Passing Storm

Animated Landscape No. 4

2022 . . . sound painting (4:30)

In 1973, I composed my second orchestra piece as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. The title was inspired by John Cage’s famous Imaginary Landscapes No. 4, which we performed as I was an ensemble member of Contemporary Directions. The idea of animating an otherwise static sound mass, devoid of progressive harmony, was a quintessential feature of what I came to think of as the Midwestern Style of 1960s and 1970s large ensemble music. Successful models included prize winning pieces such as (my teacher) Leslie Bassett’s Variations for Orchestra (1966), Donald Erb’s The Seventh Trumpet (1969), and Joseph Schwantner’s …and the mountains rising nowhere (1977) and Aftertones of Infinity (1979).

So many great American landscape artists of the 19th century painted fascinating panoramic scenes. One of my favorites, who captured the grandeur of Western, mountainous landscapes, was Albert Bierstadt:

Albert Bierstadt: Passing Storm over the Sierra Nevadas (1870) – San Antonio Museum of Art

You can see stark contrasts in brightness and in sense of motion between the mirror-smooth water and roiling clouds. Even the word “passing” in the title suggests change, a necessary ingredient of an analog musical landscape.

While not trying to actually map the physical composition of any painting, my musical inspiration came from considering this painting’s features of background, foreground, and highlights of strong visual focus. Musical gestures started with distant swelling sonorities, which as they crescendo feel like they are emerging forward toward us. After deciding to name the piece Passing Storm after the Bierstadt, however, I realized I had no storm in the music, just gentle sprinkles. Thus was created a stronger sonic rendering of the sprinkles to provide a more aggressive introduction. The following four minutes overlaps sound masses animated in time, contrasting dark vs. bright sounds, loud vs. soft, and timeless sustained sound vs. busy points of “light.”

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