Do you ever hear music in your dreams? It has happened to me on rare occasions. Short, vague musical phrases emerge, repeat, dissipate, develop, and mix together in an unfolding sonic stew—the ghosts of Bruckner, Debussy, Beethoven, Mahler and a host of others stored in the deep recesses of memory. If I was a composer, I might be able to remember these fleeting ideas and organize them.
Often, when I listen to the music of American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961), I’m reminded of these kinds of musical dreams. Torke’s brief orchestral tone poem, Jasper, written in 1998, is a vibrant and exhilarating example. Filled with shimmering colors, it seems to unfold with a self-organizing inevitability.
The piece was written amid “the cool, brisk air” of the Northern Wisconsin town of Bayfield, overlooking Lake Superior. Torke was drawn to the title because of the sound of the word and its associations with “a darkened, almost forest green color.” In his program notes, Torke compares the creative process with the wonders of nature:
When I am outside of a city [I live in New York] and work in the country, I tend to look up. The canopy of boughs and leaves—like the dome of a cathedral—comes from single, sturdy trunks. This suggests how musical expression unfolds—it isn’t random aural occurrences stitched together. An understanding that music comes out of other music, seemingly organically, is a principle I want to convey. In general, this kind of music making tends to be affirmative, it reinforces our need to believe that actions have semi-predictable results, at the same time, supplies us with our need to be surprised and stimulated, because you never know what kind of branch is going to extend from the original trunk. If my expression enhances the listener’s own optimism, I believe a useful exchange has occurred.
There is a joyful and liberating sense of exuberance in this music. Warmly embracing tonality, and using the repeating patterns of earlier minimalism as a springboard, Jasper flings open the door and voices from the past come flooding in.
- Torke: Jasper, Marin Alsop, Royal Scottish National Orchestra Amazon