Dystopian Magic

Upon completion of my Concerto Grosso on Dystopian Themes, I’m aware as never before of the magic that can accompany the marriage of music and story.

The excitement generated by the students of Chute Middle School in Evanston, Illinois, around this project is palpable. The student-written dystopian short story which lies at the heart of this collaborative  work is inventive and compelling. The music is designed to be varied and rich, providing the orchestral players an opportunity to delve into an array of styles and textures.

One new wrinkle in this project is the inclusion of chorus into the work. Their part bookends the piece and is based on the Gregorian chant Ave Maris StellaHail, O Star of the Sea, interjecting at first a sense of timeless beauty and, later, of hope into the musical landscape of this work.

In-between, the players explore Mexican dance rhythms, Chance music, Shostakovich-inspired shenanigans, 12-bar blues structure, fugal form and minimalism. Not bad for middle schoolers.

The third movement, my favorite, includes a Lament for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano–followed immediately by a three-voice fugue based on another Medieval tune, the popular 15th-Century French folk song L’homme arme (the armed man). This tune was arguably the most-used tune of this period in Europe, forming the basis of mass settings (I love this setting by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), as well as this one by Giovanni Palestrina (1525-1594)) and innumerable instrumental settings (such as this one played by Hesperion XXI and the Oxford Camerata).

The L’homme arme tune and message of “beware the armed man” have also inspired other contemporary works (such as Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace).

It’s good material, musically and poetically. In the context of my concerto grosso, the L’homme arme tune is first introduced by the xylophone and then quickly taken up by the rest of the orchestra in fugal fashion.

I continue to feel strongly that the commissioning of new works (musical, visual, poetic, dance and so on) which are directly connected to and inspired by the work that students are doing in their academic classes is to everyone’s benefit. What a wonderful example of STEAM-based collaborative learning!

The performance of my “Concerto Grosso on Dystopian Themes” will take place at Chute Middle School on Tuesday, May 8th at 7 pm as part of their spring concert. This work is also a personal milestone for me, as it is the first composition in my Blue Lotus Music series.

Rick Ferguson