In listening to this new piece, there are things about it that evoke a Native American animistic sensibility. That speaks to what you were saying: You’re not consciously evoking or imitating anything.
It’s more an appreciation or an acknowledgement. And I wouldn’t say that it’s only Native American, or hopefully not a cultural thing at all. It’s more, I think, presenting something that we are in danger of losing.
What I think I perceived is what you were saying about a sort of acknowledgement…
An acknowledgement, and you could say it’s Buddhist, as well. I was thinking of it as more Buddhist, because I was thinking of the interdependence of all sentient beings with all beings. From my point of view, it came much more from that: how we as human beings are so interdependent. Everything is interdependent, so if we’re destroying nature, then we’re destroying ourselves.
As you just explained that, I realized my assumption of a linkage to any Native American tradition probably came from a confluence of vocal chant and simple, primal flutes. But this cycle also includes some of your most ornate music, in those rich, beautiful confluences of vibraphone and harp.
It’s more orchestrated than anything I’ve done before on an album. It’s funny that you would say the flute, because the flute is actually Sri Lankan! There were two little sections that I wrote for Realm Variations – sometimes when I’m working on two pieces at the same time, things sort of flit back and forth. I had already started thinking about On Behalf of Nature when I did Realm Variations for the San Francisco Symphony. And there was some material that kind of overlapped, but it’s orchestrated in a totally different way, and of course the context is different.
Realm Variations I wrote for Cathy Payne, the San Francisco Symphony piccolo player, because she wanted me to write something for her as a soloist. I remember saying to Michael Tilson Thomas, “I hate piccolo!” [Laughs] And I remember saying to Cathy Payne, “I hate piccolo,” and she said, “I know what you mean, Meredith, don’t worry about it.” I’m talking to this beautiful instrumentalist, and I’m saying, I hate your instrument! I couldn’t believe that that came out of my mouth. But then I heard a tape of her, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is a person that can sing with that piccolo. So that little part at the beginning of On Behalf of Nature was originally written – and it was a much longer section, like a whole little prologue – for piccolo.
[Monk ensemble member] Bohdan [Hilash] doesn’t play piccolo, but he has that little Sri Lankan flute. Then I heard that in Sri Lanka, they use flute music to open the door to the gods – or open the door to the universe, you could say. That just seemed so beautiful: a little flute invocation to open the door to space, which is something in almost every piece I do.
Another thing that strikes me about On Behalf of Nature is that despite what we hear in the media about climate-change deniers and Chinese conspiracies, I sense in large part optimism and celebration. A spirit of joy permeates so much of this album.
And I hope also poignancy, because I know people who saw the show at BAM said they were crying in some places, and I think that that’s O.K. My rant – in a way I feel I almost should have called it a lament, maybe I made the wrong title, but it had that kind of sense of [thumps table with fist] “wake up” – but I rewrote it for the album. The structure was a little different for the live piece. The beginning had more of that anger/rant thing, and then the end was more, you could say, a lament or lullaby, something like that. But musically, just to listen to it, it didn’t work, so I rewrote it. You actually hear that more grieving lullaby at the beginning, the more rant-like quality in the middle, and then it goes back to the lullaby, which you could say has a kind of optimism about it. But, you know, it’s also that we can cry. I feel like we have to also grieve the ignorance of the human animal, grieve the ignorance and the kind of carelessness. Art is a way that we become more emotionally intelligent, I think. And we need it, and we become more human.
Your process of assembling the work involved combing through notebooks of ideas that you had preserved. Was there a specific quality or character you were looking for in the material you extracted to work with?
That’s interesting… I’m not sure. You know, I’ve just got these notebooks, my jottings, music notes and phrases. I think I just played through some stuff, mostly stuff from the ’90s that I didn’t finish. They’re like sketches, something like that, and maybe I wasn’t ready to develop them at that time, or maybe didn’t even have the skill. Part of the thing is that, having been able to do the orchestra pieces – the one for Michael in the early 2000s, Possible Sky; Weave, for the St. Louis Symphony – I’m learning about instruments as singers, and my ensemble is very rich instrumentally. It’s a beautiful thing to go back to old work and realize you’re ready to work on it now, or you just didn’t see where it was going at that time.
The idea proved solid, but you had to wait until you had the technique to make it manifest.
Yeah. And then coming from the Eastern European Jewish tradition, even though I didn’t come so much from that training, but maybe it’s in my genes: Don’t waste anything! [Laughs] Use everything! I hate the idea that all this stuff is just sitting there, and I never did anything with it.
Which ties in with your theme of not wasting anything in the ecological sense.
Exactly. I gave myself permission to do that. My thing had always been new, new, new, new, have to start every piece zero, zero, zero, no expectation, no past – I’m just dealing with the world of this piece. But this time I gave myself permission to cycle, to spiral, because that was a theme of how I was going to work on this thing.