I have been working with the voice as an instrument since the mid-1960’s when as I sat at the piano vocalizing, I realized in a flash that the voice could reflect the fluidity and flexibility of the body; and that within it were limitless possibilities of color, texture, resonance, character, gender, landscape, ways of producing sound. From that time on, I began working with my own instrument-trying to discover the voices within. Now, in my first work for orchestra, I have sought to find vocal qualities within instruments, applying my particular approach to the voice to create new possibilities for instrumental sound.
The process of creating Possible Sky included several visits to Miami for preliminary sessions with the musicians of New World Symphony. Since exploring and extending possibilities for the voice is the heart of my work, I asked the musicians to share the extended techniques for their instruments that they were aware of as well as find new sounds during the session. I sang phrases so that they could try playing them on their instruments in an unaccustomed way. We also experimented with sketches of material which I had composed in New York. Some of the fruit of those sessions has found its way into Possible Sky.
The interaction with these young musicians was playful and rewarding. This exchange is unusual in the orchestra world where players usually read and interpret a finished score. The concept of this project proposed by Michael Tilson Thomas with the encouragement and support of R. Kurt Landon was to offer the musicians a chance to experience in a very direct way the creation of a new work.
Usually, when I compose a piece for my Vocal Ensemble, I spend a long period alone creating materials and sketches. Then within the rehearsal process which can be very long and labor intensive, we try variations, different voicings, structural possibilities and forms. I get to hear what I have worked on in a lively and creative give and take situation. Then alone again, I shape the forms and compose the final work. In the “finished” work (which to me is an organic, living form always developing and changing), there are usually sections with room to play within very strict and precise parameters. Just as in folk music a melody might be passed down through the oral/aural tradition with each individual embroidering, ornamenting, transforming it in his or her own way, this piece allows for the idiosyncratic qualities of orchestra members as individuals.
How do you make a work that thinks of the orchestra as a community? How do you offer an alternate template to the refinement of the Western European tradition by bringing out the primordial, raw and plangent qualities of the instruments and playing styles? How would you have, for example, three of the same instrument play the same pattern but each one sound slightly different as opposed to the traditional idea of unison and uniformity? How can we as audience members become aware of the humanity of the players, not just their skills? In this difficult time, what would sacred orchestra be? These were some of the questions I asked myself as I worked on Possible Sky.
I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to enter the world of the orchestra. I want to acknowledge and thank Kirk Nurock and Allison Sniffin who have been my companions on this first expedition. Possible Sky could not have been made with our their encouragement, knowledge and hours of work. And to Michael Tilson Thomas who is a visionary and friend, I offer my deepest thanks.