“The list is the origin of culture.” – Umberto Eco
Out of the human penchant for list-making comes Almanac, an evening-length piece for vocalists and instrumentalists working with both fixed and improvised materials. Written specifically for the acclaimed ensembles Variant 6, Warp Trio, and the Kevin Sun Quartet, Almanac explores the dual nature of almanacs as information compendia and prophetic texts.
The music of Almanac careens through numerous styles, placing the ensembles’ varied performance practices in dialogue. Dark sibylline prophecies emerge from catalogic texts about colors and birds, foods and flowers. And despite its best efforts, this Almanac cannot completely predict its own fate. Confronted with unforeseen circumstances, the performers improvise, seeking an ordered conclusion from a flotsam of musical and linguistic clichés.
When I was eight years old, I received the newest edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts for Christmas. Though it may seem like an odd gift for a child, my favorite books at the time were the Dorling Kindersley World Atlas and my dad’s 30-year collection of the Who’s Who in Baseball. I loved poring over almanacs and memorizing facts, whether flags of the world or U.S. presidents or how many home runs my favorite baseball players hit each year. I can’t say why I would get absorbed in lists rather than stories, but I did, and that penchant for collecting and list-making has carried over into my musical life as well. Like the character Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, I could tell an autobiographical story through an arrangement of my CD collection.
Out of this penchant for list-making—musical and otherwise—comes Almanac, an evening-length work for voices and instrumentalists featuring both fixed and improvised sounds. The piece is a musical almanac of sorts, featuring a catalog of diverse texts and musical styles. But the piece also examines an almanac’s dual nature as information compendium and prophetic text. The earliest editions of the Farmers’ Almanac in the 19th century, for instance, featured long-range weather forecasts so farmers could pick the best crops to plant in the coming season. While printed almanacs are likely headed for obsolescence (the Who’s Who in Baseball ceased publication in 2017, for instance), the impulse to compile information in order to predict the future is still immensely strong, whether forecasting athletic performance, election results, or the fate of our planetary climate. Yet with increasingly powerful tools to store and interpret data, our predictions still fail a lot. In response to these failures, computer scientist and information studies scholar Philip Agre writes that “activity in worlds of realistic complexity is inherently a matter of improvisation.” Like its forebears and despite its best efforts, this Almanac fails to predict its own fate. Confronted with both dark prophesies and unforeseen circumstances, the performers improvise.