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