Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sonic Nature Walks


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano conducting
   Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”)
   Michael Gandolfi: “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation”
Thu/Fri/Sat, 24/25/26 May 2007, 8:00 p.m.
Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
[Review is of the Thursday performance.]

Nature, the universe, and humanity's place in it. It's a favorite topic of artists, and clearly one behind the programming for this evening’s concert by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Nearly 200 years ago, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” was premiered in Vienna on the same docket as that of the far more famously furious “Symphony No. 5.” Evocative of nature and Austrian rural life, the Sixth, aka “Pastorale,” is programmatic, with a plot, storyline, and evocative titles. But Beethoven himself described the work as "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds," and that while it is up to the listener to conjure the specifics “Anyone that has formed any ideal of rural life does not need titles to imagine the composer’s intentions." Beethoven is being Romantic with a capital "R"—stressing strong emotion as the source of aesthetic experience, in reaction against the rationalization of nature in art. And the “Pastorale” has become the defining point for that perspective in the history of symphonic literature.

When Beethoven composed his impressions of the countryside, Heiligenstadt (which means “Holy place”) was thoroughly rural, but was absorbed into suburban Vienna a little over a century ago, now part of the Döbling district which includes some of Vienna’s most expensive residential areas as well as its largest “Gemeindebau” (public housing building). Beethoven may not recognize it today, any more than a cosmopolitan urbanite would be familiar with the day-to-day culture or day-to-day life of a community of small family farms. (Long-time Atlantans can easily relate to this.)

To some degree, it brings to mind a certain conceit shared by urban types in spandex bicycling gear—people who love idyllic imagery of nature and the great outdoors, but don’t have a clue when it comes to actually understanding rural life.

In this evening’s concert, Robert Spano’s approach to the introspective “No. 6” seemed a mix of conventional with occasional light-bulb flashes of the exuberantly personal. After a somewhat uncertain first few measures, his deep-hued rendition was warm, but mostly didn’t inspire except in sections for which the conductor seemed to have a special affinity, which fortunately became more frequent as the piece progressed. Spano clearly liked the “storm,” for example, and was able to get the piece to perk up more consistently in the latter half through the end. Though clearly engaged, perhaps he was saving his most creative attentions for the important after-intermission premiere.

It would be inviting to superficially approach Michael Gandolfi’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” with the same attitude as one would Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” due to the inclusion of the word “Garden” in the title and popular presumptions concerning music about “Nature” (with a capital "N"). But that would be grossly misleading.

Through a published review, Gandolfi had accidentally come across architect Charles Jencks’ book “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” laden with photography, about his extensive private gardens at Portrack House, north of Dumfries, Scotland. Within these 30 acres, Jencks’ designed extensive earthenworks and installations related to contemporary theories of physics, biology, and cosmology. Jencks, who is often credited with popularizing the term “postmodernism,” is regarded as one of Britain’s premiere landscape architects, and has created similar landforms and sculptures for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and for the Kew Gardens in London.

Fascinated with the book and Jencks’ sculptural metaphors, which jived with his own interests in contemporary physics, Gandolfi had composed several musical impressions which were successfully premiered prior to receiving an invitation from Jencks to visit the Garden in person. Gandolfi subsequently has completed 11 sections in all, two of them finished less than a month before this performance.

While Gandolfi encourages a rambling stroll through the “Garden” (he leaves the actual total number and order of movements up to the conductor, to create a personal “path”), the 11 movements are not so much a set of audio paintings of Jencks’ garden, but instead serve as parallels to Jencks’ sculptural metaphors. As Jencks’ sculptures do, the music often emulates the cosmological theories in their manner of operation. For example, “Soliton Waves” isn’t “about” soliton waves—it is a literal example, a model, of the waves’ actual behavior. This is true of both Jencks sculpture and Gandolfi’s music. For Jencks art, the “Garden” is the medium, the canvas, just as the symphony orchestra is for Gandolfi’s. So the music stands on its own, because it is about itself; as the “itself” (as the late John Cage once urged) is example rather than a mere description.

Beethoven’s work involves our feelings about what we immediately perceive and experience. Instead, Gandolfi’s involves a way to directly experience concepts most of humanity may grasp only vaguely in intellectual terms, but which intuitively ring true and resonate with our collective consciousness as symbol and metaphor. For this performance, the 11 movements were grouped into three parts, essentially forming a broad arch.

Part 1 of Gandolfi’s “Garden” began with “The Zeroroom,” which in Jencks’ garden is a cloakroom and portal for entry, a kind of pre-Google-Earth which identifies the observer’s location within the Universe—the point of origin which proves to be “you,” at once both comparatively insignificant and of ultimate significance.

It was followed by the aforementioned “Soliton Waves,” then a meditative “The Snail and the Poetics of Going Slow” (referring to an earthen mound where the paths up and down are a double spiral, where one can walk up to the top and not be on the same path as coming down), concluding with the lively, uninhibited “Symmetry Break Terrace / Black Hole Terrace,” and the Möbius-like, Latin jazz/mariachi-infused “The Willow Twist.” The last two are among what Gandolfi calls “groove pieces” in the suite.

At this juncture, the beginning of Part 2, the order of movements as printed in the program was usurped by one significant change: “The Universe Cascade” was placed before “Garden of the Senses,” so as to open the suite’s second part rather than the third.

“The Universe Cascade” begins with a “big bang”—literally and metaphorically. It is a shocking surprise after the second installment of recorded bird sounds. The movement then catapults us through history in a psychological memory tour alluding to styles and repertoire from the early Renaissance to the current day, when the orchestra is finally overcome by the sweeping crescendo of another recording, electronically produced “bug music” (the bippity-boppity kind you hear just before the giant bugs appear in a classic sci-fi movie) which then ends abruptly—like suddenly waking out of a lucid dream state, or materializing after a trip through a time tunnel.

Like a mathematical dynamical system which ultimately begins to appear chaotic, the progression from the “unity” at the movement’s beginning to “apparently chaotic” electronic music at the end leaves one with a disturbing feeling of suddenly stepping outside the system: the sudden release, the reverberation dissolving against an emptiness with as much impact as the initial “big bang.”

A more traditional formality, order, and grounded immediacy returns with the “Garden of the Senses,” a parody (in the good sense of the word) of J. S. Bach’s French and English Suites. At about 14 minutes in length it is a suite-within-a-suite, in the same manner as Shakespeare would write a play-within-a-play, and just as Jencks’ “Garden of the Senses” is a garden-within-a-garden: a 30’ by 50’ spot of neo-Baroque formality with contemporary iconographic installations. Each movement within Gandolfi’s mini-suite, therefore, is based on one of Jencks’ representations of the traditional five human senses, plus the “sixth sense” of intuition. Hence, Gandolfi’s approach was one referentially neo-Baroque but with contemporary whimsy.

Part 3 is the back side of the arch, the final four movements—“Fractal Terrace,” “The Jumping Bridge,” “The Quark Walk,” and “The Nonsense”—serving somewhat as a structural mirror to the first four of Part 1 (i.e. “Fractal Terrace” being a “groove piece,” and “The Quark Walk” slow-paced like “The Snail”). Both “The Jumping Bridge” and “The Nonsense” offer the listener audible fun and flights of fancy.

Gandolfi added two elements to the this evening’s mix directly from Jencks’ garden: First, recordings natural sounds from the Portrack Garden, bird sounds most prominently. Second, a single screen hung from above the proscenium featured titling and a sequence of images from the garden, relative to each movement, assembled by Ean White.

But Gandolfi’s music stands on its own, without extra-musical help. One important point is that, unlike many composers, Gandolfi is also an excellent orchestrator. When pointed out to him, he seems to take the comment in stride, an obvious requisite of a composer’s craft. However, it is something notable which makes his more complex musical weavings all the more engaging to hear, as well as play and conduct (something directly confirmed one-on-one by Spano afterwards, with an emphasis on the “fun” aspect and how the piece feels naturally “orchestral”). My attention was engaged throughout the piece, something that doesn’t always happen (whether music is new or old), and even though at time of completion the “Garden” had ultimately grown to be some 20 minutes longer than originally intended.

Although Michael Gandolfi has indicated that he will continue to expand his music, adding new movements occasionally as Jencks adds installations to his own Garden, Spano and the ASO will record this evening’s version of “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” for Telarc on Tuesday. At 70 minutes duration, it’s just short enough to fit on a single disc. ■

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 27 May 2007

Michael Gandolfi's artist website can be found at The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's website can be found at

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

Saturday, May 19, 2007

3 Weeks, 3 New Works at the ASO

For three weeks in a row, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is performing new works.

This week (which means tonight, SAT 5/19 @ 8pm is the final performance) ASO principal contrabassist Ralph Jones is soloist and Laura Jackson conducts the Concerto for Bass Viol (2006) by John Harbison.

This coming week (THU 5/24, FRI 5/25 & SAT 5/26 @ 8pm) features premiere performance of the "complete" The Garden of Cosmic Speculation by Michael Gandolfi, to be conducted by Robert Spano.  I say "complete" in quotes with reason.  (Yes, it is the complete work, but...)  While many of you may have read my feature article in this week's Creative Loafing, 650 words hardly is room for the larger story about the work.  (NOTE: I did not write either the article's published title nor the caption under the photo!)  I had a 30-minute conversation with Gandolfi in preparation for that article, and I hope before the concerts take place to post more extensive excerpts from that conversation in this blog.

Finally, though the concerts at this writing appear to be almost sold out (THU 5/31 & SAT6/2 @ 8pm & SUN 6/3 @ 3pm - no FRI concert, and online tickets for THU seems sold out completely), the ASO & Spano with baritone Gregg Baker, perform the southeastern premiere of a work the ASO co-commisioned with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the African-American Cultural center of Greater Philadelphia: Pastime (2006) by Richard DanielpourPastime celebrates 3 historical baseball and civil rights greats: Josh Gibson (Negro League), Jackie Robinson & Hank Aaron (National League).  Home-run king Hank Aaron is scheduled to be present at Thursday's sold-out performance.

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 19 May 2007

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