for chamber orchestra (2007) – 18 minutes
Orchestration: 1111+sax, 1111, 2 perc, pno/cel, hp, strings
Commissioned by: New Juilliard Ensemble
World Premiere: 15 April 2007, New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs, conductor
Images from a Sunken City was inspired by a visit I had to New Orleans just a few months after hurricane Katrina struck. I have always felt a deep fondness for the city that is the heart of so much great American music, and after the disaster, I felt intensely drawn to be in New Orleans again. My obsession with New Orleans had taken root during a visit years earlier, when I experienced its haunting beauty, its intoxicating music, its magical aura of timelessness, its people, its oddities, its ghosts, and its grotesque contradictions—sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful. A looming fear of doom has long been a part of the fabric of New Orleans, but so too has an intensely defiant spirit, and only time will tell which of these forces will prevail in the long term.
My original experience in New Orleans was no different from any tourist’s. I enjoyed the food and drink, the music, the bubble and fizz, the sizzling southern sun, the side-by-side elegance and grittiness, the tingling sense of black magic in the air. I took in the sights, both grandiose and bizarre. I remember seeing a kid of eight or nine years old, a street performer, tap dancing while spinning an old bicycle wheel on his head. His tap shoes were made from empty soda cans. His act was impressive, hilarious, and melancholy, all at the same time. This, for me, encapsulated New Orleans. I had the feeling then that I was seeing something special and magical, something I might never see again, so I stayed and watched for a long time.
On my return to New Orleans, I took long walks amidst the endless debris, and was struck by the thought that I could not distinguish between strewn garbage and the former cherished possessions of people whose lives were destroyed. Now, badly damaged and removed from context, they were trash. I felt as though I were walking through a haunted landscape, staring straight into the eyes of its ghosts. The great city of New Orleans, once a whirling carousel, had been run through a blender. Where were the amazing kid, his bicycle wheel, and soda-can tap shoes now?
Images from my time spent in New Orleans burn intensely in my mind, and have inspired my attempt to create a sonic sculpture of musical “found objects” reflective of these experiences. In Images from a Sunken City, I have collected and assembled tiny musical gestures and fragments—many only two or three notes long—that seem misplaced or smashed beyond recognition. These relics might sound vaguely as if they are from somewhere—a march or a hymn perhaps—but they are mostly so short, and presented in a context so unfamiliar, that it is impossible to know. Using these found objects, I have tried to explore the kinds of ambiguities that have been so poignant and absorbing for me: celebration vs. mourning, trash vs. treasure, spirited defiance vs. tragic self-destruction, and failure vs. redemption.
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