavy, so it was a fun challenge to adapt these driving pianoisms to percussive parts for the brass and woodwinds. Naturally there was more to the process than just replacing the piano, such as enhancing many sections, expanding some, and creating interplay between winds and strings. Almost Truths and Open Deceptions was initially intended for an orchestra, but our plans changed, so it's a real joy to finally realize our original goal. I am thrilled to expand this work with the Chautauqua Symphony orchestra under Maestro Milanov, and delighted that Felix Fan is bringing his fiery presence and magnetic energy to this performance. Thanks to Deborah Sunya-Moore, Felix Fan, The Chautauqua Institution, Meet the Composer, and the League of American Orchestras for making this MusicAlive! orchestral residency happen.


Voices over the Buzz and Clatter

This piece was inspired by women’s voices being heard above the din. From our immigrant grandmothers to today’s Dreamers; from Emma Goldman to Emma Gonzalez and the massive protests against guns, violence, and misconduct. Drawing from my grandmother’s immigrant experiences working in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, and my own experiences researching the sound of industrial environments, I imagined first the odd ambient sounds of a factory at rest, and a constellation of still, ghostly high notes suspended above a web of a shifting low rumbles. Once the machines are turned on and come to life, melodic fragments persist, and rise above the noisy, clattering metal rhythms. Sometimes quiet and measured, sometimes wild and urgent, these messages emerge.

Detroit Industry

When New Music Detroit first contacted me about a commission, I jumped at the opportunity to write a piece inspired by Diego Rivera’s iconic “Detroit Industry” murals. I didn’t yet know that the premiere would actually take place under them! The murals are a series of 27 panels that mix images of industry, nature, mythological figures, labor, and the work force. Commissioned by Edsel Ford, who requested a depiction of Ford’s Michigan factories, they were completed in 1933 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The frescoes were an early influence on my music, and one of the first examples I had seen of work that combined art and industry. I even hung reproductions of “Detroit Industry” on the wall of my dorm room as a freshman composition student.

As to the subtitle, “The Goddess Stamps Metal...” refers to the Aztec deity Coatlicue. Rivera incorporated Coatlicue in an image of a metal stamping machine, merging this fearsome goddess with anthropomorphic machinery. Coatlicue was both a creator and destroyer of life. In order to maintain the order of the universe, she was fed human hearts. For her audio counterpart, I employed a sample of a noisy, driving metal stamping machine that I recorded in a German factory in 1999. "...While The Blast Furnace Sings" refers to an image of a fiery furnace that hovers above the frescoes. I manifested it sonically with the eerie wail of an early recording of a blast furnace, which appears in both its electronically sampled form, and in related fragments transcribed for the strings and woodwinds.

I loved researching this work, and as I learned more, I incorporated many different aspects of “Detroit Industry.” I read about the process of creating the frescoes: first a series of monochrome sketches were produced (called “cartoons”) which were then traced onto the walls over painstakingly prepared surfaces. Color was added quickly to the outlines, section by section, as each portion of the fresco had to be finished in a matter of hours. The process inspired me to shift between skeletal rhythmic contours and fully orchestrated sections, alternately exposing the bare outlines and filling them with color.

“Detroit Industry” is full of individual portraits: Edsel Ford, DIA director William Valentiner, many of the workers, painters, and Rivera himself are all represented in the murals. Similarly, the musical likeness of each instrumentalist in the ensemble is embedded into the composition. Frida Kahlo takes voice in the violin, in an imaginary conversation on the scaffolding between her and Rivera.

Like the murals, the composition is made up of many sections. The frescoes’ river, boats, and aviation panels paint a picture of nature in the shadow of industry, which I represented with atmospheric sound that is at once fluid and buzzing. The hiss of steam and electricity add to the mix, and the ear (Diego's symbol for Henry Ford’s surveillance systems) listens back. Musical sections are named for their corresponding images, materials, and locations, such as “Mysterious and glowing, like molten steel: North Wall: Blast Furnace, Coal.”

The assembly line, and its drive towards building an object with repeated motions, is interpreted with musical fragments that repeat and build in density and complexity. Taking a cue from the visuals, lines snake through the piece, winding their way through mechanical rhythms, and are passed from musician to musician, each with their own unique role in the creation of the machine. The predellas (the lower panels, traditionally at the bottom of an altarpiece, that show daily events in the worker’s day) take the form of instrumental work songs. 1933 was a time of dance bands, Rube Goldberg machines, Max Fleischer’s wonderful animation, and the great depression, all of which also found their way into to this piece.

Sampled electronic sounds are all of industrial origin: from ancient recordings of an old blast furnace to high-tech documentation of modern steelworks. While investigating the murals, I learned that Diego Rivera researched his work extensively, visiting many factories in Michigan. I was fortunate to have a similar experience in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, during a residency sponsored by the Siemens Corporation to “combine art and industry” where I harvested some of these sounds. This piece was a wonderful opportunity to draw inspiration from Rivera’s iconic work once more.

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