What Exit (on 80), for chamber orchestra

Learning to drive had a surprising impact on my musical development. And not just in that I could take myself to drum and piano lessons. That old, red Honda I inherited from my older brother had a CD player. And now as the driver, I had free reign over what went in it.

Driving to and from high school each day my senior year, I’d have 35 minutes of just music. No talking, no cell phone ringing, just a lovely bit of purgatory between whatever I just did and what I had to do next. It seemed that wherever I went, I went with a soundtrack. It’s no surprise that I mentally associate different kinds of music with images seen through a car window.

“What Exit (On 80)” is a new kind of piece for me in that I did not go into it with a particular concept in mind. In all my other work, I’ve either composed against a text, or an image, or a strict set of notes. Instead, this piece just came from a series of small, improvised fragments I recorded over the course of a few weeks this fall. They were all over the map – some groovy, some harmonically dense, some song-like, some dramatically simple. After listening back to them with me, my adviser Dan Trueman suggested I take two very different ones and try to make them live together, just as an experiment. When I first started this experiment, I had no idea what the instrumentation or the form would be. After living with the experiment for some time, certain ideas started to reveal themselves. The whole process felt like making a sculpture – carving the silence away to reveal sound – rather than a painting.

After I stripped away all the silence and had a piece, I still didn’t quite know what it was about. Each section definitely had a certain mood, but the images were still blurry and abstract. But little by little, those images of driving managed to burrow into my brain. The beginning felt like cruising through a cornfield under a cloudless, night sky. The middle felt like passing through a dilapidated rust belt city. The end felt like trying to navigate a turnpike in rush hour and then getting the right exit home. I then realized that you could see all of these things while on Interstate 80.

I-80 is a pretty boring road, the functional way across the US. It doesn’t have the romance of Route 66, or the picture-postcard scenery of I-15. For much of its length, it just seems to connect the boondocks with the middle of nowhere. It elicits no connotations of Rockwellian Americana. It just presents an unidealized view of what America really is, warts and all – the artery-clogging rest stops and decaying warehouses; the broad-shouldered cities and amber waves. It’s all there, somehow all drawn into one nation. A country of contradictions, as seen from a car window.

“What Exit? (On 80),” a large orchestral piece, takes us on a cross-country musical odyssey to tremendous effect – Sean Drohan, Daily Princetonian


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