Transient Glory, the groundbreaking new music commissioning series created in 2001 by Artistic Director Francisco J. Núñez for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, returned in the fall of 2016 with six world premieres, representing a wide range of perspectives and styles from composers Mason Bates, Michael Gordon, Joan La Barbara, Jessie Montgomery, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, and Charles Wuorinen.
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Movements From SIRENS
Composer: Mason Bates
Text: Sirens from history and literature, including Homer’s Odyssey
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER
The sirens, those mythical beings of the island of Circe, occupy a unique place in literature. Unlike other temptresses, their lure is art, a song of such overpowering beauty that it draws sailors to a rocky death. In contemplating a large work, I imagined alluring and haunting music that would fully explore their special gifts.
Perhaps one thinks of lyrical, melodic music coming from sirens, but this cycle casts a wide net in exploring seduction music. But sirens do not always involve danger, and in fact sometimes they are personified as pure, heavenly beings emanating harmonious music. Pietro Aretino’s 16th-Century sonnet, a love poem in one breath, pays homage to the stars (“Stelle”), who are each blessed with a lovely siren atop them. This celestial setting gives way, in the central piece of the cycle, to the earthy and rich world of the indigenous South American people. The Quechua Indians associated sirens (“Sirinu”) with equal parts mystery, temptation, and magic. Sitting in a rainy hollow, our sleepy narrator tells of the sudden appearance of a beguiling, singing siren of indefinite color. The dreamy music of the opening soon turns into a bluesy, ritualistic dance when the siren begins its song. But even when the siren disappears, the half-asleep narrator still cannot rid his mind of its strange song.
The cycle goes furthest afield, at least on the dramatic level, in the inclusion of Christ’s calling of the first disciples from the Book of Matthew. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee, Peter and Andrew are approached by Christ, who offers perhaps the most intriguing (and haunting) line in history: “Come, follow me, and I will teach you to be fishers of men.” The meditative, highly static music of the fishermen breaks from its confines when Jesus speaks.
– Mason Bates
The music of Mason Bates fuses innovative orchestral writing, imaginative narrative forms, the harmonies of jazz and the rhythms of techno. Frequently performed by orchestras large and small, his symphonic music has been the first to receive widespread acceptance for its expanded palette of electronic sounds and is championed by leading conductors. Mr. Bates has become a visible advocate for bringing classical music to new audiences and bringing new music to new spaces through institutional partnerships or through his classical/DJ project Mercury Soul, which has transformed spaces into exciting, hybrid musical events drawing over a thousand people. Now, as the Kennedy Center’s first composer-in-residence, which began in the 2015-16 season, Mason Bates’s mission there is to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways. In a place with so many artforms – and so many sleek public spaces – he sees myriad possibilities.
GREAT TREES OF NEW YORK CITY
Composer: Michael Gordon
Texts: New York City Parks Department and Trees, a poem by Joyce Kilmer
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER
New York City has great trees. That’s what the NYC Parks Department says and so I took a look. You know what? It’s true. Every borough has trees that are special because of their size, age, history, or species. For the text of this new work for YPC I picked a few special trees from all over the city that were worth singing about. All of these trees are spectacular and many are connected to NYC history, like “Hangman’s Elm” that towers over the Northwest corner of Washington Square Park. According to legend traitors were hung from the branches of the tree during the American Revolution. The twin American Beeches planted by Jacob Riis at his wife Elisabeth’s grave not only mark their unique love story but remind us of the Riis’s ground-breaking work as a photojournalist and social reformer. Some trees are easily recognized, like the Sweetgum, with its five-pointed star-shaped leaves and its hard, spiked fruits. Some, like the Royal Paulownia in Snug Harbor, are magnificent in the spring when they are completely covered with purple flowers. Great Trees of New York City ends with two lines from Joyce Kilmer’s most famous poem, Trees: I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.
– Michael Gordon
Michael Gordon‘s music merges subtle rhythmic invention with incredible power. For almost three decades, Mr. Gordon has produced a strikingly diverse body of work, ranging from large-scale pieces for high-energy ensembles and major orchestral commissions to works conceived for the recording studio. His interest in adding dimensionality to the traditional concert experience has led to collaborations with artists in other media, such as film, theater, opera, and dance, and most frequently with filmmaker Bill Morrison and Ridge Theater. Mr. Gordon has been commissioned by Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, BBC Proms, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dresden Festival, National Centre for the Performing Arts Beijing, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, and YPC has previously commissioned three additional compositions from him for both its Transient Glory and Radio Radiance series. As YPC’s first composer in residence, he is composing a fifth work for YPC this season. Mr. Gordon has been honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a co-founder and co-artistic director of the Bang on a Can Festival, and his recordings are available on Nonesuch, CRI, and the Cantaloupe Music labels.
A MURMURATION FOR CHIBOK
Composer: Joan La Barbara
Lyricist: Monique Truong
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER
A ‘murmuration’ is both the action of murmuring and a flock of starlings, in particular the flock’s graceful, net-like swooping. “A Murmuration for Chibok’” is a raising of voices to honor and to keep in the vital present the over 250 school girls abducted in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014. As of March 2016, there are 219 girls still missing. We begin with ululations, evoking their chatter, laughter, inquisitiveness, and the joy of their beginnings. We call their names because each girl is an individual, beloved and missed. We connect as “sisters” because our song is not a “speaking for” but a joining with them in their lament and in their will to survive. The composition then engages microtonal fluctuations from a central, unifying tone in order to create acoustic “beats” and tensions. Focused overtones and reinforced harmonics add both a mysterious soaring as well as occasional bite to the sonic texture. Our song closes with a cascade—of voices, of water, of flight—with the final ringing crotales, each one a star in the night sky.
– Joan La Barbara
Composer/performer/actor Joan La Barbara is renowned for exploring the human voice as a multi-faceted instrument, expanding traditional boundaries in a unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques, such as multiphonics, circular singing, ululation, and glottal clicks, signature sounds that have influenced generations of composers and singers. She most recently received the 2016 Foundation for Contemporary Arts John Cage Award, and her many other awards and honors include a DAAD-Berlin Artist-in-Residency; Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri, and seven NEA Fellowships. She receives commissions from chamber ensembles, theater, orchestra, chorus, and interactive technology and soundscores for dance, video and film, including an electronic/vocal score for Sesame Street. Her multi-layered textural compositions have been premiered at Festival d’Automne à Paris, Brisbane Biennial, Lincoln Center, MaerzMusik Berlin, Warsaw Autumn, and many other international venues. Ms. La Barbara is on the artist faculties of NYU and Mannes/The New School and is currently working on a new production of John Cage’s “Song Books” and composing a new opera reflecting on the artistic process and sounds within the mind.
Monique Truong, the lyricist of A Murmuration for Chibok, is a Vietnamese American novelist and essayist. Her novels are THE BOOK OF SALT, BITTER IN THE MOUTH, and the work-in-progress THE SWEETEST FRUITS, forthcoming from Viking Books. Her novels have garnered her an American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, a New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, among other honors. Most recently a recipient of a U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is the Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College for fall 2016.
Composer: Jessie Montgomery
Text: Langston Hughes
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER
Langston Hughes’ use of language has an inherent musical phrasing. In his poem Danse Africaine (1922) the words read with a natural sense of movement, rhythm and cadence. He wrote these words during the time that his contemporary Marcus Garvey worked to move many African-Americans to adhere, literally and figuratively, to their African roots. Using drum-like inflections and syllables, I aimed to bring a dance-like character to the work that stays true to the poem’s internal rhythm and a joy that is best portrayed by young voices.
– Jessie Montgomery
New York City native and an alumna of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Jessie Montgomery is violinist, music educator, avid chamber musician, and composer, whose music has been premiered by such major ensembles as the JACK Quartet, the Vinca Quartet, Providence String Quartet, and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Since 1999, Jessie has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports the accomplishments of young African-American and Latino string players, and has been a two-time laureate in its annual competition. Jessie was named a Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra, was in residence at the Deer Valley Music Festival under the direction of composer Joan Tower, and was a two-time recipient of the Composer’s Apprentice Award given by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
As: A Surfeit of Similes
Robert Xavier Rodriguez, Composer
Text: Norton Juster
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER
My eight-minute musical setting of Norton Juster’s As: A Surfeit of Similes for Mixed Chorus and Piano Solo (2014) is the third Juster text I have had the pleasure of setting to music. It follows A Colorful Symphony (1987) for Narrator and Orchestra, from the children’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line, A Romance in Lower Mathematics (2005) for Narrator and Chamber Ensemble, with a subsequent 2011 version for Narrator and Orchestra. Francisco Nuñez and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City are giving the world premiere performances on November 4 and 6, 2016. In conjunction with this premiere, the YPC has commissioned another work, Menasherie (2015), based on animal poems by Ogden Nash.
As is a poem of 44 rhyming four-line stanzas in the same rhythm, each line containing a simile, for a total of 176 similes. Juster’s similes are mostly humorous, sometimes wistful and always witty, beginning with “As poor as a church mouse, As thin as a rail, As soft as a porpoise, As strong as a gale…” and ending with “As flat as a pancake, As tight as a screw, As gentle as caring, And as sad as adieu.” The author and the Robert A. Freedman Dramatic Agency, Inc. have granted me permission to set a selection of verses from the book, and I have chosen 18 stanzas with 72 similes.
The rhythms in both chorus and piano begin with simple, minimalist patterns which quickly develop into new, irregular rhythms, often juxtaposing three against four. The pitch material begins in Lydian mode, then suddenly becomes disjunct and chromatic, with frequent use of the octatonic scale (alternating half steps and whole steps) favored by Bartok and Stravinsky. These extremes battle until they gradually merge to reveal themselves as two sides of the same musical coin. Throughout the work, the virtuosic piano solo offers colorful commentary on the text, both as it is being sung and in short bridges between stanzas.
– Robert Xavier Rodríguez
Robert Xavier Rodríguez writes in all genres—opera, orchestral, concerto, ballet, vocal, choral, chamber, solo and music for the theater. His skillful command of the multi-hued palette of modern music includes mastery of such diverse musical elements as Pre-Columbian music; Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music; quotations from Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert; tango; ragtime; bluegrass; Dixieland; jazz; and mariachi — often combining multiple stylistic layers within a single composition. Mr. Rodríguez first gained international recognition in 1971, when he was awarded the Prix de Composition Musicale Prince Pierre de Monaco by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace at the Palais Princier in Monte Carlo. Other honors include the Prix Lili Boulanger, a Guggenheim Fellowship, awards from ASCAP and the Rockefeller Foundation, five NEA grants, and the Goddard Lieberson Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He currently holds the Endowed Chair of University Professor at The University of Texas at Dallas, where he is director of the Musica Nova ensemble.
Composer: Charles Wuorinen
Text: The Proclamation of Easter
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER
My Exsultet uses the ancient chant to which the Easter Proclamation is declaimed, normally by a deacon at the start of the Great Vigil of Easter. The chant dates from somewhere between the fourth and seventh centuries and consists of formulaic repetitions of simple phrases. I have elaborated these phrases canonically, melodically, and harmonically into a three-part vocal fabric, accompanied by obbligato instruments. The full text of the original goes on for quite some time. My choral-instrumental version is much shorter.
– Charles Wuorinen
Charles Wuorinen is among the world’s leading composers with more than 260 compositions encompassing orchestra, chamber ensemble, soloists, ballet, and stage. He has been described as a “maximalist,” writing music luxuriant, lyrical, expressive, and strikingly dramatic—works that are characterized by powerful harmonies and elegant craftsmanship, offering at once a link to the music of the past and a vision of a rich musical future. As a composer, conductor, and pianist, Mr. Wuorinen has worked with some of the finest performers of our time, and his works reflect the great virtuosity of his collaborators. His music has been recorded on nearly a dozen labels, including Naxos, a Charles Wuorinen Series on Albany Records, and two releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Among his many awards and honors are Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. Mr. Wuorinen is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Special thanks to Howard Gilman Foundation, ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund, Alice Ditson Fund of Columbia University, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and Amphion Foundation for their generous support of Transient Glory. The program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.