On Sunday, a music composer premiered a new choral work based on trash blowing through Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Josh Stamper is in the midst of writing a musical cycle based on the four elements — water, fire, earth, and air. This installment is about air, or, more specifically, wind.
But the funny thing about wind is that it is totally invisible, and silent. It is not a thing, but a movement that only becomes apparent when it encounters something else, it rustles through leaves, or billows a curtain.
To get a tangible sense a wind, Stamper went into six Philadelphia neighborhoods to watch trash blowing in the streets.
“I would take pictures of trash,” he said. “Sometimes try to take picture of trash blowing by, which was challenging,”
He was particularly interested in garbage that had words. He took his pictures home and transcribed all the words printed on trash. That became the vocabulary of “’mid the steep sky’s commotion,” to be performed by the new music choral group, The Crossing.
Text culled from wind-blown trash, printed on translucent fabric, and large undulating projections by visual artist Caroline Santa provide the atmosphere for the performance of Joshua Stamper’s wind-inspired composition. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Stamper composes by imposing a strict set of rules upon himself, meant to foster creatively organizing material in a way the end listener may or may not be aware.
He used mesostics, a method used extensively by John Cage of arranging phrases horizontally so that a central phrase is spelled out vertically. Cage was very specific about what letters can appear to the right and left of the central phrase.
Stamper overlayed his database of words culled from trash, with passages from the Bible that referred to wind — “To the wond he imparted weight and meted out waters by measure” (Job 28:25) — the garbage phrases running horizontally, the Bible vertically.
“I was excited by the idea of using Biblical texts. Regardless of what religion you come from, it’s a word that’s permanent. And trash is not,” said Stamper. “I was intrigued by the difference between these two different types of texts.”
The mesostic words are printed on semi-translucent banners, created by installation artist Caroline Santa, hung from the ceiling of the Crane Arts Building, where the piece is to be performed. There are six banners, referencing each movement in the piece based on one of six individual Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Stamper will not say on which neighborhoods the movements are based. Nor does he care to evoke the ancient Aeolian harp, designed the capture the mystical breath of wind.
“I definitely didn’t set out to make it sound like wind,” he said. “My hope is it’s an abstraction people can tap into, and also just hear it as a piece of music.”