Shakespeare’s The Tempest finds Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan and a learned magician, stranded on a remote island. Twelve years prior his own brother, Antonio, had conspired with his rival Alonso, King of Naples, to depose him. When Prospero divines that Antonio and others are on a ship passing close to the island, he conjures a tempest that wrecks the ship, bringing those who have wronged him ashore. Prospero then uses his powers and those of his servant, the spirit Ariel, to torment Antonio, Alonso and the others. But Prospero cannot sustain his quest for vengeance indefinitely. In this scene from the play’s last act, Ariel reports to Prospero on the suffering of his enemies, saying that “if [he] now beheld them, [his] affections would become tender…Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero responds:

 “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
   Yet with nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
   Do I take part. The rarer action is
   In virtue than in vengeance.”

Believing them penitent, Prospero prepares to cast a a powerful spell to restore his enemies, end their punishment and, most importantly, exorcize his own demons. The Rarer Action traces the fantastic invocations of Prospero’s final spell and his (arguably) tragic resignation from magic. It concludes with a representation of Prospero’s enemies immobilized in the circle he had traced on the stage. The ending – the distant glow of a major triad in the piano and feeble, flickering crotales – invokes the ambiguous tone of the play’s end, best summarized by Prospero’s final monologue:

 “And my ending is despair,
  Unless I be relieved by prayer,
  Which pierces so that it assaults
  Mercy itself and frees all faults.
  As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
  Let your indulgence set me free.”

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http://andrewmcmanusmusic.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/the-rarer-action_-a-scene-from-shakespeares-_the-tempest_-2012-wellesley-composers-conference.mp3

Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano
Barry Crawford, flutes
Sarah Crocker, violin
Joshua Gordon, cello
Stephen Paysen, percussion
Ben Paysen, percussion
Christopher Oldfather, piano
James Baker, conductor

Here’s the recording of “Warrior” from the TMT concert last month. Featuring:

From eighth blackbird:

Tim Munro, flutes
Michael Maccaferri, clarinets
Doug Perkins, percussion

Program note below. Enjoy!

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In cathedrals (and indeed in any large, old, beautiful, sacred space), sounds, thoughts and ideas can easily disappear into an exquisitely beautiful sea of resonance. Warrior (2011-2012) is a personal examination of a religious or spiritual experience in one of these spaces. Faint melodic fragments and delicate bell sounds open the work, and these gradually transform into biting, jagged and even violent gestures. These slowly fade into a dense fog of dull, low drums and marimba. A sudden cry in the bass clarinet is equally suddenly interrupted by handbells, out of which emerges a sorrowful piccolo melody. Eventually joined by the clarinet, these wind lines become increasingly ecstatic, culminating in an explosive ascent. An overwhelming pealing of bells follows, slowly fading as the wind lines relax, eventually coming to a gentle rest on the very pitches that opened the work.

Here’s the recording for The Rarer Action, which I wrote for my teacher Augusta Read Thomas’ new composition class at the U of C. Performed by:

Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano
Constance Volk, flutes
Austin Wulliman, violin
Alison Attar, harp
Greg Beyer, vibraphone
Amy Briggs, piano

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Program Notes:

Shakespeare’s The Tempest finds Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan and a learned magician, stranded on a remote island. Twelve years prior his own brother, Antonio, had conspired with his rival Alonso, King of Naples, to depose him. When Prospero divines that Antonio and others are on a ship passing close to the island, he conjures a tempest that wrecks the ship, bringing those who have wronged him ashore. Prospero then uses his powers and those of his servant, the spirit Ariel, to torment Antonio, Alonso and the others. But Prospero cannot sustain his quest for vengeance indefinitely. In this scene from the play’s last act, Ariel reports to Prospero on the suffering of his enemies, saying that “if [he] now beheld them, [his] affections would become tender…Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero responds:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
  Yet with nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
  Do I take part. The rarer action is
  In virtue than in vengeance.”

Believing them penitent, Prospero prepares to cast a a powerful spell to restore his enemies, end their punishment and, most importantly, exorcize his own demons. The Rarer Action traces the fantastic invocations of Prospero’s final spell and his (arguably) tragic resignation from magic. It concludes with a representation of Prospero’s enemies immobilized in the circle he had traced on the stage. The ending – the distant glow of a major triad in the piano and feeble, flickering harp harmonics – invokes the ambiguous tone of the play’s end, best summarized by Prospero’s final monologue:

“And my ending is despair,
 Unless I be relieved by prayer, 
 Which pierces so that it assaults
 Mercy itself and frees all faults. 
 As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
 Let your indulgence set me free.”

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Text and Stage Directions:

Act V, Scene 1, lines 33-57:

[PROSPERO makes a circle on the stage.]

PROSPERO:   Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,

And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him

When he comes back; you demi-puppets that

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,

Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime

Is to make midnight-mushrooms, that rejoice

To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid
(Weak masters though ye be) I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory

Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up

The pine and cedar. Graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art. But this rough magic

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music (which even now I do)

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.

[Solemn music. Here enters ARIEL before, then ALONSO with a frantic gesture, attended by Gonzalo; SEBASTIAN and ANTONIO in like manner attended by ADRIAN and FRANCISCO. They all enter the circle which PROSPERO had made, and there stand charmed...]

Back in February I was in Norman, OK for the University of Oklahoma’s 4×4 Prizes, where The Concerto of Deliverance received its premiere. I had a great time working with conductor Emanuele Andrizzi, who’s also based here in Chicago. The concert recording is here. Enjoy!

Here’s the recording of Orbits from the University of Chicago New Music Ensemble Concert! Featuring Amy Briggs, piano and Andrew McManus, viola.

download mp3

I’ll be premiering “Orbits” with the wonderful pianist Amy Briggs this Saturday, Nov 13 at 8:00pm in Fulton Recital Hall at the University of Chicago! I wrote the piece back in June and July of 2009 (and wrote two posts on it back then), so I’m very excited to finally be performing it.  Here’s the official event information.  Program notes are below.

“Orbits” with Amy Briggs, piano
Saturday, Nov 13, 8:00pm
Fulton Recital Hall
University of Chicago
1010 E 59th St, 4th floor

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Orbits is a work about musical gravity.  The viola and piano behave like planetary objects engaged in a gravitational tug-of-war; they pull one another into different tempos and areas of musical material.  The first conflict of the work occurs when the piano first enters, decidedly out of time with the viola, which is quickly drawn into the piano’s new tempo.  After a brief period of unity this rhythmic conflict returns, escalating this time and culminating in the first climax of the work.  What follows is a slow, sparse meditation, devoid of rhythmic tension, that invokes the weightlessness of outer space.  The instruments rotate through this sequence of musical material twice more.  The work ends with both instruments vanishing into the distance; the piano’s soft chords become increasingly sparse until nothing remains but resonance, while the viola, hushed by a mute, ascends so high that pitch gives way to the hiss of the bow hair.

Orbits was written in the summer of 2009.  Special thanks to Amy Briggs for the hard work and dedication she brought to this performance.

“The rain was invisible in the darkness of the streets, but it hung like the sparkling fringe of a lampshade under the corner light…There was a thin gruel of mud on the pavements; he felt a gluey suction under his shoe soles and a chill slipping down past his collar.” (256)

“The silhouette of a conveyor belt moved against the strips of fire in the sky, raising coal to the top of a distant tower, as if an inexhaustible number of small black buckets rode out of the earth in a diagonal line across the sunset.  The harsh, distant clatter kept going through the rattle of the chains which a young man in blue overalls was fastening over the machinery, securing it to the flatcars lined on the siding of the Quinn Ball Bearing Company of Connecticut.” (269)

“The earth went flowing under the hood of the car.  Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees.  The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.  Among the colors of a picture post card, the car’s hood looked like the work of a jewler, with the sun sparkling on its chromium steel, and its black enamel reflecting the sky.”  (279)

“A few houses still stood within the skeleton of what had once been an industrial town.  Everything that could move, had moved away; but some human beings had remained.  The empty structures were vertical rubble; they had been eaten, not by time, but by men: boards torn out at random, missing patches of roofs, holes left in gutted cellars.  It looked as if blind hands had seized whatever fitted the need of the moment, with no concept of remaining in existence the next morning.  The inhabited houses were scattered at random among the ruins; the smoke of their chimneys was the only movement visible in town.  A shell of concrete, which had been a schoolhouse, stood on the outskirts; it looked like a skull, with the empty sockets of glassless windows, with a few strands of hair still clinging to it, in the shape of broken wires.” (283)

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

These are just a few of the images in Atlas‘ ninth chapter, “The Sacred and the Profane”.   Directly juxtaposing these images creates a set of stark contrasts.  In my just-completed string quartet, titled after this chapter, I attempt to capture a journey through contrasting and diverse images like these.  There are sweeping melodies, brief hints of rustic fiddling, sputtering polyrhythmic textures that mimic machinery, and desolate soundscapes that invoke ruins not unlike those described above.  The ending section of the work synthesizes elements of the preceding images into a “sacred” whole: the violins “mechanize” textures from the piece’s opening by playing them pizzicato and col legno, while the viola and cello turn the unsettling chorales heard previously into rich, sonorous consonance.  This apotheosis is short-lived; it quickly evaporates as filigree gestures ascend into the stratosphere, leaving behind violin harmonics that rapidly fade away.