In-depth: Composer Keith Lay on his premiere Saturday with Orlando Philharmonic
The artistic direction of Eric Jacobsen, the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO) has made a few fairly bold moves with its programming by featuring music from contemporary composers – we’ve recently heard music by Gabriel Kahane, Andrew Norman, and Zhao Jiping, among others. An exciting opportunity for a world premiere in the ‘classics series’ finale of the 2015-2016 season was left open for a while; the ‘TBA’ commission was to connect Wagner’s Overture to Tannhaüser to Ravel’s very different Alborada del gracioso, a challenging undertaking.
In late January, the OPO announced that local composer and educator Keith Lay had received the commission. This Saturday the orchestra is presenting the world premiere of Lay’s first symphony, Venus and Vulcan in America, under the baton of Jacobsen.
No stranger to Orlando’s classical music scene, Lay is known for crafting exploratory orchestral, chamber, and electronic music, with a bent for the avant-garde and the unusual. His various explorations have taken him from the open spaces of downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola – his Distance Music is for walking audience, train horns, and brass choirs – to the intimate atmosphere of the Timucua White House. For the comedic When Leaders Stop Listening, performed last fall at the latter venue, the composer collaborated with three Cirque du Soleil mimes, to wittily poke fun at the stifling pervasiveness of hierarchical systems in corporate America. In 2015 Lay received an American Prize for his violin concerto Children on the Playground, in recognition of his “special achievement in the art of the concerto.” The piece was performed in February 2010 by soloist Tamas Kocsis and a string section from the OPO, under the direction of Christopher Wilkins (OPO music director at the time).
Lay, a Central Florida Composers Forum member and Full Sail University professor, also collaborated with the OPO on Four Dimensions, for orchestra, EWI, and surround electronics. The piece was commissioned by Wilkins to be premiered at the April 21, 2012 fundraiser gala concert “Symphony in HD,” at Full Sail. With electronic wind instrument (EWI), large LED screens, and a Nintendo Wii remote control for a baton, with which conductor Dirk Meyer triggered the electronics, Four Dimensions was an adventuresome show.
Looking forward to the premiere of Venus and Vulcan in America, I recently caught up with Lay to find out how one takes the challenge of bridging Wagner’s music to Ravel’s with a new piece, without losing one’s personal style, and to discover the origin and creative process that resulted in Venus and Vulcan in America:
How did the commission happen? How did the two of you connect, resulting in the commission?
David Schillhammer [former executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic] introduced me to Maestro Jacobsen as an important area composer on the day that Eric first visited Orlando to conduct in 2014. After he was chosen as director and the 2015-2016 season was announced, I directly asked him and David if they’d consider me for this commission, which was then listed as ‘TBA.’
How long did it take you to compose and notate the piece?
David gave me the good news on October 6 , and we had a conference call with Eric on October 7. I started sketches of various ideas and arrangements on paper a month later, when I learned what forces I had at my disposal. I played/showed Eric and David the first completed versions on January 27. Two more versions of the score were made, which included better details and an extended last movement. I delivered the parts [on the week of February 29].
You’re known in town for unusual projects, like your distance music, and your piece for EWI, among others. Will Venus and Vulcanhave a similar experimental approach? I did notice the score calls for a MIDI keyboard; can you tell me about that?
I love very low frequencies (20Hz – 40Hz) in sound when they provide a fundamental bass for harmony. Humans hear those frequencies poorly, which makes them impossible to use without a great deal of power behind them. Pop music, having the benefit of amplification, relies heavily on low frequency bass and drum tones to produce their feeling. The only symphonic/acoustic instruments that can produce them loudly are the orchestral bass drum and organ pedals. I am keeping the acoustic nature of the orchestra sacrosanct, but introducing a modern subwoofer to propagate these frequencies, driven by a sine wave from a synthesizer performed on a small MIDI keyboard by the celeste player. It’s an experiment – we’ll see how it goes!
What drew you to Greek and Roman mythology as the subject matter of the piece?
Like most people, I have been interested in religions throughout my life. Most myths are still potent to provide sense of place emotionally and existentially: they provide a non-Cartesian, non-location where-ness and rightness guide. We need myths. Traditional religions are myths, too. They are more powerful than science in informing our everyday lives because they are created and shaped by the people it serves. The Greek myths, like most religions, anthropomorphize its messages through the actions of humanlike characters.
Paradoxically, I use myths to help us relate to the powerhouse of knowledge that scientific method has provided mankind. In the last few decades, the sciences are revealing many of ‘life’s big questions’ about how life ‘works,’ how interconnected life is, how our brains function, intelligence, time and space – all amazing and profound. They will have an ever bigger impact on our lives regarding health, psychology, ecology and industry in the near future.
I had created the Vulcan and Venus themes and musical direction before the title or story concept. Choosing the story was a deliberate search to fit the musical statements and development.
Musically, I’m very interested in the music of modern French composer Henri Dutilleux [1916–2013]. As the sense of Vulcan’s harmonies leaned more and more towards ‘American Industrial,’ with stacks of different qualities of thirds and Stravinskian staccato phrases – the kind of feeling you might get from a 50s documentary about progress – I searched my feelings for why I liked it, and the story of the gods came to me right away: Vulcan, who could be the modern god of industry, science and production.
The original story tells of the arranged marriage between Venus and Vulcan – Venus being the most beautiful and sensuous woman married to Vulcan – clever and intelligent and hardworking, but less handsome than other gods and in some cases, infirm. In the stories, Venus shares her husband’s bed and he takes care of her needs in opulence. But, she’s drawn to Mars. We don’t know why. It’s not that he’s just young and handsome because all of the other gods had those qualities. Mars was hated by all other gods. Not only is he the god of war, he is the god of mindless destruction, out-of-control bloodshed, rape, violence. I am fascinated by this pairing of opposites. I think it is worthy of exploration to help shed light on modern warlike cultures. In the second and third movement, I change the story to something new. In my telling, Venus has an epiphany (second movement “Transformation of Heart”) to realize how much she loves Vulcan. This is not in the myths. Since science has become more powerful than war in the last millennia, I changed the ending to this “Revenge of the Nerds” reality. The last movement is a kind of frolic in happiness.
Although the idea to connect the piece to the Wagner and Ravel in the program is good, do you feel that it might limit the ability of the piece to be programmed in the future, or can it stand on its own?
This piece is not limited in programming at all. It will be just as strong as an open or close in any sequence of other works. Sometimes being disciplined creates music that would not have happened in any other way.
This is your first symphony; were there any challenges along the way? Any big differences from other music you’ve worked on most recently?
Writing for symphony is great fun – the sounds that are available with all of the various combinations of instruments, tempi, texture and ranges that are a bountiful gift to the imagination. My recent work has explored theater (When Leaders Stop Listening), organic, non-regular meter (Joy of Mindfulness and Studies in Flowing Meter), unidirectional lines and rock beats (Two Edge Sword), and a piece allowing the audience to actually explore the time/space continuum through melody (Distance Music at Lake Eola). The last movement, “Loves Flight and Play,” is an updated and expanded version of the second movement of the Glazer Suite I composed for Benoit Glazer’s [owner of the Timucua White House] talented family in 2011 for the first Accidental Music Festival. This commission has allowed me to employ what I’ve learned from all of them.
I hope that my music reflects 21st century new thought, which has come to recognize how emotion, spirit and interconnectedness of all things are more important than fact alone. I am searching for a whole human music that relates to both the mind and the emotions.
I noticed you posted the preview on YouTube and asked for comments of the symphony as a work in progress, which is unusual but interesting to see you open up to suggestions. Do you think more composers should open up the same way along the composition process?
The late Stephen Paulus [1949–2014] suggested that classical composers try to get their audiences involved in the creative process so they felt they had a part in its creation. I love that idea, both in a PR/marketing sense, but also because I realize that constructive, honest opinions are highly valuable. When artists get into spending every waking moment in creativity, it is easy to lose sight of what the first impression of their work might be on an audience. I think two heads (or 200) are better than one. [The responses] were highly valuable and made me realize I needed to add time to the third movement, which they felt ended to soon. It worked.
What have been the reactions from Jacobsen or other OPO musicians?
Eric is extremely positive about the music. So are the staff and musicians. The orchestra asked for links to the MIDI realization along with their music, which makes me so happy! They are interested in making this a great performance and I’m grateful for their professionalism.
How many rehearsal sessions does the orchestra get for the piece?
I get time Wednesday and Thursday [this week], and then Friday for the dress rehearsal.
Will you be involved in the rehearsal process?
Absolutely. I’ll be out of the way and ready to sort out any issues with mistakes on the parts or interpretation decisions. Plus, I’ve got to decide levels for the subwoofer music.
Finally, this is a great opportunity for local contemporary classical composers (and fans); how do you envision commissions of new music (especially local) happening more often?
Recent changes in Orlando’s cultural geography, like Dr. Phillips Center, and UCF’s Creative Village, are just recent manifestations of a strong arts community that has been growing stronger and stronger since the 80s. I’m glad to be a part of it. Eric Jacobsen is shoving the whole timeline forward with his avant-garde experience of New York and the whole world, travelling with his quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He is at the forefront of classical music – or I might say just ‘music.’ Like the newly interconnected sciences of the 21st century, the traditional walls between music genres are melting as irrelevant. Music marketing people are catching on to this new, young attitude. New music isn’t in the vacuum of the ivory tower anymore – it’s on the streets, vital and interconnected with every genre – new and old.
To learn more about composer Keith Lay, click here.
To purchase tickets to the concert, click here.
Saturday, March 26, 2016 | 8 p.m.
- WAGNER Overture to Tannhäuser
- KEITH LAY Symphony: Venus and Vulcan in America
- RAVEL Alborada del gracioso
- MUSSORGSKY/RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition
Venue: Bob Carr Theater