From the Maestro

From the Maestro

201404241986 The journey of education and discovery that I was privileged to take because of the commission to write what became Echoes, is one of the most satisfying and rewarding chapters of my musical life.  Steven Alvarez (ASO Principal Percussion) was working at the Alaska Native Heritage Center which had a dynamic and fruitful partnership with several other organizations and museums entitled ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historic Organizations.  The other organizations were The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, The New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow and the Peabody Essex Museum.)   In the spring of 2003, Lyell Rushton, a consultant to several of the ECHO partners  remarked in a meeting that the ECHO partners should commission a symphony. 

The ASO had just finished performing the Alan Hovhaness piece: And God Created Great Whales and Rushton’s remark sparked the idea of Echoes. Steven started throwing out ideas for the piece and the partners were receptive to them.  Fast forward a few years later,  knowing that I had already created several other Native American fusion projects, Steven asked me to submit materials and apply for the commission.  I did so and was extremely lucky to get the job! 

The connecting thread between these organization’s regions was at first the early 19th Century China trade and later the commercial whaling industry.  During this time sailing and whaling ships would leave New England, sail all the way around the southern tip of South America, then up to Alaska to purchase furs, and then to Hawaii for sandalwood and later to hunt for whales.  Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian history include whaling as well.  So!  The piece was, to some extent, going to be about whaling!  There were additional instructions connected to the commission.  I was to include Native American, Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian music in the piece plus visual imagery and sounds from  those regions.  Seeing that indigenous dances were completely linked to the music, it was clear that this work was going to be a big, multi-media spectacle with a full orchestra combining with indigenous dancers, singers and drummers plus video of the natural environments.  Wow!  There aren’t many models to follow!  Did Brahms ever write anything like this?  So, it might be a little silly for a composer to say this, but I was making it up as I went along,  not only with the material, but exactly how to structure the piece.

With Steven along as my guide, I visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center, various sights around New England,   (THAT was an amazing trip!)  then to Barrow to hear Inupiat music.  Wow.  It was a little overwhelming.  The drums, the dances, the history, the culture, the passion!  In each location I heard and saw the magnificent musical/dance traditions.  I asked lots of questions.  LOTS of questions.  In several locations I got up and tried to do the dances myself, much to the enormous amusement of the locals (especially the children.) 

There was one piece that struck me as a possible thread to musically sew the structure together.  It’s a Native American dance entitled “Sneak Up.”  I heard it on the Wampanoag reservation, but it is danced by Native Americans all over North America.  As I understand it, a sneak up can be sung to celebrate a hunter sneaking up on prey or a warrior sneaking up on an enemy.  Either way, it was truly compelling!  I thought it kind of fit the entire dramatic story I was beginning to uncover as I made my journeys.  Commercial whalers tried to “sneak up” on whales and people of European descent were slowly “sneaking up” on all the indigenous peoples of Native America.  Armed with all the musical material I needed and a deep sense of the feeling that I felt when hearing all this music (which is really what I tried to capture) I was ready to begin writing, or in many cases since I was using material that I heard, arranging. 

It really didn’t take me all that long to write the piece, maybe four months or so.  I decided to structure it into scenes, writing a scene from each location plus an introduction and finale, and using the “sneak-up” as a kind of recurring theme to sew it all together.  I really wanted to put all the material together into a big finale that would really capture the exuberant feelings that I had.  So (Hey! I studied counterpoint in college!) I created a big mash-up with musical material from all the locations singing and dancing together with high hopes of a bigger metaphor of human inclusion.  That took a while to “tweak” everything so it would all fit but eventually it did.  In addition, I just can’t resist using rock instruments as a kind of fifth instrument group (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and now, rock band) to get a little extra bite and rhythm in some of the sections.

The premiere was enormously exciting, and I am absolutely thrilled and humbled to bring it to Anchorage once again. 

<December 2018>


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The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra is funded, in part, by the Atwood Foundation, Richard L and Diane M Block Foundation , Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Assembly, Alaska State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts and through the generosity of many individuals and corporate community leaders.
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