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About this Piece

Composed: 2013
Length: c. 33 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 3 piccolos, alto flute, 2 bass clarinets, 5 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 2 horns, 4 trumpets, flugelhorn, 2 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (chimes, hi hats, bass drums, cymbal, ride cymbal, snare drums, wood blocks, xylophone, vibraphone, Chinese temple blocks, tom-toms, large cymbals, Thai gongs, tam-tams, bell tree, wind chimes, piatti, roto-toms, bass drums, tambourine, glockenspiel, water drum, large loud cymbal, splash cymbal, Chinese gongs, sleigh bells), strings, and solo organ


First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)


In 1966 I got my first electronic organ, a Vox Super Continental two-manual with draw bars, modeled somewhat on the Hammond B3. I started doing late night and all-night concerts using tape delays to beef up the sound and to make a “shadow” part to interact with the primary signal. Around 1970, the Vox was replaced with a Yamaha YC 45 D 2 manual organ that my technical assistant, Chester Wood, modified to output stereophonically. He also added a tuning function that made playing in just intonation possible. Chet built one of the first digital delays fashioned out of an old 1950s computer we purchased from Don Buchla. This new digital delay, dubbed “the shadow,” made possible live performance in quadraphonic sound. The last phase of this organ performance period came in 1980, when I finally made the move to synthesizers and started using two Prophet V synthesizers stacked like a two manual organ in tandem with a polyphonic sequencer. I composed several long duration modal pieces for this setup, performances having a quasi-raga like form with codified themes and extended improvisation. A Rainbow in Curved Air, The Persian Surgery Dervishes, The Ten Voices of the Two Prophets, and Shri Camel are a few of the works from this period (1966-1982).

Fast forward to 2008. I was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to compose a new work for Hurricane Mama, the magnificent organ residing in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The LA Phil generously allowed me to have numerous all-night sessions with the organ to compose and prepare The Universal Bridge, premiered in 2009. Some of the unused improvisations and sketches I made then later found their way into At The Royal Majestic.

“Terry, that is great. Vintage, showbiz suggestive. Etc... Showman=Shaman” (From an email from Cameron Carpenter)

Negro Hall: The first movement of At the Royal Majestic is based on a colored pencil drawing called Negro Hall by the great Swiss outsider artist, Adolf Wölfli [1864-1930], whose work I first encountered at the museum in Bern in 1987. I was intrigued by what Wölfli, who never traveled outside of Swizerland and who lived the last half of his life in a mental institution, thought about Negro culture. I tried to imagine what a dance hall in the Waldorf Astoria NYC in the 1930s might be like (from Wölfli”s perspective), a gaggle of black dancers in outlandish jitterbug and boogie woogie routines in a polymetric changing tempo frenzy. I used Wölfli’s beautifully geometric mandala-like drawings to inspire my own composing process.

The wish was to set down music with an identifiable pop/jazz framework of the 1930s but transformed by a dreamlike vision. A cosmic cartoon if you will.

It draws on themes from the Negro Hall section of the chamber opera, The Saint Adolf Ring (1990). (The chamber opera libretto, written by John Deaderick, is derived from Wölfli’s oeuvre and life’s work, From the Cradle to the Grave. The opera portrays Wölfli visiting Negro Hall in New York’s 19th-century Waldorf Astoria Hotel where he meets and gives vivid and hilarious descriptions of an imaginary New York City, ruled by the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, and other luminaries )

The concerto begins simply, with the organist playing a relaxed gospel-flavored solo that eventually winds its way to a darker, edgier mood. The orchestra joins the soloist and builds to a full crescendo just before polytonal block chords in the organ give way to a slow rocking minor third pulse supporting a sinuous, virtuosic duel for bass clarinets. Following sections display quickly shifting metric pattern development, unveiling disjointed, psychedelic, jitterbug extravaganzas propelling the orchestra into sudden shifts in meter and tempo. A slow A-B-A romantic waltz elbows its way into the plot, undergoes a quick development, and gives way to more polymetric patterns and unison crescendos before closing with punched out syncopated chords.

The Lizard Tower Gang: This short movement attempts to juggle chaos and symmetry in its opening statement, displaying a jagged alto saxophone solo, alternating Chinese gong pulses, water drum heart beats, string glissandos, ripping elephant tubas, chattering flutes, bassoons, and trumpets. The organ enters with rich chords punctuated over a suspended drone. A slow ragtime-like sequence in the organ introduces a second part, a grinding blues dirge giving way to the coda closing the movement

Circling Kailash: Each year thousands of pilgrims from throughout the world, seeking enlightenment and blessings, circumambulate Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in Tibet, believed to be the abode of the Hindu God Lord Shiva. A strenuous trek of some 52 kilometers, some of the more devout pilgrims inch along in full body prostrations for the entire journey!

The opening theme of this final movement is first stated in the violas and cellos and then taken up by the organ, brass, and bassoons. It is interrupted by an 11-beat descending pattern passed around the orchestra before the opening theme returns and the section idles to a close. The second part of the movement is marked by a slow theme outlined by pizzicato basses. A variation of the theme is then turned into a chorale for organ and brass. Crystalline C-major patterns led by the mallet instruments combine with a restating of the theme in diatonic clusters by the organ announce the closing section. The C-major patterns pass around the orchestra as they undergo pan-modal coloration changes. The movement ends with a short plaintive solo organ phrase over an E-Phrygian modality.

In these three movements many extensive, intricate dialogues between the organ and the orchestra are found sometimes competing with each other in dense textures of polyphony. Waves build up (in both organ and orchestra) of repeating melodic patterns, both in unison and canon, which in their shifting alignments and changes of direction, attempt something like the aural equivalent of geometric formations seen in starling flight patterns.

The soloist in At the Royal Majestic is called on to explore many different roles. Shifting, as its title suggests, from sounds reminiscent of the mighty Wurlitzer housed in the grand movie palaces, to fragments of calliope, Baroque chorales, occasional craggy dissonance of clashing pipes and boogie. At times he is also asked to coexist in a large orchestral soup with many parts having equal prominence. I feel fortunate to have this work premiered by Cameron Carpenter, a brilliant young star whose career is illuminating an exciting pathway for the 21st-century organ.

– Terry Riley