A City Called Heaven was commissioned by the Boston Musica Viva ensemble and given its world premiere in April 1989. The title of the composition is taken from a traditional Black American spiritual whose principal theme serves as the musical inspiration for the central slow movement of the piece. The chorus of this spiritual has the following text:
Sometimes I am tossed and driven -- Lord
Sometimes don't know where to roam --
I've heard of a city called heaven
I'm trying to make it my home.
The composition contains three movements in a fast-slow-fast arrangement, each of which is inspired by different genres of African-American music transformed by my own contemporary musical language. The first movement is based on a reinterpretation of a blues "riff" -- a short definitive melodic motive which, in traditional practice, is repeated against a changing harmonic background. The piece opens with a somewhat rhetorical statement of a riff, whose inherent "swing" qualities gradually take on greater importance as the piece progresses. The movement utilizes a great deal of unison writing, cross rhythms and blues-like melodic patterns, that collectively create a composed realization of an abstract blues improvisation. After the first movement builds to a climax, there is a short, contrasting, harmonically static section before the return of an altered version of the opening blues riff.
The second movement seeks to evoke the character and sensibilities associated with the original spiritual in a new musical context. After a brief introduction featuring the clarinet, there ensues a series of short sections which, while sharing similar musical ideas, contrast with each other in character, texture and tempo. There gradually emerges an altered version of the first line of the spiritual stated cantabile in the viola and violin. This music is then commented upon, expanded and modified by the entire ensemble. In a broad sense, the entire movement is a contemporary reflection on the original spiritual.
The last movement, which opens with an aggressive percussion solo, is dominated by virtuoso passages for the piano in the lower register and percussion. The basic musical gestures associated with these two prominent instruments are inspired by rhythmic dynamism of the African-American music genre "Boogie-Woogie." The entire ensemble, beginning with pizzicato strings, shares in the development of this basic musical material that leads to several episodes whose distinct musical ideas grow out of previous sections. Ultimately, a series of duets between the percussion and piano culminate in a riff-like ensemble statement that brings closure to the movement.
-- Olly Wilson