10th Annual ACO/Whitaker New Music Readings: Joshua Penman

Joshua Penman
Joshua Penman
photo by Jennifer Bassetti

Yale senior Joshua Penman composed his winning piece As It Is, Infinite between September, 1999 and May 2000. “It marked a break in my style,” he explained in a telephone interview. “I stopped trying to write cute music and decided to write something that I would find beautiful.”

Penman has a strong interest in the use of ambient sound to create “strange imaginary landscapes.” The effects he likes to employ are easier to create on electronic instruments, he admits, but he had two distinct reasons for writing As It Is for a live acoustic ensemble. First, he had the idea of a concert hall in mind as he was writing, with the goal of “filling up the space with shimmering clouds of sound. The way that instruments come out in the air can’t be replicated [electronically].” Penman takes advantage of the physical hall space in a more concrete way, as well: he places two of the four percussionists on the left and right side of the audience, allowing for “stereo panning effects” when figures are passed from player to player.

Penman also enjoys using live players for their musicality, a facet he has taken advantage of by writing two featured solo parts for English horn and for cello. “The solo lines are very difficult,” he confessed. Much of the time the two instruments play in unison. “They evoke this kind of quasi-Arabic lyrical character,” he explained. The florid melodic writing is juxtaposed with “the large sound mass” formed by the rest of the orchestra.

There are other elements in the piece that reference a kind of “quasi-exoticism,” according to Penman. For example, there is a “Gamelan-like” repeating cycle played on Thai button gongs, accompanied by stacks of artificial harmonics in the strings. “I wasn’t trying to use elements of any other music,” Penman explained. “I was just trying to evoke a far-away, distant, imaginary world.”

Penman is currently involved in rehearsals for his opera Samadhi-Lila, which will be performed at Yale in April. He wrote his own libretto for this 80-minute work for chamber ensemble, singer, two actors, three dancers, electronics, and “almost 1300 light bulbs.”