The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Roger Reynolds Composer: Roger Reynolds
© Thomas May

"I believe all things will come out right at last, but...the people must feel before they will see." These words of George Washington (1732-1799), observes Roger Reynolds, might serve as the epigraph for his new composition. They occur in the final section of the libretto for george WASHINGTON, which Reynolds carefully selected and assembled from the diaries and letters of the iconic figure. In comparison with Washington's relatively "wooden" speeches, which represent a "publicly constructed persona" intended to shield his imposing image, these more intimate sources proved to be a wellspring: "I was staggered by his wisdom, his sensitivity, even his ability to be poetic and to make emotively potent statements."

The priority of experience as the gateway toward true understanding, Reynolds adds, is an idea that recurs in Washington's writings, but it also expresses the composer's own goal for the work. He envisioned george WASHINGTON as a multimedia amalgam of orchestral music, narration, visual projections, and computer-processed "surround" sound. All of this elaborate technical apparatus, in the end, is meant to provide an immersive experience that can "provoke the imagination and arouse in the audience some sense of their own relationship to Washington as a human being. It's not about giving a history lesson but about trying to enter into Washington's world."

Reynolds, who was born in Detroit in 1934, commands a reputation as a bold explorer of the multilayered character of experience. His works are known for engaging listeners with the spatial dimension of music and with a revelatory, complexly theatrical approach to text and voice. Reynolds got a relatively late start on his career as a composer, after graduating with a degree in engineering physics and working briefly in the missile industry in the 1950s. The choice to devote himself to music at a later stage, Reynolds recalls, gave him a different perspective and prompted him to approach composition as "an encounter with life and its content that was shaped by a more direct response to words, to the experience of life." An indication of that engagement can be seen in the scope of his catalogue, ranging from instrumental compositions in the familiar formats of chamber and orchestral music to complex dramatic collaborations wedding elaborate technology with traditional art. Whispers Out of Time, a work for string orchestra composed in response to a poem by John Ashbery, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1989.

Reynolds first came to attention with his music-theater rendering of the Wallace Stevens poem The Emperor of Ice Cream (1961-62). He earned a following through his involvement with the avant-garde ONCE festivals and his experimentation with analog and digital electronic sound. Deeply influenced by a period living abroad in Europe and Japan (including residencies at IRCAM, the Paris-based center for musical research founded by Pierre Boulez), he has long been a major presence at the University of California, San Diego, where he has pursued a vast range of interests spanning technology, sound as a spatially experienced phenomenon, literature and the visual arts, and mythology, along with teaching and research. At UCSD Reynolds helped establish an interdisciplinary research unit which later evolved into the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts.

Commissioned in conjunction with the very recent opening of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, george WASHINGTON also represents a compendium of significant preoccupations and methods in Reynolds's oeuvre. Collaborative interaction, for example, was crucial to its inception. Reynolds partnered with computer musician Jaime Oliver and audio engineer Josef Kucera and spent time gathering sounds from the present-day estate of Mount Vernon: bird calls and other natural sounds as well as such man-made sources as the grinding of the gristmill. These were processed and "spatialized" to be integrated into the work's soundscape. (The conductor, with one exception, leaves control of the computer sound in the hands of a computer-musician performer so as to manage the orchestra and narrators.) A similar site-specific origin applies to the projected visual imagery, which was captured and arranged by the intermedia artist Ross Karre from the Mount Vernon mansion and mill and the surrounding grounds throughout the year. Research historian Mary V. Thompson of the Mount Vernon staff provided scholarly advice and editorial supervision

Reynolds has designed george WASHINGTON as a continuous work in five interconnected sections (altogether lasting about 23 minutes in performance): "Origins," "Engagement," and "Reflections" (the first, third, and fifth sections, respectively) trace out three primary stages in Washington's life, while "Martha" and "Lafayette" (sections two and four) serve as interludes focused on "the two most significant attachments in his personal life," as Reynolds writes in the score: Washington's wife and the French military officer who became a surrogate son for the childless hero. Three narrators stand for Washington "as a young explorer, a middle-aged activist, and a wise elder." Their participation, however, is not simply linear and "objective"; rather, the narrators almost become musical instruments and interact with the orchestra-just as do the constantly morphing visuals projected onto three screens. The narrators also overlap with each other, dramatizing a kind of ongoing dialogue of these different aspects of Washington's personality over the course of his life, across time.

The piece begins with an adaptation of a lilting ballad by the London-born American composer Benjamin Carr (1768-1821), recorded here by harpsichordist Takae Ohnishi: "The Maid of Lodi." Washington wouldn't have known this particular tune, explains Reynolds, but it represents the kind of musical entertainment that he might have heard his step-granddaughter Nellie perform after dinner. Reynolds devised a special algorithm to process the period music spatially in the concert hall and to create the effect of its being "stretched out across time." (One inspiration for this "blurring" process was to create an acoustic equivalent to techniques he discovered in Japanese ink wash or sumi-e painting.)

The orchestra enters under this "cover," and "Origins" proceeds as a series of three variations on the Lodi material, each becoming increasingly remote from the starting reference-a neat metaphor for Reynolds's overall concern with change and metamorphosis through experience, with how "familiar things return in unfamiliar ways." The projected visual correlatives meanwhile constantly morph throughout the piece, presenting images of Mount Vernon over the four seasons and from sunrise to sunset.

Woodwinds dominate the dense textures of "Martha," while "Engagement" continues with dynamic writing for the entire orchestra. The grist mill samples come roaring into focus amid powerfully accented chords, followed by "a long, wide-ranging, jagged, dramatic line" mostly entrusted to the winds in concert. Solo strings and harp emerge into the foreground for the "Lafayette" interlude before the widely ranging "Reflection" begins. Comprising seven linked episodes, this final section incorporates reminiscences of music previously heard and is "sometimes reflective, briefly jocular, and passes through an oddly irregular chorale before rising to an expansive climax where the ‘interruptions' of earlier sections [become] integrated into the linear fabric of the music." Reynolds reprises the Lodi material, but in "a reflective, elaborately ornamented form" well suited to Washington's experienced insights and humane optimism.