DANIEL ASIA RULES Tucson's orchestral realm this month. His will be the season-opening notes played by two different ensembles: the University of Arizona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jindong Cai, and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra under George Hanson.
At the UA, where Asia heads the composition department, the fare is his tricky 1991 curtain-raiser At the Far Edge. The TSO will launch its season with a brand-new overture it commissioned from Asia, Then Something Happened.
The latter piece takes its name from Joseph Heller's 1994 novel Something Happened, a dark satire that tells the ugly truth about the American Dream. But Asia didn't set out to condense the book into a five-minute overture.
"Some composers like to start with a title to set the whole mood of the piece," he says, "but I almost always write the piece first and then desperately try to figure out what to call it.
"This, by and large, is a rather gentle, dance-like piece, except for the climax where the whole musical fabric gets torn asunder briefly. Then it goes back to that gentle world where it was before. And it occurred to me that Heller's book does something similar. It's an experiment for him, written without any punctuation, really without any breaths at all. It's about one particular family and, I suppose, how each member of the family relates to each other. At the climax, something of a tragic character happens to this family. But it happens so quickly and it's so absorbed into the everyday minutiae, you almost question whether it really happened at all. It's almost as if it happened in a dream state. And that's sort of what happens in this music.
"But people shouldn't look for a strict correlation between the book and the piece. If this were a 40-minute symphony, then perhaps I would have tried to make more of the relationship. But it's more of a general, associative relationship for me and others who have read the book. I think abstractly about music; I'm not a programmatic composer."
Asia has described Then Something Happened as a languid dance that "combines a gentle swaying motion with a hint of the exotic; perhaps a Tucson samba." You can hear its original electronic version, Chromium II, at Asia's website, www.danielasia.com. Throughout his career, Asia has tended to expand small pieces into big pieces, or translate compositions from one medium into another. So although Then Something Happened is a response to an orchestral commission, the work first came into being when Asia was exploring the new gear in the UA's electronic music studio.
Since last spring, Asia has been developing new electro-acoustic pieces with his former graduate student Kip Haaheim, who teaches the UA's electro-acoustic music course. Asia's tinkering has led to a CD-length electronic project, about five minutes of which blossomed into the orchestral Then Something Happened. But Asia stresses that when he refashions existing compositions, the new piece is not a mere arrangement of the other, a sort of self-plagiarism.
"The process of translation into another medium can produce a new object that is interesting but completely different," he says. "I'm interested in seeing how things work in a new context, or when you add another layer to them."
Besides, it only makes sense to get the most out of good material, because a contemporary composer can never be sure that any new work will be played more than a few times. That's why the UA orchestra's performance of the older At the Far Edge is almost as notable as the TSO's premiere.
"Some pieces like The Chairman Dances (by John Adams) get a certain patina about them, and everybody wants to do it because everybody knows it. But a lot of pieces get played only two or three times, unless you can get a conductor like Leonard Slatkin interested in taking it on the road, learning it once and playing it 15 times. But At the Far Edge is a hard piece; it's difficult rhythmically, especially for the string players. Most conductors like a 10-minute piece that takes 15 minutes to rehearse. This takes 30 minutes to rehearse, and unfortunately that's true of most of my music. The UA Symphony has been able to give it a couple of hours of rehearsal, but they're younger musicians and just getting together at the beginning of the year, so this is fraught with danger -- and that's what's exciting about live performances."
At the Far Edge -- which, by the way, Asia later incorporated into his Symphony No. 3 -- will be released on CD in the early spring, along with Asia's first and fourth symphonies, on the Summit label. "That's a hot little label with lots of fire and drive, and to have them close by, up in Phoenix, makes it even better," Asia says. Summit plans to follow this disc with one devoted to Asia's song cycles, and then reissue two CDs that originally came out on Koch International Classics; those involve his Piano Concerto and Scherzo Sonata for piano, among other things.
Although four CDs to date have been devoted entirely to Asia's music, none of them seem to have inspired live performances. "Musicians by and large don't listen to CDs," Asia laments. "Who has time to listen to CDs? You're too busy playing or teaching, and you don't sit at home at night listening to CDs because you've been making music all day long."
So take advantage of these concerts over the coming week-plus, when the music the orchestras have been making all day is Dan Asia's.
The Tucson Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Hanson, performs Asia's Then Something Happened, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 (with soloist Mark Zeltser) and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, starting at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, September 23 and 24, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $10 to $30. For information and reservations, call the TSO box office at 882-8585, or Ticketmaster at 321-1000.