The Atlanta Chamber Players will premiere Alan Elkins’ “…in dust and ashes” Tuesday evening, May 22, at New American Shakespeare Tavern, located across from Emory University Hospital Midtown on Peachtree Street, as part of its final concert of the season.
It’s the latest of more than 100 chamber works that the group has commissioned. Elkins has twice been a finalist in its Rapido! Composition Contest, taking third place in 2009 and then, in 2010, becoming the Southeastern regional finalist in the expanded competition that year.
The top prize for the national winner of Rapido! each year is a sizable commission. Although Elkins has never won the national contest, the ACP musicians liked his music so much that the group found another way to commission a work from him, for oboe, clarinet, cello and piano. The world premiere of “…in dust and ashes” will share the stage with Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp and George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” for amplified trio of flute, cello and piano.
The “Rapido!” contest, which is accepting registrations from composers in this year’s competition until June 1, requires them to write a new short work within 14 days after the secret criteria for it are made public.
Elkins, who is on the music faculty of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, recalls that he learned to write music under the pressure of a deadline in graduate school at Bowling Green State University, where he received an M.M. degree in composition in 2009. “There comes a time when you’re agonizing over a decision, and that pressure will push you to make decisions you just have to go with in a timed situation,” he explains. “At Bowling Green, composers have to write a piece and perform it within 24 hours.”
The path of creativity, however, is neither straight nor clear. In his program notes for “…in dust and ashes,” Elkins writes that it “has probably had the most troubled history” of any of his compositions. “I went through at least six or seven false starts without settling for certain on any thematic material,” he writes. “Eventually I took to sketching rough drawings on legal paper in order to lay out a ‘narrative’ of sorts to govern the overall shape of the piece, although even this seemed to prove fruitless.”
The final version came together early this year, at a time when he was also going through a difficult experience in his personal life. “I felt the pressure coming near the end,” he says. “There was the fact that I knew the piece was going to get performed, and the weight I was wanting to put behind this work, given its length. Those factors, combined with the fact that I didn’t have a long time to get things done, that made the pressure come on more strongly.”
And yet those very types of struggles seem to feed into the internal emotional tensions and intellectual contrasts in music that are important to the composer.
“I’ve recently held this idea that music should express not just the beautiful, but also be ready to capture the grotesque, the unpleasant, moments of suffering, moments of utmost grief,” Elkins says. “If you have a beautiful piece of music that’s like a flower in the middle of a field of beautiful flowers, you see the one flower; you hear the one pretty chord, the rest of the chords are pretty around it. That’s nice, and it’s all beautiful and serene. But if you had a single flower popping up in the midst of a landscape ravaged [and] laid barren, the beauty is all the more striking. It’s an ideal that I’ve been reaching toward, and I don’t feel I’ve ever quite reached it. This piece grasps at what I’m trying to do, reflecting a very personal state of my heart over several months.”