riSe and fLY was inspired by New York City street beats and the rhythm of American work song. In New York there is an amazing array of live street musicians gracing subway platforms and street corners - accordion players, singers, Chinese erhus, and more. But perhaps the most amazing music comes from the street drummers. Banging out grooves on plastic tubs and pots and pans, they speak the rhythm of the city. They make me smile and I am one of their most attentive listeners. When Colin Currie asked for a new work I thought of them. I also thought Colin is amazing. He can do anything. But I don't want to just write him another percussion concerto. I wanted to take him to a new place and to bring something earthy and visceral to the orchestra - to break with formality and get down and dirty. It is urban folk music for the orchestra. riSE and fLY connects to my love of American folk as does much of my recent work including my art ballad, Steel Hammer, telling the story of the story of the John Henry legend. While there is no direct narrative in riSe and fLY it is in a sense its own short history - moving from the American folk tradition of body percussion to the contemporary urban "folk" rhythms of the street. The title, riSe and fLY, is taken from a phrase of a chain gang work song from the collection of Alan Lomax, the great American folksong collector.
The idea for Fuel began in conversation with filmmaker Bill Morrison. We talked about the mystery and economy of how things run — the controversy and necessity of fuel — the global implications, the human need. The music takes its inspiration from the fiery strings of Ensemble Resonanz. The members of the group challenged me to write something rip roaring and virtuosic, asking me to push the group to the limit. This request merged with the sounds of transport and harbors — New York and Hamburg — large ships, creaking docks, whistling sounds, and a relentless energy. Fuel was premiered in a multi-media performance with a film by Bill Morrison at the Kaispeicher B Warehouse at the port of Hamburg, Germany, in 2007.
Cruel Sister is a stirring and fantastic Old English ballad. The tale is of two sisers — one bright as the sun, and the other cold and dark. One day, so that she can have the love of a young man who has come courting, the dark sister pushes the bright sister into the sea. Two minstrels find the dead sister washed up on the shore and shape her breastbone into a fine harp strung with her yellow hair. They come to play at the cold dark sister's wedding. As the sound of the harp reaches the bride's ears, the ballad concludes "and surely now her tears will flow." While my piece references no words and quotes no music from the original tune, it does follow the dramatic arc of the ballad — the music reflecting an argument that builds, a body floating on the sea, the mad harp.
I began writing My Beautiful Scream shortly after 9/11. I live in downtown Manhattan not far from where the towers stood. At night I would have this strange sensation that I was going to die. In general my life was very beautiful – my kids were at ages that were particularly magical. So it was this strange existence of living in beauty and having the sensation of a long drawn out internal scream.
The quartet begins quiet, personal, and fine. The orchestra is more violent, menacing, and strident. But the quartet, which is amplified, gradually emerges to ride above the orchestra in a loud and emotional frenzy. The overall arch is a scream, in slow motion, beginning with the breath that one takes and reaching out to the extremity of the human cry. Screams may be present in my music, but they happen suddenly without warning, frenetic and hyper. My Beautiful Scream demanded a more gradual unfolding.
Tell me everything was commissioned by La Camarata of Mexico City and premiered at Festival Cervantino. When I began the piece I thought about a cassette tape that a friend had played for me. It was of a South American band that had just acquired brass instruments and were roughly playing together. It was a messy sound, cacophonous. Inspired by this sound I had everyone playing in their own time but playing together in a kind of off-beat samba — like several joyfully unwieldy village bands. There were so many times while writing this piece that I broke into laughter — wondering can I really write this, can it really go on like this?
Four Marys was inspired by my love for the mountain dulcimer, a 3-stringed lap instrument from Appalachia. It is the one string instrument I play. The material is derived from gestures that are characteristic of dulcimer playing - the crying quality of the sliding melody string, the mesmerizing strumming of the drone strings. It is as if I have put a magnifying glass on these sounds to look at them up close and big. The title Four Marys is the name of a Scottish folk tune that I heard Jean Richie sing and play on the mountain dulcimer.
Four Marys was commissioned by the Cassatt Quartet with funds from the Koussevitzky Foundation.