I attended two performances of Jaron Lanier’s new work, “Symphony for Amelia”, a setting of a poem by Amelia Lanier, who may have been a muse of both William Shakespeare and William Byrd. Even after hearing the work twice, I can only recall the music in a patchy and imprecise way. The work began with a soprano solo (Janette Zilioli) presenting solemn thematic material – a modal stepwise melody reminiscent of the early polyphonic renaissance: stepwise and without obvious form or focus. And thus the work moved on, a sort of study on an unmemorable set of materials. Some materials were used incessantly, while other materials entered without relation and disappeared. Development would take a step forward, then retreat. Without direction or clarity and a lack of formal markers and changes Amelia just seemed to plod on, pulling a slow hocket-like figure from section to section. With no highs or low points, save for the last sung word ‘crown’, it was easy to be lost – the music simply ceasing to sound for an ending. The most interesting facets of Amelia was its unsupported polytonal and polymetric solo lines of the trumpet and clarinet, set against the orchestra and choir. Lanier also did a good job of selecting the right amount of text that allowed for interlude between stanzas of poetry.
The Winter Park Bach Festival Society and the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College pooled their funding together to provide Jaron Lanier this commission for chorus and orchestra, travel and speaking engagements. Excellent online media promoted “Amelia” as an important historical event and a coup for the Bach Festival. A positive outcome was that audiences expecting something new and enjoyable from Lanier may have found what they were looking for instead with Dan Crozier‘s opening work, “Fairy Tale”.
Jaron Lanier is a creative thinker with a unique, fascinating view of the world. I love his book You Are Not a Gadget and appreciate his role as social prophet of the tech world. (Here is a summary of what he discussed in his Winter Park Institute lecture from last year along with some of the ideas from his book.) A computer scientist from the pre-Apple days, and later founder of VPL in the early 90s, Lanier claims he coined the term Virtual Reality and built and sold virtual experience machines for “$100000 a pop” which apparently explored ritual, music and experience (and supposedly inspired the sci-fi film “Lawnmower Man”). His recent book, published by Alfred K. Knopf, put him in back in the spotlight and he was heralded by Time Magazine as one of 2010’s most influential people.
As a musician, Lanier is far more successful with short musical forms. We were treated to impromptu performances on rare eastern instruments at his lecture and post-dress rehearsal interview. His 1994 studio album of songs called “Instruments of Change” and 2003 collaboration with Robert Dick called Columns of Air are fun works fitting a genre that Jon Hassell calls Fourth World, “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques”. Lanier’s CDs are among the more interesting of that vein. He often called up a list of musical claims and name-drops to add to his hi tech ones : Quincy Jones, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Yoko Ono to name a few, and several orchestral commissions. But closer inspection reveals lots of vapor.
Dr. John Sinclair, the music director of the WP Bach Festival is an avid supporter of new music. I admire his openness to Lanier when he turned in a Logic MIDI sequence instead of a real musical score. He kept his support even though the creation of parts and a score required the intervention by a student who, at one point, needed to be flown to Lanier’s home to finalize the music. Our community needs to support such risk taking. We are also lucky to have the Winter Park Institute in our community. They bring leading thinkers and artists to Rollins and open their doors to the public – a policy that is crucially healthy for the Orlando area at large. These two institutions acknowledge the interplay of scienctific and artistic achievement posing an interesting experiment: what would happen if full symphonic forces were granted to a celebrated intellectual/ self-trained musician who could not write the music down?
“Symphony for Amelia” met a lukewarm applause. From my seat, near the back only 2 people stood in ovation, apparently finding the experience everything it was meant to be. But, it really seemed to me that people avoided the composer after his work premiered during the intermission (Beethoven’s 9th followed).
The real triumph of the evening was Rollins professor Dan Crozier’s “Fairy Tale”, heard first on the program. Richly scored and post-romantic in harmony, solidly in the vein of Berg, Strauss and maybe some Roy Harris – Crozier handled the orchestra beautifully. This is the first work of Dan Crozier’s I have ever heard by the Bach Festival orchestra and I would love to hear more. I hope this concert convinces Orlando audiences to always embrace their own group of active serious composers.