Light Readings, a commissioned work by Sam Adams, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence, will receive its world premiere June 6 at the season-finale concert of MusicNOW. Written for a large vocal ensemble and eight instruments, the 11-movement work draws on the Rückert poems that Gustav Mahler set in his song cycle Kindertotenlieder and Hasan Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics, an 11th-century treatise on visual perception and the physics of light. Adams recently sat down with Elizabeth Ogonek, his fellow CSO composer-in-residence, to discuss the genesis of Light Readings.
Elizabeth Ogonek: Introduce yourself and your life.
Sam Adams: I’m a composer, a bass player and an electronic musician. I am living in Chicago now, making music of all sorts. The piece on today’s program is titled Light Readings.
EO: Can you tell us a little bit about what the title means to you?
SA: Certainly. In order to explain that, I have to talk about the history of making the piece, and the initial desires that led to this particular point. My mother and my sister are visual artists, and my mother about a year ago gave me a book by Lawrence Weschler. It is a biography and a collection of conversations with a light and space artist named Robert Irwin, an incredible visionary whose work fundamentally is about allowing subjects to “perceive themselves perceiving.” That’s the idea behind his work. It’s what he achieved through installation and through painting and sculpture. The book is full of conversations with Robert himself, but also woven into the tapestry of the book are all of these incredible little fragments — that are either scientific or poetic — about light.
For me, this was an initial desire. I would use my excitement in reading this book to somehow start finding a text. There’s that, and of course, this is a piece for 25 singers and instruments. So engaging in some kind of vocal music. Light is a very common theme, perhaps the most common theme, in vocal music, so there’s that.
The other desire with this piece was to step out of the extremely abstract zone that I’ve created for myself as a composer and address — either indirectly or directly — some more personal or perhaps social issues. I moved to Chicago seven months ago, and have also spent a lot of time in St. Louis. St. Louis and Chicago are dealing with some serious questions surrounding division and police brutality, violence, etc., and living in these places has made me particularly sensitized to this important thread in our national dialogue.
The texts that I ended up using for this piece are a series of poems by Friedrich Rückert that Mahler used for his song cycle Kindertotenlieder. The material of these poems is primarily comprised of metaphorical 19th century imagery of light. That is one textual source I used, and the other source is fragments from an 11th century treatise on optics and the physics of light by a Baghdad scientist and polymath named Alhazen, or Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham. The piece moves back and forth very quickly between these very emotional and poetic approaches to the idea of light and these very austere and scientific descriptions.
EO: In paring the texts down, you were clearly trying to draw something out that served a musical purpose. Can elucidate what that might be?
SA: Definitely. I’m not particularly interested, at this moment in my development as a composer, in setting poetry. The other reason is a practical one, which is that I am not a fluent German speaker, and so I didn’t feel like it was particularly appropriate for me to use German texts as they stand. The third reason is that I’ve always felt that in writing vocal music beforehand, there’s a certain amount of flexibility I want to have, being able to shift the texts so that they can really fall in line with the rhythm or the direction of the music itself. The question for me in writing this piece was how to allow myself to be as flexible with the actual material of the music as with the text itself.
I also wanted the piece to become about a collective loss rather than a specific individualized loss. I felt like I needed to rework the text to that specific role. Each text based on the Rückert is a distillation of the original source. Or a very small fragment from the text itself.
EO: Do you reference Mahler musically?
SA: Certainly. The third movement is quite literally a fragment from the second movement of Kindertotenlieder, which is repeated in a cool and removed fashion. The first and last movements are fragments from Mahler, which I time-stretched. I found that taking historical recordings of [Kindertotenlieder] and putting them through all kinds of electronic processes brought to life some incredible artifacts that I wanted to orchestrate into [Light Readings]. More specifically, the kind of noise that arises from a vinyl record when you time stretch that and digitize it, the noise falls apart and starts to break, and it’s an incredible texture that I generally welcome into my music.
EO: This piece is scored for a very unusual instrumentation. Can you talk a little bit more about your decision. How you thought about the instrumentation, but also how you came to write for Donald Nally’s group?
SA: The instrumentation for the piece is 25 singers and eight instruments, and the instruments are primarily bass instruments. The reason I chose to use bass instruments … well, there are a couple of reasons: One is that I’m a bass player, so I’m naturally attuned to that frequency spectrum, but also with bass instruments, you can have so much access to these really wonderful overtones, which in many cases, if employed in a specific way, sound very much like the human voice. I’m thinking of high bass harmonics, or harmonics on the bass flute.
My approach to writing the piece was not to create division between the instrumental ensemble and the vocal ensemble, but to find a way to weave everything together into a uniform tapestry. That was the reason that I chose those instruments; it’s a way to easily achieve that.
I’m also extremely interested in working with young musicians. Every year, I try to do at least one or two projects where I’m engaging young musicians. I find that there’s a really incredible energy that they bring. I also feel that the content of this piece somehow might have a certain resonance, particularly with young people.
EO: This is a brand-new piece — a very extensive, very beautiful piece. If there’s one thing that you could ask your audience to listen for, what would it be?
SA: There’s a very clear structure that I set up in the piece. There are five movements that are distillations of the five songs from Kindertotenlieder. The first one is actually repeated and modified toward the end, so it’s kind of six pillars. Within each of these movements is a very small, almost recitative-like setting of the Alhazen fragments. I would listen for how that juxtaposition of the musical materials and the texts creates an intense friction as the piece crests over its duration.
TOP: Sam Adams at a MusicNOW concert last season. | Todd Rosenberg Photography