“Apocalypse done right”: thoughts on “Snowpiercer”


In the 2013 post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer – based on Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel from 1982 – a train barrels nonstop around the world, carrying the remnants of humanity through a world rendered uninhabitable by a human-caused ice age. These last people maintain order with a brutal totalitarian social structure, and both film and graphic novel follow one man as he leads a revolution against it. The trailer makes the film out to be a bit more action-blockbuster than it actually is, but it’s still worth watching:

I noticed some connections between Snowpiercer and the rigid, hyper-mechanized, exaggerated grandiosity of the trains and mills of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, which was the subject matter of my 2010 orchestral work The Concerto of Deliverance. I tried to capture all of these qualities – positive and negative – in this older piece.

But my new wind ensemble work Atlas Fractures breaks this material apart and turns it on its head. I see Snowpiercer as a dystopian sequel to Atlas Shrugged, and the fragmentation of this older piece is meant to reflect this. The first part, “The Fifth Concerto”, takes its title from a sub-narrative in Atlas Shrugged: the story of composer Richard Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Halley – much like other male characters in the novel – is an elusive, blatantly exalted hero, and his fifth concerto is similarly shrouded in contrived mystery. Halley is the quintessential artist-narcissist, who self-righteously withholds his alleged greatness from society. The music here evokes an exaggerated heroism, confined by serial rhythmic structures, whose final burst of energy cuts to indifferent mechanical percussion. “imagining the Engine, from 1001 cars away” is a morass of uncoordinated sound, out of which emerges a truncated passage from my original work. Here’s one relevant image from that portion of the graphic novel:


The final part, “The Proloff Revolution”, refers to the protagonist of Le Transperceneige (renamed “Curtis” in the film) and the fight he leads against the train’s totalitarian social structure. He and the destitute inhabitants of the rear car fight their way to the front, only to learn that their revolution has been futile.

What drew me to Snowpiercer was the complex politics in both the film and graphic novel. Does it model a Communist totalitarian state, or a capitalist oligarchy? Is the Engine’s keeper John Galt or Mao Zedong? Both film and graphic novel actually offer conflicting answers to these questions, and double-takes between “right” and “left” abound. In the film, the man behind the Engine is the industrial oligarch Wilford (Ed Harris), who quietly but arrogantly basks in his material excess as he informs Curtis (Chris Evans) that he himself permitted the revolution to happen, because a hopeful proletariat is easier to control.


But the earlier classroom scene, where a teacher exhorts young children to chant in praise of Wilford, is unmistakably Maoist, as is the brutal food rationing for the lower class, who live in enforced squalor in the rear car of the train.


And in a further twist, the woman enforcing this social order, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), is an absurd caricature of several right-wing and fascist leaders who also bears a deliberate and unmistakeable resemblance to Ayn Rand:


The graphic novel offers even more complications: the man in charge of Olga (the Engine) is Alec Forrester – a sickly man who hardly resembles an image of wealth and power. And the message of futility is pure nihilism: Proloff has inadvertently spread a plague through the train, and he is the only man left alive.

For me, Atlas Fractures is a brief reflection on the complex politics of totalitarianism, whose evils have always arisen from both sides of the left-right binary. The score is here. I’m so incredibly grateful for Chris David Westover’s generous support of the piece! He’ll be conducting the first performance with the Bethel College Wind Ensemble on Friday 4/29.

Special thanks to the other consortium members as well:

Bixby (OK) High School Wind Ensemble, Jeremy Parker, music director
Meadows Wind Ensemble, Jack Delaney, music director
University of South Florida Wind Ensemble, John C. Carmichael, music director 

“Killing the Goat” at Fort Worth Opera

I’m so thrilled to announce that Killing the Goat, my opera based on Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Fiesta del Chivo, has been selected for Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Program in May of this year! A press release is available here.

Here’s the premiere, from May 2014, featuring Julia Bentley, Chad Sloan, Ricardo Rivera, eighth blackbird, the Pacifica Quartet, Jesse Langen and Cliff Colnot:


“Strobe” release!

Strobe is now available on Google Play! It’s featured on an album of performances from the NY Phil’s Biennial last year, and I’m so thrilled to be included on it. Also included are my Earshot colleagues Max Grafe and Julia Adolphe, as well as Matthias Pintscher, Michael Hersch, Oscar Bettison and others. Press release with more info is here.

Update #1: Now available on Spotify as well! Web version here, or search “ny phil biennial” in the Spotify app.

Update #2: And now on Amazon too!

Chaos, Fire and Nostalgia

At the end of Die Walküre, Wagner represents the fire surrounding a sleeping Brünnhilde with a beautiful flurry of orchestral activity: a sea of sweeping, impossibly fast violins under pointed woodwind and harp gestures. It’s called the “Feuerzauber” or “Magic Fire Music”, and here’s a small part of it:

Screenshot 2015-06-15 08.54.52

My new piece for the Mizzou International Composers Festival and Alarm Will Soundembers, fused to ash, alludes to this in strange and twisted ways, like these:

Screenshot 2015-06-15 09.03.56Screenshot 2015-06-15 09.06.21

There are other representations of fire, like the sustained, uncomfortably high brilliance of the opening, and the generally unpredictable fits and starts that pervade the piece. But this chaotic, noisy energy slowly extinguishes over time. It relaxes into a bluesy lyricism, then further fades into a cold but tender chorale, with simple melodic lines hovering over low sustained strings. The ending hovers on the edge of silence: wispy strings struggle to rise from the ashes but are cut off by an abrupt bass drum.

In spite of its dark ending, I see embers, fused to ash as nostalgic, not negative. There’s a twinge of sadness amid the brightness of the Magic Fire Music  – after all, it follows Wotan’s emotional Farewell to his daughter. Manic energy and brilliance aren’t invariably positive things, and they only burn for so long. And it’s not nihilism to find beauty in the process of fading away from them.

Sonifying the electrical patterns of rat brains

Neurosonics I is the first outgrowth of a collaboration I did with neuroscience graduate student Tahra Eissa, supported by the Arts|Science Initiative at the Logan Center for the Arts. Tahra’s lab runs experiments that study the electrical behavior of cultured rat neurons, and uses these data in the study of epilepsy. All of the sounds in the piece bear some relationship to the neuron activity: the pulses of raw noise that murmur at the opening are direct sonifications, while the unstable vibrating sounds use the neuron activity to manipulate filtering and some spectral frequencies. There are also drum sounds: Tahra plays percussion with the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, and she had previously noticed a relationship between certain drumming patterns and the electrical activity in the experiments. So I recorded her playing a handful of these patterns on her darabukka. All of these sounds float together in three-dimensional space, eventually combining into a maelstrom of activity. Neurosonics does not directly describe the epileptic experience, but I do have a personal connection to it, as I was diagnosed with a mild form of the condition 11 years ago.

Press for “Strobe”, opera, and more…


Hi! Thanks so much for visiting my site. I’m in the process of re-vamping it, so in the meantime, please find some recordings and other information about me at the addresses below. Thank you!

Soundcloud: http://www.soundcloud.com/andrewemcmanus
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/andrew-mcmanus/9/1b6/b12
Academia.edu: https://chicago.academia.edu/AndrewMcManus

And here is more information about the premiere of Strobe by the New York Philharmonic back in June:

New York Times
New York Classical Review

Finally, here is a video of the premiere of my opera, Killing the Goat (2012-2014):

Recording of “The Rarer Action” from the Wellesley Composers Conference, July 2012

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.”



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