“Machines” is a suite in two movements derived from a larger symphonic work entitled “Roundings: Musings and Meditations on Texas New Deal Murals.” The first performance of the complete work was given on April 8, 2000, conducted by James Setapen with the Amarillo Symphony, which commissioned it for its 75th anniversary. This suite has not yet been performed as a two-movement suite; therefore, the premiere of this suite is still available. The orchestration consists of three flutes, with third flute doubling on piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
The music of this suite combines the Oil Well and Locomotive movements from Roundings. Both contain compelling orchestral representations of the machines which they describe, with unusual percussion instruments depicting extremely realistic sounds of clanking metal and hissing steam.
Of course there is no more representative image of Texas than the oil well. One of Julian Woeltz’s murals in the Amarillo Federal Courthouse is devoted to the subject of oil, and this was a favorite theme for other muralists as well. However, I chose the mural Javier Gonzalez painted for the Kilgore Post Office as the best depiction for this movement, since it shows so well the various wheels and circles involved in drilling for oil.
Oil Well is quite descriptive of the drilling process and is marked by metallic sounds, pipes clanging and chains rustling. Early in the piece a series of dissonant chords stretches skyward, as the scaffolding of the well rises; then an explosion of timpani strokes depicts the startup of the drill’s engine. The clutch is engaged to start the drill’s rotation, depicted in grinding dissonances in the lowest instruments of the orchestra. Then the bassoons begin a melody which portrays the ever-deepening progress of the drill bit, as each phrase sinks lower than the previous one, but it always comes back up to the starting point (the pitch E-flat) for a new length of pipe to be attached, indicated by various clangorous chords in the orchestra. Finally the layer of oil is reached, and a flowing, upwardly pressing theme, first appearing in the cellos then later in the other strings, suggests the generous flow of black gold from multiple sources from the earth. This culminates in a restatement of the drilling theme, this time shouted out in full voice by the strings. The movement ends with the commentary of a quiet, rising figure in the three trumpets.
The second movment of this diptych, Locomotive, commemorates the importance of the coming of the railroad to the development of countless cities in the interior United States. The mural on which this movement is based is actually an unrealized one, a sketch submitted for one of the government’s competitions, but the artist, a well-regarded painter and native of Amarillo, was not chosen for the paintings to be installed in his home town. This sketch is now permanently located at the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas. As much as I like the Julius Woeltz murals which did win the competition, it is a pity that Harold Bugbee’s fine sketch was never realized. In any event, I feel it suggests the import of the railroad’s arrival more fully than any of the many other train-centered murals I have seen.
Most major musical depictions of trains or locomotives (notably Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Villa Lobos’ Little Train of the Caipiras) describe the train’s sounds from the point of view of one riding on it. I have chosen instead to describe the sounds one hears from the vantage point of a person waiting at the train station as a train approaches from the distance, comes to a halt at the depot, delivers its passengers and mail, then gets under way again, accelerating until it slips beyond earshot. One of the most prominent things one hears is the familiar whistle that the locomotive engineer sounds out at grade crossings, the well-known long-long-short-long rhythm. This whistle (intoned by the French horns) becomes a principal element in this movement, appearing frequently over the steady rhythmic chugs (depicted by the lower strings and various percussion instruments) of the locomotive itself.
I have treated the middle section of this movement symbolically, so that the arrival of the passengers stands metaphorically for the activity and the energies of the new inhabitants as they join with their predecessors in building the community. To express this process, I have the brasses quote a chorale which I composed a number of years ago to symbolize indomitable faith. (I used this same chorale more recently in my cello sonata.)
As the train pulls from the station, constantly picking up speed, I quote two old hymns from The Sacred Harp. The first, entitled “Leander,” (which also happens to be my middle name) is a personal biographical reference to the many hours I used to spend as a boy watching and listening to steam locomotives, and the second, entitled “Texas,” is a tribute to the state which was my home for 24 years.
For the ending of the movement, I borrow a device that many of the muralists in this period used, namely the telescoping of time frames. For example, on post office walls one can often see a covered wagon morph into an old steam locomotive and, in turn, magically become a modern streamliner, then an airplane. In the coda of this movement, you will hear the steam locomotive’s chugs change into the characteristic groan of a modern diesel-electric engine, followed by a series of grade crossing whistles which are the actual pitches of locomotive horns that I heard and notated while living in a quaint inn one block from the main line of the Illinois Central on a guest conducting trip. A final, distant remembrance of the steam locomotive’s plaintive whistle brings the movement, and the suite, to a pensive close.
Program Notes by Samuel Jones