When pianist Min Kwon invited me to compose a short piece for her America / Beautiful e pluribus unum project, one that seeks to commission over seventy composers to contribute to “a 21st century American Diabelli Variations” that will “celebrate this country’s contributions to the field of classical music,” I was immediately interested. I have written several works inspired by American history, current events, and politics, and I saw a way into this piece through this lens.
I used the patriotic song America the Beautiful (for its obvious connection to the project’s title) as my source material, which is based on the poem Pikes Peak written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895. “Of Liberating Strife” is a phrase from the third stanza of the poem. (The contemporary version of this line is modified to “In Liberating Strife.”) I was drawn to the scalar melody that accompanies this phrase. This six-note melody contains four consecutive notes that form an ascending, whole-tone passage, which is the same as the well-known “Est is Genug” (translated as “It is enough”) phrase from a seventeenth-century German Lutheran hymn that was used by J.S. Bach in the closing chorale of his cantata BWV 60 and by Alban Berg, embedded in the tone-row of his violin concerto. My strategy was to compose a piece with a trajectory designed to “liberate” this whole-tone segment from the America the Beautiful melody, allowing it to run free across the keyboard, which it does just before the end of the piece. Along the way there are a few atmospheric effects and several episodes of motivic/melodic development that derive from the America the Beautiful tune.
There is much beauty to celebrate in the United States, but these are also fraught times. America is in the process of deep change, which is producing great pain, suffering and social division. Of Liberating Strife may reflect some of this turmoil in several of its disjunct figures and moments of dissonant harmony, but it also seeks to express optimism through its rhythmical vitality, and assured, forward thrust.
Of Liberating Strife is affectionately dedicated to Min Kwon.
Michael Gandolfi has a broad range of musical interests encompassing not only contemporary concert music but also jazz, blues, and rock, by which route he first became a musician. The span of his musical investigation is paralleled by his cultural curiosity, resulting in many points of contact between the world of music and other disciplines, including science, film, and theater.
Mr. Gandolfi’s recent orchestral commissions/premieres include: From the Hills to the Stars (2020), the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Robert Moody, conductor; In America (2018), the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Gemma New, conductor, with TMC-fellowship vocal-soloists; A Garden Feeds Also the Soul (2017), the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conductor; The Cosmic Garden in Bloom (2016), the Grant Park Festival Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Ballet Ruse (2016), the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor; Sinfonia Brevis (2016), the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor; Ascending Light (2015), the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor, Olivier Latry, organ soloist; and Imaginary Numbers (2015), the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conductor, Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, Laura Ardan, Andrew Brady, Brice Andrus, soloists.
Mr. Gandolfi’s most significant champion has been Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He has also had long and productive relationships with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Other orchestral conductors that have greatly impacted Mr. Gandolfi’s creative life include Andris Nelsons, Oliver Knussen, Cristian Măcelaru, Ken David Masur, Carlos Kalmar, Gil Rose, and Richard Pittman. Mr. Gandolfi has also written extensively for wind ensemble, resulting in several works that are now a mainstay of that repertoire.
Among Mr. Gandolfi’s honors are grants/fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Fromm Foundation, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. His awards include the St. Botolph Club’s 2020 Distinguished Artist Award, the 2014 Composers Award from the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, and the 2012 Sousa/Ostwald Award for Band. In 2009 his The Garden of Cosmic Speculation was nominated for the Grammy Award in the category “Best Contemporary Classical Composition.”
Mr. Gandolfi’s discography includes the aforementioned The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, (Telarc, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conductor) inspired by Charles Jencks’ spectacular private garden in Dumfries, Scotland. His BMOP Sound recording Y2k Compliant was cited by the New York Times as a ‘Best CD of 2008,’ and his From the Institutes of Groove (BMOP Sound) received the Boston Globe’s ‘Best Album of 2013’ distinction. Other works are recorded on the Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, ASO Media, BSO Classics, Reference Recordings, Foghorn Classics, CRI, Innova, Klavier and BMOP Sound labels.
Mr. Gandolfi was Composer-in-Residence at the 2017 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and the 2016 Chelsea Music Festival. He chairs the composition department at New England Conservatory, is Head of Composition at the Tanglewood Music Center, and has been a faculty member at Harvard, Indiana, and Boston universities.
As the artistic director of Center for Musical Excellence, I am always on the look out for new and undiscovered talents. They come to me, sometimes, by my colleagues’ recommendations and other times through young artists’ own research about our organization. Tyson Davis and Andrew Bambridge are currently on our roster of CME Young Artists, whom we mentor. Patricio Molina is a CME alumnus. Theo Chandler, Ji-Young Ko, and Daniel Newman-Lessler applied for our Grant program, and I got to know their work through that process. I decide on young artists when I notice a deep passion and drive within them, plus a certain kind of sparkle in the personality and lots of humility. In addition to musical talents, I believe these are the qualities that will take the young artists far. CME’s motto is "Moving Musicians Forward". I’ve chosen our Discovery Composers based on these qualities, whom we felt we could easily move forward.
- Min Kwon