This summer, I completed another major piece. A multi-movement work for guitar quartet and strings entitled ‘Three Scenes’. The inspiration for the piece came from a novel that chronicles and dramatizes the life of Russian scientist and inventor, Lev Sergeyvich Termen or ‘Leon Theremin’. The story of his life as told in the novel, Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, is one of espionage, invention, and unrequited love. The novel is divided into three parts, each depicting the major life events and adventures in Termen’s life. The piece – ‘Three Scenes’ – is my imagined score to this story as told by Michaels, which means I consciously adopted a ‘cinematic’ style.
The first movement (New York, New York) evokes Termen’s arrival in New York during the 1920s. During this time he frequented lavish parties, befriended important cultural figures (Gershwin etc.), devised new inventions, spied on American big business, and most importantly, fell in love. The music attempts to evoke this sense of excitement and celebration.
After years of living in New York, Termen is eventually sent back to Russia just before the war is about to break out. He is rushed out of the country as a prisoner on an ocean liner headed back to Russia. The reason for his imprisonment is unclear to him at the time and when he arrives in Russia he is sent to a Siberian gulag (work camp for Stalin’s political prisoners). The gulag is in a place called Kolyma and the year is 1939 (hence the title). The camp is in a desolate landscape surrounded by forest and mountains in winter. This place of awe-inspiring beauty becomes the place where Termen suffers and is kept prisoner. All the while, he is unsure of the reasons for his imprisonment and is longing to be back in America with his love, Clara Rockmore. In terms of the music, I wanted a gradual build and thickening of texture throughout the piece in one long climb towards the climax, which then recedes back down to a whisper. There are also hints (memories) of material from the first movement and foreshadowing of material from the last movement. In this way, the movement has more of a connective role.
Termen is eventually transferred out of Kolyma and sent back to Moscow once it is revealed that he is a great scientist and can be of use to Stalin by working with other imprisoned scientists in the capital. The Red City has a steady, unrelenting, and forward moving pulse (like that of marching) that may suggest that the struggle is coming to an end. It is my impression of a city under harsh rule. Some bits of the first and second movement resurface in a more implied than explicit way. At a certain point, the development plateaus and the music is suspended before the final push to the end. To finish the piece, both ensembles finally get to flex their virtuosic ability in a final flurry of notes that ends with an emphatic release.
Check out the demo recording here.