Acadia / Orchestra / Large Ensemble Works / Concert Music

Acadia

Acadia, 2011 (35′)

for orchestra

You can read a description of the origins of the title here, on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics blog.

Acadia was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra for their Inside the Classics series, hosted by Sam Bergman and conducted by Sarah Hicks, and is dedicated to Matt Wessler, Sharon Wong, Harriet Yiwa Wessler, and Silas Kaho Wessler.

Update: the Minnesota Orchestra appears to have discontinued the Inside the Classics blog, a valuable educational archive with extensive, insightful commentary by Sam Bergman and Sarah Hicks, as part of their response to the ongoing lockout of their musicians. This is a disappointing decision that is made even more disappointing by its predictability. The Inside the Classics series was (and hopefully, someday, will be again) a unique series that examined one large orchestral work each concert, providing musical and historical context in the first half of the program. In this case, that work was my new piece, Acadia, which was funded through a “microcommission” program of small donations from hundreds of audience members and supporters. The following text isn’t a program note, per se, but was an extended rumination that I posted on the ITC blog in advance of the premiere, and was written specifically for the ITC audience that commissioned the work.

 

When I was in graduate school at Yale, much of my time studying composition was spent with Ezra Laderman, the elder statesman of the composition faculty and one of the most open-minded composers that they’ve ever had at that institution. The man fought in World War II and wrote a symphony while stationed in Frankfurt. He came back to the States and, in comparison with, you know, being at war, the silly aesthetic “battles” (pun fully intended) of the late 20th century were simply not interesting. Oh, how I wish other composers had seen things through that lens. Laderman wrote whatever he felt like writing — concert music, jazz, film soundtracks, and whatever else, in whatever style — and did so with a meticulous craft and attentive ear. He brought that breadth of experience to his role as a teacher and never once tried to stop me from pursuing any of the crazy (for Yale) directions that I wanted to try.

One great piece of advice he gave me was to never tell the audience what a piece was “about”. He relayed a story in which a woman had come up to him after a performance, thanking him for writing a piece that so perfectly captured the sprit of mourning that she was in, having recently lost a loved one. He thanked her for the kind words, even though (as he told me), the piece had nothing to do with mourning, or death, or anything of the sort, at least not in his mind or in the narrative that he considered central to the piece. Sometimes, it makes sense to explain the origin of a work, especially if the work is written for a special occasion, and you want the audience to understand the connection between the abstract musical ideas in the composition and the concrete ideas concerning the occasion. But normally, music — even music with words, but especially music without — is highly abstract, open to many interpretations, conscious or otherwise.

The abstraction of music is both its strength and its weakness. We live in a culture where linear thought and concrete ideas are privileged over abstraction; art is defended as a means, not an end, useful in its ability to strengthen “real” skills, be they math scores or pattern recognition or the ability to communicate as a team. Nowhere in the defense of art is a defense of abstraction, of the need for non-linear thinking, and the beauty that comes when objects are neither “true” nor “false”. It’s not just art that suffers when we try to fit everything into a binary; texts from the philosophy of Rousseau to the American constitution to the Bible all contain inconsistencies to be resolved, not through choosing one way or another, but by learning to thrive in that underlying tension, to discover a truth that would never be known if one demanded a more facile “truth” that excluded the other position entirely. Abstract art is the purest form of non-binary thinking and creation, as there aren’t merely tensions between a binary, but different “truths” or even “ways of knowing” that work in many, many directions. When we bring ourselves and our histories into a work of art, the truth of the work is dependent on our own perspective as much as on the work itself. And that’s the strength of abstract art, and how it communicates so directly: by demanding that the viewer/listener build his or her own pathways of meaning, there’s an avenue already in place between the content of the work and the areas of emotional need that the viewer/listener brings to the table.

With all that in mind, there’s a lot (relatively speaking) at stake as I try to explain the title of my new work for the Orchestra, Acadia. There’s no linear narrative, except perhaps a very, very simple one that you’ll hopefully be able to follow without my explaining it. I don’t want to tell you too much, because I think it’s a work that can have many different meanings for different people. I don’t even know what it’s going to mean to me when I hear it — the process of writing and the process of listening are totally different creatures. I’ve been in dialogue with my imagined future-self, listening to the performance, and giving feedback from the perspective of the listener. But that’s hardly the same as the actual experience of hearing a piece live for the first time. If I’m not sure how I’m going to feel, or what I can take from the piece, why should I bring you down any specific road? Wouldn’t that be the most irresponsible thing I could do?

So I’ll just tell you a few things, and leave it at that. The word “Acadia” refers to the French colonies of the 17th and 18th centuries in northeastern North America, today comprised of mostly the Maritime Provinces of Canada, with small pieces of Québec and Maine. The “Acadians” migrated down to French territories in Florida and then the Louisiana Territories, where they mingled with other inhabitants and gradually came to be known as “Cajuns”. I first heard the term “Acadia” in the context of Acadia National Park, where I spent a few incredible days camping with a good friend, a long weekend that turned out to be a pivotal time — literally, in the sense of a pivot — in my life. If I were to break my life into two sections, the first part would end that weekend in Acadia, hiking in hills on the edge of open ocean, the southern tip of that land that stretches along the coast, upward to the Arctic. Acadia no longer exists, as a territory, but lives on as a place, marked by a distinct topography and climate (for a little while longer, at least), a gateway between the ocean and the Northern Forest of Canada and New England, sparsely populated with people who are distantly French or Wabanaki, identities receding into history like the name itself. Few words are as magical to me or feel more central to my life. And so, for a commission that means as much to me as any I’ve ever received, I wrote this piece with that word in mind, a pivotal word for a composition that may mark the end of something, or the beginning. It is written for the Minnesota Orchestra, of course, and for the Inside the Classics community, with special thanks to Sam and Sarah for making it possible, but also bears a dedication to my friends Matt Wessler and Sharon Wong, and their daughter Harriet, who are tied up in the weekend that this piece remembers, and commemorates, and buries, perhaps in the woods of New England or perhaps at sea, allowing the future to come as it comes, beholden to no ghost or memory.