Actualities (2010)

A theater-concerto for soloist and chamber orchestra





Movement 4 excerpt

Performers: Andrew Simpson, piano Jordan College of Fine Arts Composers Orchestra, Butler University


» excerpt


Program Notes:

Actualities, a theater-concerto for soloist and chamber orchestra, explores improvisation – both individual and group – paired with chance and randomness to create a performance event.


The performers use improvisation in a variety of ways. This theater-concerto is in four “acts” (rather than movements):


1: A fable
An Aesop fable is narrated with controlled, improvised participation on the part of the soloist and ensemble. Like all good fables, it is followed by a moral.


2: Actualities
I am fascinated by the numerous ways in which video interacts with everyday life. Video – as feature film, as television, as hand-held camera footage, as computer-generated content, as live webcam footage – live, prerecorded, edited or rough - surrounds and absorbs us. We are both watchers and subjects of video, both audience members and actors (whether knowingly or not), consumers as well as product.


This act is a cadenza for soloist, who improvises to the stimulus of video chosen and projected at random by a member of the ensemble. The limiting factor will be the principal source of footage: images from live, streaming “webcams” of various places around the world, readily accessible via the internet. However, other video can, may, and likely will, be projected. All footage will be new to the soloist, who must respond musically to whatever is presented. Thus, the random “video improvisation” by a member of the ensemble determines the soloist’s sonic improvisation.


There are some traditional echoes in this act: for example, recalling the classical concerto in performance, a soloist was expected to improvise a cadenza on the themes presented.


The term “actuality” has a special meaning for film, as well: the live webcam footage is a contemporary version of an “actuality,” dating from the earliest years of film history (late 19th-early 20th centuries). One form of an “actuality film” was as documentary: recording the look and feel of a time and place, either as a travelogue or to record a special event, such as a coronation or a natural disaster. Another use of actualities, however, was employed by travelling vaudeville shows. These shows , which included films in their line-up, would send a camera crew to a town a few days ahead of the show’s arrival, to shoot street scenes of the town, including close-ups of town residents, then edit together the footage. The residents of the town would then eagerly come to the vaudeville show on its arrival in hopes of seeing themselves on the screen. This type of actuality was both a valuable historical record (if it survived) and a brilliant marketing gimmick.


3: Pile-on
The great works of classical music enjoy a privileged and justly revered status, much like other great works of art. In this act, I interact as soloist with monuments of classical music, treating them as a “base” upon which to improvise. The ensemble members, as “control group,” play pieces from the classical standard repertory. I do not know what piece the players will choose to play, and so will be hearing them for the first time in performance. As soloist, or “experimental group,” I will interact with the classical pieces, improvising music to accompany, join, comment upon, or even fight with them. The classical works are thus a type of large-scale “ground bass” upon which my variations will be built.


The term “pile-on” (of my own coinage) seems both more immediate and descriptive than “palimpsest,” which also describes this process of building layers on top of a previous work. My pile-on is thus a form of music commenting on music, with chance and improvisation thrown into the mix.


4. Fast motion machine
In the last act, everyone plays as fast as possible, including the soloist, without slackening pace: a perpetualmotion finale. The entire ensemble improvises on short motives and instructions given to it by the composer.


Actualities was written for the Jordan College of Fine Arts Composers Orchestra and dedicated to them and to Dr. Michael Schelle, as homage from a grateful pupil and a Butler alumnus. The premiere of movements 2-4 took place on March 26, 2010, at Butler University (the same night that Butler’s basketball team beat Syracuse on its storied way to the NCAA 2010 title game), with the composer as soloist.


--Andrew Earle Simpson


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