Robinson McClellan ~ composer
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113th & COLUMBUS (2011)
Commissioned by the Orfeo Duo for the Harlem Chamber Players and Rebecca Bone, dancer.
Premiere May 21, 2011 in Morningside Park, at what would have been 113th St. and Columbus Ave. in Manhattan.
Written for the 200th anniversary of John Randel's 1811 Manhattan street grid, and dedicated to Calvert Vaux, whose greatest work of art was Morningside Park. Including a not entirely jazzy musical tribute to George Gerswhin, who lived nearby.
This piece tells the story of Morningside Park's proud topography, set within a musical map of Manhattan. Some of the rhythms are inspired by the street grid John Randel surveyed in 1811, which we still live by. For the grid's 200th anniversary I wanted to celebrate the blending of natural and imposed geometry that it represents. Each street becomes a beat as the music retraces the grid many times over, from 1st Street northward (sorry, folks: nothing south of Houston St.). As the piece progresses, a 13-beat/block "Morningside Park theme" enters and then gradually expands to tell the story of the park.
The idea came as I read the history of this park: the only reason it's here at all is that it wasn't feasible to extend the street grid over Morningside's tall cliffs. So in the music, when the grid reaches Morningside Park, the steady pattern of beats (and streets) is interrupted. A struggle ensues between grid and cliffs, between imposed structure and the original proud curves of the island. Gradually these opposing forces accommodate one another, each bending to fit, resulting in today's beautiful park. The piece becomes an allegory for, and a tribute to, struggles—of any kind—that ultimately find peaceful resolution.
A lot happens along the way. After an opening sally from the Morningside cliffs (doubling as a Gershwin tribute), an introductory processional presents the grid as Randel planned it, with short wistful solos representing his parks that were never built: a Parade Ground between 23rd and 34th Streets, Bloomingdale Square on the West side at 53rd Street, Hamilton Sq. on the East side at 65th, Manhattan Square (the only one that remained parklike— it is now the home of the Natural History Museum), and Observatory Place, on the East side at 89th St.
After a wistful return of the cliff music (fast upward runs always represent the cliffs), the bassoon begins a faster, more driving pattern as we witness the gradual building of the grid during the 19th century (this even, flat quintuple pattern always represents the grid). As the planners come to terms with the impossibility of continuing the grid over the Morningside cliffs, we then hear the park being planned and built. Morningside offers its "Song of Resignation and Welcome" to the grid: a solemn clarinet and horn duet culminating in a burst of rising "cliff" music from all the instruments.
The final section takes place today, in 2011, when the grid and the land have come to coexist peacefully. A reprise of Randel's "ghost grid" music offers today's parks in place of those that were never built: Union Square, Madison Square, Bryant Park, Central Park. Finally, a joyous coda takes in the whole of Manhattan north of Houston St. The music blazes past Central and Morningside parks, gives a nod to St. Nicholas Park (also 13 blocks long), and careens at last all the way to Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill, where it ends just before running right off the north end of the island.
Surely John Randel never imagined that someone would be daft enough to try mapping his street grid to music. But I was happy to discover that the grid contains some very peppy, well-proportioned rhythms (perhaps Randel was a closet composer, and we are living in his great symphony).
But more than that, this project revealed to me a genuine, felt correlation between space and rhythm: as we travel Manhattan's grid every day, we experience its proportions, its distances, and the time it takes to travel between its intersections. But they go by so slowly that we don't quite experience them as rhythms. Perhaps by translating those proportions to a dramatically sped-up musical timeframe, we are merely re-experiencing something familiar, only now in a more tangible form. I hope that as you sit here today you might imagine the music rushing toward you, over and over again, from all those miles away down by Houston St, a long straight shot until it reaches this spot and must contend with those magnificent cliffs above our heads.
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