It was late in the game when the idea of my writing a new piece for this March 9th FUSE concert came about. The piece was initially to be a live remix of Stravinsky’s Firebird- augmenting the original orchestral score with electronic instruments, drum machines, synthesizers, and other contemporary elements- then adding melodies and raps from existing pop/hip-hip songs. I had produced much of this kind of work before in the studio for :STEREO HIDEOUT: but never had translated it into a live orchestral experience.
After a few weeks of development, I was coming up with some fascinating soundscapes:
But I began to wonder: wouldn’t it be more compelling and cohesive to write my OWN songs over these beats? Instead of dropping in other artists’ melodies and lyrics, to compose an original concept album, using the Firebird as the dramatic and musical inspiration, then weave that new album back into the Stravinsky?
I was convinced, but I needed to run this idea by some confidants and colleagues to make sure I wasn’t crazy. The idea seemed to resonate, but the same question came from each: ‘taking for granted that you can actually do this, can you do it in time?’
This was in early November. Accounting for the minimum amount of preparation time of the orchestral parts in advance of the concert, that gave me about two months to write and produce an album, weave that album into the original Stravinsky, then score it for full orchestra. It was going to be a grind, but it seemed possible. And well worth it.
One of my favorite Hemingway quotes is, ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ That’s how work began on the songwriting. I just started; let it flow and naturally pour out, using the story and characters of the ballet as inspiration, almost as a filter through which my own thoughts were streaming. One of the first lines I wrote was ‘her steps tread lightly and her feathers bright / fantasy luminescence / but will I find her fire tonight?’.
I tried to push out as much initial content as possible, without restraint. Eventually a framework started to develop- the skeleton of a story, based on the ballet (which was in turn based on a combination of fairy tales), but told through my own lens. As each day of writing passed by, I gained more and more clarity on what this piece was, who the characters were and what they were searching for, and how the story should unfold.
Like every writing process, it was a thrill, and I alternated between ecstatic and highly doubtful. This was especially so because of the newness of it- I’ve never written a concept album or musical; in fact I’ve written very little from other characters’ perspectives. Developing and exploring those characters and the relationship between them- and concurrently developing a relationship between the new material and the original Stravinsky- was fascinating, frightening, and exhilarating.
The story begins as the Prince obsesses over the Firebird (Rare Bird). The latter is accustomed to this; one after the next these dashing and cavalier adventurers make her the object of their desire, and each time she must elude them, teaching valuable lessons about themselves and self-discovery (Pretty Bird Eyes). She dodges the Prince with her usual grace and skill, as his frustration mounts. But without realizing it, he is learning; with each attempt at her, he becomes stronger and closer to self-realization (Man Down). But this is not his goal; he wants only her. Both express frustration (The Big Find)- the Prince that she continues to evade him, and the Firebird that she must always dance this dance.
Eventually the Prince is confident he finally will win her (Get It Tonight), and the Firebird wonders if in fact she might geniunely want to be won (Him or Me). This is a new feeling for her. But she knows it cannot be so, and realizes how much she may come to miss his pursuit- especially once he moves on to a new object of desire (Princess Story).
The Prince’s wounded ego is evident in his haughty declaration of swagger (Infernal Jam). The Firebird wonders if, because of the attachment she developed, for the first time she has failed to help her suitor in any way; the Prince earnestly tries to convince himself to let her go and move on (Memento). But as a new dawn approaches, each finds meaning and redemption in the struggle they’ve endured, and emerge with gratitude for one another and the lessons they’ve learned (Grateful).
Four main themes are present in this work:
1) Obsession of the product versus appreciation of the process
So often we become fixated on an individual thing, whether it be a person, a prize, or an achievement, convinced that attaining that one thing will be the answer to all our problems.
It seldom is. Only when we get there (if we even do) do we realize it’s just another leg in the journey. If we are lucky, we start to see it in the context of an overall plan and process, and we learn to appreciatiate that process.
The Prince is obsessed with the Firebird. He is convinced that she is the answer- ‘the key; the cipher; the lead; the treasure’. ‘And so, resolved, assured; his search for hero becomes of her.’
One of the Firebird’s main motives in evading him is to teach him appreciation for the process, for indeed, that is the journey of life.
2. There is no time
Reminiscence can be melancholy; living only with future goals in mind can rob us of the moment.
During the writing of this piece, I began pondering the concept of alternate realizations of time- beyond just the linear. One such is that it is instantaneous, like the singularity that existed before the Big Bang. The idea that right now, you are every version of yourself that there has ever been or ever will be.
There is a lot about this concept that I like. It means you can live in every moment- the passed ones that you treasure and the ones that you hope come to be. You are the totality of those moments.
The Firebird seeks to impart this idea to the prince, in hopes that it will assuage his obsession over the future.
‘It’s just you, from all time- with your new shiny bike, at your first open mic, as the wise one giving this advice.’
This is something that is been on my mind constantly of late. Gratitude towards my friends and family who make life so rich, towards my supporters and champions who have stood by my side in the pursuit of my dreams. For the circuitous and thrilling path that led me here to Pittsburgh, and for the opportunity I have here with this orchestra and the embrace I have felt from this community.
But it is easy to be gracious when things are going your way. How can we find gratitude when things don’t work out? When we aren’t chosen? When we are heartbroken?
This is something both the Prince and the Firebird learn by the end.
4. Reasons, seasons, lifetimes
We’ve all heard the old adage ‘People are in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime’. When I was younger I always thought by default that the latter, a lifetime, had the most worth and importance. This piece explores the concept that each can have equal significance, especially when multiplied by time. Because, after all, a singular moment, multiplied by years of recollection and reverance, can easily turn into a lifetime.
This, like the aforementioned theme #2, offers another alternate concept of time.
‘How do the years and the decades and seconds have the same impression? / Because they are ever-present / and they are never-ending’
I am more thankful for the experience of creating this piece than for any opportunity I’ve had up to this point, because it feels like a summation of everything thus far. It has changed the way I view music and maybe even the way I view life. I know that I am a different person now than I was before beginning work on this in October, and that I will be forever changed as the final notes of the piece ring tonight.
And though the Firebird will once again elude me, ‘to fly through the fire and make it alive means to dance with the flames- so I am so grateful.’