Commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Music Director Cristian Măcelaru, with generous support from Jerry Vurek-Martyn and Rhonda Martyn & Joseph Novello in loving memory of Lynda Vurek-Martyn. Additional support comes from the La Jolla Music Society for SummerFest.
I. Canto para California
II. in extremis
I am a believer of human-driven climate change, reluctantly so. That is what four straight years of apocalyptic fires in your beloved home state will do. My husband and I diligently thin the forests on our property, installing water tanks and ponds, and covering edifices in fire-resistant stucco. We are regulars at classes at the fire station, and during fire season, have solar power at the ready for electrical outages, and emergency bags in the cars. And at the small music academy that I founded, my staff and I have begun leading classes for musicians about the climate crisis, and talk frankly about lifestyle changes needed in our field.
Contested Eden, in two movements, was a difficult project for me. A few months before the deadline, when asked if I could consider addressing the wildfires of California in my piece for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, I was caught off guard. Then, I burst into tears and blurted out yes. What followed was a humbling period of apprehension against tackling the subject. When I did roll up my sleeves, I first wrote what could best be described as a melodramatic soundtrack for a theoretical film documentary on fire. Here’s the fire climbing up a Douglas fir: scurrying violins. There’s the ominous ascending column of smoke over hills before it sinks to the valley floor: horns in sixths to fifths to fourths to thirds to seconds, harmonized to descending bassoons. A solo flute could be the lonely bird hovering over a burned nest. Windchimes for…well, wind and maybe a charred kite. And riffing Ennio Morricone is always good for a firefighter’s vista shot surveying husks of homes against steam and ash.
This went on for a while, a couple of weeks. Ultimately, it was a useful, if mortifying, exorcism of tired cliches I’ll never show anyone, leaving behind just a couple of small usable germs: an original secular psalm, Canto para California, that forms an intimate lyrical first movement, followed by a second movement centered around the concept of in extremis, Latin for “in extreme circumstances.”
in extremis…What an apt description for life in California during the past four seasons, a Herculean effort of normalcy on the part of Californians while death is constantly imminent. Something inside, deep in one’s spirit, simply perseveres even while surrounded by unimaginable chaos and loss.
After an initial slow build-up, the heart of the second movement is a slowly moving violin line that elegiacally descends, over several minutes, moving from the stratospheres down to its lowest register before handing off to the violas, who eventually hand off to the cellos, who hand off to the basses. All the while, against this almost too-long falling arc, brief bits and pieces of earlier pieces I’ve authored come to life, albeit transformed, in the surrounding orchestral landscape before vanishing. Nothing coheres or makes sense, like memories that are of little help and comfort. That’s life in extremis.
Yet, the piece ends hopefully, a hint of the work’s opening and original secular psalm in tribute to the Eden that’s my beloved native state. So, while I honestly sometimes want to lie back in a comfortable bed of yesteryear, I recognize the past is going to stay there, and forward is what we’ve got. California’s never been a sleepy state, and an ultimately optimistic embrace of challenges to come is all I see for our future.
— Gabriela Lena Frank