To say that this last weekend was a life changing experience would be an understatement. I’m still in a state of euphoria after the Peabody Modern Orchestra gave me the best world premier I’ve had to date. The entire concert in itself was phenomenal with 2 world premieres: Evan Jay’s “That Which We Cannot Live Without” and my piece “Celestial Body”. The concert ended with Cindy McTee’s “Ballet For Orchestra” which is a phenomenal work that displays the full power and grace of the orchestra. You can watch the world premiere performance here.
Celestial Body – How Did This Come to Be?
I was at my booth at the 2018 Missouri Music Educator Conference. I was approached by Dr. Robert Pippin about how his conducting professor, Dr. Harlan Parker, had a group at Peabody Conservatory that did modern music. It sounded like something I would be a good fit to write for, so he sent a recommendation/introduction email that same day. Harlan responded and reached out to me the next day.
We started talking the next couple of weeks about the capabilities of the group and what kind of music they played. Harlan mentioned to me that they finally had the ability to scale up to a full orchestra. I had been looking to write an original full orchestral work for a long time and it seemed like the perfect time to do so. So we settled on a commission for a new orchestral work with electronics in the 10-15 minute range that would be premiered February 2019. Harlan also was interested in my “Concerto for Wind Ensemble” which was to be premiered a March 2018 so he offered to perform it December 2018 with his group.
The Writing Process
Writing a new work for orchestra of this size and magnitude is no easy task. Steven Bryant once told me that you should have an entire work planned out on paper before you write a single note. The second you start writing notes, you’re locked in. So, I started thinking about different sources of inspiration and what I wanted the piece to be about.
I have been always interested in space. Ever since I had access to pictures from the Hubble space telescope, I’ve loved looking at different cosmic bodies and imagining what it would be like to visit them.
After some thinking, I came up with a 5 movement work called “Celestial Bodies”. It would be Sun, Asteroid, Planet, Black Hole, Galaxy. I wrote up a short synopsis of each movement and what I wanted to achieve compositionally wise with each movement. I quickly realized that if I were to do 5 movements, the piece would be almost 30 minutes long (double the max length they wanted) and I wouldn’t get it done in time. So I reworked the concept into a 3 movement work called “Celestial Body” that would be played without pauses or breaks between movements that would be around 20 minutes of music.
From a composition standpoint I wanted to keep a somewhat minimalist palette surrounding the same 3 note motif.
I started writing in February 2018 and finished writing late September 2018. When I was done, by my final performance time was around 21-23 minutes (depending on how long the cadenza was to be performed).
The Technical Setup and Challenges
Because I use a DAW to compose, I found it easier to integrate electronics into my work and make them seem like they were organically fit without feeling forced. Since I had never done electronics at this scale before, I tried to keep them simple with as little room for error as possible. This meant some samples would have to have a click track to keep everything in sync. While others would be played synced with the orchestra. I decided to use Ableton Live for the performance of the electronics.
My friend and fellow composer Steven Bryant has used Ableton Live for all of his electronics in the past to great success. So I naturally did what any good composer would do and copied his electronics setup. Every sample had a number/letter assigned to it to fire it off and I added a couple of safety checks to make sure things run smoothly.
Below is a diagram of the setup needed to perform this piece:
Thursday (3rd Rehearsal of the Piece)
The time finally came for us to travel to Baltimore. So, with a laptop bag full of gear, we got on a plane to Baltimore (after our first flight was mysteriously canceled) and went straight to rehearsal. I had heard the electronics where working pretty well except the clarinet microphone (which I’ll get into later). I was overall very pleased with the group’s progress. I made some minor tweaks during rehearsal and that night I went back to my hotel room to start debugging the clarinet microphone.
Friday (Dress Rehearsal)
On Friday we had lunch with Robert Pippin and Harlan Parker, we discussed future projects and thoughts about the piece at hand. Afterwards we met up with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Robert gave us an impromptu tour of Peabody and showed us the impressive music library where we found many hidden gems such as this book:
When we got into the performance venue for dress rehearsal, I started noticing a ton of peaking/spiking in the audio coming from the clarinet microphone. So much so that at one point we got into a feedback loop. I made more adjustments but I had only so much time for rehearsal and decided to cut the Microphone for the rest of it while I figured out what was going on.
I found out that my gain settings where all jacked up and that the I needed to added more gain to my input to get the effect to process correctly and needed then to decrease the gain on the output side so I wouldn’t blow-out the speakers. In theory this should of worked and I was pretty confident that I would have the levels low enough that I could adjust them in the performance. I decided to leave it be as my parents had just flown in and we were going out that night.
My parents, my wife, and I decided to climb the steps of the Washington Monument the morning of the premier. It’s one hell of a climb, but the view was totally worth it. We spent the rest of the afternoon going to the art museum and wandering around Baltimore. It’s not often I get to travel to a new city and have free time, so I wanted to make sure I took full advantage of it.
I have a weird ritual before a big premier. Whenever I can, I like to show up to a performance venue about an hour before the concert starts and just sit and get a vibe for the venue that night. I don’t always get to do this but whenever I do I can usually get a good feeling for how the performance is going to go. This time I got to the venue early and sat down and had a great feeling. I can’t really explain it, but the general feeling I got was this was going to be a phenomenal concert.
I was lucky enough to have family and friends at this performance, so the pressure was on to make it perfect. It came time for my piece and Harlan cued Abhinn and I to start the electronics….
And nothing happened.
The first sample didn’t fire. Harlan looked back at us laughed and said “Technology, gotta love it!”. I figured out was going on in seconds and reset the window focus back into the play area of Ableton, and the track fired off correctly the second time. After that point the rest of the performance went smooth until the clarinet microphone section. Once again the output started to peak immediately so I killed the gain to -20DB and then slowly brought it up. It was at this point I told Abhinn we would be cutting the Microphone for the rest of the piece. Since my mouse was focussed into another part of the software, the next cue (ticking clock) didn’t fire off correctly either. Once again not a big deal. I just reset focus and manually triggered the next sample to ensure it worked. After that, the rest of the piece went beautifully including putting the entire performance venue in darkness by the end of the piece.
In hindsight, the audience was not aware of any of these issues going on and they were honestly small and minute. The orchestra played beautifully and Harlan rolled with the one or two technical glitches we had. When the electronics faded out for the final time, the absolute silence of a full concert hall, in pitch black darkness, was one of the most haunting things I’ve ever experienced. And judging by the audiences reaction, after the lights came back on, they loved it too!
Summary and Thanks
There are so many people that helped make this project possible. Here they are (in no particular order):
Dr. Robert Pippin:
This whole piece would not exist without him. He was the reason and I was introduced to Dr. Harlan Parker and Peabody Conservatory. This piece was dedicated to him as a thank you and in honor of him graduating with his Doctorate in Wind Band Conducting from Peabody. I look forward to collaborating with you for many years to come!
Dr. Harlan Parker:
Never has someone said “yes” so fast as he did to my crazy ideas. Not only did he offer me the chance to write for his group, he also conducted a phenomenal performance of my “Concerto for Wind Ensemble” a few short months before “Celestial Body” was premiered. It’s rare finding someone as passionate as he is about new music and supporting active composers and their works. I was honored to have my music premiered by you and I cannot wait for our next collaboration!
Thank you for running electronics with me and being our chauffeur in Baltimore. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you and I look forward to seeing what you do when you are done with your academic career!
For helping me wrangle my electronics together and helping me polish them off! Thanks for helping me debug my microphone issues over the phone while I was in Baltimore. I can’t wait to collaborate with you on future electronics projects!
For being my electronics guinea pig. Thanks for testing out my Ableton Live file for me while you were in the middle of writing your own massive electronics work (The Automatic Earth). I’ve always been inspired by you and continue to do so today!
I’ve always said she is my spark of inspiration and I stand by it to this day. She supports my dreams and constantly gives up her free time to help me pursue them! No gas lights me as hard as you do. COOT.