The Continuous Life

The Continuous Life (2000) was commissioned as part of a project called Continental Harmony to celebrate the turn of the millennium. Written for the Houston-based Orchestra X, the piece was supposed to celebrate Houston and incorporate electronics and interactivity.

I chose to set a poem by Mark Strand that is about the opposite of celebrating a particular moment in time:

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? Oh parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

The original orchestration is spoken word, full orchestra, and a sound mix of recordings of daily life in Houston. At the end, multiple live acoustic guitar players are invited to join in, playing from their places in the audience.

The piece can also be done by sixteen electric guitars plus pre-recorded sound. That version can be heard at September 2nd in my ongoing project, A Book of Days.

A year ago, the New York ensemble Contemporaneous performed a new version of the piece for eight players and pre-recorded sound. If you are interested in performing the piece with an ensemble of at least eight people, please get in touch with me and we’ll figure out how to make that happen.

In the meantime, you can visit the very first webpages I ever made, (with lots of help from Cory Arcangel), where I put lots of stories and examples about how I made the piece. I’ve left the pages pretty much how they appeared in 2000, so you can revel in the millennial flavor ;-).

DETAILS

Creating the World

I wrote this note for the premiere of Creating the World in 1996:

I had cut Milosz’s poem “Creating the World” out of The New Yorker when it was printed there several years ago, and when Paul Dresher called to ask me for a piece for his ensemble, I knew the time had come for me to take it on. Because the instrumentation of Paul’s ensemble allows for the possibility of live performance and control of A LOT of pre-recorded samples, it seemed the perfect opportunity to create a world of hedgehogs and sopranos and urban intersections and Mozart.

At first, everything was big fun: I had a great time recording the text with the wonderful actor Roger Rees; I spent weeks collecting recordings of virtually every sound mentioned in the poem (including something like forty different settings of the word “gloria”); I got obsessed with Tosca (which became the soprano sample) and saw about four different performances of it (both live and on video: NYC is a great place for creating the world(!)); studied the complete works of Joni Mitchell from the point of view of guitar tuning (which ended up not being incorporated into the piece at all)…

And then the abyss hit me.

I realized I could not knit all these wonderful samples into a piece until I had a way of making sense of the central contradiction of the poem: that all the creation in the world does not necessarily make meaning. And it really threw me.

I went back and read Milosz again, not only the poems, but also The Captive Mind, his analysis of the totalitarian mind-set, and  A Year of the Hunter, his journal from 1987 (around the time he wrote “Creating the World”), and things got even worse: all the horrors of the twentieth century came crashing down on me. The abyss of meaninglessness became the abyss of actual evil. The image of the Soviet soldiers standing outside the city watching the Germans destroy Warsaw for them became real for me, became my history.

Gradually I went back to the poem itself, to its feeble invocation of feasts of love as protection against the abyss, and I remembered a lullaby that my Bangladeshi friend Babu (M. Faslur Rahman) had sung for me this summer, a very private form of love feast. And I started thinking about the Dionysian feasts of love that pervade every human culture, and I figured that the brittle present-directed pleasure of house music is the current American embodiment of that protection. And so you will hear these feasts of love, and I hope they will protect you as they protect me.

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Creating the World is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear the Paul Dresher Ensemble’s recording by visiting December 31st.

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For the original version of Creating the World the drummer played the spoken word samples on drum set, and lots of other samples were performed on both MIDI keyboard and MIDI mallet controllers. I am happy to make versions for whatever controllers you have available, and some things can certainly be sequenced for practicality. The main live instruments you need are violin, bassoon (or bass clarinet), guitar, and probably two keyboards, although one might work.

Here is a score of the piece, and when you click the purchase button below, I will work with you to make a cool live version of the piece for your band! It’s more expensive than my other pieces, because I have to rejigger the samples and all that. If you think of it as a consulting fee rather than as a publishing fee, I hope it will feel reasonable. If you really want to play the piece, and you don’t have the money, get in touch and we’ll work something out.