“We have to fit this into this, using nothing but this.”
There’s this scene in the film Apollo 13 where a group of engineers at mission control in Houston have to find a way to connect these two different carbon dioxide filters together using only materials that can be found on the titular damaged spacecraft. It’s a tense and exciting moment, as the engineers must use all of their wits to find a solution before the carbon dioxide in the ship reaches lethal levels. This kind of creativity under pressure is thrilling to witness, which helps explain our love of competitive cooking shows and LeBron James-led fast breaks.
Isaac Newton’s Fever Dream is a musical analog to this Apollo 13 scene. A talented improviser is given a host of contrasting musical materials played by the string orchestra and must attempt to link them together in a logical and meaningful way. This feat of musical engineering isn’t a matter of life and death, but more akin to making a fantastical Rube Goldberg machine, a machine that might cross Isaac Newton’s addled mind if he traveled to the 1960s and hung out with the Beatles.
Like any good Rube Goldberg machine, this piece is full of whimsical gestures and surprising detours. However, as it progresses, darker undertones emerge. The musical materials take on a mind of their own, boxing the soloist into tight corners, limiting his or her improvisational choices. This conflict between the mechanical certainty of the strings and the individual whimsy of the soloist reaches a boiling point, causing the piece to break down. What is the soloist to do with what is left? If the music can’t quite reach the moon, can it at least get home?
Written for pianist Mikael Darmanie. Premiered at the Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, on December 7, 2014.