Sonic Evolution

When the Seattle Symphony launched Sonic Evolution in 2011, it opened a new dialogue with the past, present and future of popular music in this dynamic city. The first installment of the series came just weeks into Ludovic Morlot’s debut season as Music Director, and the genre-bending program set the tone for his electrifying tenure. Now the series is stretching further than ever, with the next installment — titled “This is Indie!” — coming to Benaroya Hall on May 13.

That first Sonic Evolution was a transformative experience for one of the featured composers as well: Brooklyn-based William Brittelle, who kicked off the series with a tribute to Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. Brittelle was already a seasoned veteran of New York’s “alt-classical” scene at the time, and a co-founder of New Amsterdam Records, run by a collective of composers. But he had yet to break into the field of orchestral music, a world not always so welcoming to a composer who describes his style as “post-genre” and who is as comfortable dealing with hip-hop and electronic music as he is among the classical warhorses.

Brittelle’s work on that first program, Obituary Birthday (A Requiem for Kurt Cobain), captured the essence of Sonic Evolution as a forum for musical transformation, and not just surface-level quotations and nostalgia. Writing for Seattle Met, Laura Dannen reported, “I eventually forgot I was listening for Nirvana because the music was so damn beautiful.” That premiere also marked a breakthrough for Brittelle, who went on to write orchestral works for the major symphony orchestras in Baltimore and Indianapolis among others.

Five years later, Brittelle is returning with another new work commissioned for Sonic Evolution. Meanwhile the series itself has evolved, encompassing broader interactions with Seattle culture than just one-to-one tributes to pop icons. Matching our increasingly young and global city and its robust hip-hop scene, Brittelle is preparing a new piece inspired by a 25-year-old, Venezuelan-born, London-based producer. Arca has co-produced albums with Kanye West and Björk, but Brittelle admits being particularly “obsessed” with the musician’s solo projects, and he seeks in this new orchestral composition “to unpack some of the ways that Arca organizes gestures and ideas to figure out what it is in his music that is striking such a deep chord in me right now.”

If your image of an orchestral composer at work starts with a blank sheet of staff paper, a pen (or maybe a quill) and an empty room, think again. Before Brittelle commits any notes to a page, he uses digital audio technology to generate an electronic mock-up, a process he likens to building a scale model of an architectural project. Only then does he translate the composition into a score for orchestra, in this case one augmented by a “synthesizer that switches rapidly between different patches” and “two sampler pads that are sampling anything from gospel vocals to manipulated drum sounds.”

One noteworthy detail is that Brittelle avoids incorporating a “click track” — a steady beat transmitted to a conductor via headphones that locks each performance into a rigid time scheme. “It’s really important to me to honor the role of the conductor as not just a time-keeper,” he emphasized, “but as someone who can help the orchestra live and breathe.” It is that kind of sensitivity to orchestral practice that makes Brittelle such a desired source these days for acoustic-electric compositions.

Brittelle has also contributed to this program as an arranger, a role he has played frequently to bridge the gap between orchestras and rock or pop groups. He and two New Amsterdam colleagues are creating orchestrations for Fly Moon Royalty, an up-and-coming band from Seattle with its own fluid sense of genre and style.

Fly Moon Royalty is accustomed to writing songs and performing as a twosome, with Adra Boo providing most of the vocals and lyrics, and composer/producer/DJ/pianist/rapper Mike Sylvester (a.k.a. Mike Illvester, a.k.a. Action Jackson) wearing at least as many hats as he has stage names. Working collaboratively with the arrangers to create orchestral versions of their songs — including two new numbers — Fly Moon Royalty is ready to soar with a backup band of some 80 symphonic partners.

A generation before Brittelle and his contemporaries established Brooklyn as the epicenter for progressive concert music, the composer Michael Gordon helped create Bang on a Can, the original New York collective that blazed the trail for all the post-minimalist, indie-classical efforts that have flourished since. For his first Sonic Evolution commission, Gordon renews an ongoing collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison, with whom he worked on Decasia, Gotham, and other groundbreaking intersections of film and music. They have collaborated on a new concerto with live film projection for pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama, a work that is being co-presented by the Seattle International Film Festival.

Morrison’s film for the concerto manipulates existing footage from an old movie reel that has been distorted by more than a century of physical decay. The source material is The Unchanging Sea, a short film created in 1910 by the pioneering director D.W. Griffith. He modeled the story after an earlier poem describing the hard lives of men and women in an English fishing village, but it could just as easily have been set in a community like Ballard, where Scandinavian immigrants transplanted an old-world maritime culture with all its opportunities and heartaches — a legacy still woven into the fabric of Seattle.

In what other place, on what other series, could we follow leading orchestral composers from thoughts of Venezuelan hip-hop to re-imaginings of British ballad poetry as filtered through two American film directors a century apart? And then to top it off with the soulful, scintillating sound of one of Seattle’s freshest new acts? This could only be Sonic Evolution at the Seattle Symphony.

Buy your tickets now for Sonic Evolution: This is Indie! on Friday, May 13 at Benaroya Hall.

By Aaron Grad

Posted on April 13, 2016