Length: c. 16 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, tam-tam, xylophone), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 18, 2007, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (world premiere)
According to Lao-tse, "Nothing that can be said in words is worth saying." And according to Goethe, "Music begins where words end." If they are right, then to say what my new orchestral work is "about" is doubly impossible. Still, man is not only the animal that sings, but also the animal that speaks, the animal that cannot resist the urge to explain himself.
I could say, then, that Radical Light was influenced by its role as a companion to two Sibelius symphonies in a festival of that composer's music. It was daunting to play the role of the upstart who dares to stand between two monuments like the Sibelius Seventh and Fourth, but there was nothing for it but to meet the assignment head-on. Sibelius has been a strong influence on me for many years, and I especially admire his Seventh Symphony as an architectural marvel. Having long wanted to attempt something like that myself, in Radical Light I tried to emulate something about the architecture of that peerless masterpiece: a single span embracing many different tempi and musical characters, but nevertheless letting everything flow seamlessly from one moment to the next - no section breaks or disruptions, no sharp turns or border crossings. The idea of music that unfolds in a gradual, seamless evolution is a lesson I have also been learning lately from two other Finns, Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and from my Swedish colleague Anders Hillborg. (I hasten to add that the actual sound of the music has nothing to do with Sibelius or the other composers just mentioned, at least not intentionally.) Radical Light is a fundamentally slow piece, but it is infiltrated more than once by livelier music.
And the title? That came after the fact, and not easily. From my favorite poet, A.R. Ammons, I found these striking lines:
He held radical light
in his skull: music
over ridges immanences of evening light
back over furrows of his brain
into the dark, shuddered,
shot out again
in long swaying furls of sound.
This poetry seemed - even if accidentally - to capture something about the role of the artist in general, about the personality of Sibelius in particular, and even about the very architecture and physicality I had attempted in my own new piece. So I adopted Ammons's title, and at the same time I dedicated the piece to my colleague and friend Elinor Frey, who helped me not only in choosing the title but also through a great deal else in the making of the piece.
What I hope for this music is, I think, what Ammons hopes for poetry: that it "leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed. Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterward have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of oversimplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. . . . Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying."
Radical Light was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the generous support of Lenore and Bernard Greenberg.
- Steven Stucky is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Consulting Composer for New Music.