Andy Vores

b. 1956

Andy Vores was born Wales and raised in England. He studied composition at Lancaster University with Edward Cowie. Starting in 1982 he worked in London as Lecturer and Composer-in-Residence at The City University. In 1986 he was a Fellow in Composition at Tanglewood, studying with Oliver Knussen. He has lived in Boston since 1990.

From 1999 to 2001 he was Composer-in-Residence to the BankBoston Celebrity Series, and from 2002 to 2005 Composer-in-Residence to the New England Philharmonic. In 2001 he was appointed as Chair of Composition, Theory, and Music History at The Boston Conservatory.

Commissions include Freshwater (The Boston University Opera Institute), Bulldancer (Boston Ballet), Head Down Legs Up (Welsh Arts Council), World Wheel (Cantata Singers), Bubble (US Mexico Fund for Culture), Quartet No.3 (Chamber Music America), Wetherby Nocturne (The Barlow Endowment), Uncertainty is Beautiful (BMOP),Goback Goback and Weegee (Collage New Music), and Forgot, Often, Air Baby, and Umberhulk (Boston Musica Viva).

Awards and prizes include a Koussevitsky Fellowship, the Kucyna International Composition Competition, the Scottish National Orchestra Ian Whyte Award, the Tanglewood Prize for Composition, the Omaha Symphony Guild New Music Contest, the Richmond International Festival, The National Orchestral Association, and the Huddersfield Festival.

His music has been broadcast in Europe and the US including Urban Affair, a recently released CD of chamber music.

Recent performances include No Exit by Chicago Opera Vanguard, Objects and Intervals for Brave New Works, Leif for Boston Musica Viva, Two Fabrications for BMOP, and Natural Selection for Cantata Singers.

World Wheel

Premiered on January 21, 2000

World Wheel is a celebration of the vagaries, frailties and marvels of civilization. The title refers to a Tibetan image showing the world as a multi-spoked wheel containing representations of history, passions and lusts, held tightly in the hands of Yama, the god of death. The title also suggests the procession of time and the circularity of existence.

The work itself is circular—ending up musically exactly where it begins—and there are a number of devices at play to make this happen. Perhaps the most apparent is the gradual contraction, each time by a whole tone, of each movement's characteristic intervallic material: "Before And After Time" is pervaded by fifths; "The Created Universe" by fourths; "Apocalyptic Visions" by minor thirds, "Distant Shores" by minor seconds, and "Future" by major sevenths—the next interval in the chain, but inverted.

At the same time, another level of connections is made through the concept of the four traditional elements: earth, air, fire and water, along with a fifth defining "element" of our own millennium: the machine. "The Big Bang" opens the work. This is a white hot explosion for orchestra. Gradually "elements" begin to coalesce—low woodwinds and horns align to form a solid earthy figure, oboes and piccolos align to form an airy grace-note figure, trumpets and trombones align to make guttural, fiery flutter-tongued chords, and strings align to make lapping watery configurations. Everything cools down and the distance between these little events grows as if each were rapidly spinning off into space.

As World Wheel progresses through the millennia each of these "elements" informs, in turn, each separate movement, both through characteristic musical material and through what the texts themselves address. Thus, after "The Big Bang's" introductory chromatic meltdown, "Before And After Time" is largely about water, characterized by strings ebbing and flowing in waves of perfect fifths. This movement sets two texts from 2000 BC. The first, from Sumer, talks about a time before creation when the gods were "nameless, natureless, futureless"; the world here is liquid, unformed. The second is a passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead that tells of the time to come after creation, when the universe has returned to its primeval, undifferentiated state. This is by turns harsh, bare—the fierce sun beating down on desert sands—and chilling and echoic, as if Atum and Osiris were speaking from deep inside the chambers of a pyramid. Adding to the other-worldly atmosphere the chorus whispers and half sings with Atum (this passage is perhaps the bastard cousin of Schoenberg's Burning Bush from Moses and Aron) accompanied by gurgling synthesizer sounds. Between each movement the leaps of a thousand years are represented by descending string glissandi—starting very high up between 2000 BC and 1000 BC, then in successively lower registers for each subsequent 1000-year leap. At the close of Before And After Time" the hissing and humming sounds of the chorus and synthesizer are transmuted into the sound of the sea breaking on the shore, telescoping time and bringing the work forward to Odysseus's arrival at Alcinous' bountiful garden.

"The Created Universe" is characterized by woodwinds playing "airy" music full of rising and falling fourths, trills and rippling arpeggios. Again there are two texts, this time both from 1000 BC. The first—a description of the fruits of the earth from The Odyssey—refers to the life-giving "West Wind always breathing through." The second—a meditation on man's interrelationship with the divine from the Hindu Upanishads—is colored with snatches of birdsong. The poet here views the soul as twinned birds alight on the same branch, one partaking of the mutable world of sensation, one observing. At the end of "The Created Universe" time again telescopes and leaps a thousand years; the birdsong is taken up by the chorus and becomes wolf-whistles and crowd noise.

The element of fire permeates "Apocalyptic Visions." The first text, from Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars, is a scathing catalog of the Emperor Nero's debauches and excesses, including, of course, his infamous torching of Rome (and yes, fiddles do play gleefully during this passage!) Until the last few measures there is no singing; the baritone's speedy music is precisely notated rhythmically but rapidly recited in a heightened dramatic manner. The chorus have become the citizens of Rome and comment upon the narrative or act it out through hand-claps, swoops and glissandi, shouts and moans. A relentless passacaglia underpins the burning Rome and the final days of Nero. Brass instruments predominate in this movement and, during the cataclysmic and ecstatic passages from Revelation, pile up into thick crunchy diminished chords, riddled with minor thirds. When the words turn to a vision of the new Jerusalem the music responds with scintillating, glowing music in D major; the baritone sings a long line, always pulling upwards, and a solo cello weaves in and out around the voice.

"Distant Shores" contrasts two quite different cultures from 1000.The element here is earth, and the characteristic interval is the minor second The first text, "Deor," from Anglo-Saxon England, is a resigned poem, written in exile—a meditation on the nature of time. It is for mens' voices and features low woodwind and a recurring solo flugelhorn. The poet lists personages and events which, clearly, were known intimately to his audience, and which mean almost nothing to us—Nithhad, Beadohild, Hild, Theodric were presumably the Clinton, Gingrich, Saddam Hussein and Milosevic of their day As the refrain, set in the original Anglo-Saxon, puts it "thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg:" "that went by, this may too." The atmosphere of "Deor" is muddy, murky, smokey; the atmosphere of the following text, in contrast, is crisp, bright, and icy. It is a diary entry of Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress, set for soprano solo with three mezzo-sopranos accompanied by pizzicato strings, glassy synthesizer and an approximation of gagaku, the ancient Japanese court music. The oboes play the characteristically elongated lines, full of whining little swoops, of the hichiriki; divisi sul ponticello violins play clusters reminiscent of the OA a kind of mouth-organ; and a tenor drum approximates the sound of the taiko, a large drum which delineates the large sections of a gagaku work. As with "Deor," what excites me about Sei Shonagon's writing is that her observations of what were for her everyday things are, for us, distant and exotic, as indeed they would also have been for her Anglo-Saxon contemporaries.

The final movement, "Future," sets three poems by living American poets. Peter Davison's wry oracular advice on the issues of the day is a call and response between the chorus and the soloists. The synthesizer uses a jangling electric guitar patch to wrench the ear away from tenth-century Japan into the present, and the music is full of bright major seventh chords and clean textures. Anne Waldman's "Obit" is a rant, a breathless incantatory obituary for our century. The music is driven and relentless and presents, underneath the choral part, a thumbnail sketch history of twentieth-century music; the irregular slamming of the opening is a remembrance of the "Sacrificial Dance" from The Rite of Spring; starting at the words "I am war I was war," winds and strings play convoluted 12-tone music that continues until the words "it was over and it was beginning"; meanwhile the trumpets and trombones, playing in rhythmic unison, intersperse punchy syncopated licks that might have escaped from a James Brown record. "Nocturne," by Lisel Mueller, is a lush .enfolding setting of an interior search at dead of night. When the poet recognizes the night-sounds as those of freight cars in the switchyard she speaks of "sounds of connection...the darkness throbbed with a dream of arrival." The orchestra then becomes a giant train; brass blow steamy, hissing sounds through their mouthpieces, percussion and synthesizer play steady thinking patterns, the strings and wood-winds (continuing the twentieth-century music primer) play repeated figures reminiscent of the minimalist travelling music heard in Reich's Different Trains and Glass's Einstein on the Beach. Superimposed on all of this busyness the chorus is split into three groups; the first group, one singer at a time, whispers "nameless, natureless, futureless"; the second group, again one singer at a time, sings out names of various deities from twelve different civilizations; the third, joining with the two soloists, sings of two possibilities for the end of the universe—the first an ever-expanding universe becoming sparser and colder throughout eternity, the second a contracting universe which results in another Big Bang. A quiet held string chord and a rising glissando end in a fortissimo punch as the opening of the work is heard again.

As I was writing World Wheel I was reminded that civilizations, our own and others as established, are inevitably superseded and replaced, I was struck by how similar we are to ancient Egyptians, Anglo-Saxons, courtly Japanese, and also by how extraordinarily different their worlds were to our own. Certainly all man-made things, perhaps all things in the universe, change and subside.This doesn't seem to inc to be bad news, but rather hopeful, practical wisdom that can continue to serve us as we cross over into a new millennium.

The initial impetus that led me to collect together the texts in this work and led to its overall argument Caine from a poem by Allen Ginsberg, himself a millennial man, it seems to me, with his wide-ranging and curious mingling of erudite, vernacular, ritual, and poetic language. The poem, written in 1978, is too long to quote in full, but here are some of the pertinent lines from "Manhattan May Day Midnight." Ginsberg talks of leaving his apartment to go and buy a newspaper. He passes workmen in the street repairing a leaking gas main:

...as I passed by hurriedly Thinking Ancient
Rome, Ur
Were they like this, the same shadowy surveyors
and passers-by
scribing records of decaying pipes & Garbage
piles on Marble, Cuneiform,
ordinary midnight citizen out on the street
looking for Empire News,
rumor, gossip, workmen police in uniform, walking
silent sunk-in thought under windows of sleepers coupled with monster squids & Other-Planet
eyeballs in their sheets
in the same night six thousand years old where
Cities rise & fall & turn to dream?

—Andy Vores

Natural Selection

Premiered on May 9, 2009

Natural Selection is a work of celebration—celebration of the natural world and of Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday is in 2009. Darwin’s extraordinary insights have helped us see the natural world’s variety, abundance, and wonderful strangeness from a fresh viewpoint, and they have helped us understand in a new way the forces that direct life. I wanted, too, to add my voice to those counteracting the silliness of "creationism," but without being disdainful of the faith which may support it. Indeed, Darwin himself, at least at the time of writing the passage that I’ve set, saw evolution as the way God had chosen for the natural world to unfold.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti and Charles Darwin were contemporaries, but they lived very different lives. Hopkins was a troubled Jesuit priest whose deliriously colorful “sprung rhythms” sound like nothing else from Victorian England. Rossetti’s ill-health constrained her throughout her life; her poetry, simple on the surface and often courting unconventional social and political ideas, was written largely for children or has a devotional cast. And Darwin, during his five years as naturalist for HMS Beagle, came to realize the ways inheritance directs the proliferation of species on earth. Yet there is a joy in observation that all three share.

A delightful part of the composing of Natural Selection for Cantata Singers has been the opportunity to work with students of the Neighborhood House Charter School. These children, as part of the Classroom Cantatas program, set to their own music the same poems by Christina Rosetti that are at the center of my own work, and I took their young melodies as the basis for my own setting.

I like that all of these texts are excited about the richness and unending busyness of nature, and I hope that my music conveys some of this pleasure.

—Andy Vores