At one formal dinner function at the American Academy in Berlin, where I was a fellow for the 2010-2011 academic year, I was seated next to the filmmaker, Tacita Dean. Getting to know her films through my own research after that initial contact, I was struck by her work, The Green Ray. The title refers to an optical phenomenon of the highest frequency light appearing as the last rays of a sunset. I found it beautiful that in Tacita’s work the green ray is visible in the film, but cannot be isolated on any single frame: It champions faith and belief in what you see. Her commitment, over years of effort, to go to extraordinary means to capture this light resonated with what I have been striving to achieve in my work as a composer.
I believe that a sound, in and of itself, can have communicative power that one cannot translate into anything else. My favorite sounds deliver a similar feeling of the transcendental power of natural phenomena that Tacita Dean’s film delivers to me visually.
In a quest to discover sounds that speak to me on that level, I often conduct tests on instruments for which I am composing. These independent tests are augmented by what I learn through intense collaborations with performers for whom I am composing. Many of my works derive their structural aspects from considerations of the special instrumental skills of the performers with whom I collaborate, in a manner I term “person-specific.” Peradam is person-specific for the Del Sol String Quartet. Having heard them play a number of times, I was particularly inspired by the fact that all the members can sing and play beautifully, as well as the fact that they are whole- heartedly invested in the performance of microtones (which is important to me since my harmonic world mixes equal tempered notes, quarter-tones, justly intoned notes, and microtonal harmonies derived from formant analysis of sung vowels). These aspects are prominently featured throughout my piece.
The most person-specific aspect of this piece is dedicated to what the violist, Charlton, can do. He can throat sing. As a composer who lives a double life as a vocalist specializing in extended techniques including throat singing, I was blown away when Charlton showed me he could throat sing. It was at that moment that I knew I had to write a piece for him and the Del Sols!
The title of my piece, Peradam, refers to a rare mythical diamond-like stone that is the invention of René Daumal and appears in his novel, Mount Analogue. The novel is an allegorical spiritual quest in the guise of an alpine ascent. In Daumal’s novel, peradam is found on the slopes of Mount Analogue and appears to whomever “seeks it with sincere desire…it reveals itself by its sudden sparkle, like that of dewdrops.” Peradam is a metaphor for a rare, beautiful, natural phenomenon, an object that stands for discoveries we can attain over a lifetime of searching for them, much like Tacita Dean’s Green Ray. Spending my life looking for musical peradams, I feel blessed whenever I meet and have the opportunity to collaborate with musicians like Charlton and the Del Sols, where together we journey toward the summits of our Mount Analogues. Musicians such as these help expand my imagination for what might be possible, and make it real in performance.
One additional feature that makes the premiere of this piece special is having the opportunity to collaborate again with the video artist, Johnny Dekam. Years ago, he created an interactive video for the premiere of my saxophone and electronics piece,whatWALL?, at the Duderstadt Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It’s inspiring to me that he not only has the talent and taste to create stunning visual works, but he also has the skill to create custom software which interacts with parameters controlled by live musical input. The software helps make each performance unique: It privileges the live experience, a quality that resonates fully with my aesthetic.