City of Ambition (2007)
Mvt. I: City of Ambition
Mvt. II: Night View (from Above)
Mvt. III: Steeling the Sky
Total Duration: approx. 13:00 (5:00, 3:30, 4:30)
In this work I explore the connection between sound and image, drawing my inspiration from historic photographs of New York City. Movement one is inspired by Alfred Stiegliz's 1910 photograph, “City of Ambition,” which captures a view of towering skyscrapers and billowing smoke along the New York City waterfront. The beginning of the movement mimics both the shimmering surface of the water in the image as well as the photograph’s hazy appearance. Inherent in the photograph’s title is the idea of a city bustling with energy and constant activity. In this movement I seek to portray these qualities of motion through persistent rhythmic drive, metric displacement, and abrupt shifts in orchestration.
Movement two, entitled “Night View (From Above),” is based on Berenice Abbott’s photograph “Night View,” taken in 1932 from atop the Empire State Building. This movement is evocative of sights and sensations I imagine one might have experienced while gazing down from the top of the building. At the opening of the movement, the percussion, harp and piano suggest the glittering lights of the city through “beat interference” occurring between dissonant intervals. A sense of suspension is created through the use of unresolved harmonies, fermatas, and ringing percussion. A brief but contrasting middle section, necessary to the symmetry of the movement, provides a nightmarish interruption which gradually blurs back into the dreamlike state of the opening.
A collection of Lewis Hine photographs of steelworkers constructing the Empire State Building in 1930-31 motivated me to write the third movement, “Steeling the Sky.” The music depicts the complicated relationship between humans and machines. Several passages symbolize the strength, courage and toil of men as well as the fear and imminent danger posed by hazardous work. Descending gestures suggest the fear of falling, while the overall harmonic motion ascends to the instruments’ highest registers, depicting the rise of the skyscraper. The timbre of the brass instruments, historically used to recall both war and hunting, is employed here to portray the strength and courage of the workers through bold musical statements. The jarring noise and rhythmic nature of the machinery are expressed through the use of ratchet and junk metal percussion as well as by repetition of musical gestures and phrases.
The overall form of this piece is similar to a skyscraper in its design. The three movements are arranged symmetrically in terms of tempo, with a slow second movement between fast first and third movements. All three movements have sections which climb stepwise through key areas, as if reaching toward the sky. The overall harmonic gesture of the piece is ascending as well, beginning in C-sharp minor and ending in D major. If ambition is defined as the desire to achieve a particular goal, then this piece achieves that goal, harmonically, in the end, with its half-step resolution.
Program notes for Mvt. I (if performed by itself)
The inspiration behind “City of Ambition” is twofold. First, it is based on a 1910 photograph of the same name by Alfred Stieglitz. The photo is an impressive cityscape of New York City on the oceanfront with smoke billowing from several rooftop chimneys. Second is my first impression of New York City when I visited in 2004 to hear a piece of mine performed. The city invigorated my senses, and I quickly became enamored by the skyscrapers, lights, people, and the fast pace of city life.
Musically, "City of Ambition" conveys the energy, variety, and constant activity present in NYC through its persistent rhythmic drive, syncopated rhythms, and varied orchestral textures. The opening section, originally conceived as the "shimmering" of the water in the photograph, also reflects the almost magical feeling one gets from visiting this great city for the first time. The melodies are expressive of the excitement and joy I felt while being there. The ending section is a culmination of all the activity present in the city at once, and, like a large engine gaining enormous momentum, must let off steam when it comes to a halt.
Note: Mvt. I was premiered in Ann Arbor by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra.