for SSSSMMAA choir, amplified with live electronics + visual projections


35 minutes

Commissioned by/Premiere

November 3, 2023, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
Lorelei Ensemble
Beth Willer, conductor 

Commissioned by Stephen Block, Raulee Marcus, and The Adele and John Gray Endowment  with support from the National Endowment of the Arts, New Music USA,  The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and Choral Arts New England. This work was created with the support of a residency from the Stiftung Laurenz-Haus in Basel, Switzerland.


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In the summer of 2018, I was composer-in-residence at a festival in southern Oregon. Days before I arrived, terrible wildfires broke out, its smoke blocking out the sun during the day and rendering the air unbreathable without a mask. These conditions lasted for weeks, and forced the festival, which is normally held outdoors, to move into a high school auditorium. Although wildfires are a natural occurrence, they have unfortunately become a frequent, annual occurrence in that area because of climate change. I knew after that experience that I had to find a way to artistically document this experience.

Beaufort Scales became that vehicle. I wanted to do what art does best: document the precognitive feeling of something so strange and eerie and new, for which language does not exist yet. 

I had become aware of the Beaufort Scale because of Scott Haler’s book Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, ​and How a Nineteenth-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry. The book describes the author’s obsession with the elegance and beauty of this 13-step, 200-word scale that measures wind from its gentlest (“Calm / smoke rises vertically”) to its roughest (“The air is filled with foam and spray”). 

I came to share Haler’s obsession and began composing a work that transforms the steps of the scale into 13 corresponding movements of escalating musical intensity. The opening steps of the scale are gentle, reflecting the relative tranquility of the weather depicted. As the work proceeds and the weather becomes more violent, I use different forms of electronic processing—granulation, downsampling, pitch shifting—to distort the voices. This is intended to mirror our technology-saturated world, one in which tumultuous weather has a growing presence. Without being an overt parable, the work intends to reflect the uncanny and disorienting experience of living through a period of undeniable climate change.

Interpolated between these 13 sung movements are 4 narrated interludes featuring 4 different texts—the novels of Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the poetry of Anne Carson, and the King James Bible. I chose texts wherein weather becomes a main character in the work, somehow changing the direction of the story. The early interlude from The Great Gatsby suggests the lingering of a summer evening; the two texts from Moby Dick are moments before and after storms affecting the Pequod’s journey; Anne Carson’s text from The Anthropology of Water imagines the role of rain in our dreams; and the final postlude attempts to zoom out, far into the past, to the King James Bible, to know just how far back the hope for fair weather is tied to prosperity.
My recent work, including my opera In a Grove, had begun to explore live electronics and the live-processing of voices. In that work, voices were distorted as a dramatic device to suggest when a character was lying. In Beaufort Scales, I pushed the live processing significantly further, hoping to gradually merge voice and technology so thoroughly that it would not be clear what is human and what is electronic. By the end of the work, the voices have become machines, singing the text “visibility seriously affected”—a line emblematic and parabolic of the entire composition (and suggestive of the future of our race).

For more information on the project go to https://www.loreleiensemble.com/look-up.

Note on electronics

Beaufort Scales is a fully amplified work that requires a mixing engineer whose role is integral as a member of the ensemble. Each voice should be amplified individually.

The engineer is asked to cue a series of prerecorded samples that blend seamlessly with the live performance in Max. These circled cues are in the full score and must be performed exactly in time. Cues in squares will happen automatically.  In addition, the singers are run through a few forms of very simple electronic processing: reverb, granulation, delay, and pitch shifting. It is suggested that the engineer have some familiarity with live electronics, contemporary music, and contemporary popular mixing techniques and that they collaborate with the composer for at least the first performance.

Many parts of Beaufort Scales require a click track for coordination with the electronics parts. They are indicated in the electronics part of the score. In most cases, the conductor should be the only person receiving the click.

Compression and EQ help create a live mix with clarity. The engineer should add several DB of gain to each spoken voice in the four interludes.