American Muse, for baritone and orchestra
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, harp, percussion (bongos, heavy corrugated cardboard, celesta, chimes, china dishes, 2 cowbells, 3 suspended cymbals [small, medium, large], glockenspiel, high-hat, marimba, police whistle, snare drum, 4 tom-toms, wood blocks [medium, high], xylophone), strings, and solo baritone. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 29, 1999, with baritone Sanford Sylvan, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (world premiere).
The composer has written the following to introduce his new work, American Muse, which was commissioned by Robert and Linda Attiyeh for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and receives its world premiere at these concerts, with Sanford Sylvan singing and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.
When it was proposed that I write a new song cycle for the American baritone Sanford Sylvan, I agreed enthusiastically. Perhaps under the influence of his fine performances of my earlier Four Poems of A.R. Ammons and of such works as John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman, I looked for texts that somehow dealt with American-ness -- with the national character (or rather, its many characters), the national experience (or rather, its diverse experiences), even the physical realities of the national landscape. I quickly discovered that you can’t describe America in twenty minutes, or even in a lifetime. Indeed, my cycle’s title borrows the first two words of the Invocation that opens Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body 1927 (a work that used to be read in school when I was a boy, but probably is not so well known to children nowadays), in which the poet confesses straightaway the impossibility of his task: "American Muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many men have tried to understand/But only made it smaller with their art,/Because you are as various as your land,/As mountainous-deep, as flowered with blue rivers…"
Still, I love the notion of that "strong and diverse heart," and I have tried to reflect at least a few of those "varied carols" and "strong melodious songs" that, like Whitman, we can still hear America singing, even now. Not that my native poets always take so rosy a view of their country: John Berryman sits on the Ligurian coast of Italy in the fall of 1957 and views things back home with a mixture of affection, irony, and despair. Cummings looks at the shiny seductions of America’s celebrity-obsessed popular culture and sees how undependable and temporary they really are. And Ammons, rounding a famous curve on Interstate 80, straddling the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, sees in the implacably unfolding geology spread out before him just how brief a moment our own lives occupy in the larger history of the continent where we live.
Steven Stucky serves as the Orchestra's New Music Advisor.