Aurora Awakes – program note

Aurora Awakes” finally has its official program note. Doug Martin, who commissioned the piece and conducted the premiere at Stuart High School, wrote a great note for the premiere, but it was somewhat specific to the premiere. I commissioned Jake Wallace — who wrote the program note for “Strange Humors,” and also wrote his DMA dissertation about my Soprano Sax Concerto — to write the note. (Jake, who just graduated from U. Georgia, will be the new Director of Bands at Southeastern Oklahoma State this fall.)

I’m excited and cautiously optimistic about the future of “Aurora Awakes.” There are some big performances coming up during 2009-2010, including concerts with the top band here at UT-Austin, at Oklahoma State, the University of Georgia, at the Midwest Clinic with the San Jose Wind Symphony, and — the big doozy — with the top Texas All-State Band in February. More than 2400 people have downloaded the MIDI audio, which seems completely crazy for a MIDI file. Granted, I think most of those downloads were from my dad, who seems to be the piece’s biggest fan. (For that reason, I dedicated the piece to him, a fact that he’s learning only by reading it here in the blog. Surprise, Dad.)

I think Jake Wallace nailed the program note, as he always does. It’s below…

Aurora now had left her saffron bed,
And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread,
When, from a tow’r, the queen, with wakeful eyes,
Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.

– Virgil, The Aeneid, Book IV, Lines 584-587

Aurora – the Roman goddess of the dawn – is a mythological figure frequently associated with beauty and light. Also known as Eos (her Greek analogue), Aurora would rise each morning and stream across the sky, heralding the coming of her brother Sol, the sun. Though she is herself among the lesser deities of Roman and Greek mythologies, her cultural influence has persevered, most notably in the naming of the vibrant flashes of light that occur in Arctic and Antarctic regions – the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.

John Mackey’s Aurora Awakes is, thus, a piece about the heralding of the coming of light. Built in two substantial sections, the piece moves over the course of eleven minutes from a place of remarkable stillness to an unbridled explosion of energy – from darkness to light, placid grey to startling rainbows of color. The work is almost entirely in the key of E-flat major (a choice made to create a unique effect at the work’s conclusion, as mentioned below), although it journeys through G-flat and F as the work progresses. Despite the harmonic shifts, however, the piece always maintains a – pun intended – bright optimism.

Though Mackey is known to use stylistic imitation, it is less common for him to utilize outright quotation. As such, the presence of two more-or-less direct quotations of other musical compositions is particularly noteworthy in Aurora Awakes. The first, which appears at the beginning of the second section, is an ostinato based on the familiar guitar introduction to U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Though the strains of The Edge’s guitar have been metamorphosed into the insistent repetitions of keyboard percussion, the aesthetic is similar – a distant proclamation that grows steadily in fervor. The difference between U2’s presentation and Mackey’s, however, is that the guitar riff disappears for the majority of the song, while in Aurora Awakes, the motive persists for nearly the entirety of the remainder of the piece:

“When I heard that song on the radio last winter, I thought it was kind of a shame that he only uses that little motive almost as a throwaway bookend.  That’s my favorite part of the song, so why not try to write an entire piece that uses that little hint of minimalism as its basis?”

The other quotation is a sly reference to Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat for Military Band. The brilliant E-flat chord that closes the Chaconne of that work is orchestrated (nearly) identically as the final sonority of Aurora Awakes – producing an unmistakably vibrant timbre that won’t be missed by aficionados of the repertoire. This same effect was, somewhat ironically, suggested by Mackey for the ending of composer Jonathan Newman’s My Hands Are a City. Mackey adds an even brighter element, however, by including instruments not in Holst’s original:

“That has always been one of my favorite chords because it’s just so damn bright.  In a piece that’s about the awaking of the goddess of dawn, you need a damn bright ending — and there was no topping Holst.  Well… except to add crotales.”


Alyssa says

I just wanted to say this piece is simply astounding with the multiple time changes and key changes. Being first chair alto sax, it's quite a lot of work! We also played "Undertow" and thought that couldn't have been outbeat, but officially "Aurora Awakes" has done it...well done! My director (Moatsie, as affectionately called by us) said you'd be coming (either that or I can't hear well) so I can't wait to listen to how you want us fine tuned....which, looking by some solos, is still a long way off.

A fellow musician

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