Like many composers, retired Colorado College music professor Carlton Gamer gets a little uncomfortable when asked to describe the inspiration for a particular piece of his music. "I really don't like to tell people how to listen to a piece," he said. "As soon as you tell them what's going on in a piece, then they're going to be listening for that."
But that doesn't mean that Gamer--a long-time pacifist who often scores his music around themes of history, war and reconciliation--doesn't have some pretty specific notions about the underpinnings of his orchestral compositions.
In the case of "Arkhe," a 1993 piece to be performed by the Colorado Spring Symphony this weekend, Gamer used the creation and evolution of the universe as his framework, conjuring vast geologic periods and burgeoning landscapes with a variety of unconventional instrumental techniques.
No wonder then that "Arkhe" was chosen as one of three pieces performed in the symphony's first concert of the new millennium (assuming you're counting this recent New Year's Day as the true millennial bell toll), dubbed New World Music.
"By the time I was finishing this piece in 1993 I was definitely thinking of it as a millennial piece," he said. "To live at this particular moment of time when we are moving from one huge historic span into another ... it makes me think about time and evolution and arrival ... all those things were involved in this piece."
And that piece is in good company this weekend. Topping the bill is Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," the famous and dramatic work used in the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and "La Creation Du Monde" (The Creation of the World) by French composer Darius Milhaud, based on an African myth about the creation of the world.
In a sense, this weekend's concerts serve as an interesting starting point into the question of how much the composer's intent, or some 20th century feature movie, should dictate a listener's experience (not that I'm telling you how to think about the concert, or anything).
After all, Gamer's relatively new work doesn't carry around nearly as much baggage as Strauss's Zarathustra, which will probably always coincide in people's minds with images of a pristine space, followed by prehistoric baboons beating bones against rocks. Not exactly Strauss' intent, and certainly not the only dramatic possibility for this triumphant work.
In the case of Gamer, he hopes his intent (as described in program notes for the audience) won't be taken too earnestly by listeners, who he hopes will bring their own imagination and creativity to bear in interpreting the music. (You may want to stop reading here if you're the type that wants a completely fresh mental palate before hearing a work for the first time.)
To Gamer, orchestral works are like stories -- a voyage, a love affair -- or a world or landscape of the imagination into which the listener travels. "I definitely see them as a landscape, or a cloud-scape, and as you move through this landscape, things reveal themselves," he added. "Each time you pass through the piece, you notice new things."
In that sense, "Arkhe" could be described as a time-scape. "To me, the piece is about the evolution of the earth and life on earth and human life and sort of evocation of the future," Gamer said, noting that the word Arkhe means beginning. "So in a sense, this piece is about a new world, the sound world, though it's modeled on the world we live in."
Those listening extremely closely, with stop watches and geology textbooks at their side, might notice that Gamer went so far as to time various sections of "Arkhe" to parallel the relative spans of various galactic and geologic periods. Because scientists don't know how long most of these periods really were, Gamer's score gives considerable discretion to the conductor to elongate or truncate certain passages via cues to the various instrumental sections.
"The conductor plays a somewhat more important role in the interpretation of the piece than in most pieces," the composer noted.
Such programmatic intent is pretty subtle, however. Gamer favors the tasteful development of instrumental themes over bombastic cliches that might give more literal clues as to the time period the listener is passing through.
Mostly, the overall evolutionary effect is achieved via a slow march from very elemental sounds, created through numerous experimental "effects" (tapping below the bridge of the violin, or blowing over the sound holes of flutes to create a whistling wind, as examples), into more melodic and rhythmic passages toward the piece's end.
"Arkhe" is a beginning in another sense. It's the first section of a much longer orchestral work that goes on to describe the origins of music and human knowledge. The second and third parts of that opus were debuted at Colorado College's Packard Hall last year in a chamber-sized version that employed a small chorus, as well as several non-western and Renaissance-era instruments. The performance drew multiple standing ovations from a soldout crowd.
Like "Arkhe," those sections used an evolution of musical structure, from basic sounds and melodies into counterpoint and harmony to convey that growth. "Arkhe" takes things back a little further (a couple million millennia, or thereabouts), starting with even more elemental sounds.
When the piece begins, in fact, it's not even in a minor or major key, and it doesn't have clear cut melodies or harmony until the end of the piece. "Pitches are emerging from this sort of primordial soup," Gamer said. "I was trying to create this kind of new world of sounds, to create a new landscape so to speak."
Listening to a performance of "Arkhe" recorded by the Warsaw Philharmonic (MMC New Century, Volume XIII, 1999), I was easily transported to that new world. Though I wasn't trying to impose tectonic time over Gamer's 11-minute piece, I could easily picture some of the prehistoric landscapes that inspired the composer: from barren, windswept rock to oceans of teeming insects slithering through the primordial ooze.
While some of those images were conjured by instrumental effect, rather than melody, there were also some very beautiful, sparse passages. Some very interesting woodwind counter-point gave me the impression of an elemental life form, dividing and turning inside out as the harmonies develop (not that I'm suggesting anything, however). More somber sections also gave me the feeling that Gamer is exploring both the bright and dark sides of evolution, nature and human consciousness.
The nice thing about the piece, though, is that because its various effects are new to most ears, they have a way of deconstructing preconceptions, since the sounds we're hearing are outside the usual harmonic and melodic box that help give us an aural reference.
If all these various shimmers, glissandos and thumping timpani make you think more of flowers or cute puppy dogs, rather than the creation, that's cool with Gamer. "I had particular ideas when I wrote this music, but I don't want my idea of this music to be one that people feel they have to follow," he said. "Listening should be a creative act."