Look at any cultural institution and you will most likely find that the age range for which their programs are appropriate begins at about 5 or 6 years old. It was true of the NY Philharmonic when I was education director there (it has since expanded to include 3 and 4 year olds), and it is true of most opera and theater and dance companies in the U.S. today. Children who are younger are generally considered "unready" for the sophistication of the work and the attention span required to sit still and comprehend. As one parent said recently, "If you bring very small children, you just get shushed the whole time." Even in children's theater there is a certain expectation of quiet and focus. The theater companies may be OK with a toddler's interjections, but more often than not, the other parents are not. "They are too young - they should be at home," read the other parents' thought bubbles. (I am not proud to admit that these are phrases I have both thought and said as the parent of older children.)
This is a problem. Neuroscience teaches us that children's brains are developing from the very beginning. Our own experiences teach us that singing to children and playing with them is crucial to their growth and well-being. Mothers and fathers and caregivers of all types need support in these early years - opportunities to immerse themselves in reading and playing and singing. But cultural institutions just play the part of the exasperated father who says to his wife, as the children run rings around them: "You raise them until they are smart enough to have an intelligent conversation with me, and I'll take it from there."
I'd like to suggest there is another way. Create works of art that are custom made for audiences of babies and their caregivers. Flip all the equations. Create works that are rich in sensory experience but do not require absolute stillness or quiet. Create works that allow for improvisation and unpredictability, and cast them with performers who care first and foremost about children. Create works of art that are beautiful and imaginative and willing to play a secondary role in the overall experience. You read that right - the work of art itself cedes its place as the primary focus of attention. Create works that are incomplete without the children's actions and responses.
Along with many colleagues, we have been working on these kinds of projects in the U.K. and in Scandinavia and at Carnegie Hall - operas for babies - and it is a particular and challenging kind of artistic creation. And it only happens when cultural institutions are willing to make room for the youngest children. We are particularly lucky that Carnegie Hall has opened a space for them.
For the last three years, I have been learning about a whole new genre: operas for babies. Here's how it happened. I was trying to deepen my understanding of maternal health, since we had been so involved in the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall. I was looking for colleagues and partners with whom I could compare notes. Emily Eagen, my erstwhile lullaby partner here in New York, suggested I listen to a BBC radio documentary piece about lullaby singing at London Hospital. In it, I learned about a teaching artist there named Zoe Palmer. I wrote an email to Spitalfields Music, where I first learned about their music theater pieces for the very youngest. And perhaps even more importantly, they put me in touch with Zoe. Our first Skype call was one of those breathless tumbles that happens when you realize that regardless of the miles in between, you are both doing all the same things in fascinatingly different ways. We could hardly stop talking. I sent Zoe the lullabies we'd been making in NYC, and she sent me videos of the music theater pieces they'd been creating in London. I told Zoe about Moving Star, the improvisatory vocal lab that we run at Carnegie Hall, and she offered to send us some poetry that we might sing. We sent her the recordings of our improvisations, and we realized we might just have the seeds for a Cross-Atlantic collaboration. We set up a Dropbox folder (that still has that name), and began scheming. That eventually led to the creation of OTOYOTOY, pictured above. As we approach the October 2018 revival, I'll be writing more about the journey, which took me to London, to Norway and back again. More soon!
At the end of the rainbow, last night was memorable. Michael and Jessica and the orchestra played beautifully. Andrew Sewell was a terrific shepherd on the podium, and I felt like I really got to hear the piece, in a way for the first time, along with the audience.
Like many orchestra commissions, there was a lot of work and preparation for the premiere of DOUBLE RAINBOW. If the premiere had been with a larger institution in a larger market, there might have been multiple performances of the work, perhaps 2-4 over the span of a week. If it had been a consortium commission, other orchestras might have already programmed it, ensuring a series of performances. All of these things can really help a new work mature and find its voice. But as it is we only had one night for this premiere.
So what now? Michael and Jessica are inventing ways to develop the project, which we all feel is just at its beginning. First, we will present a chamber version of DOUBLE RAINBOW at PianoSonoma (Michael & Jessica’s festival in Santa Rosa, CA) on Thursday, August 3rd. That will take some rearranging, but we are excited to keep the double rainbows in the air!
Next, based on the good feeling in the concert hall last night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is toying with the idea of bringing the piece back and recording it. Nothing definite yet, but an exciting prospect. We have an idea of creating a recording that would also contain TINY BITS OF OUTRAGEOUS LOVE – stay tuned!
Once we have the recording of last night’s concert in hand, we’ll pitch the piece to other orchestras, places where we have connections or friends or where we think a good match might be made.
So the premiere is not the end of the rainbow, it is the beginning. I am closing out this little microburst of blogging, and I will go quiet now for a while. Time to grade papers and evaluate final projects at Juilliard, time to rehearse our new Link Up show at Carnegie Hall and produce a Lullaby Project concert, time to work on the new chamber version of DOUBLE RAINBOW. If you caught any of these posts this week, thanks for reading. I’ll be posting again this summer in sync with a trip to Norway to work on lullabies!
There are three movements to my new double piano concerto, DOUBLE RAINBOW, premiering in Madison, WI tonight:
If the first two movements are distinguished by their characteristic intervals or pitches, then the final movement is all about rhythm.
Much of the music I write uses signature rhythm patterns drawn from the Sea Islands of South Carolina. These are rhythmic practices from Africa and the Caribbean, fused into a particular vocabulary used primarily in religious singing. One of the most common forms is called the “shout,” and for years I have been listening to the recordings and live performances of singers from places like Johns Island, Daufuskie, Beaufort, and Charleston, South Carolina.
One such signature rhythm is the “double-clap” – a series of eighth notes with particular accents that create a 3+3+2 pattern. It is related to, but different from the clave rhythm (3+2 or 2+3, depending). A Sea Island double clap uses it slight asymmetry to build power, eventually exploding and falling apart in what is various known as a Pentecostal or Apostolic clap, code for inspired improvisation.
The opening rhythm of Revelation in DOUBLE RAINBOW is -- guess what? – a doubled version of a double clap! 3+3+3+3+2+2. It happens over two bar phrases of 4/4 time. First the orchestra plays the rhythm while the pianos hammer away at some repeated notes – a speedy version of the repeated notes from the opening of the piece.
Then the pianists play the doubled double-clap, and the orchestra hammers away.
This playful contest of rhythm trading continues throughout the movement, reaching its crazy climax in a tune played in a bluesy C major. (And oh, if you were wondering why there was a modulation to G in the second movement, there is a very straight forward tonal reason – the last movement is in C. That makes the tonal plan of the whole piece I. C-F; II. F#-G; III. C.)
It sounds as if the piece is going to end with grandeur, but at the last moment, I pull the plug on the fireworks to reveal some very subtle stars that reintroduce B-flat, giving the ending the flavor of C7 rather than simply C.
I hope you will have the opportunity to listen to the piece soon – for me it is in five hours!
Friday April 28
There are three movements to my new double piano concerto, DOUBLE RAINBOW, premiering in Madison, WI tomorrow night:
In a previous post, I talked about the first movement and its depiction of the formation of water from tiny, atomized particles. In the second movement, I wanted to explore what storms are, since double rainbows most often appear as a result of atmospheric disturbances. I also wanted to start with the orchestra, since the pianos had begun and basically dominated the first movement.
The main technical difference in Disturbances is that instead of focusing on the major second/minor seventh interval, things take a less stable turn with a greater emphasis on the minor second (and its inversion, the major seventh). Even in describing it, you can see my attraction to the little flip that occurs – kind of like a double rainbow, which inverts the order of the colors!
The movement opens with a low, growling D-flat in the bass trombone and bassoons, ascending and blossoming into a chord that is made up of lots of fifths and minor seconds. It is spaced more like a jazz chord (a couple of the musicians here in Madison asked me if I am a jazz composer. I could not have been more flattered!)
The bassoon then has a solo that inverts the intervals into a statement that speaks to the sadness that disturbances cause (and of course I am always interested in the emotional valences as well as the meteorological ones):
The repetition is a simple sequence, with one tiny deviation in the second phrase. The dip down at the end of the triplet is a fourth in the first version, but on the repeat it is a tritone or an augmented fourth. A little half-step intensification. Metaphorically, the whole movement is about what happens when a half-step invades your thinking, your life, your weather.
The first movement rotates around the tonal centers of C and F, and it ends on an F7 chord. The second movement has a huge storm in the middle that is definitely and resolutely in F-sharp minor, another level of half-step relationships. At the very end of the movement, the opening material returns and makes a slow, sliding modulation up to G major, one half-step up from the F-sharp minor storm.
Why G major? Well, for the answer to that, you’ll have to read next about the final movement: Revelation!
There are three movements to my new double piano concerto, DOUBLE RAINBOW, premiering in Madison, WI tomorrow night:
What happens when you see a double rainbow? It is the result of a lot of things. A ray of sunlight passes through a raindrop, reflecting off the back of the drop at varying angles. Along with this reflection is the refraction of light that causes us to see a spectrum of colors -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Certain angles and "bending" reflect light better for refraction to occur. The amount of light refraction corresponds to wavelength and color. For example, blue light is always refracted at a deeper angle than red light. This is the reason blue is found at the inside of the bow and red on the very outside.
Nature's natural color spectrum always elicits the same pattern (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) when light is refracted. While a primary rainbow is visible when light is reflected once off the back of a raindrop, a secondary and usually dimmer rainbow is spotted when light is reflected twice in a more complicated pattern. The colors of the second rainbow are inverted, with blue on the outside and red moved to the inside. The second bow appears dimmer or cloudier because much more light is released from two reflections, and both bows cover a larger portion of the sky.
In the first movement (Surfaces), I wanted to go back to that first drop of water. That one single drop. I read about how waterdrops form, from tiny molecules, some of which attract others and some which fall away. That image was inspiring, and I immediately sat down at the piano to improvise textures that began with a single note. In the first movement the two pianos each begin with a single note. The second piano is a slightly fainter reflection of the first, played in syncopation that splits the time in half. For me this was the key to a structure that would embody “doubleness” at every level.
I also got interested in the idea of how the surfaces of the ocean and of water generally capture and reflect light. The rest of the movement is an attempt to keep a musical pulse going for about 8 minutes while accumulating new bits of musical ideas and also reiterating a tune that becomes a kind of key for all three movements in the concerto:
It’s a really simple idea, and like the drops of water, it is just about a particular interval: the major second (or in its inverted form, a minor seventh). While I could have created all kinds of variations of the tune, I decided to keep it stubbornly intact in almost all of its recurrences, because I was interested in the way that a rainbow maintains its form in the sky. It’s one of the things we love about them. For that brief time, the rainbow is itself, bending but unchanging.
Next, more about the second movement (Disturbances).
Here is a little background on my double piano concerto being premiered by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night in Madison, Wisconsin:
DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows. My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water's edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water's surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word.
I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive "perfect moment," (think Eric Rohmer's Le Rayon Vert or Summer, as it's known in the US) and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of "doubleness," represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: "Surfaces" (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), "Disturbances" (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and "Revelation" (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.
In 2011 I was contemplating writing a new piano four hands piece for Michael and Jessica Shinn. That Fall they performed a benefit concert for their wonderful summer festival, PianoSonoma at the Yamaha Salon in New York City (more about that soon!). I heard them perform the Brahms Waltzes, and when they got to #15, I was deeply moved. I thought to myself, “What a gem! What a tiny little piece with such a big heart!”
As I was walking back across town to get on a train home, that internal mantra turned into a new title: “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love.” Yes, a little bit of a play on “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” by Dave Eggers, which I had just read and loved, but just different enough to make it my own. I decided I would try to compose a series of gems, and on the train ride home I jotted down the seven movement names, which never changed:
It was obviously going to be a piece about my relationship with my wife, Deborah, and I was going to dedicate the piece to her. This is a video of the premiere at the Juilliard School in May 2012. Michael and Jessica and I worked together before, but this piece brought us even closer. In many ways, it’s the reason we are doing DOUBLE RAINBOW in Madison this week.
OK. Take a breath, he says to himself. After a big weekend of hosting my son Will's a cappella group from U Chicago for the 2017 ICCA Finals at the Beacon, now I begin to turn my attention to a very exciting musical project of my own.
I should say "our own," because it's a project I've been developing in collaboration with pianists Michael and Jessica Shinn. It's called DOUBLE RAINBOW - a double piano concerto commissioned by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison, WI. The premiere is Friday night (4.28), but there are lots of stories to tell. I will be posting all week about it, in a little microburst of blogging. It's a piece about doubleness, about the reflective nature of twos as they appear in life and love. So first, as a teaser, I give you the stars of the show: Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.