Marin Symphony debuts work based on Björk album
News Pointer Editor
April 27, 2004
This week, the Marin Symphony will be the first to perform composer Kevin Puts’ new work, “Vespertine Symphonies,” inspired by an album by Icelandic pop singer Björk.
The piece was commissioned by philanthropist Kathryn Gould, who is underwriting a series of Marin Symphony premiere works. Knowing he needed to produce something for Gould, Puts began toying with the idea of writing a symphony based on Björk’s “Vespertine,” an album he found himself enchanted by.
“I don’t know a whole lot of pop music,” Puts said by telephone from Texas. “When I was in Rome, living at the American Academy, I saw the video for [her song] ‘Pagan Poetry,’ and I was immediately interested. It beautiful, powerful music with a lot of depth.”
Immediately, he went out and bought all the albums he could find — and came home with “Vespertine” and an earlier album, “Homogenic.” “I like ‘Homogenic,’ but ‘Vespertine’ struck me as a complete album. I thought it was incredibly well put together and a real journey from beginning to end.”
Puts said he felt a kinship to the way Björk structured her melodies and harmonies, and began working at the piano, asking himself whether there was a way to recreate her unique singing voice in a symphonic setting.
“Vespertine” is structured around samples of everyday sounds — it even uses the sound of shoes crunching through snow as a drum track for one song — and a series of melodies played on harp and music box. Puts wanted to kick off his own creation with something similar.
“In the studio, [Björk] can boost anything — but with an orchestra, you can’t do that. I made my own [music box] out of harp, celesta and orchestral bells. I wanted to begin with that, and then have the strings come in, divorced rhythmically from the ‘music box,'” he said.
Although Puts didn’t plan on including Björk’s lyrics into his own piece, he obtained permission to use some of her lines as titles to the three movements of “Vespertine Symphonies.” The first is called “Through the Warmthest Chord of Care,” from the first line of the first song on the album, “Hidden Place.” The second is called “Recurrent Dream,” from Björk’s song “Heirloom” and the third is called “It’s Not Meant to Be a Strife,” from “Undo.”
The first movement introduces the themes of the symphony, while the second swirls in a quick, dreamlike way. “It never gets very loud, but it’s incredibly busy,” Puts said. He used his love of epic sounds to finish the piece. “After an introduction, things back off and there’s a four-minute-long crescendo. Until the very last bar, it’s building. I like that sense of riding along a landscape like that rather than concentrating on local moments.”
Born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1972, Puts began taking piano lessons when he was 8. In his early teens, he moved with his family to a small town in Michigan, and a piano teacher encouraged him to start composing. “I started writing some little pieces. After a while, I got hooked on that. It was much more exciting than trying to be a pianist,” he said.
Later, he became influenced by minimalist composers like John Adams and Steve Reich, but also likes and creates music that is heavily romantic. “I want people to feel something very strongly. When they hear new works, people don’t comment on [beauty], they say a work is cool or challenging. But I feel the need to write beautiful music,” he said.
Puts has won acclaim for a number of his previous compositions, including “Millennium Canons,” commissioned by the Institute for American Music and performed by the Atlanta Symphony; “Canyon,” written for marimbist Makoto Nakura and premiered in New York at the 92nd Street YMCA; and “Alternating Current,” premiered by pianist Jeremy Denk at the Kennedy Center.
Puts won the 2003 Benjamin H. Danks Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2001 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Scholarship, a 2001-2002 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome and the 1999 Barlow International Competition, which resulted in premieres by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Utah Symphony.
But Puts is especially nervous about seeing “Vespertine Symphonies” performed for the first time. “It’s because I care so much about it. I put a lot into this piece,” Puts said. Marin Symphony musical director Alasdair Neale has corresponded with Puts during rehearsals, reporting that they’re going well.
“He’s enjoying the piece,” Puts said. “And he’s the guy who is going to make it happen. If the players understand that he’s taking it seriously, they will all come to the piece. I have to rely on the conductor to buy into it.”
Aside from feeling a kinship with Björk’s music, Puts seems inspired by her personality as well. “She’s known for being abstract and eccentric, and I think that’s fair. But there’s real artistic depth there, and originality. She’s eccentric, but it doesn’t feel phony,” he said. “I admire someone who allows herself to show the eccentric part of herself. I haven’t yet found a way to do that in my own music.”
This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.