The composition of First Light began with an act of randomness, of chance. I had become infatuated with recording pieces of short duration and stretching them 8 to 10 times their original length, turning them into an ethereal slow burn of their initial selves. Mostly, this process generated thirty-second increments of novel soundscapes, but mostly the outcomes failed to capture my attention for an entire piece’s duration. One day that changed as I felt I was listening to something written by someone else— something complete and otherworldly. There was something to the process of not knowing how the stretch would turn out— of ceding control to the gods of music— that allowed me a needed remove from my work. It was as if I had not written the piece, but had created a set of circumstances that allowed the piece to birth itself.
After listening the whole way through the product of this electronic alchemy, I walked around my neighborhood in Los Angeles with a total buzz. I grew obsessed with trying to figure out why I had such a strong emotional response to something that was just as much the software’s creation as it was mine, and it was not until I shared the piece with some friends on a drive up a mountain into Sequoia National Park that it hit me. I had been stir-crazy, claustrophobic, and unhappy in Los Angeles, working on music for a very sad TV series where the score often receded into the background at the final mix. In another act of randomness, the peak of the swell in the electronic version of First Light coincided with the arrival of the first giant sequoia on our drive. I suddenly knew: the piece mimicked the feeling of swimming in the darkness, grasping for something to hold onto, and finally catching a tree branch that will lead me to the surface, lead me to air. The feeling of being artistically and emotionally frustrated, and the release that comes from having your faith—faith that driving four hours north to visit some giant trees will bring you mental clarity— rewarded.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I began to compose an orchestral vessel that would be fueled by the original electronic elements. My goal was to highlight the electronics in the beginning and have the power of the orchestra take over and climb to new heights by the end of the journey, re-humanizing the experience. And, in homage to the initial act of randomness, I decided to weave chance back into the orchestral score. If you look at the score, the performers are often given choices of notes and rhythms to play at their discretion.
First Light is about being at the bottom of an ocean— an ocean of water or an ocean of darkness within yourself— where the light cannot reach. Everything is dark. All is quiet. You have no choice but to carry on. You try to climb upwards, swim upwards, maintaining faith that up is up, until maybe you start to catch a glimmer of light, a glimmer of life. First Light.
The Panther had a much less auspicious beginning. I was reading Rilke translations at the time, and this particular poem struck me as something that would be challenging and fun to set to music. But set as a loose adaption, without a singer. Instead, I used an old anonymous recording of the poem. It was only after finishing the composition that I recognized the similarities in theme between the poem and First Light: being trapped, stuck, simultaneously imagining your way out, and clawing while imagining a brighter, or different, future. Out of a cage, out of your own way, out of the chains created by your own physical habits and habits of mind. Both these pieces are about imprisonment and escape, darkness and light. — Jackson Greenberg
Texts / Lyrics
Der Panther, Rainer Rilke
Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf –. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
The Panther, Rainer Rilke
His gaze is from the passing of bars
so exhausted, that it doesn’t hold a thing anymore.
For him, it’s as if there were thousands of bars
and behind the thousands of bars no world.
The sure stride of lithe, powerful steps,
that around the smallest of circles turns,
is like a dance of pure energy about a center,
in which a great will stands numbed.
Only occassionally, without a sound, do the covers
of the eyes slide open--. An image rushed in,
goes through the tensed silence of the grame--
only to vanish, forever, in the heart.
(tr. Cliff Crego)
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