A new Wander series and insights from composers Amy Beth Kirsten and Douglas Cuomo
August 28, 2023
A highlight of this summer’s concert season is the debut of the new Wander series, which moves musicians and audiences between different works of art installed at the art center.
On Saturday, September 2, Sandbox Percussion performs the world premieres of two works – holy sonnet and Proverb – commissioned respectively from composers Amy Beth Kirsten and Douglas J. Cuomo in celebration of Mark di Suvero’s 90th birthday and in response to the artist’s sculptures at Tippet Rise.
This is Sandbox Percussion’s third performance at Tippet Rise. Composed of members Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian Rosenbaum, and Terry Sweeney, the ensemble is always eager to perform in nature and to explore the many synergies between art and landscape, and we are more than happy to oblige!
Beginning at Beethoven’s Quartet, Sandbox Percussion will premiere holy sonnet by Amy Beth Kirsten, known for her theatrical compositions and described by BBC Music Magazine as “one of America’s most innovative and visionary composers.” From there, musicians and audience members will hike together, or take a shuttle van, approximately one mile to Mark di Suvero’s Proverb. The ensemble will then perform a new composition of the same name by Douglas J. Cuomo, known for a range of expressive works written for the concert, opera, and theatrical stage, as well as for television and film.
On Sunday, September 3, Sandbox Percussion will offer a repeat performance of these commissions in a pop-up performance at 2:00 PM on the main Cottonwood Campus. All guests of the art center that day are welcome to stop by and listen.
Composers Amy Beth Kirsten and Douglas J. Cuomo graciously shared their inspirations for these new works, which also shed light on their creative process:
holy sonnet by Amy Beth Kirsten
holy sonnet is inspired by several connected things and ideas. First, Mark di Suvero’s Beethoven’s Quartet, an incredible steel sculpture sitting upon the clay of the earth, that invites us to consider, among many things, scale and perspective. Standing next to it (as I will do for the first time for this world premiere), and hearing the sound it makes, is one experience of it. To the eye of a bird flying above, or a firefly, or the human eye from a plane, or to a bear from across the field, the experience is radically different. This multichotomy is intriguing to me.
It can be a bit paralyzing for a musician to be charged with composing a piece inspired by another artwork - especially one with “Beethoven” in the title! So rather than looking to Beethoven to further inspiration, I became curious about the things that are said to inspire Mr. di Suvero. (I wanted to form my idea of the artist, and of the work of art, without direct input from the artist himself, as a way to commune with the ideas and images the way one reads a poem - in solitude.)
I learned that Mr. di Suvero and I share a love of poetry - specifically the poet John Donne (d. 1631), and I was reminded of the “Holy Sonnets”, specifically “Batter my heart…” The rhythms of the music for my holy sonnet are literal translations of the phrase structure of Donne’s 14 lines. In the first movement, “break,” there is an emphasis on the number 5, which you will hear in the 5/8 meter (why 5? Donne’s sonnet is in iambic pentameter). The rhythms are quite strict until the musical machinations break. For the second movement, “my heart,” I wanted a more resonant sound that accumulates like an avalanche of bells, so I invented a rhythmic cycle (based on the Donne) in which each player plays the entire sonnet, and then they play it in canon. Finally, the canon divides and multiplies at its climax. In the third movement, “for you,” I apply Donne’s rhythms to the vocal part (the percussionists hum a melody in unison while they play).
As I worked through all of this, in the back of my mind was Beethoven, who struggled with deafness. I realized that many of the sounds (especially in movement one and three) are so incredibly fragile, and at times almost inaudible. It occurred to me how impractical this is. But it also occurred to me that, apparently, Beethoven wasn’t completely deaf; perhaps what he experienced near the end of his life were sounds that were something like this. It also occurred to me that my obsession with these tiny kaleidoscopic sounds and cycles aren’t the usual fodder for percussion quartet; and I quite like that.
In the setup of the instruments for holy sonnet, I was aiming to work with 8 pairs of agogo bells in a way that they’d never been approached before, for the very specific aim of finding the hidden voices inside of each bell. You’ll see that each instrument is inserted into a brake drum (from a car!) that is resting on a clay flowerpot. This clay pot / brake drum structure creates a resonating chamber that not only amplifies each bell but allows the metal arms themselves to be played and tuned to specific pitches. The result is a kind of sculpture of instruments made of steel and clay, bringing us full circle back to Mark’s work.
Proverb by Douglas J. Cuomo
Commissioned to be performed under the monumental Mark di Suvero sculpture Proverb, the music draws inspiration from the 60-foot high, bright red steel sculpture, which is set in a vast plain in the Montana Rocky Mountains. The four players are arrayed around the four legs of the sculpture, with the audience free to move about the sculpture throughout the performance.
Like the sculpture, the music contemplates man’s relationship to nature. As though arising from the plains, the piece envelopes the audience, evoking the sound of a giant, shimmering wind chime. Over time energetic rhythms appear and are passed around all from four directions, eventually forming a swirling mass and reaching a climax. The sound then begins to dissolve back into the natural world, ending with a hushed moment of audience participation, then silence, leaving only the natural sounds from which the music initially emerged.
A second Wander concert on Saturday, September 9 features The Westerlies, a brass quartet performing works by Robin Holcomb, Caroline Shaw, and Andy Clausen. Audience members will visit sculptures and structures across the Cottonwood Campus at Tippet Rise, including Iron Tree by Ai Wei Wei, Daydreams and Cursive Takes a Holiday by Patrick Dougherty, and Xylem by Francis Kéré.