Commissioned by The University of Chicago for the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of Chicago Pile-1
First performance by Jessica Aszodi, Soprano, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Musicians: Yuan-Qing Yu and Ni Mei, Violins; WeiJing Wang, Viola; and Ken Olsen, Cello on December 1, 2017 in the Logan Center for the Arts
Alternate versions: The vocalise solo line can also be performed by Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Trumpet, Soprano Saxophone, or Countertenor in place of the Soprano.
May also be performed with string orchestra (no basses).
Duration: 6 minutes
Assistant Professor of Music and the Humanities, University of Chicago
The history of music is, in many ways, an assemblage of occasional compositions. Since the rise of art pour l’art in the nineteenth century, classical music purports to be abstract, but in the longer arc, compositions connect to specific occasions: a coronation, a requiem mass, a religious feast, a dinner party, a regal celebration. Such occasions and commissions present challenges––not least for the composer charged with responding to the myriad consequences of the world’s first nuclear reaction. Does one focus on the (positive) reverberations in cancer treatment, power, and science? Does one focus on the (negative) reverberations in bombs, death, waste, and perpetual threats of war? In Plea for Peace, these consequences are inextricable. The clean perfect intervals that begin and end the work give rise to both expansionist leaps and cocooning retractions. The soloist’s elegant, wordless vocalise weaves in and out of the string quartet’s sustained harmonies in graceful counterpoint, drawing us closer to our common humanity. Simple harmonies slowly transform, becoming rich and complex at the insistent, dramatic climax: a wordless scream from the soul. As the music’s opening glow returns, the voice seamlessly dovetailing with the strings, we return to the sonic space of meditation, reflecting on an absolute plea for lasting peace.
Copyright © Jennifer Iverson
Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1), when it achieved criticality, became the world's first artificial nuclear reactor. Its construction was part of the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to create atomic bombs during World War II. It was built by the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, under the west viewing stands of the original Stagg Field. The first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in CP-1 on 2 December 1942, under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, who described the apparatus as "a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers".
The reactor was assembled in November 1942, by a team that included Fermi, Leo Szilard (who formulated the idea of the chain reaction), Herbert L. Anderson, Walter Zinn, Martin D. Whitaker, and George Weil. It contained 45,000 graphite blocks weighing 400 short tons (360 t) used as neutron moderators, and was fueled by 6 short tons (5.4 t) of uranium metal and 50 short tons (45 t) of uranium oxide. In the pile, some of the free neutrons produced by the natural decay of uranium were absorbed by other uranium atoms, causing nuclear fission of those atoms, and the release of additional free neutrons. Unlike most subsequent nuclear reactors, it had no radiation shielding or cooling system as it only operated at very low power. The shape of the pile was intended to be roughly spherical, but as work proceeded, Fermi calculated that critical mass could be achieved without finishing the entire pile as planned.
In 1943, CP-1 was moved to Red Gate Woods, and reconfigured to become Chicago Pile-2 (CP-2). There, it was operated until 1954, when it was dismantled and buried. The stands at Stagg Field were demolished in August 1957, but the site is now a National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Landmark
When the Chicago Pile-1 went critical on December 2, 1942, a coded call from UChicago to Harvard merely said, “the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World, [and] the earth was not as large as he had estimated….” Humanity had breached a monumental threshold underneath the deeply ordinary stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, passing into an age that would fundamentally alter the terms of our existence—and yet did so almost unexpectedly, before the pile’s stack of graphite blocks and uranium cylinders was even complete. As we approach the 75th anniversary of CP-1, we must recall the vast and enduring consequences that flowed from this somewhat crude and unstable material moment: although the first artificial, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction produced only enough energy to light an incandescent bulb, the incommensurable scale of the research that followed from this experiment reshaped the world through innovations in agriculture, medicine, and nuclear power, while at the same time inaugurating the possibility of man-made extinction.
Copyright © Sean Keller
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Augusta Read Thomas work, please contact Nimbus Music Publishing.