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Alma (2020)
for solo violin and electronics

Commissioned by Barbora Kolářová

Premiered at the Lake George Music Festival Virtual Concert Series in September 2020

Program Notes:

Alma Rosé (1906-1944) was an Austrian violinist of Jewish descent and the niece of composer Gustav Mahler. An extraordinarily talented performer, Rosé had a promising musical career until she was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. Upon her arrival, she was sent to the infamous Block 10 for medical experimentation and torture. A Nazi guard soon recognized Rosé as a famous violinist and had her perform for some of the other guards to prove her talent. They eventually had Rosé assume leadership of an all-women’s orchestra composed of prisoners in the camp. Through performing and expanding the orchestra to as many members as possible, Rosé was able to spare her own life as well as the lives of many other women in Auschwitz. Though she eventually died of sudden illness after almost a year in the camp, most of the women in her orchestra lived to see the end of the war.

                   

I found this story to be horrifying—not only because of my Jewish identity, but also from the perspective of a musician. The idea of being forced to perform under the threat of death is unimaginable, and it is disturbing that Rosé’s artistic talent was twisted into a tool for survival.

                   

Alma is a musical biography of Alma Rosé’s story. The electronic accompaniment is primarily made up of her only existing recording: a performance of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins featuring her and her father as the two soloists. The recording is twisted, expanded, and often transformed beyond recognition to create a multitude of textures that serve as the foundation for this piece. Other sounds, such as sirens and explosions, loosely relate to the time period of World War II. The solo violin part floats over the top of these textures, sometimes oblivious to its tumultuous surroundings and sometimes directly responding to them. My hope is that this piece will both celebrate the achievements of a life cut short and commemorate the artistry and soul that was unjustly exploited.

 
Ripples in Infinity (2017)
for flute, Bb clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion

Ripples in Infinity is inspired by the paintings of Lee Krasner, who was an innovative and influential abstract-expressionist painter. She was a brilliant artist, but her career was often compromised by her role as ‘supportive wife’ to Jackson Pollock, as well as by the male-dominated art world. During her lifetime, Krasner found herself being ignored and devalued despite her invaluable contributions to the abstract-expressionist movement. This piece is a celebration of Krasner and depicts one of her most iconic paintings, Shattered Color. This painting is striking to me because of its seemingly infinite layers – on the surface it’s vibrant and colorful, but underneath, there are glimpses of something dark and stormy with an almost unyielding intensity. Contrastingly, the vivid pinks and yellows dancing across the foreground have a whimsical, playful character to them. Ripples in Infinity portrays the splattering of paint onto the canvas and the multitude of different characters that weave in and out of the painting’s ostensibly endless texture. It also tells the story of a woman, who like so many others, had to struggle to build the timeless legacy that she deserved.

Lee Krasner

Shattered Color (1947)

 
Portraits of Being (2019)
sonata for saxophone and piano

Commissioned by Becky Swanson

Movements:

I. The Modern Prometheus (0:00)

II. Exhalation (5:21)

III. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (9:40)

IV. Solaris (12:45)

V. A Momentary Taste of Being (17:04)

Program Notes:

Portraits of Being is an exploration of existentialism using the texts of five science-fiction stories, each corresponding to a movement of the piece. Despite these stories spanning almost two centuries, the same timeless question is asked in all of them: “What does it mean to be human?” Portraits of Being uses this common thread to tie all these stories together and to examine some of the different ways we define “being.”

 

I. The Modern Prometheus (1817)

Based on the novel by Mary Shelley

 

Otherwise known as “Frankenstein,” this iconic novel is considered to be the birth of science-fiction. In it, the ambitious Dr. Frankenstein brings a corpse back to life and, horrified by what he’s created, abandons it in his lab. The nameless creature escapes and slowly educates itself in the shadows of society, eventually vowing revenge on Dr. Frankenstein for his ungodly existence. The creature’s conflict between his feral nature and desire for acceptance is represented in the first movement by bursts of chaos with small interruptions of Romantic harmonies.

 

"Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."

 

II. Exhalation (2008)

Based on the short story by Ted Chiang

 

Set in an unknown place in an unknown time, a civilization of immortal mechanical beings is shaken after a strange occurrence. In the story, we follow one of these beings as he deconstructs his own body and, by studying his anatomy, discovers that the minds and bodies of his kind are powered by air currents. Paired with the realization that the air of their world is slowly depleting, the civilization faces the prospect of life someday ceasing to exist.

 

“The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I'm glad it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe.”

 

III. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1967)

Based on the short story by Harlan Ellison

 

A sentient artificial intelligence called AM has wiped out all of humanity except for a small group of survivors. As an expression for its hatred of mankind, AM tortures the remaining survivors and keeps them virtually immortal so that its punishment may be eternal.

 

“Surrounded by madness, surrounded by hunger, surrounded by everything but death, I knew death was our only way out.”

IV. Solaris (1961)

Based on the novel by Stanisław Lem

 

A psychologist named Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate why its crew is suffering from severe psychological trauma. Solaris, covered entirely in water, seems to project and materialize physical manifestations of the human psyche. Once at the station, Kelvin encounters a recreation of his deceased wife, who has been constructed entirely from his memories of her. She is completely sentient, unaware of her true nature, and doesn’t even remember dying. This forces Kelvin to confront his long-buried grief and decide if this identical version of his wife is real enough to allow himself a second chance to be with her.

 

“Each of us is aware he's a material being, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and that the strength of all our emotions combined cannot counteract those laws. It can only hate them. The eternal belief of lovers and poets in the power of love which is more enduring that death, the finis vitae sed non amoris that has pursued us through the centuries is a lie.”

 

V. A Momentary Taste of Being (1975)

Based on the novella by Alice Sheldon

 

In a distant future where the Earth is slowly decaying, a team of scientists are deployed on a mission into the far reaches of space to investigate a planet that has potential to support life. When they arrive decades later, the crew sends a small team to the surface to have a closer look. Only one woman returns from this expedition, claiming the planet to be a paradise. Yet, there is something odd about her behavior. They soon realize that the planet holds the key to humanity’s true purpose; or in other words, the meaning of life. The answers they uncover are horrifying.

 

“Why do we use the word human for the animal part of us, Arn? Aggression — that’s human. Cruelty, hatred, greed — that’s human. That’s just what isn’t human, Arn. It’s so sad. To be truly human we must leave all that behind.”

© 2021 by Daniel Whitworth