Violin Concerto: Cycle of Life
2(+afl).2.2.2 / 184.108.40.206 / Timp. / Hp. / Str.
Available on request.
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2021 profile on CRAFT IN AMERICA (PBS)
In the fall of 2017, my old friend Aram Demirjian, fresh off his appointment as the new music director of the Knoxville Symphony, called to bend my ear about an intriguing project idea: the possibility of a concerto inspired by “Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity,” a masterful glass-and-metal installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art by local artist Richard Jolley. Did a composer come to mind that might be interested in such a thing? In a moment of uncharacteristic chutzpah, I responded, “Yeah. Me.”
Despite me having no initial familiarity with Jolley’s work beyond its title, the decision was a no-brainer. Aram and I had been close friends and collaborators since we overlapped as underclassmen in college, and it was exciting to level up together for a project of this scale. I had just finished my first commission for the KSO, an overture for Aram’s inaugural concert as music director, and had already established a good base of rapport and trust. And finally, the theme of “Cycle of Life” hit me right in my personal/creative sweet spot.
Since I was a young child, I’ve been fascinated with questions of the nature of life and our place in the cosmos—my grandmother recently discovered a drawing she kept from when I was about eight years old, in which I drew myself at various ages from seven months (a baby with toothless grin) to one hundred and twenty-seven (a gravestone marked “RIP”). My relationship to music and creativity flows directly from this existential bent: nowhere else do we get closer to the unknowable mystery than through a collective of instruments and voices in harmony. To top it off, my wife and I had recently become first-time parents. As I quickly learned, no amount of imaginative rumination can possibly prepare one for the lived experience of creating and nurturing a life.
Embarking on the project, little did Aram and I suspect quite how much the stuff of life would impact and inform “Cycle of Life,” the project. My wife and I welcomed a second child and navigated multiple interstate moves; I finished my doctorate and a post-doctoral fellowship; I overcame a chronic migraine condition that left me bedridden with vertigo for nearly half a year; and Aram bravely battled through his own brush with mortality in Hodgkin lymphoma.
And though it must seem overworn at this point, it’s hard to understate the role of the COVID pandemic in the process. We were set to premiere in the spring of 2020, only to call it off with months to spare. In the intervening two years, I found the pandemic immensely impactful on my thinking around the piece. As scary and disorienting as the initial months of fear and quarantine were, I felt humbled in the growing realization that this kind of population-level disruption wasn’t a fluke of our time: it was the norm of human history, indeed the history of all life. And yet, through all uncertainty and unrest, through war, plague and famine, the human need to gather and make community through music and artistic expression has been universal, knowing no boundary of race, creed, or status. The arts are no superfluous privilege, as our school budgets might have one believe: they are absolutely core to whatever it is that makes us human. Locked down at home with two small children for many months on end, I found myself stripping the concerto down to the studs, rewriting it from the ground up. I wanted something less polished, less deferential to its predecessors or accommodating of my artistic insecurities. More raw. Elemental. Less head, more heart.
In this evolution, the collaboration with our soloist, Tessa Lark, was absolutely crucial. Tessa hails from Kentucky, and is equally at home with a bluegrass reel as she is in the concert hall. My creative imagination owes a great debt to her uncommon combination of technical skill, stylistic versatility, and radical openness to discovery through collaboration.
And of course, through it all, the piece owes its inspiration and frame to Richard’s magisterial “Cycle of Life” installation. Soaring, radiant, emotional, somehow both intimate and colossal. Nothing was more motivating (and, at times, daunting) in the compositional process than the looming presence of his mastery, like a quiet whisper challenging me to do it justice.
Though the concerto is not overtly programmatic, my approach to its structure is essentially narrative in conception, with the solo violin as a kind of central character navigating the journey of the life cycle. Depending on the listener, this can be mapped onto any one of several levels of symbolic meaning, or perhaps multiple at once: the solo violin as the avatar of an individual person or living being navigating the journey from birth to death, or as the incomprehensible miracle of life itself amidst the forbidding vastness of the universe. In all of these conceptions, the orchestra plays the collective against the violin’s individual, the cosmic against the intimate, at times dialoguing, leading, following, supporting, antagonizing.
As the concerto’s conception came into sharper focus, the more its aims seemed at odds with traditional stagecraft. Customarily, a concerto soloist will wait for the orchestra to be seated and tuned before making a grand entrance, along with the maestro – in dress and reception, signaling their high status in distinction with the orchestra. Beyond the old-fashioned class implications of this pageantry, it also seemed to reify a certain parochial mythology: if the soloist is the avatar for life or an individual life, then marking the soloist as Different and Special reminds me of the way we as humans long fancied ourselves the center of the universe, the sun and stars revolving around us, destined to live forever through salvation, free from obligations of care to our natural environment and animal neighbors. With Aram and Tessa’s blessing, I proposed an alternative approach more in line with my vision of the life cycle: the individual inextricably a part of the collective and the natural world, from whence we come and are destined to return. Thus, rather than starting apart from and superior to the orchestra, Tessa starts and ends the piece seated amidst the violin section. We are all made of stardust, after all.
The concerto consists of an unusual seven movements, following the divisions established in Richard’s original artwork. In part, this is because of the elegance of his design. And in part, this is because I felt creatively galvanized by the expressive canvas of such a structure – the architecture of the piece flowed very naturally from the initial concept. In brief:
I. “Primordial” –
The first sound we hear is the pluck of the harp, like the vibrational thrum of the birth of the universe, from which emanates the “harmony of the spheres.” Chords and clusters swell in and out from one another like celestial bodies orbiting, refracting, and colliding: forces much older and larger than ourselves, with movements beyond our understanding. Beauty and terror.
II. “Emergence” –
The solo violin makes their first entrance, also emerging physically from the violin section. The first notes are gentle, even halting, like a baby foal finding its balance on wobbly legs. The soloist introduces a ritornello theme built on an ornately decorated major scale traversing up an octave from root to root. The orchestra, still with forbidding echoes of the universal forces, reflects and amplifies this ritornello theme as the violin builds confidence and expressive power through escalating variations and interludes.
III. “Flight” –
The solo violin builds up speed and takes off like a shot, launching into a moto perpetuo showpiece in the Romantic virtuoso tradition. This is adolescence in all its charisma and vanity – thrilling but not a little dangerous, driving too fast. The orchestra is a colorful dance partner here, all too willing to goad the violin along through propulsive rhythms and flourishes. Ultimately, our Icarus flies too close to the sun and is forced to reckon with melted wings.
IV. “Desire” –
The solo violin gives space as a solo cello sounds a long, sensuous melody derived from the inversion of the “emergence” theme, supported by the intimate accompaniment of the harp and alto flute. The solo violin responds with a melody of their own, and soon the violin and cello enmesh themselves in a coy duet. After playing around and over one another, ultimately the two lovers’ melodies join in unison to finish the movement.
V. Tree of Life –
The most texturally varied of the movements, here the solo violin begins with a very high singing melody executed freely, like an improvisation. This is followed in close canonic imitation by the orchestral violins: the solo violin’s words and deeds rippling out through the generations. This canonic texture is interposed by a Maestoso brass texture, the majesty of the great tree of life with roots and branches expanding ever outward, and with a tempestuous passage of overlapping rhythms, the generations cascading through time like a raging river.
VI. Contemplation –
In a free cadenza, the solo violin turns their thoughts inward, recapitulating fragments of melodies, textures, and figurations heard to this point with increasing hysteria, as if raging and trembling against the dying of the light. What has been? What could have been? Why are we here? What does it all mean?
VII. Sky –
The harp and strings usher the return of the “Primordial” universe, and the solo violin sings a somber but radiant melody of catharsis. Supported by ever-widening chords in the strings, the solo violin makes a grand ascent into the sky, ultimately accepting their destiny of being reabsorbed into the stars. As the solo violin joins the orchestra in a final unison, the soloist physically returns to the violin section, at one again with the orchestra.
– Michael Schachter