for tenor and string quartet – 13 minutes
Text adapted by the composer from Mark Twain’s “The Boys’ Ambition” (from Life on the Mississippi)
Commissioned by: The Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
World Premiere: 29 August, 2013, Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
Tenor Nicholas Phan and festival ensemble players Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto (violins), Burchard Tang (viola), and Priscilla Lee (cello), Fasig-Tipton Hall, Lexington, Kentucky
Mark Twain’s short story “The Boys’ Ambition” depicts the arrival of a riverboat ina lonely Mississippi river town from the perspective of a young boy for whom the event could not be more thrilling and wondrous. The story is sweetly amusing for adult readers, but also moving in how powerfully Twain has captured the frame of mind of that boy. When we read Twain’s words we are not so much smiling at the boy’s simple innocence, but recalling the sensation of our own youthful marvel. Twain is so much more than a great humorist, for no other American author has better captured this wonderful aspect of the American spirit: a cherishing of the wild and free imagination of childhood.
While working on this piece, I became fixated on “vivid moments”—those snapshots in life that stand out in our memories with very special intensity. Sometimes all the senses combine just right—an evocative smell, an unusual quality of light, a special sound to the wind in the trees, a wistful mood—and they converge to record a moment forever deep in one’s emotional mind, such that any of those senses, years or decades later, might suddenly and unexpectedly bring you right back to who you were, there and then, in that magical moment.
There is something especially evocative in the story’s being centered on the great river—this gigantic, eternal, and indifferent force. The juxtaposition of the human timescale—with its joy and grief, ambition and fear, youth and old age, and countless vivid moments—against the immense geological timescale of a river and all of the things it has seen, is something that will always mystify and inspire the artist in all of us.