For some reason, all our new music events at Penn this school year got jammed into the second semester. The first of these is the second annual Wail of the Voice concert (yes, the name is a nod to this piece by Penn faculty emeritus George Crumb, which was played on last year’s concert.) The idea is to present music by Penn faculty and alumni. The upcoming event – Friday, January 11, at 8:00 pm in Rose Recital Hall at Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus – includes music by another faculty emeritus, Richard Wernick, as well as myself, Jay Reise, Anna Weesner (the three current composition faculty) and alum Matthew Schreibeis.
Jay Reise’s music reflects diverse influences, most notably certain contrapuntal rhythmic devices related to Indian classical music. I am always aware, when listening to Jay’s music, of his consummate knowledge of late romantic harmony – not that he employs the actual harmonic vocabulary of that period, but simply that his own music shares romantic harmony’s richness and flexibility. His piece for Jan. 11 is what he calls a ballad for flute and piano, entitled The Flight of the Red Sea Swallow. Here Jay’s program note for his piece:
The swallow is the harbinger of spring, the bird of hope. When sailors saw swallows or gulls (their close relatives), they knew they were not far from land. The story of the Red Sea Swallow is a strange one. The bird is known only from one specimen, found dead in May 1984 at Sanganeb lighthouse, northeast of Port Sudan. The bird is considered by specialists therefore most likely to be found in the Red Sea hills of Sudan, or possibly across the Red Sea in the coastal hills of western Saudi Arabia. But it has never been definitively sighted. The conjecture on the Red Sea Swallow’s existence is also based on the slim evidence that two pale-rumped swallows were seen flying out over the Red Sea towards Saudi Arabia a short time before the discovery of the lifeless bird in 1984.
In this ballad I try to create an impression of lonely capriciousness with this mysterious bird as it glides and soars in its final flight.
Conceived as a kind of response to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ classic violin tone poem The Lark Ascending, The Flight of the Red Sea Swallow was composed in the summer of 2012 in Lima, Peru. It also exists in versions for violin and piano, and violin and orchestra.