Risky Business

Risky Business

Last year, I was chosen to be part of a special global event that was curated by the Lucerne Festival. One of the festival’s main sponsors, Swiss Re, was celebrating their 150th anniversary and, being a European corporation, chose to use the opportunity to examine global issues of critical importance surrounding the theme of “Risk.” (I’m not sure that Monsanto or Exxon-Mobil will celebrate their 150th in the same fashion, but who knows.) Diverging yet further from our American corporate proclivities, they chose to involve the Lucerne Festival into their celebration by commissioning 4 new works (!) that would be premiered in their flagship cities (Zurich, Hong Kong, London, and New York) as part of Risk-themed conferences taking place throughout the year. I was the New York composer and my work was premiered last year.

You can listen to all the works, including my Seeming Disorder of the Old City, at this link, which is part of a Q2 rebroadcast of the concert. My piece begins at the 11’30” mark.

As part of the commission, I was given an essay on the theme of Risk to consider, and asked to choose an approach to the theme that was particular to New York in some way. Since I’m working on an opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, thoughts about order and control and the risks inherent in urban planning were foremost in my mind. I recalled a line from Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which she refers to the surface chaos of the streets as masking an underlying order, what she called the “seeming disorder of the old city.” I wrote:

The Seeming Disorder of the Old City is a piece about the necessary risk of allowing individuals to create order out of chaos. Each of the six instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano) begins with a musical motive that is all their own. As the piece develops, the instruments cluster together in small groups, sharing themes and finding ways for their respective musical motives to work in tandem with the others’. By the end, all six have gathered into a collective “dance” that preserves their individuality while together building something greater.

Instead of working backward from this end goal, I took the compositional risk of creating each individual’s motive first, then letting those motives combine organically until the final combination of all six was achieved. This process of development and integration led to a great degree of musical spontaneity and to an unconventional form. In using this process, risk led me directly to innovation.

The title and concept of this piece come from Jane Jacobs’s theories of urban planning, developed in the middle of the 20th century in opposition to the norms of the day. In that period, powerful planners such as Robert Moses freely imposed their grand views of urban renewal onto existing city structures, pulling apart tightly-knit neighborhoods to build highways and bridges that would convey people from one single-use area (residential, commercial, or recreational) to another.

Jacobs proposed an alternative: successful urban planning was predicated on creating the necessary conditions for neighborhoods to organically develop a variety of uses from the actions of their inhabitants and visitors. The “seeming disorder” of such a neighborhood reveals, upon closer inspection, a beautifully functional civic choreography; this is the “dance” that my instruments ultimately discover together. Any visitor to a thriving urban neighborhood (such as Jacobs’s own Greenwich Village, here in New York) will recognize many of the characteristics she observed and proposed as a model for authentic urban renewal: shorter blocks, great diversity in the age and use of buildings, and the absence of enormous, neighborhood-dominating structures. These features create the best possible conditions for the neighborhood to succeed.

This kind of planning seems risky; instead of focusing on building and zoning areas with the certainty of fixed purposes, the planner cedes control of the city to the people within it. But that is how dynamic neighborhoods are formed, and how cities can develop unique characters. Once again, risk fosters innovation.

In a time when we face great threats to our security and stability, our leaders face the temptation to limit the freedom of individuals to be dynamic and to build our own society without constraint. Our incredible interconnectivity and the development of new electronic tools allows authorities to survey transactions, communications, and even the location and activity of individuals. The temptation is to apply control wherever possible. But what if our society can only move forward if we take the risk of leaving our fate in the hands of individuals, working within a collective system? Can we convince ourselves to take that kind of risk when the stakes seem so high?

While it may seem risky to allow this kind of freedom, in the end I believe it is much riskier to inhibit liberty and  innovation. I hope that my piece serves as an artistic illustration of that concept and I thank Swiss Re for the opportunity to write it in celebration of this milestone anniversary. Commissioning new art is a kind of risk in itself and I applaud them and the Lucerne Festival for taking a chance on new music.

Here’s the link again to have a listen. My piece starts at around 11’30”, but I encourage you to listen to the other compelling work on the program by Jagoda Szmytka, Dai Fujikura, and Ying Wang.