Notes of Resilience
UVM composer captures the sounds and sensations of Tropical Storm Irene in orchestral piece commissioned by the VSO
- By Lee Ann Cox
As David Feurzeig recalls Tropical Storm Irene, its onset was milder than the warnings -- from where he sat, a bullet dodged. And so begins his symphony: “stillness, intermittently broken by quick, isolated note-snippets.” But then. “(They) become more and more frequent until there is a full deluge of sound.” Those are the words of Vermont Symphony Orchestra (VSO) conductor Anthony Princiotti who is preparing for rehearsal of High Water. “David's piece is highly descriptive, and I think it accurately evokes what Irene felt like,” he says. “Retrospectively the warnings seem abstract in comparison to how destructive the storm was. The beginning of the piece depicts this well.”
The VSO annually commissions one piece for their “Made in Vermont” fall tour. It’s a privilege, says Feurzeig, associate professor of music theory and composition, particularly because orchestras generally choose safe, well loved works. He usually writes for chamber groups or soloists, so to have a full symphony perform his work, not once but in eight performances, is a rarity except for the most elite composers whose names aren’t Beethoven, Bach and the like.
Feurzeig, though, is hardly unknown. He was twice a featured guest at the International Composer’s Festival in Bangkok. His “Songs of Love and Protest” were selected by the Dresden Chamber Chorus for the city’s 800th jubilee and premiered in the fabled Semper Opera House and his work has won many notable awards including the Silver Medal of the London Royal Academy of Arts.
When he was approached by the VSO, Feurzeig says they asked for something cheerful, most of the new works for “Made in Vermont” being picturesque or historical. “They said, ‘your piece should be a little chipper’,” he laughs, “then I accidently wrote this.”
But Feurzeig did not take this project lightly. He has had persistent misgivings about his moral authority as a relative bystander -- he did some hardcore volunteerism -- to make art from others’ tragedy.
“It’s still pretty fresh and sensitive for a lot of people. It’s not historical yet,” he says. “And, I don’t know if this matters to anybody else, but since I wasn’t personally, materially harmed, who am I to be the person writing a piece about this? But this is the piece that wanted to happen.”
The woodwinds, picked up by the strings, start high then descend into the low part of the orchestra and then the music rises ominously, like the river.
High notes head down into an abrupt climax, followed, without transition, by morose chords in the strings, melodies straining to come up from the bottom, never quite lifting out.
When the storm passed, Feurzeig and his family headed out to Richmond, joining others at the post office, the central command post for volunteers. Ninety percent of what they were doing, he recalls, was just digging out basements and ground floors. “The silt was just so literally, physically oppressive,” he says. “There was heavy muck everywhere.” Feurzeig sees the silt as an obvious metaphor for the affected people in this timeframe, walking around in a “pea soup” sort of daze.
“The central part of the piece is about the paralysis and shock people were feeling,” he says. “The composition is direct, it’s immediate. I guess I didn’t follow my own advice.”
Feurzeig is referring to what he tells his students who are writing about devastating events like 9/11. Some things are too big to take on directly. “It’s like looking at the sun,” he says, recalling Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: “emotion recollected in tranquility.” But perhaps it’s too soon to view Irene through tranquility. Maybe the human scale -- and humanity -- of Vermont make it safe to mirror.
The melodies go up and keep going back down, never quite getting anywhere, ending where they began. (Hear an electronically realized excerpt from "Silt.")
Some bits of the blues song “Goodnight Irene” open the final section, “edgier” in its lyrics than many realize, according to Feurzeig, then it segues into an early 19th-century hymn by Castleton composer Ebenezer Child, with its equally apt title, “Vermont.”
“It seems to reflect the sense of community Vermonters feel when they confront challenges that have been thrust upon them as a group,” says Princiotti, “the mood is sturdy and optimistic.”
“Grit,” no longer referring to an element but the perseverance of people, was the most relevant and ambivalent part for Feurzeig. It was also the most fun, digging up the early folk hymn that seemed to fit the spirit of the people and juxtaposing that with a more haunting refrain from “Goodnight Irene.” But again the self-doubt -- was it too easy for Feurzeig to say how inspiring it all was, to proclaim a happy ending, well aware it hasn’t even ended.
But two things ease his doubts. Just after he finished the score, Feurzeig got a call from a woman he had helped, building emergency lean-tos around her foundation. “She looked like she was moving through a fog when we were there, and I was amazed that she knew who we were and had tracked us down,” he says. She told Feurzeig that it was amazing what people had done and that she has more positive memories than otherwise from that time. “I can’t say that everybody feels the same way that she does,” he says, “but that felt encouraging to me that mine wasn’t an unusual reaction, that maybe other people are feeling that way.”
Less optimistically, Feurzeig believes that this kind of climate episode is not an anomaly. “I think if we’re going to make it through the next hundred years there’s going to have to be a lot of communitarianism like this,” he says. “Part of the reason I wrote it, despite my misgivings, is that I don’t see the piece as about what’s already happened but as a way to learn how to deal with it.”
The raindrops softly reappear, a horn plays a final goodnight and a flute bids Irene sweet dreams.