This weekend, Zeitgeist will present the first concert of our 2014-2015 season. Included among many compelling musical selections will be If Tigers Were Clouds by Eleanor Hovda. Eleanor wrote If Tigers Were Clouds in collaboration with Zeitgeist in 1994, during a residency at the Fleisher Art Music in Philadelphia.
Our work together was made possible through the Music in Motion program created by Joseph Franklin, then artistic director of the Relache New Music Ensemble. Music in Motion placed a new music ensemble and two composers in select communities for three weeks throughout a year. We developed new work together and held sessions to introduce new work to audiences. Music in Motion was an amazing program that resulted in enduring artistic alliances and wonderful new works.
Eleanor Hovda was living in Minnesota at that time, and we had long sought an opportunity to work together on a new piece. All of us thought it was quite funny that it took being transported to South Philly to get us in the same room. As it turned out, being sequestered together away from our home base gave us the space to discover each other on a deeper level than if we had remained in the confines of our day-to-day lives. If Tigers Were Clouds would certainly not have been such a strong work if we had not had the early morning breakfast conversations, hours of experimentation, considerable feedback from listeners, and many, many shared meals at Ralph’s Italian Restaurant. Seriously, I had to discard several items of clothing after our residency year was finished because the olive oil stains were simply too pervasive. That place was amazing, and it is still a mainstay of South Philly dining. Do dine there if you visit Philadelphia.
Eleanor started her creative life as a dancer, and she used physical imagery and movement as much as aural descriptors to communicate her compositional intent. I remember finding it initially very difficult to translate what she wanted on my instrument, but in the end, I got it. The flurry of chop-busting mania that opens If Tigers Were Clouds is the result. Eleanor and Robert Samarotto, our clarinetist, had no problems discovering a common language. Eleanor was entranced with Bob’s ability to coax the softest, most haunting micro-tones out of his instrument. They feature prominently throughout the piece. In the first week, we discovered these and other musical ingredients that would eventually make up the piece. In our second week held months later, we worked to determine an order of events, tonal centers, and pacing. In our third week, we refined our work and presented it in performance. Our audience loved it then, and still do. In the twenty years since its premiere, If Tigers Were Clouds has endured as one of Zeitgeist’s favorite works to perform.
During our 1993-1994 Music in Motion residency, Zeitgeist’s members were myself and Jay Johnson; percussion, Thomas Linker, piano; and Robert Samarotto, woodwinds. Participating composers were Eleanor Hovda and the indomitable Fred Ho. Fred passed away this past year, Eleanor in 2009, and Bob in 2003. How bittersweet are these memories.