In my early college years I began, on my own, to explore the work of American poets that had been introduced to us in high school. It was exciting, and even shocking, to discover the range, power and real messages of these writers. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were the most life changing. But William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane and E.E. Cummings were not far behind.
Carl Sandburg was also one of them. I read his collection Smoke and Steel and reveled in the images of speed, power and outcry that were there. One of the poems, “Four Preludes On Playthings of the Wind,” immediately grabbed my attention. It seemed like a kind of honky-tonk “Ozymandias”—a mixture of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Vachel Lindsay.
In 1976 I got the idea of setting the poem and did a rough improvised version that I played from time to time for friends. In 2003, spending the summer in Santa Fe, I looked over the old sketches and brought them into a more continuous form. In 2016, during a two-month composing break, I completed the composition. Vocally, the piece is inspired by Sarah Vaughan, Leontyne Price, James Brown and Igor Stravinsky—all artists I had the pleasure of knowing. In 2015, I realized that the piece might be perfect for the great talents of Measha Brueggergosman. We looked it over together and both felt that was so. From there the process was deciding which keys would be best for the text and expression, as well as how the voice would interact with the backup singers and the mixture of acoustic and electric instruments.
Playthings verges back and forth in time and in style. The same materials are taken up by a chamber orchestra and a bar band that develop the material in their own ways. The chamber orchestra is around 20, the bar band consists of two saxes, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, trumpet, trombone, synth and drums. I produced a multi-stave “short score” of the piece that gave all the notes and gestures for what would be played by the different ensembles and sung by the vocalists. I’m grateful to Bruce Coughlin for helping me move from that short score to the full score. Part of his savvy has been devising ways that jazz or pop players could more easily grasp and play what I wrote.
Category: Soloist And Orchestra
Year Composed: 2016
Duration: 30 Minutes
Orchestration: 1(afl).1(ca).2(Ebcl,bcl).1/1.1.btbn.0/3perc/hp.pf(cel,prep pf)/str (22.214.171.124.2 players)
August 12, 2017
Britt Music & Arts Festival
June 23, 2017
San Francisco Symphony
April 30, 2016
New World Symphony