Four Soundscapes gave me much pleasure to compose. Apart from a fondness for the orchestra (and its conductor) which elicited its commission, I found myself ruminating on various pleasant associations I had had through the years with the Hudson Valley region including, of course, New York where I was born and lived for the first 42 years of my life.
A few of these associations by no means all found their way into Four Soundscapes by way of background material, associations which are in part personal, in part vicarious through other artists (like Ives, Irving, and Innes the three I's, as it were).
The nature of inspiration is till to a large extent mysterious and indefinable. I cannot, therefore, say precisely how and why the paintings of George Innes, the most prominent member of the so-called Hudson River school for painters, floated to my consciousness. But they did, and I began to be fascinated with the idea of translating into musical terms Innes' uncanny ability in his later landscapes to marry almost photographic detail with a true artist's sense of form and vision (as in his famous painting Peace and Plenty). Thus, the third movement came into being, gently rippling with myriad sonic details, but in its overall form and feeling a placid, peaceful, mid-nineteenth-century soundscape.
From that I moved readily into its urban counterpart, Nocturnal Diversions, movement two: a night on the town around the turn of the century when ragtime reigned supreme. Soon Washington Irving's legends of the Catskills and the Hudson Valley region came to mind, inspiring a musical vision of the famous ride of the headless horseman. This became the last movement of Soundscapes, an old-fashioned scherzo Fantastique (as Liszt or Berlioz used to write), acting in this case as a finale to the whole work.
Last in order of composition, but first in order of sequence, is a personal tribute or homage of Charles Ives, whose one-hundredth birthday the music world has recently been celebrating (Ives was born in 1974). It was also inspired by an utterly captivating description by Van Wych Brooks, the great historian and literary critic, of a boat trip up and down the Hudson in the early 1800s a trip which in those times used to take 13-14 days. In this nostalgic glimpse of yesterday, a bassoon solo, gliding quietly over an undulating accompaniment, encounters on the return evening trip far-away sounds from the shore: bits of ragtime, a train (remember the steam locomotive?) chugging along the shoreline, birds chirping in the evening, a bit f a Stephen Foster song, and so on. It is a nostalgic glimpse of a time that, I suppose, can never return.
For reasons that sociologists and historians better analyze, America is in a period of looking back nostalgically to parts of our heritage previously ignored or taken for granted. The Bicentennial is certainly a moment for such a review of our past, but also for celebrating the maturation of our culture and our music. In various ways Four Soundscapes hopes to capture all of these concerns.
The first performance of Four Soundscapes took place on March 2nd 1975 by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, Claude Monteux conducting.