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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Mark O'Connor says he's created an orchestral language from the seedling of Americana.

(Soundbite of song, "Wide Open Spaces")

BLOCK: This is the first movement of O'Connor's new "Americana Symphony," a fanfare titled "Wide Open Spaces," with Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

(Soundbite of song, "Wide Open Spaces")

BLOCK: Mark O'Connor's musical vision here is of the American journey west in the 19th century, the idealism of the frontier. And his musical language is steeped in the folk tradition. He's a renowned violinist, as well as a composer. As a kid, he traveled to fiddle conventions. He won lots of junior fiddle championships. He's played bluegrass, jazz, was a much-in-demand session player in Nashville. This symphony is O'Connor's first. Its roots are in this small chamber piece he wrote 15 years ago, "Appalachian Waltz."

(Soundbite of song, "Appalachian Waltz")

Mr. MARK O'CONNOR (Composer, "Americana Symphony"): I realized that in composing "Appalachian Waltz" and many other of my pieces, I was starting to uncover this sort of idea that the music in motion, in journey, looking for this wide-open spaces, physically and metaphorically, of the west, was this sort of, like, theme that I kept returning to.

And I realized that's why American music sounds so optimistic. It's because this country is very unique in that regard, that people actually do believe that tomorrow could be better here.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Fanciful Dance")

BLOCK: This is the second movement. It's called "New World Fanciful Dance."

Mr. O'CONNOR: I wanted to bring in a jig dance to this movement and describe the Appalachian environment as I remembered visiting as a boy. I remembered going to an incredible fiddler's convention, and I had this image I took away from that visit of all these fiddlers playing in their own unique style, and there were people spontaneously dancing and kicking up their feet to the music.

Then I noticed that everybody danced a little bit differently, and I wanted to describe in this movement how the jig itself can be the kind of melting pot aspect of culture where people were coming together, bringing their own strains and further developing an American music.

BLOCK: There's a lot of syncopation going on here, and I've been trying desperately to figure out the time signature because just when I think I figure out that it's in 3/4, it shifts and it turns into something else.

Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah, there's a lot of shifting meters. It's a little difficult to play, the orchestra needs some rehearsal time and really bring out the flavor and the character.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Fanciful Dance")

BLOCK: So what is the meter here or meters? Are there more than one?

Mr. O'CONNOR: Well, the jig itself is in 6/8, and then we've got sections where you'll have it drift into 4/4, or 8/8 or 10/8, depending on the measure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Just to keep them guessing.

Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Fanciful Dance")

BLOCK: There's another dance section in the fourth movement, it's called "Open Plains Hoedown." So I guess the journey is moving westward.

(Soundbite of song, "Open Plains Hoedown")

Mr. O'CONNOR: I have sections in here where I see the dust being, you know, kicked up by the wagons heading across the prairie.

(Soundbite of song, "Open Plains Hoedown")

BLOCK: You clearly have a vision in your mind of sort of the cinematic sense of what this music is trying to convey. How do you get that across to musicians? What are you including in the score to tell them, you know, this is not just what you should play, but how I want you to play it?

Mr. O'CONNOR: I do add visualizations as playing descriptions. I have a lot of technical descriptions, too, which are probably far more important. One of the, I think, most epic visualizations of the symphony is in the fifth movement, the climbing of the mountain face of the Rockies. And the entire movement is one large crescendo, and it starts very low, in the basses where it's barely audible.

BLOCK: Yeah, you can barely hear it at all.

Mr. O'CONNOR: And remember, as people were heading west, they had dealt with these mountains in the East Coast, but they had no idea what was waiting for them when they hit those Rockies. And so many people were lost in these journeys, and the music describes the elation that once you were at the peak and you could actually see the setting sun, that what it must've felt like. And I wanted to depict that. And you can feel the optimism creep into the music. It's that Americana that I so much want to give listeners through my composition.

(Soundbite of song, "Open Plains Hoedown")

BLOCK: It's interesting, you talk about that optimistic vision, and the structure of the symphony and the ideas behind it really are a romantic notion about our past, you know, a throwback to 150 years ago.

Did you think about, you know, a more modern aesthetic, a more modern vision, something that speaks to the issues of today and what this country is now?

Mr. O'CONNOR: Well, I think history repeats itself. We're still doing the same journey. We're heading out of our homes, looking for a better life than our parents had. And this is not a historic piece or a retro piece, you know, this is our daily life.

(Soundbite of symphony)

BLOCK: Well, Mark O'Connor, thanks very much.

Mr. O'CONNOR: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: You can hear more of Mark O'Connor's "Americana Symphony" at nprmusic.org.

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