Length: 26 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (1st and 4th = piccolo, 2nd and 3rd = bass flute), 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bass clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, bugarabus, Chinese cymbal, Chinese hand cymbals, congas, cymbals, djembe, doumbek, gamelan gongs, junior congas, kick drum, rin gong, shell chimes, talking drum, tam-tam, Thai gongs), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic
performances (world premiere);
commissioned by the Los Angles Philharmonic Association and
dedicated to the orchestra
There's a line of poetry by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi which sings: "You're sitting here with us, yet you're also out walking in a field at dawn." It's a paradoxical image of the coexistence of inside and outside, of presence and absence, of groundedness and at the same time, wandering, traveling, journeying.
For me, this image evokes an ecstatic state where the boundaries of the self become permeable;1 where one's senses expand their reach to gather up a surprising continuum of experiences. I think Frank Gehry's work expresses this 'ecstatic architecture'.2 It is an architecture that suggests an expansion of experience beyond static points of reference. For me, the rhythmic curves and swells of Walt Disney Concert Hall, though landlocked in downtown L.A., call up feelings of oceanic freedom and rapture.
One of the things I love about Gehry's architectural process is its physicality, the part his own hand plays in making a building. There's an incredible intimacy to the early sketches for the concert hall - fabulous free scribbles which are like action notations of physical gesture.
I actually see a close relationship between this and my own process of composition and how music is notated. I work in a very 'low tech' way with just pencil and paper, so the music starts as fragile marks on paper which are translated or interpreted through instruments into sounding form. In a way, the music is like a 'negative' architectural form, an invisible vibration that swells up and fills the concert space.
The concert hall designed by Gehry is a precisely tuned 'instrument for listening.' One thought I had about connecting the orchestra to the hall came from observing things on a physical or material level. One of the architectural details in the hall that sparked my imagination was the use of Douglas fir for the wooden paneling of the ceiling. This is a wood often used to build stringed instruments, particularly cellos. I thought of the resonances of the cellos at the opening of my piece as a kind of moment of recognition between the wood of the instruments and of the hall, murmuring to one another. Extending this feeling about the materials sensing each other's presence, the flutes and trumpets address the exterior metal. So the opening moments of the work are an orchestration of a metaphor about how 'inside' and 'outside' begin to communicate and talk together. The hall itself suggests this metaphysical relationship.
In the course of the 26 minutes of Ecstatic Architecture there's a movement from something very interior and evanescent to a gigantic extroverted flowering of sound at the end. The low flutes and cellos at the opening make quite subtle vibrations, and I thought of this beginning as a moment of bene-diction, like lighting a single stick of incense in a gigantic space. These curling, interweaving shapes, in a way, map out the larger form of the musical work. In the final part of the piece there's a real projection of solidity and presence with brass and percussion. The ending is a roar of ear-splitting multiphonics designed to fill every crevice of the hall and enter the body of the listener, binding the material with an immaterial substance.
Ecstasy can be thought of as a transitional state, where one 'crosses over' into the unknown, and also as an embrace, a wild union with something greater than the individual self. I have prefaced my score with the continuation of Rumi's poem:
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up
Your hidden self is blood in those, those veins
that are lute strings that make ocean music
not the sad edge of surf, but the
sound of no shore.
(excerpt from the Mathnawi)
- Liza Lim, March 2004