Clay

This morning, the Independence Day holiday in the United States, was quiet, serene, and full of life. As I walked through the garden soon after dawn, there was no noise from traffic, no conversations trailing from the homes of neighbors. Angel and I moved through the flowers, listening to bird song and witnessing the flight of butterflies and bees. Such an oasis of quiet in an otherwise noisy holiday punctuated by fireworks and noisemakers. I noted the rich beautiful blossoms of daylily (hemerocallis) ‘American Revolution’ – striking in its dark color and defined form still dotted with  morning dew.

AmericanRevolution

Daylily ‘Tiger Eye Spider’ looked like a silent explosion of color, a floral fireworks fitting to the day.

tigereyespider

In a few weeks, we will submit the final mixes of my CD Watershed for duplication, with a scheduled fall release. While listening to Bill editing the music today, it felt right to share a preview of the third movement of one of the pieces on the CD, Sketches of America. In a time of tumult in our country, I am reminded of the main theme of this piece, the melody of “America the Beautiful” and how I love the beauty of this country and its highest ideals.

Sketches of America was inspired by my travels through the American landscape as well as an exploration of uniquely American musical forms, specifically minimalism and the blues. The orchestral piece has three main sections and features solo trumpet and trombone in various ways.  The final section is a chorale adapted from a solo song that I wrote entitled Clay. Struggling to create a new garden on solid clay soil, I responded by writing an ode to clay, exploring its dual nature and potential symbolism for life.

Clay, so full of life to be released
through fork and spade and shredded leaf,
the solid ground beneath our feet,
Clay.

Trumpeter Sean Jones and trombonist Ed Kocher soar in a beautiful and poignant manner in this section. The hymn like song Clay seemed a fitting end for “Sketches of America,” the solid ground beneath our feet and a reminder of the melody of America the Beautiful. I dedicated this piece to my father, whose birthday was on the 4th of July. Enjoy.

Special thanks to Bill Purse, sound engineer and producer extraordinaire, and Jim Cunningham of WQED-FM for sharing the live concert recording of Sketches of America as broadcast on WQED-FM.

All music, text, and images ©2019 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved

Sketches of America

Last night, the Washington Symphony Orchestra performed “Sketches of America” as part of their “Picture This” concert. Under the creative and enthusiastic guidance of Music Director Yugo Ikach, the WSO is a community orchestra, which means that the majority of the musicians are volunteers and participate for the love of performing music.  “Sketches” was originally written for and performed by the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra featuring professional soloists, including reknowned jazz trumpeter Sean Jones.  I wanted to hear how the WSO would perform the piece, with very little input from me other than the written score.  Would it work?

The title “Sketches of America” was a play on Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”  which itself was a jazz interpretation of Rodriguez’s Adagio movement of the “Concierto de Aranjuez.” I was commissioned to create an orchestral piece that would include a section for jazz improvisation by the soloists, a somewhat daunting task in orchestral writing.  My own goals were more complex – I wanted to draw on American musical traditions as well as musically reflect on my love of the American landscape.  The strains of “America the Beautiful” kept running through my head as I was composing, and a few fragments of the melody crept into the piece as well.

The first section of the piece, “the painted desert” draws on minimalism, a uniquely American approach to “concert music” typified by composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Inspired by a long November drive through the deserts of Arizona, a panorama of grey skies, yellow flowering shrubs, and tumbleweed, I remember a vast quiet world marked by the rhythmic turn of the car wheels. (The full version of “The Painted Desert” was used in my “Autumn Minimalism” post, in the video soundtrack)

That repeating rhythm segues into the syncopation of “a joyful blues” – another American musical tradition in the form of jazz and blues. Not content to write the traditional twelve bar blues in 4/4, I constructed a thirteen bar blues in 5/8 meter over which the solo trumpet and trombone improvise to the fast rhythms of  the pizzicato strings. Those seemingly odd numbers are part of the Fibonacci number sequence, something that occurs throughout the natural world in the form of flowers, seashells, and trees

“Sketches” closes with a chorale style section based on “Clay”, a song that I wrote in response to my efforts to dig and amend the clay in my garden. One of the lyrics, “. . . the solid ground beneath our feet” became a metaphor for the natural beauty of our vast country and the challenge of keeping it “America the beautiful.”

The WSO performance?  Wonderful. The piece worked, the orchestra sounded great, the soloists rose to the challenge, and the effect was just as I had intended.  That moment of hushed silence in the hall at the close of the piece, the sign that the audience was listening and involved, seemed more important than the applause that followed. Those of you who are composers know that this does not always happen!  As my husband and colleague remarked later, “the piece played itself.”  It was an unexpectedly moving experience and I was touched to the heart, and at that moment, I was very glad indeed to be a composer.

(The recordings above were taken from the premier of “Sketches of America” performed by Sean Jones, trumpet, and Ed Kocher, trombone, with the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sidney Harth.)

All music and text in “Sketches of America” ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved