Suffering and loss are a central part of life. No matter how lucky or fulfilling a life we have, the longer we are here, the more loss and sorrow we experience.
What is the proper response to this loss and suffering? Do we confront it, fight it, shake our fist at it, try to defeat it? Or do we step away and seek to transcend it?
In short, do we become activists or do we become monks?
For most of us, some of both. We do what we can to try to make the world better, to struggle against adversity, to fight for justice; And we also seek solace and transcendence through art or religion or nature or loving relationships.
Music can embody both responses. During the summer of 2018, as I was contemplating the shape of this work, I had two musical obsessions: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, and the third movement of Philip Glass’s third piano concerto. These works are highly contrasting not only in their obvious stylistic differences, but in the deeper ways they respond to the world. Hamilton is all about the struggles, triumphs, and tragedies of engaging head-on with the messy reality of living in society. It is full of energy and vitality, music that grabs hold of life and won’t let go. The Glass concerto, on the other hand, is music that is deeply serene and peaceful. Rather than grappling with the struggles of this world, it detaches from and transcends then. It is a testament to music’s power and versatility that it can embody both approaches so thoroughly and deeply. I came to realize that in the new piece I was going to write, I wanted to engage with both of these approaches, to see how they could interact with one another over the course of a large-scale symphonic work.
As I began sketching what would become the opening music of the piece, the phrase “unbearable tenderness” came into my mind. It made me think of the feeling of almost painful love and tenderness I felt a few years earlier when my newborn son would sleep on my chest, and other moments in life when the beauty and sweetness of the moment seem almost too much to bear. “Unbearable tenderness” then refers to those moments of transcendence that crop up ever so often as we go about our lives — and, perhaps, give us a glimpse of something more universal or divine, the wide universe beyond our own ego and worldly concerns. “Bearable pain” refers to the day-in-day-out struggles of this world – the Hamilton approach to life – as we do our best to navigate and make the most of this deeply imperfect world we inhabit.
The piece begins and ends with “unbearable tenderness” music and in between, it takes us on a journey between both extremes. The third movement, the emotional core of the work, is a sort of unification of both; it’s endlessly undulating, rising and falling string lines are peaceful and eternal, yet also passionate and engaged. The beginning and ending “unbearable tenderness” music, to me, takes on a quality of transcending living itself, giving a glimpse, perhaps, of the place we are before we are born and after we die. In between is Life.
The piece is called a piano “symphony” rather than “concerto” because the piano’s role is to provide the meat of the musical content and structure, rather than to function as a virtuosic soloist. The piano introduces themes, provides the harmonic underpinning, and lays down grooves, but isn’t always necessarily meant to be the center of attention.
The overall form of the work is roughly an arch form. The third movement forms the emotional core of the piece, as a meditative, repeating piano figure provides the backdrop for string lines that slowly and inexorably rise and fall. Movements 2 and 4 are fast, colorful, scherzo-like movements, but with very different characters; while movement 2 is wispy and mysterious, movement 4 is aggressive and driving. Movements 1 and 5 are the most complex, with a range of characters and emotions. The gentle prelude to movement 1 recurs at the very end of movement 5, rounding out the form as the music gently fades into the same eternal silence from which it emerged.
The piece was commissioned and premiered by the University of the Pacific Orchestra, with Nicolas Waldvogel conducting and Dashiel Reed as the piano soloist. I am deeply grateful to them for the opportunity to write a piece on this scale, and for their dedication and enthusiasm in bringing it to life.