For the last week I’ve had the pleasure of working with musicians of the Albany Symphony and their music director, David Alan Miller, as part of the Orchestrating in the 21st Century Workshop and American Music Festival at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC for short) in Troy, NY. The sheer number of events has been staggering: orchestral and chamber music performances, film screenings, lectures, orchestration workshops with Chris Theofanidis, late-night jam sessions…there’s been something for everyone and then some!
The highlight for me was the premiere of my 10-piece ensemble work, Unite in Song, on Thursday night with members of the Albany Symphony and David Alan Miller conducting. In writing this work, I was inspired by the festival’s theme, “Sing Out, New York!”, and wanted to write a piece that honored the role music has played throughout civil rights movements. The piece packs a lot into its length, opening with very active flourishes, moving through syncopated rhythmic passages, giving us some—hopefully catchy—dance music, and concluding with a memorable (and singable) tune. I would emphasize the word singable, because the score calls for most of the musicians to quietly sing the tune in the final bars atop a groove in the marimba and lower strings.
Maestro Miller is well known for his relentless championing of contemporary music, and I believe it was this background, encompassing vastly disparate styles over many years, which caused him—with the significant support of Chris Theofanidis—to suggest trying various vowels (“ah”, “oh”, “oo”) to give different effects in the sung portion. In the end, we settled on the more mysterious “ah” vowel, and I was very pleased with the result!*
I was truly impressed with every aspect of this week’s events: the level of musicianship and open-mindedness of the players; Chris Theofanidis’ ability to get to the crux of any orchestral problem, the supporting staff throughout the week, the venue (EMPAC is one of the finest performing arts complexes I’ve ever seen, and the Albany region is so lucky to have it.), the town of Troy with its lovely restaurants and farmers’ market. I definitely hope to get back here one day!
(*Thinking back to some of my recent compositions, it seems that various vocalizations are becoming a recurring aspect of my work. The large-scale song cycle I wrote for Tony Arnold, Sandburg Songs, includes spoken text and a long hummed vocalise in addition to singing. My guitar work, They Say, requires the player to hum a tune at one point and speak text while playing at another. To the extent that it is possible—in many cases it is not—it’s interesting to observe one’s tendencies and their origins.)