adapted from the story of the same name by Kevin Brockmeier




23 minutes

Commissioned by/Premiere

The Louisville Orchestra; Teddy Abrams, music director

The Year of Silence was premièred on May 11 and 12, 2023 with Dashon Burton, baritone, Teddy Abrams, conductor


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I stumbled on Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Year of Silence” in a copy of The Best American Short Stories at a friend’s house in Brooklyn in 2010. The story—about a city that went mysteriously silent for a year—was told in the first person plural by a mysterious “we,” which made it feel ancient and disembodied, like a Greek chorus. Its combination of a fantastical world with a sense of inexorable architecture strongly appealed to my sensibilities. It reminded me of another of my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, whose novel Invisible Cities I adapted into my first opera.

But, after a bit of thought, I just couldn’t see what music would add to the story. It felt so complete in its structure and sweep that I discarded the idea of a musical adaptation.

Fast forward to April 2020, and I’m sitting in my Brooklyn apartment. It’s the earliest, most uncertain part of the Covid-19 pandemic. That time, for me, combined dread and boredom. During the day, I would wander the silent streets of Flatbush, my neighborhood that is rarely, if ever, quiet, and at night I would scroll through my books and archives, the only noise being that of ambulances rushing through the streets.

In my scrolling, I found the file: the_year_of_silence_all_pages.pdf. What read before as a foray into a whimsical world now felt prophetic. At that moment, I knew that I had to find a way to adapt it.

I emailed the story to my friend and collaborator Teddy Abrams. I was less soliciting a gig and more looking for confirmation from a friend whose opinion I trusted. He wrote me back a day later suggesting that we make it into a piece as soon as possible and premiere it in Louisville.

Reading the story again, I decided that the kind of draconian cuts required to make the piece into a song cycle were neither dramatically appropriate nor structurally sound, and so I chose a way to include a maximum amount of text: to use a narrator, who occasionally sings. For this part, I suggested an old friend, Dashon Burton, who has not only a beautiful baritone voice but a sonorous speaking one, too. 

“As soon as possible,” given all the twists and turns of the pandemic, turned out to be three years later—pretty fast by classical music standards. I began writing the piece in December 2022, a few months after our American president declared the pandemic over. I wanted to capture a range of conflicting emotions: the desire to remember, the desire to forget, and the need to find meaning in a difficult time.

Instead, I let go of all my preconceived notions of what I wanted the piece to be and just wrote. I was guided entirely by the text of the story, which is so rich that it did not need any politicizing or historicizing. The story of humans becoming obsessed and fascinated and eventually bored with the mysteries of the world is a deeper and older story than any specific moment. 

I used a prepared piano, strings scratching their strings, and brass players blowing air throughout their instruments to turn the orchestra into the noise of a construction site. I asked all the percussion to play freely and ignore the conductor to evoke the sound of Morse code in the distance. The hardest thing to evoke in the music was the silence, which I interpreted not as a literal lack of sound, but as a kind of warm, sustained world that envelops the listener the way the silence does in the story.

The Year of Silence was commissioned by the Louisville Symphony, Teddy Abrams, music director, and was created with the support of a residency from the Stiftung Laurenz-Haus in Basel, Switzerland.