(also available in version for ten players)
Centre Acanthes/Orchestre Lorraine de Lorraine, Diego Masson, conductor
July 12, 2008 at the Arsenale, Metz, France
I wrote Invisible Overture in the summer of 2008, when I was a graduate student at Yale. Having committed to composing an opera based on Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities (a surrealist retelling of the tales of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan), I began by writing an overture to the work. I had received a commission to write a new orchestral piece for the Acanthes Festival in Metz, France, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to work through material that would populate the yet-to-be-written opera. I knew the music would be both lush and ominous, painting a musical portrait of a Kublai Khan whose empire, once sumptuous, was now decaying.
I began by listening to the resonance of decaying sounds on the piano. By holding down certain notes in the low register while playing, sympathetic vibrations created an unearthly halo of sound. The resonance is both beautiful and unstable, hovering just above silence. It struck me as a sonic metaphor for Kublai Khan’s state of mind.
The overture begins with a sharp string attack, beneath which four double basses play asynchronously pulsed harmonics, the partials naturally out of tune. This disembodied timbre is a direct translation of the piano resonance to an orchestral context. Little by little, I added flute harmonics, muted solo violins and half-muted horns, bringing the ghostly resonance to a much more present world—one that could develop and evolve along with Kublai Khan’s character.
As the composition proceeded, I introduced more elements: an explosive brass attack—what I imagined to be a pang of Kublai Khan’s anxiety—and later, premonitions of the chorus calling out: “Kublai Khan, Kublai Khan” in a duet between the oboe and English horn. The work closes with the most explosive blast of brass, strings, and winds in the piece, yet what is left as the overture ends (and the opera proper begins) is the decaying resonance of four very high pitched crotales (antique cymbals).