This album is, perhaps more than anything else, a reflection of the creative energy that comes from being deeply rooted in a vibrant artistic community. For Separate Self we wanted to capture some of that communal energy by focusing on my collaborations with visual artists. First and foremost I need to express my thanks to IonSound Project. My highly fruitful partnership with IonSound began with their premiere of Trouble in 2008. That initial success paved the way for me to collaborate with Ryan Day (creator of the digital animation for Kecow hit tamen), Garth Zeglin (robotic fabric sculptures for Separate Self), Michael Morrill (whose Linea Terminale paintings inspired Nocturnes), and Will Zavala (the filmmaker for Virgil Cantini: The Artist in Public). It's difficult for me to put into words just how much joy it has given me to work with such innovative artists. I can't imagine any of these compositions taking the shapes they eventually took outside the context of these particular artists and performers, and for that I'm deeply grateful.
I hope you enjoy listening to these pieces, and I hope you take advantage of the Enhanced Content Web site, so that you can experience them holistically.
About the Music
Trouble is based on a Gradual for the Second Sunday of Lent (LU 546) “The troubles of my heart are multiplied: deliver me from my necessities.” Psalm 24:17, (Douay). I adapted the medieval technique of cantus firmus, using the chant as a slow-moving bass line in the outer sections, and creating elaborate polyphony around the chant (presented prominently by the cello) during the middle section of the piece.
Separate Self is a collaboration with IonSound Project, roboticist/sculptor Garth Zeglin, and myself. The project features three of Garth’s robotic sculptures basically dancing to the music I wrote.
My first and lasting impression of Garth’s robotic fabric sculptures is that they are elegant and graceful creatures who move beautifully and expressively. I created the music for Separate Self with a clear idea of how the robots would move (thanks to computer simulations Garth shared with me early in the design stage), but also with the thought that many different kinds of entities—including humans—could move to this music and enjoy doing so.
I composed Nocturnes as part of an interdisciplinary celebration of Galileo’s 450th Birthday that took place on February 15th, 2014 at Pitt’s University Art Gallery. The event was cosponsored by Pitt’s Department of Music, Department of Studio Arts, and the University Art Gallery. For the celebration, we presented Nocturnes along with an exhibit of Michael Morrill’s Linea Terminale paintings which are themselves inspired by Galileo’s moon drawings. Thus, Nocturnes takes its inspiration from Michael’s paintings and the broader idea of celebrating Galileo’s life and scientific contributions.
Like Linea Terminale, the music consists of four sets of three miniatures. About the time I was finishing the twelfth section, it occurred to me that the common character of all the movements was that of the nocturne. I realized that the whole time I’d been composing the piece, the image of Galileo peering through his telescope at the moon had been in the back of my mind. Which makes sense, since nighttime is still the best time to observe the moon.
Nocturnes responds to the highly reverberant acoustical characteristics of the Rotunda at Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts Building by juxtaposing drone like reference points with bursts of sound and incorporating silences that allow the room’s resonances to become part of the work. The structural preoccupation with spatial relationships is also a nod to Galileo’s contemporaries such as Giovanni Gabrieli.
Kecow hit tamen is a very personal reflection on my roots, through my father, in the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. The modern Lumbee trace their ancestry to Eastern Siouan, Cherokee, and Tuscarora, with one of the enduring legends being that the tribe emerges, at least in part, from the intermarriage between members of Raleigh’s Lost Colony and the Hatteras. The Carolina Algonquian phrase “Kecow hit tamen?” means either “What is this?” or “What is your name?” The phrase was recorded by Thomas Hariot during Raleigh’s initial expedition, and, given the competing theories on Lumbee history, seems like an appropriate starting point for my own reflections on that history.
Thomas Hariot’s translations of Carolina Algonquian and additional vocabulary derived from John White’s annotated watercolors supply the best samples we have of the language spoken the by native peoples they encountered. Sadly, only a hundred or so words remain of a much larger effort and these describe mostly the local flora and fauna.
I approached the composition of Kecow hit tamen almost as I would a vocal piece, sketching a melodic fragment for the question itself and for each of Hariot’s and White’s words. These fragments then became the basis for a series of overlapping micro-variations that constitute the instrumental layer. I have not tried to mimic Native American musics in any way, but rather evoke the experience of learning a new language, with the need to say a word in different ways in order to feel where it should be in the mouth and throat. The instrumental layer then, is designed to capture the visceral feeling of exploring new words while the audio samples surround the listener with approximations of how the spoken language might have sounded.
In September of 2009, I composed and produced the score for Will Zavala’s short documentary Virgil Cantini: The Artist in Public. The film is one of four documentaries commissioned by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and funded by the Heinz Endowments and premiered at PCA on September 25, 2009.
Virgil Cantini worked primarily in metal and ceramic and created many pieces of public art including the sculptures on Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health (Man), in front of Pitt’s School of Law (Ode to Space), in Penn Circle behind East Liberty Presbyterian (Joy of Life), and many more. Cantini founded Pitt’s Department of Studio Arts. He passed away in May of 2009.
Funding for Separate Self was provided by the Investing in Professional Artists Program, a partnership of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments. Additional funding was provided by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and by generous individuals who contributed to the Fractured Atlas Fiscally Sponsored Project “Recording Project: Philip Thompson's Visual Arts-Inspired Chamber Music.”
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