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Shakin' (2004)

For orchestra

2+pic.2+EH.3(3 dbl.bcl) 1 alto sax. 2(2 dbl. Cbsn)/ Premiered by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, David Loebel conducting, February 2006
Duration: 6 minutes

Program Note

I am deeply honored to have received a commission from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to be presented as part of the Symphony's Rock like Bach festival in conjunction with the Music Library Association's 75th Anniversary.

Music of many periods and by different composers and improvisers has fascinated and nurtured me since I was a child.  I deeply love the music of J.S. Bach for its precision, its amazing invention, its elegance, and the nobility and grandeur of its emotional spectrum.  Bach sounds utterly modern to me, even 300 years after it was composed.  The music of a myriad of other composers and Blues, Rock, and Jazz improvisers keeps me focused and humble at the same time as they inspire me with confidence for creative thinking.

My listening is varied stylistically and also very close and granular such that I hear the beautiful specificity of each composition, with all its exclusive shadings and gradations.  Music is multifaceted and nuanced in infinite measure so I am not interested in answering: "what is the category or style of that music." I refuse, for instance, to make a nice neat box in my mind or ear to safely answer that question with a pat: "it is 'XYZ-ism', and that is an 'XYZ-ist' composer."  Excellent composers, in their best compositions, are probing for something deeply personal. I hear each single work as its own totally special and distinctive galaxy, each composer on an individualistic search, no matter WHAT style or language is used.

This commission provides the perfect opportunity for me to compose a work that illustrates the nurturing and energy I have received from Rock and Roll.  Shakin' pays homage to Elvis and Stravinsky.  I grew up in the 1960s, the 10th of 10 children (and a twin), in a home with music playing in literally every room!  All my brothers and sisters loved Rock and Roll and so did I, and thus, at a very deep level, I know this repertoire; and it has indisputably affected my music.  Many of my other works make reference to Jazz and to Jazz artists (both in the sound of my music and in the titles) furthermore jazz is a thread that has been winding through my life, my listening, and my music forever.

Shakin' is an 8-minute work for orchestra, which falls loosely into three short sections, played without a pause.  The first is characterized by the use of soloists in the orchestra.  It is lyric and elegant, and tuneful. 8 solo violinists, all who have practice mutes on their instruments (which makes their sound extremely dreamy, distant, and faint) play brief fragments of songs which Elvis sang.  They spin an 8 part counterpoint- web.  This dreamy lattice obscures each song, so one should not try to hear "Amazing Grace," for instance, but it is in there, floating above the orchestra in the soloists, as if to recall the web of power that Elvis holds on is all, from afar.  As if 8 of Elvis' songs were in the room with us, but we cannot quite clutch them on our hands.

The second section is a kind of evolution, which features 2 solo violinists (instead of the 8) above a kind of funky, rocking pizzicato bass-line.  It did not make aural sense for the 8 violin soloists to totally disappear, so I pulled 2 of them to the foreground as a transition to the third section.  The final third of the work is one long crescendo, from ppp to ffff, and it also is a gradual and continual accelerando.  There are several "licks" that repeat, although subjected to slight variations, and give a kind of feeling of home-base or of a rock- motive.  Each percussionist has a kind of repeating "lick" so too do various of the strong sections, for instance.  You can hear the building blocks of the work accumulate, and grow and expand until the final sounds.

When asked to make a work that related to Elvis, I was NOT interested in making an arrangement of Elvis tunes, not in making a kind of shallow pastiche of his greatest hits, nor in making a public-relations Elvis extravaganza.  It was my intention in Shakin' to truly COMPOSE a new work, that reacts to what Elvis gave to us all, but that is fundamentally the original work of a singular musician.

— Augusta Read Thomas

Selected Reviews

Christopher Blank, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), February 2006 "Memphians usually take their music straight up. Blues on Beale. Classical at the Cannon. Elvis on Elvis Presley Boulevard.  "Rock Like Bach" was a concert far outside the appetites of most orchestral music lovers.  The seven short pieces on the program, all the result of contemporary composers fusing the symphonic tradition with what maestro David Loebel called "the inescapable music of the last 50 years" resulted in homage via imitation.  But not Augusta Read Thomas. SHAKIN' was much more secretive about it than the other in-your-face efforts.

"Thomas' assignment was to pay tribute to the King. But Elvis' songs are only slyly hinted at in a handful of high-pitched string solos at the beginning. Stravinsky is remembered only in the gradually increasing intensity and dissonance of the piece.

"You have to admire her gumption. If the program were compared to a rock concert, hers was the flick-on-your-lighters ballad in the middle. Shakin' is more of a homage to any artist who shakes things up or turns the world on its head.  Shakin' might be a homage to Thomas's vision as well."

Memphis Symphony Orchestra with Augusta Read Thomas and David Loebel

Conductor David Loebel. Photo by Matthew Craig.

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