On May 9, Maestra Victoria Gau and her Takoma Ensemble will perform my piece The Fireman’s Carnival. This five-movement suite for strings, harp, and clarinet was inspired by one night in a small town in Pennsylvania. On that night, my four sisters and I were allowed to ride our bicycles to the Riverside Fireman’s Carnival, which had magically appeared the previous day. Where there had been an empty field there was now a Tilt-a Whirl, a tiny Ferris wheel, and a small midway of games. We stayed late into the night and rode home with a full moon shining through the fog. Many years later, I tried to capture this evanescent adventure in music. Though I recorded the piece in 2009, it has never been played live before now. The clarinet soloist will be Ben Redwine, a spectacular player. I can’t wait to hear what he brings to this strange creation.
At that concert, the ensemble will also premiere a three-movement piece called Three Completely Workable Perpetual Motion Devices that I wrote especially for them. This was my attempt to write like Vivaldi and test a string section’s ability to play at terrifically bright tempos. While I am fascinated with fake machines that claim impossible results—like the perpetual motion devices of the 19th century—I hope this piece is a mechanical invention that actually works.
The concert will be held at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is called “Barnett and the Brits” after me and the other two fellows on the program: Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten.
My main instruments are piano and guitar. Sure, when I was in my twenties, I played enough bluegrass fiddle to get by, but I long ago decided to leave the string instruments to the pros. When I was in the studio on Monday with a string ensemble, recording a film score I’d written, I realized just how much I have come to rely on the subtle expertise that good string players bring to a session. The concertmaster, Teri Lazar, knew exactly what to tell everyone about articulations, bowing, and dynamics, and she said it with such perfect string-player shorthand that I almost forgot to be amazed at how her instructions made the session go perfectly. Tools like Sibelius may make it easy for people like me to put dots on a page and write “Violin I” at the top of it, but string music can’t come alive without the depth of wisdom that resides in the hands, eyes, and hearts of the players. Fiddlers, I love you. And to anyone else who lends their years of practice and expertise to help create and improve on the music in someone else’s head: I love you too.
While I was composer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point last fall, I made the acquaintance of the cello professor there, Lawrence Leviton. Along with being a terrific player, he has a deep interest in film music and teaches a couple of fascinating courses on the subject. A love of film music is something we have in common, and in our talks on the subject, I ended up offering to write a cello concerto for him inspired by our mutual interest in film noir. Recently, I finished the 23-minute piece. Its five movements are named after common film noir conceits, including “Car Chase” and “Who Are You, Lady, and How Did You Get in Here?” I’ve posted the Sibelius synthesizations and scores here. I can’t wait to hear this piece performed by human beings.
My good friends, the fine filmmakers David Hanrahan and Joe Fab, recently finished a short film for the Everglades Foundation. They asked me to score it, and I was happy to write music that combined strings, horn, and acoustic guitar. It always feels good to write for a cause that is so easy to believe in. My only regret is that they did not ask me to go to Florida to truly drink in the atmosphere and warmth of the Everglades National Park.
At the same time, I was also scoring a film for Conservation International. It is part of their “Nature is Speaking” series and was narrated by Harrison Ford. Their temp track was from Steve Reich, so I obviously included marimbas and woodwinds in my work. And once again, I found myself thankful to Steve Reich for writing the way he has for the past 40 years. He was an inspiration for this film and has been an inspiration to me for much of my life.