New Music Ensemble will interpret James Dickey's 'Falling'

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Art is often not intentional, even in its subject matter.

Prominent American poet James Dickey found himself fascinated by a story in The New York Times about an airline stewardess who fell out the door of an Allegheny Airlines flight over Connecticut. He imagined what she was thinking as she fell to her death in his acclaimed poem “Falling,” which was first published in 1967.

“It's dark, but it's also very life-affirming,” says Matthew Rosenblum, who has written an instrumental piece based on the poem.

“She strips away society. It's very primal,” he says. “You're born, and you're going to die. What do you do with the time you have? How do you make it meaningful? The poem is more about transformation than a gory tale.”

Kevin Noe will lead the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble at Friday and Saturday concerts at City Theatre on the South Side. The program is “Crashing through Fences” by Timothy Andres, Piano Trio by Pierre Jalbert, and the world premiere of Rosenblum's “Falling.”

Dickey, who was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, is best known for his 1970 novel “Deliverance,” and the widely acclaimed 1972 film starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.

“Falling” has some of what Dickey, in an interview in The Paris Review, called “poetic wildness. ... It's something that no one could imagine if he hadn't felt it. It's really a kind of madness I feel when I'm writing. It's not an induced madness from alcohol or other things. I don't know what it is, but it lets me achieve the kind of thing I did in ‘Falling,' and especially in ‘The May Day Sermon.' ”

Rosenblum first encountered “Falling” while attending Music and Arts High School in New York City. He was studying jazz saxophone and improvisation and saw his future as a performer.

“I was 15 years old. There were these two twin brothers, the most eclectic kids in the school, Kevin and Michael Klein. Both poets, blond-haired kids with gravely voices. Kevin got up in class and read this poem. It was the most intense experience I had in high school — so uncompromising. I sort of filed the experience away.”

He didn't forget it, though, and suggested the poem as the basis for a piece during a conversation with new music ensemble artistic director Kevin Noe. They applied for and received a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Musical Composition at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. It's a co-commission with the ensemble.

During ensuing conversations with Noe over coffee, at lunches and on Skype, “the issue was how to deal with all of this text, a wall of words that comes at you,” Rosenblum says. “I found an old recording of James Dickey reading the poem, which reminded me of that initial reading in the classroom. Dickey had a gravely voice, too, and with a southern accent that gave it a real interesting quality.”

The new piece goes through a series of phases, according to the composer. “There's some solemn music pre-fall, and playful rhythmic music. As with all of my music, there are different tunings employed, and toward the end, it's very driving and rhythmic.”

Rosemblum also uses a subtext of noise — samples of wind noise and sound, a hiss that he says is heard on skydiving videos.”

At the end of the piece, Rosenblum uses a complex audio filter which takes thick wind noise down to a focused pitch. The filter was developed at the French institute for research in music and acoustics called IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), which was founded by composer and conductor Pierre Boulez in Paris in 1973.

Rosenblum, who lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, Maggie, is a professor of composition at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Music on the Edge concert series. He was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project will release a CD devoted to his music in the fall.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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