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In preparation for the upcoming NY premiere of Only Air this Sunday (learn more about the performance here, and buy tickets here), I thought that I’d post a few thoughts about the piece, inspired by the questions that Garrett Schumann sent me to help prepare his upcoming article on several socially-conscious works that will be published on the NewMusicBox. (I’ll provide that link when the article is posted.)

Only Air takes the form of an art song with orchestral accompaniment (or in Sunday’s case, chamber ensemble) with five brief instrumental interludes. When I first describe the piece to people, the interludes often cause a bit of confusion, especially given that their musical material is so different from the material of the song sections. So the question frequently arises as to what exactly their musical role is.

The interludes play several roles, although they’re primarily meditations on each of the five boys that I chose as the extramusical focus of the piece. The interludes contrast pretty strongly with the “song” sections – the interludes are traditionally tonal, while the vocal sections, which are still essentially tonal, are a bit more dissonant and disjunct, and often have a recitative-like quality. Early in the compositional process, I struggled to reconcile the stark differences between the vocal sections and the interludes until I came to think of the latter as being akin to the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes – integral to the piece as a whole, but also sharing little to no musical material with the rest of the work. Each interlude is largely self-contained, yet some musical ideas get lightly woven into succeeding sections to allow for a more subtle sense of cohesion and musical inevitability.

Each interlude has a solo instrument or featured section (for the orchestral version, they are, in order: trumpet, the percussion section, clarinet, cello, and violin) which I used as a starting point for my meditations on the five boys that the piece is dedicated to. I felt that the choices of the cello and the violin were particularly important because Justin Aaberg and Zach Harrington were both cellists and Tyler Clementi was a violinist.

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When I wrote the piece, LGBT suicide was a social issue that the concert music world had almost completely ignored. An amazing number of professional sports teams had made It Gets Better videos (years before any of the players had started to come out), as had countless major corporations. Yet no orchestra had made such an effort despite the fact that many members of the orchestral and concert music communities are also members of the LGBT community, and had undoubtedly undergone similar torment in their youths. Disaster relief concerts were commonplace, but this sort of social responsibility hadn’t quite made it into the concert hall. Fortunately, more ensembles are interested in bringing awareness of important issues to their audiences. David Del Tredici composed his piano quintet Bullycide after a conversation we had following the commission of Only Air, and it has started to take wings with performances in La Jolla and Montclair, and an upcoming performance by Chamber Music Northwest.

My hope is that if just one young person who might be contemplating suicide and is sitting in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble or even in the audience where the piece is being played can take away an ounce of strength from the piece and from knowing that this ensemble and all of the people around them are offering their support, then we’ll all have done a very good thing.

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One of Garrett’s questions particularly surprised me – I’d never stopped to consider this one aspect of the work that seems rather obvious in hindsight: “How do you represent yourself in this piece, if at all? ”

Taking a step back from the piece, I can see myself in both of the main “characters” of the text – the young man in pain who is preparing to commit suicide, and the voice asking him to stop. During my teenage years, I had a very difficult time, in large part because of my sexuality, and I contemplated suicide more than once. So I identify with these boys. But having come through the other side stronger and wiser, I want to lend them some of my strength so that they can make it through their own dark times to find life and happiness.

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Stay tuned for the link to Garrett’s NewMusicBox article, and I hope to see you this Sunday at the concert!

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