Interpreting a piece of writing through music without going through the medium of the theater is a tricky thing to do: How do you get across what the book said to you?
And maybe it’s even trickier if you try to express it with 10 pianos. Then again, maybe not.
At the New World Center on May 13, pianist and entrepreneur Mia Vassilev and nine of her fellow Miami Piano Circle keyboardists, along with three percussionists, played for a large, enthusiastic audience the world premiere of Galt, an hourlong work by University of Miami professor Peter J. Learn evoking Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, and its hero, John Galt.
I might as well say right off the bat that I find Rand’s work misguided, and the political purposes to which that work has been put, nothing short of odious. But her writing and Objectivist philosophy have inspired any number of prominent people, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. So I’m perfectly willing to admit there’s some profundity in her thinking that eludes me.
In any case, to summon up the mythos of Galt, the inventor who is the key inspirational character of Atlas Shrugged, Learn and Vassilev turned to projections, created by the South Florida artists collective known as the Fordistas, which were shown on the screens above the stage at the New World, and which outlined key themes in the novel.
Through the duration of Learn’s piece, one saw images such as trains zipping through tunnels, gears turning, a building demolition played out in reverse, and at the end, a silhouette of a man’s head. It was reminiscent in the overall effect of Philip Glass’s scores for Godfrey Reggio, particularly Koyanisqaatsi, and afforded the audience member the same latitude to let the mind wander and perhaps think deeply about big issues.
Learn’s piece is broadly minimalist though not dogmatically so, and it’s a generally pleasant listen. But its melodic materials are rather bland, and its rhythmic patterns not terribly interesting. It chugs away in place for a lot of its running time, and builds up in mass what it lacks in narrative power. This effect is underlined by Learn’s tendency to use a lot of his pianos at once and not take much advantage of solo instruments or duets or trios, something that would leaven and diversify the texture.
The approach here is more like an orchestra of machines, to which the percussion instruments are added as another layer more often than not. That actually fits the book’s industrial focus rather well, and Learn deserves credit for creating a persuasively apt sonic interpretation of it. But it’s not distinctive music, and it’s hard to see it holding up well outside its visual context.
The pianists and percussionists did a fine job of debuting this score, and it was led crisply by conductor Georgi Danchev. Vassilev told the audience beforehand that she felt Atlas Shrugged was relevant to our current times, and that it held many interesting ideas. It must have had a strong effect on her to want to bring this book to life in such an epic and unusual way, and it ended up being quite a tribute to Rand.
Vassilev has commissioned large works for this 10-strong squadron of pianos before, including Miami Grands, a suite by the prominent American composer Michael Torke that evokes the sights and sounds of Miami. That she was able to pull both of these complex projects off at all, much less even one of them, is a remarkable achievement; at the very least, Galt — regardless of the slight merit of its music — secures for Mia Vassilev a niche as an important mover and shaker in South Florida’s arts community.