Rand Steiger

Program Note for The Burgess Shale (1994)

From 1987 through 1989 I served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Composer Fellow, working along with John Harbison and Steven Stucky as a resident composer. Toward the end of this period I was commissioned to compose a work for large orchestra. Through years of concert attendance and performances of five earlier works of mine, I had developed a great admiration and respect for the distinguished and inspired artists who make up this orchestra. My immediate impulse was to write a concerto for them. I imagined a work with many internal division featuring principal players and their sections, framed by opening and closing parts that would bring all this material together in some interesting and unusual way. Around that time I read a brilliant and fascinating book that resonated with the structure of the piece I was just beginning to imagine. 

The Burgess Shale was inspired by Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life, which documents one of the most important series of paleontological discoveries ever made. Early in the century a body of fossils was discovered in the canadian rockies in a quarry of limestone formed some 530 million years ago. As Gould book says, 

"less than a block long and 10 feet high, the Burgess Shale holds the remains of an ancient sea that nurtured more varieties of life then can be found in all of our modern oceans."
for further information on the Burgess Shale fossils click here for Andrew MacRae's excellent web site
Charles D. Wolcott made the initial discovery in the early part of this century, but he misinterpreted it. He forced all of the fossils he examined into some traditional classification. Over the past 20 years, H.B. Whittington, and his assistants have reexamined the fossils and have come to a series of stunning conclusions. In addition to the many creatures one would expect to discover (worms, sea plants, trilobites), they have treatises on eight life forms that bear no resemblance to anything seen before or alive today. These discoveries drove many scientists to the conclusion that evolution has not been an inevitable march towards human perfection, but more likely a series of accidents - the decimation and diversification theory. As Gould puts it 
"if we could rewind the tape of time and play it again, everything would come out differently."
What I found most compelling in Gould's book was the eight unclassifiable creatures (Gould calls them weird wonders). They are indeed weird and wonderful, and they inspired awe and wonder in me. After I finished Gould's book, these creatures and their history were firmly embedded in my consciousness and I discovered that they suggested an interesting program for my concerto for orchestra.

 The piece begins with an introduction, followed by eight sections, each focussing on one creature, and then a concluding sections. Each creature has a particular kind of material associated with it, defined by instrumentation, pitch material, and tempo. Besides having a dedicated section, each creature has its own recurring cycle of appearances throughout the piece. So while the piece progresses through the main sections, little snippets of the other sections interrupt and comment on their progression. 

Introduction           Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
The piece begins with a kind of cracking open sound, the reveals a 24 note "frozen" chord played quietly by divided strings. I think of this part as a kind of fossilized music which gradually comes to life. Eventually the cracking sound recurs and the harmony starts to shift, with all the material of the piece interacting. A visual metaphor for this part would be looking into a treasure chest for the first time, attracted by the beauty of everything but never concentrating on any one item for very long. 
 Opabinia      Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
This section features principal trumpet, echoed by muted trumpets and accompanied buy a series of five note chords played by ringing percussion and keyboards, doubled by strings. The tempo is somewhat fast and the trumpet parts are somewhat virtuosic.
 Nectocaris     Score Image  sound: streaming mp3

At a brisk tempo, the clarinets are featured, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in counterpoint. They are accompanied by fast, contrapuntal writing in the strings, and mallet percussion.
 Odontogriphus  Score Image  sound: streaming mp3

A trombone solo, played communally by the entire section, with accompaniment by pizzicato strings, in a medium tempo with many glissandos.
 Dinomischus          Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
A slow, delicate music featuring a flute duo, with harp, harpsichord (synthesized), and string accompaniment.
 Amiskwia           Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
A brief, fleeting scherzo-like section, featuring the piano and setting off little events all around the orchestra.
 Hallucigenia       Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
A very slow, quiet section, featuring solos for lower sounding instruments (contrabassoon, solo string bass, and english horn) playing in their extreme high register. This is accompanied by a progression of mysterious, high chords struck by crotales, and vibraphone, and sustained in string harmonics. Their is also a kind of shuffling sound made with irregular, brief tremolo chords rising and falling in the second violins, doubled by maracas and punctuated by sleigh bells.
 Wiwaxia             Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
A moderately fast music for oboes and high bassoons, playing in clusters with occasional outbursts of fast notes, accompanied by harpsichord and strings.
Anomalocaris Score Image  sound: streaming mp3
This was by far the largest and fiercest creature found in the shale, and it was also the most disfigured by the calamity (probably a mud slide) that instantly snatched the life of these creatures and preserved them. The most interesting thing is that parts of anomalocaris were thought to be four individual creatures; it wasn't until recently that it was discovered that they were component parts of the same animal. SO the music for this section became a monstrous concoction featuring tuba, along with contrabass clarinet, horn, and lower strings.
Conclusion                Score Image  sound: streaming mp3(conclusion) streaming mp3(last part - Pikaia)
Out of the anomalocaris section things get quite stirred up, building to a point where all eight sections appear simultaneously, leading to a climax inspired by the final natural disaster these creatures experienced. Score Image
At the end of Wonderful Life, Gould writes about a gentle little creature called Pikaia, which is the only one found in the burgess shale that is related to homo sapiens. Gould speculates that it survived the burgess decimation accidentally, even though it is one of the least robust creatures found in the shale. We may not have evolved has pikaia not miraculously survived. This suggested to me an unexpected ending - Score Image - a little bit of gentle music, different from the rest of the piece, with the image of pikaia gently ascending. Score Image streaming mp3
This work is offered with sincere appreciation and gratitude to the great musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and to administrators Ernest Fleischmann, Ara Guzelimian, and Robert Harth. Starting in 1980 when I arrived in Los Angeles to attend Graduate School I have been very fortunate to have been given multiple opportunities to collaborate with this great organization (as composer, conductor, commentator, and percussionist). These experiences helped to form me as an artist and I am deeply grateful for them. 

The drawings of  Burgess Shale creatures by Marianne Collins are reproduced by permission of Stephen Jay Gould.