Reasons for the title of this music, thoughts and meaning
Vulcan is Reason and Craft through the understanding of fire, metalworking, stone, and sculpture – the ancient versions of the Applied Sciences. Admired by the other gods for his skills, knowledge, even temperament, and the gift of forging their weapons, Vulcan was one of the rare gods who was not perfectly formed. Some accounts claim he was ugly and deformed.
Venus, the Goddess of beauty and erotic love, became his wife – but not by her choice. Her father, Zeus, arranged their marriage because her powerful allure was a source of confusion and chaos amongst the gods. Vulcan authentically loved Venus was grateful for her. He constructed a fantastic mansion for her and wanted to satisfy her every desire. But, Venus’ eye, and eventually, heart caught the striking image and world of Mars – the God of War, an isolated and unliked god. Vulcan was heartbroken when he discovered Venus had been inviting Mars to their bed when he was away on trips. He proved her infidelity by capturing them in the act within a magical net he devised for that purpose.
We could easily imagine many justifications for Vulcan, Venus, Mars, or even Zeus’ actions. How can erotic passion balance with steadfastness and intellect? Does “having” the most beautiful mate display social clout, or, more evolved DNA, recognition of power through winning the prize that so many men want?
When I originally composed this work from late September 2015 to January 2016, the Venus and Vulcan story meant something different to me than it does now. Then, I thought it benefitted with an update: instead of the story ending with the shaming of Venus, I imagined that she would fall in love with Vulcan, realizing that in today’s world, the intellect has more social dominion than warcraft. Hence, I called the piece “Venus and Vulcan In America.” In the pre-concert talk, Maestro Eric Jacobsen and I called it “revenge of the nerds.” In “Venus and Vulcan in America,” Venus eventually finds Vulcan more attractive than Mars.
I had some reason to make that suggestion. Scientific Endeavor (Vulcan) has transformed the world over these last millennia. And in the previous 50 years, the pace of discovery and understanding has exploded. This is because scientists now share their achievements with those outside their fields to solve complex issues. Astronomy, biology, physics, biochemistry, economics, sociology, psychology, and so on have merged and split into whole new scientific fields. Though Mars has determined governments’ religions and divided the rich and poor, Vulcan has provided better health, food, transportation and information..
The symphony invites us to imagine and feel our own experience of this ancient European story, energized with the emotions felt from the music. The plot progresses through fourteen sections, each demarcated by its projection on the concert hall’s ceiling, signaling audiences to read that bite in the concert program notes. The emotional content of the music matches the narrative flow, providing a sort of personal soundtrack for our imaginations.
“My update of the Venus and Vulcan myth is Revenge of the Nerds”
This exploration of the relationship of life, sceince and war were inspired by my teacher, composer Pauline Oliveros and the book Presence, by Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworski, C. Otto Scharmer and Betty Sue Flowers. Both speak of interconnectedness as key to transformation.
This commission, from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, came with the following specifications:
- it would be placed in first half between Richard Wagner’s Overture to Tannhaüser and Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso
- My piece was to begin where Wagner’s piece left off and take us to where the Ravel began
- Somewhere around 15-17 minutes
I was told what my orchestra’s instrumentation would be (Full Orchestra including piccolo, bass clarinet, celeste, 3 percussionists (performed with 6) including keyboard, sub-bass synthesizer(my request) and percussion) in November and delivered parts in late January 2016, just a few months after receiving the commission.
NOTE: Venus and Vulcan in America will eventually get a revision and a last movement. Would you like to help me achieve this? Please contact me!
Movement I. Venus and Vulcan
i. Fanfare for Venus, Vulcan and Mars.
The most apparent thematic idea in “Venus and Vulcan In America” is from the Tannhauser, heard just before: the downward E major scale broken into bowed pairs: 8-7 7-6 6-5 5-4. The link with Wagner, a requirement of the commission, was as deliberate as possible. The powerful E major chord ending that work also became the first sound of “Venus and Vulcan In America.” The two neighbor-tone bowed/slurred pairs will provide motivation throughout the first movement, diminished to sets of 16th note repeating pairs by rehearsal letter F.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser Pairs
The fanfare (orig. manuscript on the right) was written for brass in my high school years, called “Fanfayre.” It fit my need for boldness and simplicity, so I used it.
II. Zeus Rewards Vulcan with Venus’ Hand
As the most beautiful, desired woman ever, Venus would have every male god as a suitor at her beck and call. But, her father, Zeus (King of the Gods), requires her to marry Vulcan, who is much older, imperfect of body, but generous of mind and spirit. First heard in bar 32 in the horns and bassoons, Venus’s despair is represented in the leaps of minor 7th harmonies.
Venus theme strings only
III. Absorbed in Work, Vulcan Forgets His Wife.
Theme 3a, b, and c are “Venus” themes. 3a originally began as a series of three rising semitones. Towards the end of the compositional process, I modified the last m2 move to a m9 interval upward to make it more obvious. I needed a more reliably prominent leitmotif to be used throughout the piece to tie into the first movement – and the m9 allowed it to be done with just two notes.
Vulcan is absorbed in his work
Theme 4 is the bass pizzicato material shared with the low brass and winds used throughout this movement to create a sense of heavy movement. First heard at C with low strings and low brass (see figure above). It is most often used with Vulcan’s active music texture of repeated staccato, syncopated 8th notes, and accentuated with an anvil in the percussion section to tell the listener we’re in the blacksmith’s shop. The goal of the music is the feeling of great industriousness and machinery.
IV. Mars Tempts Venus
Vulcan’s theme moves on, seemingly unhearing that Venus’s theme has grown in dynamic and range. When a glimpse of Mars arrives in bar 67 with a piece of the Fanfare, Venus stops – and looks away and towards her husband, who is too involved in his work, and, for a few bars (rehearsal F), she imitates Vulcan’s theme. Even that does not get her husband’s attention.
Without Vulcan noticing, Venus’s theme is heard in the oboe and solo trumpet. Then, Venus, the most beautiful and sensual Goddess, just becomes herself with alluring upward sweeps that almost become almost Hollywood in their close, voluptuous harmonies.
The intensity increases as the heat between Venus and Mars enflames. Mars’ trumpet fanfare theme of an upward P4th matched at the tritone with the horns. The tritone leaps reveal his dangerous nature and quote Gustav Holst’s “Mars” theme.
Mars tritone theme from Holst
V. Venus With Mars
The couple’s themes move headlong into a furious climax. The horns rip and trombones gliss upward to their high registers at the same time that the subwoofer dives down into the low 30Hz range.
VI. Vulcan Devises a Magical Trap
Vulcan, informed of his wife’s adultery, creates an invisible net to trap Mars and his wife in the act. The music is powered by a mixture of the v. Venus With Mars and his own theme from iii. Absorbed In His Work, Vulcan Forgets His Wife (intellect and empathy). He lies to Venus that he’s off to do business and will be leaving, sets his trap, and as feared, Venus and Mars are again in their bed.
Vulcan Devises a Magical Trap
VIII. Venus’ Despair
Venus’ emotions are sadness and grief. She grieves that she has allowed herself to be so impassioned and the feeling of being so exposed and publicly humiliated. Venus grieves being unable to choose her own husband and what she’s done to Vulcan, who loves her. The music expands on Venus’ despair over her loss of choice that was heard in bar 34, each phrase complimented with upward moving “Tannhauser pairs” in the winds.
IX. The Catharsis of Venus and Vulcan
After the public humiliation and Vulcan’s wrath, I imagined that the two must sort things out with some kind of settlement since they are to live together. I suppose with nothing left to lose, they speak their truths to each other. This catharsis brings them closer because they each feel heard by the other. The music builds in intensity from viii. Venus’ Despair to a climax using the bowed pairs heard throughout.
X. Venus Tries to Love Vulcan
To suggest earnestness on Venus’ part, I mix Venus and Vulcan’s theme’s again, this time in the strings. The woodwinds dance around the phrases happily, almost Disneyesque. But the music, though showing promise, has too much activity. The themes are too rushed, and the music doesn’t quite settle.
Venus tries to love Vulcan
Venus remembers Mars 1
Venus remembers Mars 2
XI. Venus Remembers Mars
Who knows how much time has passed, but, at some point, Venus is reminded of Mars. Her heart can’t lie, and she falls into a dark reverie with the knowledge that she is forbidden to see him. The music combines a simple, slowed version of the Fanfare in the strings and a return to Venus’ Despair.
XII. Vulcan’s Despair
Vulcan, from this point on represented by a solo trombone for the rest of the work, plays Venus’ theme in the last bars of the first movement. The golden, high register of the principal trombone, premiered by Jeff Thomas, is Vulcan calling to Venus, while a solo violin and the woodwinds play Venus’ despair. Sadness all around is the end of the original story, representing many aspects of contemporary life: feminine vs. masculine, love vs. duty, emotion vs. reason.
II. Transformation of Heart
This movement is meant to portray the human journey of deep despair resulting from the complete comprehension of our failings, the surrender to what is, opening to an epiphany of the possibilities, and finally actively engaging in a new direction. Breaking from the traditional myth and moving towards my Revenge of the Nerds update, Venus realizes that she loves Vulcan and finds great peace in that realization
It begins with a quiet pyramid of dissonant harmony built of multiple, overlapping statements of Venus’ gesture (upward, portamenti minor 9th) in the muted strings and harp. A high bassoon solo (for principal bassoonist Diane Bishop) sings a tense, chromatic melody and together all of the voices find some repose. But not enough. Her sadness is not quenched with a single phrase. Again, the woodwinds build the dissonant texture and the solo horn (for principal Mark Fischer) further explores the bassoon melody by inverting its elements into an arch. The despair is violently disrupted by the memory of Mars with a trumpet restatement (by William Cooper) of the Mars tritone fanfare of the first movement and a drum roll, leading to the first section of flowing meter. Using the dark, lowest orchestral ranges with extreme depths of synthesized sine waves and bass drum and the pounding timpani, Venus falls into her darkest depths. The flowing meter is a constant change in tempo: 4 bars of accelerando to quarter=90 bpm followed by two bars of ritardando back to the original quarter note = 58.
The strings reenter the dissonant texture, this time with a clarinet solo that explores the Venus leap @ C (1:40), beautifully played by Nikolay Blagov, coming to a more sufficient resolution. Again we fall into the depths of depression with a flowing meter. But, this time, at about midway @ bar 74 2:30, Venus has an epiphany: she realizes what she has in her husband and finds the relationship empowering, the music building to a great climax on a major dominant chord @ bar 90. What follows is a delicate and beautiful passage in the muted strings, breathtakingly rendered by conductor Eric Jacobsen. As in the first movement, Zeus, portrayed by solo trombonist Jeff Thomas, responds with a call to Venus with her motif in the instrument’s golden high register. And with a sigh of contentment in the final phrases, Venus and Vulcan come together in a sweet embrace.
I’ve been experimenting with a concept of irregular meter over the last several years that I call “Flowing Meter“. Musicians perform commonly notated music with a tempo that regularly speeds up and slows down. The concept is described in “Three Studies in Flowing Meter” for Clarinet Quartet. In 2015 I was commissioned by the Stow Orchestra to write a piece, and with “The Joy of Mindfulness” I was able to compose a flowing-meter work with a conducted group. It worked very well. I re-used a sizable chunk of the flowing-meter portion of that piece for this movement.
III. Love’s Flight and Play
I only had a few months to compose this work and had no reservations about borrowing raw materials from my own catalog, as I did in the previous movement. This third movement is based solidly on the 2nd movement of a work for Trumpet and Piano Quartet I’d written for Benoit Glazer and his family called “The Glazer Suite.” The atmosphere of this work is light and playful to represent a joyful relationship – fit for gods. It is the most traditional of the movements, much like a scherzo movement in a conventional four-movement work for symphony, save that it is the current final movement.
One of Maestro Jacobsen’s initial concerns about this movement was the playability of the combination of pizzicatos and neighbor-tone finger-taps called for in the string parts. Because it may not be easy to be played well in time, it could eat up precious rehearsal. What actually ensued was that it did not prove a problem at all. This may be because the orchestra was alerted to the challenge beforehand and practiced it. The first half of the principal theme appears in the high woodwinds @A with the second half-spoken by the clarinet, trombones, and violas @B (0:14). Rehearsal C introduces the second theme, ending at the string pizzicato/tap neighbor tone figure. The first half of the main theme is a solo in the low register of the tuba (1:08). I was thinking of principal Bob Carpenter‘s superb low register when I created the short passage. Not every tuba player can play that double low C with such volume and musicality!
@ E, we reach a thematic mixture and development section beginning with a virtuosic flute passage (1:20) written for principal Colleen Blagov who performed it brilliantly even at the rapid tempo presented. Themes continue to fragment, repeat and mix, reaching a high point of tension @H and resolving with the second theme at b59. It moves back into the repetition of simpler material, giving the listener a bit of rest before the piece winds up for its finale. Theme A is restated at K with an extension of the 16th note figure of its last bar (GAEF #), which becomes the motor for the last development before the noble final statement of Theme B from the horn section and full orchestra. Like Salieri tells Mozart in the movie Amadeus, I ensured the audience knew it was an ending by having fragments from each section stated a full volume, all supported by 6 bars of a big traditional G major chord and stinger. Maestro Jacobsen told the orchestra, “that’s an ending!”. Though not a normal music ending for a modern symphony, the entire work needed such an ending to feel finished and complete.
Though the symphony ended here for the premiere, this is not intended to be the last movement. It is a third movement scherzo, typical to the normal 4 movement form. The fourth movement has not been composed. Yet.
World Premiere: March 26, 2016, by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eric Jacobsen. Bob Car Performing Arts Theater 400 W. Livingston Ave., Orlando, Florida.