Last month, I wrote about starting on a new orchestra piece, and the delirium of having the music race through my head day and night. This week, I cleansed my mind somewhat by bringing the music into one of my classes, using it to show the students how I approach creating large forms from simple material. Now I’m feeling a bit saner, because I’ve put this music into ears other than my own.

When I wrote about it last month, I noted that the piece was called Memory Palace without explaining the title. A memory palace is a mnemonic device. If we wish to memorize, for example, a speech, we imagine each element of the speech residing in a different room of an architectural structure. Then we imagine ourselves walking from room to room, visualizing the various speech elements in their spatial contexts.

I had in mind for this piece a single, large movement comprised of numerous small sections, or rooms, each of which would contain a single musical idea. The ideas would accrue and evolve through the course of the piece, as the listener figuratively moves from room to room.

In order to keep this from being a simple intellectual construct, I’m engaging myself with the material on an intuitive level by treating the house I grew up in as my own memory palace – in other words, each section of the piece will focus on a specific room in my childhood home. I visualize each room (I haven’t seen the house in twenty-five years – in fact, it no longer exists), each with a specific memory association. Though the listener won’t be aware, or need to be aware, of these associations, they will help me to attain a strong emotional connection to the material.

That was the plan a month ago – it didn’t take me long to realize I was creating an enormous work for an occasion that couldn’t support the scale of my idea – this piece needs to be completed by the end of April, and it’s going to be scored for a modest orchestra: single winds, piano, strings. Given those parameters, I’ve decided to create a small-scale sketch of the piece – under ten minutes, just three rooms – because I don’t want to shortchange the concept. Not sure what I’m calling it yet – maybe Memory Shack? In any case, if this smaller version is a success, I’ll talk with the conductor about mounting the full-scale work at a later date.

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