Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cosmic Karma

Michael Gandolfi discusses his “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”

"Intuition is sensing the winds of change, the way things are going, the mood of the moment, and how it will affect the future." —Maggie Keswick Jencks

The following interview comes from a 30-minute conversation I had with composer Michael Gandolfi on the afternoon of April 30, 2007, in Atlanta. We discussed his “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” inspired by earthworks and installations designed by architect Charles Jencks at Portrack House, which is just north of Dumfries, in southwestern Scotland.
    The ASO played four of the "impressions" from the work-in-progess a year ago. Now it comprises 11 sections, including a 14-minute "suite within a suite" called "The Garden of the Senses."
    At last Gandolfi's completed "Garden" receives its premiere this week, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano conducting. The concerts are Thu-Sat., May 24-26, 2007, at 8:00p.m. at Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts center, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 404-733-5000
    Before going further, however, you may want to first read my feature article for Creative Loafing [16 May 2007], which can be found online here, as it provides a good overview of what Michael and I are discussing below.
    —Mark Gresham

Gresham: Your “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” has grown considerably since the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed four “Impressions from…” a year ago. Where in this upcoming ASO complete performance are those four movements?

Gandolfi: What you heard before are [now numbers] 1, 2, 3 and 11.

Gresham: You’ve said that the specific order will not set in stone?

Gandolfi: The whole point of the piece was to simply turn out a whole bunch of movements based on these various aspects of the Garden—mainly the physical aspects of the garden, but a few conceptual ones as well. My intention, initially, was not to have the whole piece played all at once—the point being that a given conductor would choose his or her own pathway through the garden, I like to say, by just selecting a number of movements for a given program.
    So at that point, as I was writing other movements for the piece, I wasn’t really concerned about an order for a single program. I was just covering the various features of the garden and writing piece after piece after piece.
    Actually, the ones that are underlined here… [He shows a single page listing the movements as the ASO will perform them.] This one I’m just about ready to finish, is number 4. I still have number 7 to do. So [the rest] was done in Miami by the New World Symphony a week ago [April 21, 2007], all but these two movements of course, and the order was as you see it except that in the place of “Symmetry Break Terrace” here, which hadn’t been written yet, was the “Fractal Terrace.” That totals a little over 57 minutes actually.

Gresham: Prior to that performance, you were also planning to have the “Garden of the Senses” performed near the end of the whole work. What happened to that idea?

Gandolfi: It became clear to us, to Robert Spano and me, in the midst of rehearsal that this suite belonged in the middle, not at the end.

Gresham: How did this come to be composed as a “suite within a suite”?

Gandolfi: In the entire work, what I’m trying to do is give the listener the sense of the space from a musical standpoint. “The Garden of the Senses” is a separate garden within the larger Garden, walled off with shrubs, maybe 50 yards by 30 yards—very formal, manicured, ornate, Baroque.
    So at first, before I tackled the “Garden of the Senses” suite, I had just thought about the senses themselves, [i.e.] for the sense of hearing: a sonic landscape. But as I thought about it, I realized that may well and good to describe the senses, but it doesn’t really describe the “Garden of the Senses.” And that’s why I started thinking about this Baroque feeling of the space, and I thought it would be fun to tether it to a Baroque suite. The only non-suite movement is the chorale at the end. Jencks has a “sixth sense” which he calls Intuition, so I just decided to express that in the form of a chorale, in segue from the Gigue.

Gresham: I understand you’ve added some recordings of natural sounds on either side of the “Garden of the Senses” in this ASO performance?

Gandolfi: “The Garden of the Senses” suite is about 14 minutes total. I used [Bach’s] French and English suites as my models. But going in, [it] is a little more difficult to delineate [from the preceding movements]. What we’re going to do for the Atlanta performances, at least what I’m intending on doing now, is having some kind of a separator by using ambient sounds recorded from the garden--bird sounds insect sounds. Actually the piece will open with those sounds and will merge with the music and fade out, and the musical piece will start. Then I thought I would do that at the very end of the piece. Now I realize if I bring those sounds back in surrounding the Garden of the Senses, at the end of the “Willow Twist” (let’s say the nature sounds come back in and acquiesce for 10 seconds or so) we’ll get a sense that a chapter is done, now we’re ready for the middle part. When that’s done I’ll bring the [recorded nature] sounds back in, so one does get a sense that there is a connection between parts one and three, [beyond] just the orchestral scope of the writing.
    So that’s the way it’s shaking up, and I hadn’t thought about that until I actually heard it in [the Miami] concert.

Gresham: So this order was not this order only 2 weeks ago?

Gandolfi: No. [But in the Miami performanceit was] pretty much what you see, except 6 was 10.

Gresham: So the “Garden of the Senses” could actually be a standalone 14-minute piece by itself. Do you have some other shortened menus in mind already for this “modular” piece?

Gandolfi: An order I would prefer would be 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11—a rich piece of about 35 to 40 minutes.”

Gresham: You mentioned “Willow Twist” and two “Terrace” movements earlier. Could you talk a bit about those?

Gandolfi:“The Willow Twist” is like a jazz big band piece, it’s very swinging with a big trumpet solo and a trombone solo. I have them stand up big band style. It’s not complex in the way that some of the other movements are, in the treatment of rhythm. It does have an overlapping rhythmical pattern. It’s a real groove piece. You know how when you get into a main groove you have to get out of it somehow? So what I do is transform a primary groove into a secondary groove, which ramps it down a little bit. Then an abrupt bow-and-arrow stop, and you’re in this coda section which is very ethereal. So “Willow Twist” is very visceral. It really does describe the object, that’s what I’d say. The “WillowTwist” is like a Mobius strip, a sheet of metal, a very complex strip and it’s circular. And so I wrote a piece that grooves in a circular way. In fact, when the wind players were playing the piece, in Miami, they were actually making little circles with bodies; they didn’t know, they’d never seen the object. The music just feels that way.

Gresham: So it should be easy for listeners to get into the groove and see how it transforms.

Gandolfi: “Fractal Terrace” also is a grove movement, but a little more complex, a little more like a Steve Reich kind of groove. And now what will be the “Symmetry Break Terrace / Black Hole Terrace”—these [three] would make a little set, actually, because they are powerful and groove oriented, although the “Fractal Terrace” and “Symmetry Break Terrace / Black Hole Terrace” are a little more complex in their structure of the groove.
    These movements are just more visceral [than most]. Other movements are more complex, in terms of the multiple sections and the way things transform, they’re a little headier in a sense.
    I would say that “The Jumping Bridge” and “The Nonsense” have something in common. The writing is bright and bold and kind of quirky, they form a kind of a unit in a way and “The Quark Walk” has more of a connection with “The Snail.” It’s a slower movement, bolder maybe than “The Snail” is, and full of atmosphere, describing different aspects of a quark, a subatomic particle.

Gresham: There seems like a lot of different variety of musical expressions incorporated in “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.” Is it, um, possibly a bit wide ranging for one piece?

Gandolfi: So it’s not like an onslaught of completely different things. Occasionally I’ll bring in a motivic idea from an earlier movement and just develop it differently, so there is a sense of connection over the course of the broad arc of the piece.
    [A reviewer said it was as if] the physical landscape waves of the garden itself were captured through the course of the piece, that the piece held together by virtue of the feeling of wavelike activity. Maybe that’s one of those unconscious things that happen?

Gresham: Speaking of unconscious, subconscious, or perhaps “collective unconscious,” the impact of Jenck’s Garden, in let’s say an abstract, perhaps even iconic sense… Does that carry over into your music?

Gandolfi: The garden itself, though its reference to cosmology and contemporary thought in physics prompts speculation and to wonder, to have a sense of awe, actually, with respect to the incredible discoveries, and it’s fairly apparent that’s what this garden does. Looking at the garden, visiting it, one is immediately struck by that sense. Yes, it’s an abstraction. [However,] you don’t read about these things—you’re experiencing them physically with the space, with what architect Charles Jencks has done with the property. But he’s also specific, too, because he’ll have sculptural details placed in the garden to prompt you to exactly what he was thinking about conceptually. So that sense of wonder and awe is what I was trying to capture in the [musical] movements themselves. Hopefully there will be a kind of magical sense, the sense of at once wonderment about it all. And on the other hand there is the playfulness to it there, too, that’s kind of a quirky, almost yin and yang thing. You have polar opposites: On the one hand you have these are incredibly profound things but they also provoke almost a sense of giddiness or silliness at the same time too-- like a quantum flux, where you have particles that are just appearing and disappearing willy-nilly. Jenks plays on the bizarre and strange qualities in a humorous way. So that is interpreted in these pieces as well too. “The Nonsense” is a prime example; “The Jumping Bridge” too; the audience chuckled at the end of “The Jumping Bridge.” It’s sort of fun and joyful.

Gresham: So it’s ok to laugh?

Gandolfi: Absolutely!

Gresham: How is this connected to your own personal sense of wonder?

Gandolfi: It’s really hard for me to say precisely, because it’s hard to describe in words sometimes what the music hopefully is doing. That often manifests itself in the use of the color of the orchestration and the harmony. Those are two aspects of music making where I feel like I can conjure up something, by twisting around harmony and orchestral color, to create a sense of wonderment or…


Gandolfi: Yes, a sense of giddiness or enjoyment. Sometimes I’m specific, as in “Soliton Waves,” the second movement of the piece, where I actually have musical wave forms and movements moving all around the stage. Big crashing waves and little eddys of waves. The big formal design describes an actual soliton wave, which is a wave that has the property of joining with another wave, forming a third unit, then exiting with no memory of having joined with the other wave. There are two main streams in [this movement]; they join up in the middle become something else then they exit. The listener finds they’ve been riding that singular wave the whole way. And when it bursts out at the end, [you think ] “Wait a minute, we’re right back to where we’ve started from”; in fact you’ve always been there, it’s just that it’s joined up with another wave and formed another, larger object. So there are very specific ties in these movements to the objects that are being described.

Gresham: Where does this piece fall in the development of your career, your own artistic journey?

Gandolfi: This piece is at once a focal point, sort of crystallizing some things I’ve been working on for the past several years, and at the same time it’s a jumping off point too, a point from which I feel like I’ll move forward. I would characterize it by saying it’s a purely, thoroughly post-modern piece in the sense that it references other music the same way a post-modern building will [where] you might have a Greek column in the front, a portico from another era, and you might have a mid-twentieth-century modernist facade elsewhere.

Gresham: It may reference previous eras but not imitate, per se?

Gandolfi: We’re at a point now in concert music in which so much has been done, and there’s such a rich tradition, that to reference other eras is sort of a natural thing to do now. I’m enjoying putting my mind into these other eras of music, of musical discovery, and referencing multiple centuries actually, as this piece does, and I’m realizing there’s a lot of terrain there yet to be explored. Some music has done this before: Stravinsky in his neo-classical period. But this is different; I’m not holding it at arms length like I feel it [is] in Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. It’s not cold [or detached]. I’m actually jumping into the pond, and really embracing these things. And the fact that the form of the piece itself is open, in the sense that I’ll continue to add movements [just as] Jencks continues to add to his Garden. And as the years progress I’ll continue to visit the Garden and write more movements, and this piece will just keep going, as far as I’m concerned. So that’s a kind of post-modern notion. I’ve never done anything like this before, to write an orchestral piece that could be so modular.

Gresham: How many people have?

Gandolfi: One of my models was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites, although I will never issue it as three suites the way Prokofiev did. This will be just a big hunk of movements. Up in front of the piece I’ll suggest some “menus,” some pathways, but I’ll also say it’s up to the conductor to decide what movements are appropriate. Robert Spano has already suggested a whole bunch of different arrangements, starting with the “Garden of the Sense” suite [by itself]; the “Willow Twist” could also make a concert opener in and of itself; “The Nonsense” could be a piece in and of itself. Two, three, five movement combinations—there are so many ways in which it could be put together.

Gresham: Where do you think composers find themselves at the beginning of the 21st century, in terms of our “collective consciousness,” creatively speaking? Where do you see things going from here?

Gandolfi: It’s the whole global Village idea; there’s so much out there I don’t see it being one trend. It is an eclectic time, and that used to be a very bad word, when I was a student in the 1970s. Now it’s a virtue. Where we are at the beginning of the 21st century—that will be the legacy of eclecticism and global acceptance, if you will, one that doesn’t look for a leader such as a Stravinsky, or a Schoenberg, or whomever. I think it’s a good thing we don’t look for that. It’s a more democratic view of what the artist is, how the artist fits in. It’s quite a different time, a big paradigm shift.
    That’s just the way I feel about it—who knows? Time will tell. But that’s how I feel about it now. Virtually every composer is contributing to the big picture, and they’re not looking to purify, which I think was the case in the middle and latter part of the 20th century, in which I grew up. Now, it’s like: What have you discovered? Let’s hear it, if it’s rock music, jazz, or music of other cultures, classical, or whatever. It’s a freer time to allow what an individual sees as their vision of the beauty in music to emerge, and to not distill it away or bury it.
    I hope that’s the experience somebody has with this piece, the visceral joy of all these kinds of music merging and swirling about. Hopefully that will communicate to the audience. ■

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 24 May 2007

[NOTE: This article by Mark Gresham can also be found on the Atlanta Composers Blog at]

Michael Gandolfi's artist website can be found at

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