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Wednesday, September 4,2013

Interview: Jeffrey Nytch

Composer explains interplay between geology and his music

By Peter Alexander
Courtesy Janet Braccio
Jeffrey Nytch
Peter Alexander: My first thought when I heard about this work was, knowing the scope of time in which geologists think, you will really have to compress things in the symphony! Yes, the earth has rhythms, but…

Jeffrey Nytch: Well, that’s right, in fact in the work there are really two challenges embedded in that question. One is, what events did I choose and how did I make that decision. But the bigger question is how do you address the span of geological time.

That was what I was getting at: how do you reconcile a 30-minute piece with the span of geological time?

You know, the way I looked at it is that geologic time, because it is impossible for us to really understand, or really get our heads around, we can only think of in terms of metaphors and analogies. You know: “If the earth were the size of a basketball” — those kinds of things. And so it’s already an abstraction, geologic time is an abstraction. And so is musical time in its own way, because once you enter into a musical piece, if you’re really connected to it, you’re not experiencing it in real time, you’re experiencing it in the way the time within the piece unfolds. Because of the way it’s shaped, the way it’s proportioned, the energy or the activity of the piece, we will lose our sense of time when we get into a piece of music, if it’s engaging to us, in the same way you can lose track of time when you’re reading a good book or watching a great movie. And so I used that to my advantage and said, “OK, I’m going to try to express the long arc of this story in my musical gestures and in the way things are proportioned, in the speed by which ideas unfold.” But obviously I’m not going to try to depict actual geological time because that’s impossible.

The other thing that I tried to do is that things that happen quickly, putting air quotes around that word “quickly” in a geological sense, something that happened over a few million years, that might be something that happens quickly in the music. So that the relative relationships are the same, but everything is just compressed.

I think this is a concept the musicians will understand, but I wonder if most audience members will intuitively grasp the relationship between rhythm, which we usually think of as note rhythms, and proportions within a piece, which is also a kind of rhythm. Do you think it would be helpful for the listeners to understand this?

Well, it was certainly part of my thinking as I was composing it, because, in all of my music I am very much obsessed, I guess, with proportion, with getting the timing of gestures in the large scale just right. But, I don’t think that’s something that an audience needs to be explicitly pointed toward. I hope that they will experience that sense of things unfolding in a way that makes sense to them, that feels natural, that gives them a sense of the kind of time I’m trying to capture. I hope they will just sense that by the experience of hearing the piece of music.

Just as you don’t have to know in Bartók that a piece is based on the golden mean for it to sound satisfying.

Exactly. Or even in a Beethoven symphony, you don’t have to be able to hear or know that the return of the tonic is a satisfying event because it is part of the structure. All you know is when you hear it, it feels like you’ve landed where you’re supposed to land. You don’t have to understand why you feel that way.

Do you think of geologic time in rhythmic terms, like a mega-rhythm operating over millennia?

To some degree, yes.

Do you sense a rhythm to the progression through the different eras and major events of geologic history, things like the major extinctions, and so forth?

That’s a really interesting question. I don’t suppose it’s so much a rhythmic way I look at those things, but I definitely look at it in terms of cycles that actually recur and repeat a tremendous amount.

So Stravinskian, like the cycles that operate underneath “The Rite of Spring”?

Yes, right. You know, we tend to think of time as a line, and the progression of events as things that occur in a linear fashion, but I tend to look at it more as almost like a sine wave, that there are certain kinds of cycles that repeat themselves over and over again. That’s definitely a musical concept that made its way into my symphony. Certain motives come back but in slightly different forms, just in the way that rocks in the Rocky Mountains do — there’s a great sense of cyclicity in the way that some kinds of rocks keep showing up across Colorado, but in slightly different forms.

For example, there’s the Fountain Formation that makes up the Flatirons [and other landmarks along the front range, including Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks], but in earlier chapters it was a sedimentary rock that was lying flat and was laid down because of these previous mountains. The Fountain Formation keeps coming back, though, and the stones that are in it are made up of even older rocks that also keep coming back. So that idea just played perfectly into a large-scale composition because that’s the way music is put together, too.

Can you give me a brief description of each movement — two sentences each. Can you boil it down that much?

Yes, I think I can, because I’ve been doing this. So the first movement is about the Pre-Cambrian formation of the North American crust, in this part of North America. So it’s laying the geologic foundations and the music foundations for the piece. That’s called “Orogenies” [orogeny: the process of mountain formation, especially by a folding and faulting of the earth’s crust], and I focus on the three big periods of orogeny in the Pre-Cambrian.

Do we find things there that are buried deep beneath the surface of other movements?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, all of the musical material that plays itself out in the rest is in that first movement.

How geological!

Yes, absolutely! The second and third movements are both about the relationship between geology and human history, so the second movement (“Rush”) is about the gold and silver rushes of the 19th century, and we hear human things like the shuffling of miner’s pans — I went on a quest to find the right kind of pan and the right kind of rocks to put in the pan, the whole thing. And then we also hear geological things, we hear the hiss of hydrothermal veins and the explosion of the Cripple Creek diatreme volcano, that created the Cripple Creek mining district, and then that movement ends with — it’s a short movement, but there’s a lot to say about it — it ends with the gunshots of the labor wars that were around the turn of the 20th century that kind of brought the mining era to an end. Oh, and a fiddle tune from the camps, something you might have heard in the mining camps. So that movement has a lot of things going on.

Cripple Creek? Is that the fiddle tune? That is a real fiddle tune.

No, it’s a tune I made up, I should have maybe done that!

So that movement has a lot of things happening, even though it’s very short, which was the idea because the gold and silver rush was very short, but there was kind of a mad dash of activity then.

The third movement is called “Requiems” and it’s about fossil fuels, and the real point there is that I have always been struck by the kind of irony that the fuels that run our civilization are made up of the remains of living plants and animals from the past, and to me that’s a very poignant thing that’s just worth contemplating. You don’t have to get political about it — there’s lots of political ways I could have gone to talk about fossil fuels, but I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to just make a statement that would invite the listener to think about these things and draw their own conclusions. So that’s the slow movement, and I think if some ways that’s maybe my favorite movement. I think it’s really quite beautiful.

And then the last movement is called “Majesties,” and that’s about the formation of the modern Rocky Mountains. You might say that’s sort of the obvious way to end the symphony, but to me it was inevitable — how could you end it any other way? So there’s the uplift, there’s the burying in all of this volcanic sediment, so there’s this wild volcanic, crazy section, and then there’s the eroding away of all of the stuff that exposes these modern peaks, and you hear this down-cutting of the highlands in a repeating descending gesture that gathers momentum until it culminates in a big, triumphant chorale for the finale.

One more thing — what is the one thing you’d want to tell the audience before they hear the piece?

I would say that I don’t think they have to know all of the geologic details, that I hope they will be able to experience the piece of music as a piece of music and enjoy it, and that they just think about our relationship to the earth. And that this piece speaks about that relationship from different perspectives, that the first movement is from the perspective of the earth, that the earth kind of giving birth. The interior movements are about the tension between us and the earth, and I look at the last movement as a kind of reconciliation where we go forward and celebrate this great thing that we have.

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