Behind the scenes of The Garden of Cosmic Speculation at the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra

By Neal Gittleman

 

FINDING THE PIECE

My wife will tell you I’m really into gardens.

She’s right.

I mow the lawn every few weeks. I rake leaves when I’m asked to. I help trim the ivy once in a while. That’s about it.

I do obsess about my one bonsai. But am I into gardening? No, not really.

Yet, something piqued my interest a couple of years ago when I read about a new piece of music, “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” by U.S. composer Michael Gandolfi.

I grew up during the space race. Watched all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches. Saw Neil Armstrong take his small/giant step on a little black-and-white TV.

I devour science fiction. The Foundation series. All the Dune books (plus the prequels). Star Trek. Alien(s). Battlestar Galactica (the second one, of course). Can’t get enough.

I love science-for-the-lay-reader books. Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” “The Tao of Physics” and “The Dancing Wu Li Masters.”

Then, there’s the ultimate science-nerd qualification: when I’m asleep, my computer crunches SETI@home data. ET phone me!

Not all that into gardens. But cosmic speculation? I’ve got that covered.

That’s all by way of explaining how Gandolfi’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” made it to the Dayton Philharmonic this week. The title caught my eye. “THAT sounds interesting. I wonder what it is…”

A few mouse clicks later, 11 tracks were loaded on my iPhone and—irony of ironies—I went outside to listen while I raked leaves.

For 70 minutes, I was mesmerized. Not by the raking. By the amazing music coming through my headphones. I listen to lots of new music. Prospecting. Listening for pieces that might be worth playing some time. I don’t find much. But every once in a while, I strike gold.

“The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” sounded like the mother lode. Intoxicating sounds and sonorities. A kaleidoscope of styles. Brilliant writing for the orchestra. Imagination, inspiration, and technique combining to make something really special. An innovative science-themed piece that seemed perfect for our science-and-innovation-leaning town.

The piece just jumped up and said, “Play me!”

I said, “OK!”

THE GARDEN

In the beginning was the garden and the garden was in Scotland and the gardener was Charles Jencks.

Jencks is a prominent American architect, designer, and architecture critic whose wife, Maggie Keswick, was an expert on Chinese gardens. In 1988, he began a large-scale landscaping project on the grounds of Portrack House, the Keswick family estate near Dumfries, Scotland. Inspired by concepts from cutting-edge physics, biology, and cosmology, Jencks decided to translate scientific principles into earthworks, plantings, buildings, and sculpture. Not just a single garden of cosmic speculation, but 30 acres of gardens touching on areas as diverse as black holes, fractals, particle physics, DNA, symmetry, string theory, and the senses.

In 2003, Jencks published a coffee table book about the garden, with fabulous photographs and detailed discussion of the scientific ideas that inspired him. The book made it into the hands of composer Michael Gandolfi, himself a science-obsessed child of the space race. At the time, Gandolfi was working out what to write for a commission from the Tanglewood Music Center, the educational arm of the Boston Symphony’s summer music festival.

The coffee table book and the commission turned into “Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation” a four-movement, 25-minute orchestral suite, which the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra premiered in 2004.

With that composition as his calling card, Michael Gandolfi met Charles Jencks and was invited to visit the garden, which is open to the general public only one day a year. Seeing the garden in person convinced Gandolfi there was more music to be written, and by 2007, the piece had expanded to “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” a 70-minute suite in 11 movements.

THE PIECE

One of the interesting things about Gandolfi’s composition is that he allows—even invites—performers to create their own suites from his music. You can choose which movements you want to play and the order in which you want to play them.

Part of that is practical. Not every orchestra can or will devote 70 minutes of concert time to a piece of contemporary music. Not being all-or-nothing gets Gandolfi more performances. The other reason for embracing a flexible approach to the movements came to Gandolfi when he went to Scotland. He realized that every time he wandered through the garden, he took a different path and explored different sections. Why not reflect that in performances of the music?

For this weekend, the DPO program book says “Selections from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.” We’re playing seven movements of the piece, about 45 minutes total.

“The Zeroroom”: The suite begins with the sound of birdsong. It’s the first of five pre-recorded tracks that Gandolfi uses. (How does that work? One of our percussionists says, “Track one, go” into a headset, Schuster Center soundman extraordinaire Keith Thomas hits the play button, and the birdies begin to sing.) As the birdsong fades, the orchestra begins to create a glorious shimmering sonority that mirrors the sense of anticipation Gandolfi felt as he moved through Jencks’ Zeroroom, a hallway that leads from Portrack House into the gardens.

“Soliton Waves”: music is perfect for depicting waves of all kinds, including solitons—waves that maintain a constant shape and speed as they move through a medium. Jencks used soliton patterns in many of his gardens gates. Gandolfi’s fast, energetic movement is based on a big musical wave that bubbles up from the lowest instruments of the orchestra. Heard many times, the wave remains unchanged from one appearance to the next, just like a soliton.

“The Snail and the Poetics of Going Slow”: A beautiful exploration of slow tempos. The inspiration is Jencks’ Snail Mound, a large conical earthen structure, the top of which is reached by a helical path that winds up and down the mound’s side.

“The Universe Cascade”: One of the most striking features of Jencks’ garden, the Universe Cascade is a massive stone staircase that starts at the bottom of a pond and zigzags up a steep hillside in a series of symmetrical switchbacks. It represents the history of our universe. The pond is the primordial soup. The staircase is time. Each switchback is a moment in cosmological time, with an artistic representation of important steps in the universe’s development. The sky above the top of the hill is, of course, the future.

Gandolfi’s music creates a similar construction in sound. He begins with a wonderful musical pun: a big bang. (Believe me, there’s nothing like an 83-piece symphony orchestra to make a big bang!)  Then, we get a six-minute history of the universe of Western music. Beginning with the year 800, Gandolfi stops every 50 years or so and plays a brief sample of music from that time. There’s Gregorian chant, renaissance polyphony, a Bach Brandenburg concerto, Mozart’s Prague symphony, Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” Sibelius’ Seventh, Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” a little Miles Davis, some Steve Reich, and then an electronic track representing what we might be listening to 50 years from now.

“The Garden of Senses Suite”: Jencks’ gardens are beautiful, inspired, thought-provoking. But they’re art, not what most people think of as gardens. Except for his DNA Garden, a post-modern take on the traditional manicured English garden. It’s a plot of land about the size of an American football field, divided into six roughly rectangular sections. Each section is devoted to one of the senses—the usual five plus intuition—and each section has a sculpture or other feature that incorporates the double-helix structure of DNA. Gandolfi’s suite within a suite is a post-modern take on the traditional baroque dance suite. It’s six short dances, each one a reworking of a movement from one of Bach’s French and English suites for keyboard.

“Fractal Terrace”: Like waves, fractals are something from the math-and-science world that maps perfectly onto music. Fractals are self-similar constructions in which microscopic details repeat on the macroscopic level (and vice versa). The music is based on small motives and tunes that repeat themselves in larger musical shapes just like fractals.

“The Nonsense”: The finale is inspired by a strange and wonderful building perched on a wooded hillside. It’s not exactly a real building. It’s a post-modern deconstruction of a building, filled with Escher-like features that trick and disorient the visitor. Gandolfi’s movement is filled with musical tricks that challenge the musicians and disorient the listener. It’s a dizzying, delightful whirlwind of sound that closes with a beautiful, peaceful postlude. At the end, the music fades into a return of the recorded birdsong.

THE CONCERTS

On Friday and Saturday, “Selections from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” is preceded by another piece inspired by the natural world: Antonio Vivaldi’s violin concerto cycle “The Four Seasons.”

I think the pieces make an ideal pairing. Musical reflections on nature from the 17th and 21st centuries, vastly different musical styles, but a common inspiration and beautiful and exciting results.

On Sunday afternoon, we’ll play Gandolfi’s music without Vivaldi, but with another old-style piece: a lovely naissance dance by Vincenzo Galilei. Does that name ring a bell? It might. Vincenzo had a son named Galileo who grew up to do a little astronomy and a little physics. So, that’s another science-musical connection for the weekend.

Sunday’s performance is part of the Philharmonic’s Classical Connections Series, where we analyze and explain the music before playing it. The concert will include a detailed exploration of the ins and outs of Gandolfi’s music and Jencks’ gardens, including photographs and videos. It’ll be the perfect chance for me to get in over my head explaining science to a science-savvy audience and explaining music to a music-savvy audience!

All three concerts will be enlivened by the presence of members of the first-year class of the University of Dayton. This is the fourth annual Rites.Rights.Writes arts immersion experience, a unique cutting-edge collaboration between the DPAA and UD.

WHAT NEXT?

There’s 25 minutes—four movements—of “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” that we’re not playing this weekend. That means if folks like this piece the way I think they will, maybe we can bring back the full 70-minute version in a future DPO season.

But wait—there’s more!

Gandolfi says Jencks is adding new features to the garden in Scotland. And, Gandolfi is planning to add more movements to his suite. He hopes to turn it into an evening-long multi-media experience.

So, keep your ears—and your eyes—open. There might be more cosmic speculating in our future!

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra performs sections of Michael Gandolfi’s ‘The Garden of Cosmic Speculation’ 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 at the Schuster Center’s Mead Theatre, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. The Nature’s Way Masterworks concerts take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14 and 15. Tickets range from $15-43. For more information, please visit DaytonPerformingArts.org.

 

Reach Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman at
ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

 

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