VLA by Alexander J. Schwarzkopf
I heard Alexander play this piece a few days ago in the middle of a swelteringly hot late afternoon concert. The sheer space and complexity of VLA felt like a much-needed splash of cold water in the middle of an over-wrought program—bracing, startling, and uncompromising. I briefly entertained the idea of playing it myself, but then quickly reminded myself that I’m a “tune-and-a-beat” pianist, and besides, when Alexander plays it this well, why shouldn’t he be the featured performer?
Alexander was gracious enough to provide me with his program notes and so here, in his words, the background and interpretation of VLA:
The VLA (Very Large Array) is located on the west side of the Magdalena Mountains outside of Socorro, New Mexico. The VLA is comprised of 39 moveable radio dishes that sit on railroad tracks. The tracks are designed in a Y formation and each span 13 miles. This site has been used by scientists such as Einstein and many others to make some of the most incredible discoveries about blackholes, distant stars and other galactic phenomena.
I was introduced to the VLA by a poet and artist, John Barney, with whom I am collaborating to create a large-scale composition where we are investigating various manmade landscapes in New Mexico and the ways in which they interface with the earth and their natural surroundings. The VLA is a curious landscape, one that I’d not seen the likes of prior to my initial visit. There is a lot left the imagination, as only a small number of the dishes are actually visible at any given point. This is precisely one of the motivations for my particular take on this landscape. I stood and imagined how this array acts as both a transmission and receiving point for humanity to further understand the immensity of outer space.
My interpretation of VLA hinges on the intersection between the human being standing beneath the stars in wonderment and the representation of imaginary waves and threads of sound conducted by the extremely powerful antennae on the dishes into sound. I began the process by creating a work of visual art that represented my concept of the universality of this communication, resulting in a piece that represents the form of a galaxy or distant formation of stars, like a constellation. Further, this piece of art also represents a depiction of a synapse in the brain, linking the ethereal concept of distant life or energy bodies with our thinking apparatus. The artwork emerges from the center of the page, the tone D. From that point, each thread that emerges creates one of the transmissions. If the piece were to be read like a clock, one would begin with the line beginning at the center and moving to 3 o’clock, thus proceeding to read the remainder in a counterclockwise fashion, always beginning in the middle and moving toward the outer parameter of the page. The composition unfolds as a series of waves that I treat like new iterations or readings that recombine and envision the same material in the original piece. Through the application of various processes to understand this material, I create an environment wherein the material dialogues with itself. There are 7 waves, each having distinctive characteristics, temperament and tempi. Each wave explores contrasting timbres within unique textural contexts. Wave 6 is the only point in the piece where I present the entirety of the original thematic material in reverse, directly preceding the restatement of the theme proper.
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