CLIMB (2020)

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been selected by Gabriela Lena Frank, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and The Philadelphia Orchestra to be commissioned for a symphonic work that would respond to and be in dialogue with Beethoven to be premiered as part of their BeethovenNOW and WomenNOW 2019-2020 season. Through my piece, CLIMB, I chose to focus on Beethoven’s life and legacy through the lens of chronic illness in the 21st-century drawing upon my own experience as an individual living with dysautonomia, a condition in which the autonomic nervous system malfunctions much of the time. The premiere performances were cancelled in March of 2020 in efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19. As a young composer at the beginning of my career this has been a devastating loss. As a composer who is a woman, representing a tiny sliver of the 6.5% of symphonic works by women programmed in the 2019-2020 season, this hits even harder.

I hope that by sharing a little more about the piece, its background, my creative process, and my motivations, maybe it can help others who are grieving the loss of performances, gigs, and the fellowship of gathering together to make music and art.

To compose CLIMB, I created several aural metaphors for the symptoms of dysautonomia I experience every day: microtonal shifting woodwinds evoking tinnitus, glissandi outwards from middle registers to extreme highs and lows evoking blood pooling in my limbs, a heartbeat motive that contorts and varies to evoke tachycardia and arrhythmias, and so on. I originally assembled these gestures into a loose narrative telling the story of my own emotional relationship to my condition that traced the five stages of grief. I am very grateful that the original draft of the piece was read by the orchestra several months ago, which gave me a chance to evaluate which materials were effective and which were getting in the way of the piece truly working. In my revisions, I focused on the materials, motives, and metaphors that were most sonically effective and explored them on their own musical merits, transforming what had been a fairly symbolic and representative draft that depended on the programmatic narrative to function into what I hope is a more nuanced, abstract, expressive and musically effective final form that will work regardless of whether the listener knows the story behind the work. I ended up re-composing roughly two-thirds of the piece between the reading draft and the final version, which would have been premiered on March 19th, had the pandemic not intervened.

In his Heilegenstadt Testament Beethoven lamented the extreme social isolation his illness imposed upon him and expressed his deep fear of becoming stigmatized when his condition might eventually become public knowledge. This is a fear that can be readily understood today: at any given point in time, 1 in 5 Americans have a disability whether permanent or transient, physical or mental, visible or invisible. Add to that statistic those who face the many societal stresses and obstacles that are part of daily life living in non-cisgendered, non-white, non-male, non-able, non-straight, and or non-wealthy bodies, and suddenly it becomes clear that invisible struggle is part and parcel with the vast majority of our modern human experience.

When I wrote CLIMB, I hoped that by inviting listeners to walk a mile in my dysautonomia-sized shoes, this piece could serve as a reminder that no one person struggles in the same way as any other, and that we must not only strive to treat each other with empathy and respect, but also to listen deeply and carefully to experiences that are different than our own.

Is it a form of irony that the premiere performances CLIMB, a piece which draws inspiration from the isolation of illness, should be cancelled due to isolation measures to combat illness on a global scale? Perhaps. But as much as I wish the premiere could have gone forward, lives would have been lost from an audience gathered in such large numbers. I am heartbroken but grateful that the Philadelphia Orchestra made the ethical choice at a difficult moment. When CLIMB finally premieres in the future, as I know in my heart one day it will, I hope it will also serve as a remembrance for how much stronger we are when we unite in our efforts to protect each other; that in doing so, we uplift not only ourselves, but our fellow human beings.

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