Introduction and goals behind the symphony Venus and Vulcan in America

After getting the good news on October 6th, 2015 that I was to write a new piece for the Orlando Philharmonic I inquired “What kind of piece would you like?”  The next day, Maestro Jacobsen challenged me with :

“How about you create a piece that connects them? Start where the Tannhaüser ends and take us to where the Ravel begins?”

At first I declined because such constraints would possibly make the piece too hard to program for future concerts. But, I took the challenge hoping that I was a good enough composer to meet his specification while at the same time using those requirements to my advantage. I could write a piece that met these requirements in my own compositional voice. I began sketching at once, learned my orchestra’s instrumentation in November and delivered parts in late January 2016, just a few months after receiving the commission. This work begs for a last, fourth movement, which will be written at some point in the future. .

 

What’s the connection to Venus and Vulcan?

This work was inspired by the ideas of composer Pauline Oliveros and a book called Presence by Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworski, C. Otto Scharmer and Betty Sue Flowers. They both speak of interconnectedness as key to a new level of understanding. Relationships are more fundamental than things. Interconnectedness is not a new idea for artists from any discipline, who express themselves using various relationships and percepts of their medium. For a composer, a specific note is not important, but the relationship of that note to other sounds heard with it and before it is.

The same revolutionary idea shook quantum mechanics in the 20th Century and has been penetrating all of scientific thought since.

relationships are more fundamental than things

Previously unrelated scientific fields, like astronomy, biology, physics, biochemistry, economics, sociology, psychology and so on, have grown by connecting with each other. These new fields are needed to answer complex challenges like cancer, understanding the brain, earth’s ecosystems and renewable energy. This new attitude in the sciences is profound and deserves a new myth, and a good reason to write a symphony.

The Greek myth of Hephaestus and Aphrodite, was updated as Vulcan and Venus by the Romans. Vulcan is one of the 12 Olympian gods from Greek/Roman mythology. He represented fire, metalworking, stone, sculpture – the crafts: the ancient version of the Applied Sciences. Admired by the other gods for his skills, knowledge, even temperament, and his gift of forging their weapons,  he was the only god that was not perfectly formed. Some accounts claim he was ugly and deformed. Venus, the Goddess of love, beauty and sexuality became his wife – but only because their marriage was required by Zeus. Vulcan was heartbroken when he found that Venus was having affairs, and he proved her infidelity to the other gods by entrapping her in the act with her favorite consort, Mars – the God of War, within a magical net contrived for that purpose. The original version of the myth reinforces the high regard that Romans placed on fighting prowess and physical beauty. Men like Vulcan were not high on the social order in ancient times. Some scholars have good reason to believe that blacksmiths were even outcasts.

However, over the centuries, applied scientific endeavor (Vulcan) has improved our lives more than war (Mars). The new sciences are transforming our lives more rapidly than ever. Todays most important and powerful people are scientists and code imagineers. In my revised version of “Venus and Vulcan in America”, Venus eventually finds Vulcan far more attractive than Mars.

 My update of the Venus and Vulcan myth is Revenge of the Nerds.

Is Venus and Vulcan program music (music that follows a story)?

Yes, because people will use their imagination more constructively if they can personally relate to the music. Classic myths about gods and goddesses are the perfect material for this they are distant enough to not contain faces, places and feelings – yet they are all deeply personal  and resonate with our personal experiences and emotions. They are also not detailed stories and remain very basic, unlike a film or book underscore. Using a mythological story therefore provides me a great deal of compositional freedom – and the listener room to interpret the music in any way they want – and feel like they can follow and enjoy the music when hearing it for the first time.

To help the audience know where the story was at, all twelve points in the story were projected onto the cloud above the orchestra:

My goals with “Venus and Vulcan”

  1. To demonstrate the emotional power and vitality of new music composition to the classical-concert attending public
  2. To demonstrate the relevance of ancient folk tales (these from Rome/Greece) to the modern listener by creating music that follows the story
  3. To help the audience know what was happening in the original story (1st movement) during the music by projecting subtitles onto the cloud over the orchestra
  4. To invite the audience to use their imaginations to connect the story with the music
  5. To invite the audience into the sound of modern composition by associating them with a story
  6. To innovate in orchestration with the use of modern technology: namely low frequency sine waves played by the celeste musician with a sine-wave synthesizer through subwoofers appropriate for the large hall. see Musings “Why the synth subwoofer with orchestra“?
  7. To experiment with flowing meter for orchestra, my concept of repeated accelerandi and ritards previously tested in “Equilateral” for clarinet quartet and “Joy of Mindfulness” for chamber orchestra.
  8. To compose solo passages specifically for the principal chairs of the Orlando Philharmonic, my “home orchestra” that I’ve grown to know and love for more than 20 years.

Performances

World Premiere: March 26, 2016 by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eric Jacobsen. Bob Car Performing Arts Theater 400 W. Livingston Ave., Orlando, Florida.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Reply

    Stan Cording

    12 03 2016

    As usual, Keith, I admire your the ideas very much, especially the material in first movement. And I look forward to hearing, as always seems to happen with you, what wonderful orchestral effect of yours will wow me that I’ve totally underestimated from just “reading” it on paper.

    I think you’ve done a great job fulfilling the “assignment”. And I’m glad Eric didn’t ask me. I don’t think I would have been nearly as gracious. I’m afraid my reaction to the idea of bridging Tannhäuser and Alborada would be: “why should a composer who naturally bridges the 20th and 21st centuries write something that bridges the 19th and 20th?!?” And you immediately identified the “catch”, trying to do that in your own voice of more than a century later. But, of course, somehow, you managed to do it. Whether I could or not is doubtful, and I don’t think I would have been willing to try.

    Hopefully there will still be plenty of opportunities for you to write the pieces that I want to hear from you, those that bridge this century and the next. And I’ll have a chance to glimpse the music yet to come that will follow from your influence, from its seeds and elements in your own music.

  • Reply

    keithlay

    16 08 2016

    Stan, thanks as always, fellow composer, for taking some time to respond on my website. Your reticence to accept a commission with 19th strings attached interests me (though I am certain you would have exceeded every expectation had it been you). Sound is sound. It can’t age because it is energy. It is always new if lost in the microcosm of entropy or converted to heat in some unknown corner of the universe. All music, when played, is as vital, as far physics go, just as alive as it was at its first performance. If something has aged and wears a patina of history – that aging exists only between the ears of those who believe it has aged. Maestro Jacobsen could have said Perotin or Gregorian Chant and I’d have been just as excited.
    Best always,
    Keith

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