Press (for string orchestra and electronics)

Press was premiered at the 2014 Midwest Clinic by the Saratoga String Orchestra under the direction of Michael Boitz. This mp3 file includes both the playback track and the string orchestra parts. Program note below:

The majority of Press was written over a weekend; the commission came late in my writing schedule, and there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity. I postponed a work trip, locked myself in my studio for three and a half days, and forced myself to complete a draft. My assignment — an exciting closing piece for string orchestra and electronics, circa five minutes long. 

The intense pressure of a limited writing time threw me in several surprising and different directions. I didn’t have the time to “get stuck” or develop any blocks in the creative process. I went from paper sketches of the piece, to piano, to computer, then back to paper. I retracted back to undergraduate analysis courses and explored compositional systems to help me elongate ideas or create freshly developed materials. Additionally, the visceral pressure and excitement I felt at the time was spilling on to the pages. I found myself writing performance notes, such as “as heavy as humanly possible!!” and “with plenty of sass!!”, and a few others which I deleted because I found them to be completely inappropriate for high school students. The word “press” encompasses a few different meanings which found their way into the piece: 

  • The first and most obvious meaning is it accurately describes my feelings during the creative process — “pressed” to finish the piece. These feelings translate into the music with phrases that build intensely through rhythmic and harmonic density and dramatic variations in volume. I imagine myself on a train in Tokyo during rush hour. The over-crowded train forces travelers to smash up against each other with a limited amount of room to breathe. We arrive at the next stop. There is a brief, but short-lived sigh of relief when travelers exit. Soon enough though, the next wave of travelers immediately swarm into the train, leaving us crammed and short of breath again.
  • Secondly, the term “press” refers to when a person formally dresses up, ironing or “pressing” their attire, and achieving a resplendently “pressed” look. (“With a healthy amount of swag” is another performance note that charmed its way into the piece).
  • The third meaning is the noun “press”. The media. Those responsible for our generational opinions (not really). The piece is certainly not about “the press” in any philosophical or political manner, and quite the opposite, I only used press clips of which I liked the articulated sounds of speech– regardless of content. This created an interesting rhythmic and textural quality for me. 

The piece is set to a track and stays the same tempo throughout. There are sections where the track goes away, and the orchestra is allowed to have a little freedom with time, and upon a sustain moment the track kicks back in and gets things in time again. The conductor has a semi-open headset with both the click and track playing, and essentially dances along with the performers.

As a side-note of possible interest, all of the percussive sounds and effect on the track have been colored with actual string samples from the orchestra. I recorded a few of the performers making odd noises with their instruments: “Can you knock on the back of your cello? Okay, now scratch your strings and strum your viola. Flick the face of your violin with your fingernail” (etc.). I manipulated these sounds and used them throughout to color the track and in combination with the drum sounds in hopes that it might create a greater and more sophisticated blend with the acoustic sound. 

On a personal note, I am truly honored to have been commissioned by Michael Boitz to compose this piece for the Saratoga String Orchestra. The performers in this orchestra were such a pleasure to work with. Press can be purchased through World Projects

Vince Oliver — 2014