to ascend (horizon light)

ensemble piano, violin, cello, and soprano voice
duration ~29:00
score PDF, 584KB
performance history 02/16/2005 by me, James Wolf, Anne Marie Jonas, Heidi Krause, Julia Krause, and Susan Oetgen (piano, string quartet, and soprano voice) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Millennium Stage series;
09/01–02/2005, 04/01–02/2006 by me, Rachel Crane, Jodi Beder, and Susan Oetgen (piano, string quartet, and soprano voice) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Millennium Stage series and Dance Place, Washington DC
date completed 07/10/2005
era NYC

background

In 2005, I was contacted by Daniel Burkholder, director of The PlayGround, about Susan Oetgen and I collaborating with him on a re-imagination of Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Daniel said, “I am going back to some of the source material that was the inspiration for the dance, the set and the music and working from there, as well as referencing Martha’s original. I want to create, in collaboration, an original work that is inspired by, alludes to, evolves from the original.”

This is pretty much the kind of thing I can’t turn down. Mind you, I was unfamiliar with the original work at the time. Had I known more about it, I probably would’ve been scared away. For what it’s worth: if you aren’t familiar with the original ballet, you should stop what you’re doing and watch it. The ballet is as astounding a ballet as Copland’s score is a musical work. The ballet and score are both magnificent as independent works, and perfectly matched.

In fact, before I say anything else, let’s acknowledge the genius that is Copland’s score. My piece by no means seeks to equate itself with that level of accomplishment; it just attempts to re-imagine.

origin

And that’s where the story gets interesting. The most notable “source material” was the Shaker hymn “Simple gifts” and William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. Daniel was using text from Williams’ book as narrative over the dance, and we were going to play throughout.

“Appalachian Spring” is (mis)known for embodying the “pioneer spirit,” painting a pastoral picture of the westward expansion, a glorification of Manifest Destiny, intertwined with a Puritanical simplicity and appreciation of nature. But the title was an afterthought, lifted from a Hart Crane poem (in which “spring” is a stream of water), and though the choreography and set design very much enforce the storyline, much of the meaning attached to the musical work is derived from that title despite the fact that Copland’s score was merely titled “A ballet for Martha” until publication. The emotional underpinning of the piece is evident throughout – the optimism of youth, the possibility of each new dawn, and the salvation of love. Martha’s work was very much a love letter to Erick Hawkins (a dancer in her company and her future husband), and that may be the metaphor for the story it portrays.

Based on that, there is a strong temptation to go the opposite direction; to make a re-imagination an indictment of the so-called “American Dream” or a testament to the betrayal of the promise that the original piece presented. This was, to me, too simplistic an approach. Instead, I wanted to understand what Graham saw in Williams’ work, because that would influence what Copland heard in Graham’s dance.

In the American Grain is a difficult and powerful read. It addresses the question of what it means to be American or to be native. From the time that the Americas were discovered by Europeans to the present, our existence on this side of the ocean has been one of transplantation, not adaptation. Williams pulls no punches; you get a blunt and critical assessment of American history from before colonization to the (then) present. Each chapter is written in a different voice, some are abstract, some are not. This book is anything but a glorification of Manifest Destiny, if anything it is a condemnation of our selective remembrance of our history in this land.

But in this very questioning are the seeds of the transformation—the processing—of this information into something you can take away from it. You have two choices from history: read it as it was and experience it as it was, or take it with you into the future.

This is hard to explain, and I needed to make sense of it before I could make sense of the music. Some examples from the text:

Though men may be possessed by beauty while they work, that is all they know of it or of their own terrible hands; they do not fathom the forces that carry them.

There must be a new wedding. But he saw (and only he saw) the prototype of it all, the native savage. To Boone the Indian was his greatest master. Not for himself surely to be an Indian ... but the reverse: to be himself in a new world, Indianlike.

“Don’t let’s have any poor,” is our slogan. And we do not notice that the chief reason for this is that it offends us to believe that there are the essentially poor who are far richer than we are who give.

We’ll take the whole period to begin with... as a living thing... something on the brink of the Unknown, as we are today... as a half-wild colony... There was a deeper matter... an untracked force that might lead anywhere; it was sprinttime in a new world when all things were possible. Freedom of conscience, a new start, and to be quit of Europe.

The strong sense of a beginning in Poe is in no one else before him. What he says, being thoroughly local in origin, has some chance of being universal in application, a thing they never dared conceive. ... Longfellow did it without genius, perhaps, but he did no more and no less than to bring the tower of the Seville Cathedral to Madison Square. This is the expression of a “good” spirit. It is the desire to have “culture” for America by “finding” it, full blown – somewhere. But we had wandered too far, suffered too many losses for that.

My takeaway was that the spirit intended to be defined was not one of mere succession, not the conquering of the land or tribe or fear, but the evolution of existence itself. The aim was to ascend to a higher level of consciousness, acknowledging the cost. What we considered “thriving” was nothing more than continuing. And that new horizon was never meant to be just a metaphor for westward expansion, but for finding the true nature of one’s individuality despite endemic sadness, fear, and the omnipresence of the Universal.

style

I think it’s extremely difficult to attempt to imitate the style (or orchestration) of a figure as impressive as Copland. So rather than go that route, I decided to draw on the bones of the Shaker hymn, to see what other flesh might still be there.

When I sonically dissected Copland’s score, I found that so much of the sound that makes that piece famous has its roots in the simplest of things: the major triad. From the opening theme—an ascending A major, first inversion, followed by an E major, second inversion (Figure 1)—to the main accents of the strictly diatonic melody of “Simple gifts”, the major triad and stacked fifths (Figure 2) and I-V relationship itself become the basis for everything that follows. When I tried to disassemble the Shaker hymn, I found that Copland had used virtually every piece for themes, counter-themes, and development. Trying to capture elements of that sounds without blatant copying seemed impossible. So I just soaked in the piece for days, letting the aesthetic fill me, but without referring to any score.

opening theme
Figure 1. Copland’s opening theme (“As at first”)
stacked fifths
Figure 2. Stacked fifths from stacked I & V in A major

Daniel wanted a sort of structured improvisation, and I think my score was far more traditional than he wanted or expected. But he did say that he wanted more melody and a less “out there” approach to this collaboration than previous ones he’d done. He wanted some singing to not be words (and indeed what words would be sung?). Our largest ensemble was even smaller than what the ballet score called for. Initially scored for piano, string quartet, and soprano, the piece was successfully realized only once we went even smaller still: piano, cello, violin, voice. Daniel had integrated the dancers with the musicians and narrator, so the aesthetic challenge was very much to make this piece its own while drawing the right amount from the original.

construction

Daniel modeled the dance after Graham’s ballet, adhering to the overall structure while swapping some characters and parts. He would send me videotapes of rehearsals, and I would send completed musical sections to him and Susan. I spent the better part of a month doing nothing but working during the day, and then working on this until I fell asleep. I was living in a third-floor walkup in Brooklyn at the time, and I don’t know if I left it more than once a week while writing this. Still, after solid dedication, the piece had real holes. Letter K especially was written and re-written repeatedly.

As part of the re-arrangement to a smaller musical ensemble, Daniel asked for more singing. When it came time to perform the reduced version, we had to sacrifice nearly all of the newly-added vocal parts. The physical limitation of singing and dancing simultaneously was too much, and we covered the vocal lines in other instruments and left the dance parts intact (this was primarily a dance performance, after all).

I had mixed feelings about the use of voice. On one hand, adding any vocal (especially if there were to be words) places the re-imagination even further from the original; on the other hand, that was one of the constraints. I wanted to make sure that the vocal was used effectively, and not as a stylistic crutch. So the music needed to work as music, independent of the instrumentation (including the voice) as much as possible.

Letter L, Susan’s solo, was, as usual for our dynamic, the easiest part for me to write. She gave me her sketch for that section and said that she wanted it a cappella, accompanied by only clapping from the dancers. It took me less than an hour to create supporting music for it that fit with the harmonic language of the larger work, unifying it with the rest of the piece. I played it for her and she hesitated before saying, “I hate it when you do that” and agreeing to using the music.

Though I was convinced at the time that reducing the instrumentation from the original quartet to just violin and cello would render it insufficient, in retrospect the “duo version” is much better. One section was completely reworked (letter C), but the rest were just more deftly arranged. [The only exceptions were the canon (letter G) and Susan’s song. In both cases, having more instrumental voices lent a stronger sound for those sections. I don’t dislike the reduced versions, they’re just different from what I initially had in mind.]

Copland’s ballet score is longer than the orchestral suite that has since become popularized. Similarly, this piece also has some incidental music that supported dancing or narration (all of which Daniel had excerpted from In the American Grain). Perhaps the simplest way to talk about this score is by rehearsal letter, showing both the heart of the accompanying narration and my notes (the second letter is often, but not always, an accompanying transition):

  1. A and B (entrance)

    I wanted to hold onto this particular quote from the book: “This is the calumny that surrounds the American Spirit... a winter we are now in” even if the opening was to be pastoral. A statement of separate elements, joined only in the same temporal space.

    It was seven years ago that I climbed up to the ledge to peer out and down. When I reached the edge I just stood alone – peering toward the horizon. The edges between the earth and the sky blurred. I lost the sense of the difference between the solid and the ephemeral. I began to fall. Without fear, without panic, but filled with curiosity. I floated without question. As if I sprang from nothing; not bone, noth thought, not action. Now, I stand here with only this desire, with only this need to huddle.

    These sections are introductory, starting as if from nothing and coming to solidity at the close, when future themes are introduced.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 102KB)

  2. C and D (folk dance)

    Society’s statement, a metaphor for a community. Neutral. Uniformity. Transitions into an awareness of new horizons, and the call of possibility.

    The New World, existing in those times beyond the sphere of all things known, lay as the middle of the desert or the sea lies now – its own dark life which goes on to an immaculate fulfillment in which we have no part. But now, the western land can not guard its seclusion longer; a predestined and bitter fruit existing, perversely, before the white flower of its birth, it was laid bare. For it is an achievement of a flower – pure, white, waxlike and fragrant.

    Letter C was completely re-written at least four times; the first performance had an entirely different version of this section, but every performance thereafter had this (final) one.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 259KB)

  3. E and F (wife’s solo)

    The instinct that what you’re finding (with someone else) is one and the same thing as yourself.

    They moved out across the seas stirred by instincts, ancient beyond thought as the depths they were crossing, which they obeyed under the names of men or god or whatever it might be, while they watched the New unfolding itself miraculously before them.

    In the original, this was the husband’s dance. It expresses one’s experience of the awareness of the possibility that stretches out before the individual, even in the context of society. Musically, this leans heavily on the major second chordal relationship, which was a particular steal from Copland’s theme – the seam of the opening theme, a major second, expanded to chordal form.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 92KB)

  4. G and H (courtship duet)

    The overflowing of optimism, the ebullient expansion of it – there is a regal giddiness to it, a self-justification and a pre-maturity, as this is not the complete picture, but a hint of the self’s ability to create a universe. Coming together, in the face of fear.

    And then, mountains were to be crossed and a new and unexplored country, invested with every beauty, every danger, every incident that could amuse the imagination or quicken action, lay before them, the indefinite world of the future.

    As in the original, the Husband and Wife have a first duet. Daniel imagined this to be the “courtship” of the couple. This is a canon that builds from two- to four-voice at the end, stemming from the original string quartet version. It transitions to a sort of processional (letter I).
    Score excerpt (PDF, 46KB)

  5. I, J, and K (celebration)

    Instead of the preacher, this is a sort of prelude to a celebration – a “New Wedding.” The tribe begins to celebrate, to the distraction of the couple, though they don’t see the native savage. They see the thriving universe, the apparent epitome of a “good future” as defined by the Universal. Everyone is swept away with this new wedding, this one-ness within the system.

    A New World, that’s what they were. It was a springtime that they, at their most impassioned, were attempting.

    This begins with a processional, the slow final statement of the canon theme. It transitions to a more lyric version of society’s theme (from letter D), but comes into its own as a celebratory theme before collapsing into the muse’s solo.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 182KB)

  6. L (muse’s solo)

    In the original, after the celebration section, the Pioneering woman has a dance solo. This is the frontier: the call, the promise, the possibility, the future that can, that might, or might never be. The voice of balance. There was no narration for this section, as it has vocals (and lyrics) throughout as the centerpiece for the dancers and the instruments.

    In the quartet version, the piano part was pizzicato strings, and the spidering string lines in the verses was piano; but beyond the verses, the rest of the arrangement is basically the same. This is the most divergent from the rest of the work’s aesthetic, but the major triads are brought in as heroic counter-themes in ending of the song’s B section, as if it were planned all along.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 201KB)

  7. M and N (husband’s solo)

    The acknowledgement that the other person may feel doubt as well, but the promise of unity is an empowering intoxicant. Optimism, but Hope implies Doubt. The inevitable descent.

    Dancing, singing with the wild abandon of being close, closer, closest together – waggin’, wavin’, weavin’, shakin’; or alone, in a cabin, at night, in the stillness, in the moonlight – bein’ nothin’ – with gravity, with tenderness – they arrive.

    In the original, the bride has a solo here – this is the groom’s solo. Musically, it’s a variation and expansion of the celebration theme (letter K) that explodes into a joyous (dare I say it) Rodeo-esque dance, and then fades into a cello solo.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 162KB)

  8. O (marriage duet)

    The sovereign power of unity, solemnly affirming that “something simple can be something worthy of optimism.” The self can ascend. As Williams wrote, “One the earth itself, the other air. Somehow, they should have joined.”

    This expands the cello solo theme to its own section, turning minor from the beginning, to add some solemnity to the joy that preceded it. The processional theme returns one last time, drawn out and stately, before the storm.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 141KB)

  9. P and Q (warning and simple gifts)

    The future, while all promise, does not hold only good.

    Every flower was more fragrant. And every horizon was a sunrise. Each breath was clear and deep. As they gathered they were embedded with the ability to create, if you will, to manifest their own destiny. This would have been a perfect ending. But with each blooming there is a wilting. Wide open spaces become crowded. Embraces become wrestling. The miraculous becomes the mundance. Celebrations into massacres. Union into dissent.

    This parallels the original’s preacher’s warning dance. It opens with a jarring descending arpeggiation in the piano. A series of anxious chords stack, collapse, and stack again, repeating like flames that flicker, then leap, then flicker again, then leap higher. At its height, it stops, and leaves just the soprano to sing “Simple Gifts” in a minor key, with no lyrics. Very slight pizzicato strings join for the second half.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 142KB)

  10. R (paris dream)

    It ends with healing.

    One afternoon I mounted a bus and let it drag me through the rain. Some laborers were taking their overcoats out of a kiosk to put them on; one of the younger of the men had a mirror between his hands which he kept holding before an old fellow who had to launch, in spite of himself, but shyly, like an embarrassed boy, at his own silly face which he saw there.

    At the bottom of an alley which opened into a court, as of a decayed cloister, was the doorway. It was a small room, nearly filled by a great table. He excused himself a moment to accompany a lady to the bus. We sat and looked at each other. It was a pleasure to be sitting in this small room, in this secluded court, with this man. Almost at once he began to speak out of my imagination.

    Frightened, I began to heal nevertheless.

    This was a very interesting part of the book, the Paris dream, and a forceful redirection of the plot of the music. Rather than succumb to the fear of the warning or the melancholy of simplicity lost, we choose to look up. To be optimistic despite the past, despite the potential disasters to come. This is where hints to Copland’s “As at first” theme begin to appear nearly-verbatim, but not fully realized. One of my favorite parts of this is a setting of only the harmonic progression of “Simple Gifts” (in a major key) underscoring the end of the narration.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 88KB)

  11. S and T (solo, duet, groups)

    A prayer, a wish, a hope. This is a reprise of the wife’s solo (letter E), combined with an echo of the end of the duet (letter O), which grows and shrinks to match the change from solo to duet and then to groups of dancers.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 133KB)

  12. U (finale)

    To ascend? If nothing else, perhaps whether the individual transcends the universal pressure is ... each person’s choice?

    It began with the searching. The climbing. The crossing. The attempting. The unfolding. The dancing, singing. The laughing. The wilting. The healing... The relief is never ending, never failing. It is water from a spring.

    This begins like the opening of the piece, but at its close in the piano is (at last) a direct quote of Copland’s “As at first” theme. The dancers left the stage and only the singer remains as the stage fades to black. Despite the vocal lines being more or less decoration, it closes with a simple four-note solo vocal resolution.
    Score excerpt (PDF, 53KB)

reception

Daniel’s title for the work was “horizon light: an appalachian spring” (I titled the musical work separately after the fact). A review by danceviewtimes said of the music only that it “often echoed Copland’s score for Appalachian Spring. Near quotes could be found: a bouncy dance passage like that Graham gives her Revivalist’s acolytes and, also, something akin to her duet for the Bride and Groom.” A review in the Washington Post Style section did not mention the music at all.