Honegger – Pacific 231
Mason Bates – Alternative Energy (CSO commission)
Franck – Symphony in D minor
In Masons words:
And we have liftoff.
After a full year of composing, editing, proofing, and — yes, mixing at Skywalker Studios (more on that in a bit) — I finally reach the premiere of Alternative Energy this month. Maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony give the work’s first performances at Symphony Center in Chicago (Feb 2-4 & 7) before taking it to California (Feb 14 in SF, Feb 17 in Orange County, Feb 18 in San Diego).
I decided to go big.
Alternative Energy is an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.
These worlds are conjured by a variety of symphonic effects. A blues fiddle accompanied by car parts dominates the ‘old-time’ first movement (the principle percussion, Cynthia Yeh, plays a ‘car part drumset’ assembled from scraps collected at a junkyard). Actual recordings of Chicago’s FermiLab particle accelerator appear in highly dramatic form in the present-day movement (think: massive machines waking up all around you). Surreal and trippy microtonal sonorities take us to the edge of a future industrial wasteland in China’s Xinjiang Provience. And gently out-of-town, gamelan-sounding figuration, complimented by surround-sound jungle recordings and future birdsong, brings us to the far-off rainforest where the piece ends.
Like the tone poems of Berlioz or Liszt — though very different in sound — this piece uses an idée fixe, or melody, to link everything together. This tune is heard on the fiddle, which conjures a figure like Henry Ford working in his junkyard, and is accompanied by a ‘phantom orchestra’ that trails the fiddler like ghosts. The accelerando cranking of a car motor becomes a special motif in the piece, a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever-more-powerful energy. Indeed, this crank motif explodes in the electronics in the second movement, where we arrive at present-day Chicago.
In order to recreate the sound of a particle accelerator booting up, I travelled up to FermiLab (an enormous facility north of the city) and wandered around making recordings of the machinery involved in splitting atoms. Huge power surges, epic hydraulic releases, alien-sounding high frequencies, you name it. Then I manipulated those sounds in my studio back in California, ultimately visiting Skywalker Studios to properly mix these sounds in a surround-sound environment. Gary Rydstrom, a famed sound designer who works with folks like George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, provided invaluable help in recreating the effect of the accelerator ‘waking up.’ Hip-hop beats, jazzy brass interjections, and joyous voltage blasts bring the movement to a clangorous finish.
Zoom a hundred years into a dark future of the Xinjiang Province. On an eerie wasteland, a lone flute sings a tragically distorted version of the idée fixe, dreaming of a forgotten natural world. But a powerful industrial energy simmers to the surface, and over the ensuing hardcore techno, wild orchestral splashes drive us to a catastrophic meltdown. As the smoke clears, we find ourselves even further into the future: an Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet. Gentle, out-of-tune pizzicato accompany our fiddler, who returns over a woody percussion ensemble to make a quiet plea for simpler times.
Quite a lot of ground to cover — I’ll give you that.
But it can be done. Symphonies can have both sonic inventiveness and narrative imagination — as long as the music drives the enterprise. A mere glance at the movement titles should be enough to set the stage, and then it’s all about the orchestra. Even the electronic component — the newest element of the piece — is at the service of the orchestra, of which it is just another section.
i loved it. especially the last movement set in a post dystopian iceland whose inhabitants re-commune with nature after the the fall of modern civilization. With it’s bird song and jazzy percussion the movement struck several chords in me, transcendentally and rhythmically.SHARE