I don’t have to tell you that the state of arts funding in much of the US is dismal. That’s why I feel particularly fortunate to live in Montgomery County, Maryland, a jurisdiction that supports both mainstream and esoteric artistic endeavors. I was recently awarded a county grant to write and produce a new chamber work for strings, harp and percussion. The piece I have in mind will incorporate Latin rhythms, in honor of the county’s booming population of immigrants from Central and South America.
After eight months of work, I have just finished writing a big orchestral piece called Postcards from the West. Total running time, about 43 minutes. At first, the piece’s subject was pretty high-concept. I started out to write a four-movement work about the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and (don’t forget) plasma. But it was tough going. Maybe it comes from all the films I’ve scored, but I tend to work better when I have images in my head as I write. I started poking around the internet for pictures to inspire me and settled on four vintage postcards, each representing to me one of the four states of matter. Unexpectedly, all four images came from the American West, and my way forward became clear. Now the piece is finished, and I am hoping to find an orchestra to premiere this beast. I welcome all thoughts on this matter. Please contact me via postcard. If you’d like to hear or read the piece, you can find PDFs of the score and hear MP3s of a synth realization here.
You never know where your next idea will come from. Not long ago, my jazz band, Chaise Lounge, was playing at the funky and highly regarded venue The Rooster’s Wife in Aberdeen, North Carolina. Much of the charm of this theater comes from its owner, Janet Kenworthy, who lodges and feeds touring bands with exquisite Southern hospitality. After sound check, Janet gave us directions to her house: “Walk out this door, turn right on High Street, then walk up to Blue Street and it’s right there.” “OK,” I repeated, “You’re at the corner of High and Blue.” There was a weird silence in the air, and after the perfect pause, our bass player, Pete Ostle, said meaningfully, “Man, I’ve been there.”
How could this not be the next song in what singer Marilyn Older refers to as our “scorned-woman-slumped-over-bar catalog”? When we got home, I put pencil to staff paper and came up with a new song named after the intersection—and the mental state. Here’s a video of us performing it last week at our favorite DC supper club, The Hamilton: “The Corner of High and Blue.”
For the past few months I have been producing bits and pieces of country artist John Lilly’s State Song Project. He has written songs about twelve U.S. states and gotten a patchwork of grants and Kickstarter funds to cover the cost of recording and producing them. His songs seem to me to be the direct descendants of Hank Williams songs: forthright, tuneful, and lyrically solid. Last month we recorded “Mississippi” with the Chaise Lounge rhythm section, a blistering horn section, and three gospel backup singers. Next up will be his anthem to his home state, “The Hills of West Virginia.” When I first heard this song, it reminded me of a rather formal composition that might have been performed in a park gazebo in 1910. John was amazingly agreeable to my suggestion to orchestrate the piece for cornet, French horn, euphonium, tuba, background singers and a rhythm section of frailing banjo, guitar, and double bass. In a few weeks, we’ll go into the studio—and 100+ years back in time.