Steve Heitzeg‘s Nobel Symphony, commissioned by Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, will be premiered on October 2, 2001 as part of the Nobel Conference held annually since 1965 on the campus. Heitzeg, himself a Gustavus alumnus, was approached to write the piece in recognition of the centennial of the Nobel Prizes.
Scored for mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus, children’s choir, and orchestra, the symphony comprises six movements, each based on a different prize: literature, chemistry, economics, physics, physiology or medicine, and peace. A preamble, proclamations, and postlude are interspersed throughout the work scored for an offstage solo trumpet which will move around the hall during the course of the piece. Heitzeg uses the technique as a “metaphor for the constant struggle and the movement and actions of humanitarian organizations. The trumpet is in the field the way that they are right on the front lines.”
Heitzeg selected the texts for the symphony from the quotes and writings of laureates ranging from Dag Hammarskjˆld to Toni Morrison. With so much ground to cover, making his selections quickly became an immense project. “It was overwhelming but in a positive way.” Still, the research allowed him to explore the work of a number of remarkable people, “all those positive and really bright lights in terms of justice and human rights ideas. It was a real affirmation of the human spirit for me.” His final text selections also draw from the work of Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Amartya Sen, Adolfo PÈrez Esquivel, Paul Samuelson, The Hunger Project, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King Jr., Rigoberta Mench×, Nelson Mandela, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
He confesses that getting down to that short list was an arduous task. “I just couldn’t let them go. I mean, it’s just mandatory that you have some voices in there,” he explains, citing Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. “I tried to get a balance, cross gender, cross culture.” After diligent editing, he says that next year, “I could do a mini-piece of the people that I decided not to include.”
The 57-minute symphony includes a wide range of world instruments such as Tibetan singing bowls, horns, and prayer chimes, djembe, talking drum, small elephant bells, and kalimba. Heitzeg explains that he included instruments “not specific to just Eurocentric existence as a metaphor for unity, a universal sense of collective consciousness — that we’re all related and equal.” Their use is admittedly not standard in the concert hall, but “all instruments at one point were not standard,” he notes, “so why do we have this pejorative that certain instruments have a hierarchy over others.”
Taking the concept another step forward in this particular work, Heitzeg calls for percussionists to play prosthetic limbs (on permanent loan from the Landmine Survivors Network), a plowshare, and olive tree branches — a protest against landmines and war. Heitzeg considers it a nonverbal nod to their victims. “Instead of rolls on snare drums which have a military history, I thought I would do drum stick rolls on hollow prosthetic limbs to honor the victims and make a point about the hollowness of war.”
Heitzeg is very much aware that there are those who would criticize so much literalism in music (such as his use of chord shifts every 3.6 seconds in the economics movement as a sonic metaphor for the fact that every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger). Still, he is confident he isn’t clouding the art. “Someone who took me to task over that would be missing the point of the piece, because to me music is about being inclusive not exclusive. That includes all aspects of life.” With a nod to John Cage, he says he agrees that “music is everything, but I will also say that each human being is an instrument, that each of us is music. We have our own pitch, the body vibrates at its own unique rhythm, so extending that out I included instruments that are not normally viewed as musical instruments. In my mind, I need to do that to break down barriers musically as a metaphor for breaking down boundaries in terms of people having racist views or being intolerant.”
He also acknowledges that his music is programmatic and that there are those who divide music into programmatic and absolute categories, usually considering the later as better music. He counters, however, that “music is not about being closed-minded. Music is about open-minded freedom, wildness, the celebration of individual voices. And if you shut down one voice then you negate what the message of music is, for me anyway.”
On a very basic level, Heitzeg would argue that “all music is programmatic in the sense that [composers] are shaped by our internal voice and then also by the environment.” If there are those who would criticize him for blatancy, he says that’s just fine. “I don’t care. Everybody has to have an opinion. I’m not an elitist, I’m an egalitarian, so I really feel that if they are placing me in that position they’re missing the point.” Whether the music has a verbal element or not, Heitzeg points out that music “is still a describer, it’s still a reflection.” Even when absent of words to accompany it, a composer’s music offers “a sonic cue about their relationship in life which to me is programmatic.” But Heitzeg doesn’t see verbal language as a crutch. “I think that even within a piece a person goes into an area that the words fall short, which is what’s so great about music.”
Heitzeg created the Nobel Symphony to address issues of human rights and justice while celebrating the voices of Nobel laureates. Though written specifically for its upcoming conference performance, he is hopeful the piece (or sections of it) will be played elsewhere in the future since “it’s specific to the Nobel prizes but the message is more arching than that.”
Known for addressing a range of social and environmental issues in his work, Heitzeg says he feels most comfortable communicating his ideals through music. “Music is such another world, and it’s a world in which I find that the true or the real statements about existence or the world inherent. The music can go beyond boundaries, unite and in some cases when it can’t even free people physically, it can liberate in a way that is personal and spiritual; no one can even mess with that. So for me it’s very liberating on many levels, either apolitically or politically, and it’s a very beautiful world. It’s beautiful in the sense that it puts up all aspects of life in a very clear way for me, that reveals things [in a way] a lot of other things in life fall short of.”