Michael Gandolfi: Weird science

Eclectic composer grows a cosmic garden

by Mark Gresham | 16 May 2007
[originally published in Creative Loafing-Atlanta]

Amid the rolling farmlands of southwest Scotland lies a remarkable, magical, mystical garden. Spread over 30 acres of winding, terraced earthen berms and clear blue lakes are a curious array of crisscrossing staircases, whimsically nonsensical structures and looping metal sculptures. They act as expansive, physical and visual metaphors for the challenging, frequently misunderstood concepts of contemporary physics. To a wandering visitor, the twists, waves, illusions and conceptual surprises invoke impressions of DNA molecules, swirling subatomic particles, fractal cascades and black holes.

This magical landscape is “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” – earthworks and installations designed by architect Charles Jencks at Portrack House, the ancestral home of his late wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks.

For Michael Gandolfi, it also proved a profound inspiration for composing music for symphony orchestra.

“I’ve long been interested in modern physics, and it seemed proper for music to participate in this magnificent joining of physics and architecture,” says Gandolfi of his own “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.”

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and conductor Robert Spano performed four of Gandolfi’s “Garden” impressions in 2004, as works in progress. Next week, the ASO will premiere the completed work, which includes 11 movements – the ink barely dry on two.

“The whole point was to simply turn out a bunch of movements based on these various aspects of the garden,” Gandolfi says, “mainly the physical aspects, but a few conceptual ones as well.” His intent was for a conductor to “choose his or her own pathway through the garden,” in terms of number of movements and their order.

One of the installations Gandolfi emulates is Jencks’ “The Willow Twist” – a complex ribbon of twisted metal deployed in a circle atop a shallow, round earthen depression. To represent it, Gandolfi elected to write something rather elusive in orchestral music: a really good groove.

“‘The Willow Twist’ is like a jazz big-band piece, very swinging. It’s not complex in the way some of the others are in the treatment of rhythm, but it does have an overlapping rhythmical pattern,” Gandolfi says. “It’s a real groove piece that grooves in a circular way. You know how when you get into a main groove you have to get out of it somehow? What I do is transform the primary groove into a secondary groove, which ramps it down a bit. Then there’s an abrupt bow-and-arrow stop, and you’re in this end section which is very ethereal.”

Gandolfi’s own musical roots are anchored in rock and jazz improvisation. At age 8, he began teaching himself to play the guitar. In his teens, he became increasingly interested in composing music and began formal study, eventually earning degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music. As a mature composer, he has an affinity for Jencks’ “radical eclectic” and “postmodern pluralist” stance, which straddles traditional aesthetics and the conflicting promises and pitfalls of contemporary technology, but delves beyond it into the intuitive and metaphysical.

Gandolfi sees similar trends at work in our collective musical creative consciousness.

“It’s an eclectic time. That used to be a very bad word when I was a student in the 1970s. Now it’s a virtue. Where we are at the beginning of the 21st century – that will be the legacy of eclecticism and global acceptance,” he says. “What have you discovered? Let’s hear it, whether it’s rock music, jazz, music of other cultures, classical or whatever.

“I hope that’s the experience listeners have with ‘The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,’ the visceral joy of all these kinds of music merging and swirling about. It’s at once a focal point, crystallizing some things I’ve been working on for the past several years, and at the same time a jumping-off point, too, a point from which I feel like I’ll move forward.”