1. Guided By Stars
3. Life at Sea
4. First Meeting
5. Fatal Impact
7. Sailing on Ice
8. Drinking Song Discovery
9. Venus Observed – attacca
10. Muffled Oars
One night last August I stepped out on my porch and was struck dumb by a sky full of silent stars. As many times as I see them they always leave me breathless. They transport me to a place where musical craft meets the imagination, where sound reaches the soul. I imagine it must have felt like that on moonless nights traversing the uncharted Pacific, the unchanging skies the only guide to destinations unknown.
On writing this piece there were several challenges I set for myself. One was that there would be a true meeting of improvisation and notated music. The improvising soloists have no written notes, only indications of form and materials to use. Another was that the ensemble would be an ensemble of soloists. In a way that is a natural integration with the main body of my work for small improvising groups. I believe in the individual as part of a universe, and writing for solo instruments gets at that in an intimate way. The ensemble members are occasionally called on to improvise with guidelines such as forms, shapes and textures.
The title Blue Latitudes comes from a nonfiction work by Tony Horwitz about James Cook’s South Pacific explorations of 1768-1779. Much has been said about the fatal impact of European exploration and colonization. But Cook represents an earlier time, the age of enlightenment, when voyages were more about finding out about the world and ourselves than about conquering land and wealth. Cook’s respect for the people he encountered is well-documented, as is his bittersweet reflection on the tragedy of power relations he foresaw.
The voyages represent a collision of cultures: the meeting of written histories with oral codes. Uniting improvised and composed forms has always been one of my main concerns and over the years that interest has only deepened. It strikes me as a particularly twenty-first century issue, as more and more cultures are crammed together and music explodes in the supercollider of genres, interests and peoples. Blue Latitudes features the trio, it features the ensemble, and it features the individual soloists. As the piece goes on the roles of ensemble and soloists become more blurred, and by the end both are featured equally. Some of the music simply abstracts the astounding physical realities of the voyages.
It might help to know that there were ups and downs in Cook’s voyages, but that ultimately he was killed in Hawaii for pretending to be a god. By a fluke he was mistaken for one, he acquiesced, overstepped, and, deception discovered, was speared. Perhaps not the most upbeat ending one would expect to read in concert notes, but nonetheless the real outcome of his adventure. The results of his meeting are still a vital part of our cultural discussion and I feel the tensions in communication are a conflict we are still trying to make sense of and ultimately resolve.
I thank the BCMG, Birmingham Jazz, and the Sound Investors for the opportunity to write this piece. I also thank the musicians, my longtime friends and coconspirators Mark Dresser and Susie Ibarra, and my new colleagues in the BCMG, for their hard work and dedication.
First performed by BCMG conducted by Peter Rundel on 2 April 2006 at CBSO Centre, Birmingham.