Austin Symphony: Everything Old Is New Again

The Austin Symphony's local premiere of Kevin Puts' 'Symphony No. 2': 'Island of Innocence,' evokes the cultural shift after 9/11 in a dramatic score

Austin Symphony: Everything Old Is New Again
Illustration By Robert Faires

This weekend, the Austin Symphony will present the Austin premiere of Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 2, subtitled "Island of Innocence." Puts is on an extended leave of absence from his position as UT assistant professor of composition, living and writing full-time in New York. "Kevin uses the events of 9/11 as a starting point," says Peter Bay, ASO's much-celebrated conductor. "In his preface to the score, Kevin says, 'In the September 24th, 2001, issue of The New Yorker, writer Jonathan Franzen wrote, "In the space of two hours we left behind a happy era of Game Boy economics and trophy houses and entered a world of fear and vengeance." My second symphony, while no means a memorial, makes reference to this sudden paradigmatic shift.'"

Says Bay, "One of the reasons I think a lot of modern classical music does not relate to an audience is because it's very atonal or very dissonant, and it's hard to figure out what the mood of a piece is. It's kind of like listening to Frank Zappa. You know there's some kind of brilliant genius at work, but you don't know what he's going for, it's too complicated. I think there are complicated moments in this piece, especially when things become more atonal, but the overall feeling of the piece is that it's rooted in tonality.

"If I were to point out some things to listen for, the first would be the slow orchestral build. No dissonances, very quiet, very calm, a sort of a slow processional. There are some really rapid woodwind figurations, like little mumblings, which add more texture to the sound, and then the addition of a lot of percussion, a very bright-sounding color, very bell-like. Then something happens to complicate things. There's a melody in the first violins that doesn't feel quite right when you hear it. The whole orchestra is playing six beats to a bar, except that violin melody. They play five beats to a bar. It's a very strange kind of feeling, like it's not in synch. Soon the horns do the same thing. And all of this builds until everything breaks off very suddenly and we're left with a solo violin that becomes more and more agitated, and we reach a point where the music now is no longer without dissonance.

"The cumulative effect is that there's a very strong drama to the piece. The opening doesn't really give away what's going to happen. You know you're starting a journey, but you don't know exactly where you're going. I think that's the mark of a very good piece of music, whether new or old.

"There seems to be a trend in modern classical music towards using traditional harmonies and including melodies. There was a period of time after World War II, but especially in the Fifties, Sixties, and even part of the Seventies, when composers went out of their way to avoid using standard harmonies. The rule was experimentation for experimentation's sake, but that led to mass alienation of the typical symphony audience. Modern composers, like Kevin, are moving away from that.

"I think there's a certain beauty to classical music – I hate to use clichés, but it's hard to describe otherwise – it replenishes your soul. There's something tremendously inspiring about the struggle of a human being trying to describe very profound feelings in art that doesn't use words. Ultimately, I think that's the goal of every composer: to evoke moods and emotions without the use of words."

The Austin Symphony will perform Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 2: "Island of Innocence" on Friday, Oct. 21, and Sunday, Oct. 23, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. For more information, call 476-6064 or visit

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Austin Symphony Orchestra, Kevin Puts, Puts:Symphony No. 2, Island of Innocence, Peter Bay, New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen

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