Menagerie of Spectacular Creatures:
Version A: fl(=picc/alto), cl(=B-flat/A/b.cl)|hrp|vln, vc
Version B: fl(=picc/alto), cl(=B-flat/A/b.cl)|pno|vln, vc
Commissioned with Project EcoMusic and written for Hub New Music and Hope Wilk
Duration: ca. 25:00
Henry Long Room, Boston Athenæum – Boston, MA USA, October 24th, 2020
© 2020 BLACKBURN ARTS (ASCAP)
Menagerie of Spectacular Creatures is a large-scale collection of multimovement “docu-composion” suites, originally based on Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le carnival des animaux. Each suite within the collection considers “an afternoon in the life of,” studying various creatures or plants mostly associated with the environment where the concert is to be premiered in order to promote awareness of endangered species, preserving our ecosystems, or to simply introduce the audience to the natural world right outside their doors.
Recording session with Jeffrey Means, director, Hub New Music, and Ina Zdorovetchi, Harp (Oct. 24, 2020) in the Henry Long Room - Boston Athenaeum. Photo by Scott Quade.
Insecta is the result of a collaboration between the First Congregational Church in Winchester, Massachusetts and Project EcoMusic. The idea blossomed from Project EcoMusic’s proposition to install Winchester’s first Monarch Waystation, a registered monarch butterfly reserve through the Monarch Watch program. In celebration of the new Monarch Waystation––located on the property of Winchester’s First Congregational Church––Project EcoMusic designed a concert, supported by the church and Winchester’s Cultural Council, that would premiere four new compositions that were based on insects and their impact on planet Earth. Menagerie of Spectacular Creatures: Insecta was written to be premiered during the insect concert on May 8th, 2020. However, due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, the premiere has been postponed until further notice.
With millions, if not billions, of different insects to choose from, I decided to choose insects with which I have had a personal experience, especially while growing up in the swamps of Ocala, Florida when I aspired to be a young entomologist. This culminated in a list of my favorite insects, including the monarch butterfly, the Hercules beetle, the water boatman, ants and grasshoppers, true dung beetles, praying mantids, mosquitos, and fireflies. When I was little, I wondered what they were thinking about as they were going about their daily routines. Have you ever watched a dung beetle go about its day? As funny and awkward as they are, these beetles are also extremely intelligent. If one loses its dung ball down a hill and gets lost, the dung beetle uses the moon and stars to navigate its way back to their nest, all while rolling a ball of dung backwards with their hind legs!
Each movement is designed as a small snippet of the insect’s life, sometimes from the human perspective, sometimes from the insect’s perspective, and occasionally both. Danaus Plexippus (monarch butterflies) and Lampyridae (fireflies) are written from the human perspective. I chose to do this because these insects collaborate as a collective and the experience of them en masse should be considered a natural wonder. For example, my setting of Danaus Plexippus takes place in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve World Heritage property, which lies within rugged forested mountains about sixty miles northwest of Mexico City. “Every autumn, millions, perhaps a billion, butterflies from wide areas of North America return … and cluster on small areas of the forest reserve, coloring its trees orange and literally bending their branches under their collective weight. In the spring, these butterflies begin an eight-month migration that takes them all the way to Eastern Canada and back, during which four successive generations are born and die. How they find their way back to their overwintering site remains a mystery.”[i] This is why the opening movement is blazing with notes. You simply cannot tell the story of the monarch butterfly without painting the whole picture, the kaleidoscope of a million-monarch sky. This is also true for fireflies (lightning bugs). Though as individuals they are amazing little creatures, there is no other nighttime experience quite like a moonlit grassy field teaming with thousands of fireflies.
The other movements of this suite are based on my interpretation of what it could be like to be in the shoes of a particular insect. For example, the male Hercules beetle, with its large thoracic horn as it fumbles around Central and South America’s rain forests, asserting its dominance and fighting off other males in search of a mate; or, the stealth and stillness that the praying mantis embodies as it camouflages itself within the leaves of a plant, patiently awaiting its meal to take one step closer.
The only movement that strays from the human or insect perspective is Formichidae et Acrididae. Though this movement does incorporate the insect’s point of view, the story behind this movement is based on Aesop’s fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper. Aesop’s fable focuses on winter, when the ant refuses to assist the grasshopper when it asks for food after spending the summer fooling around. My setting takes place in the summer, when the ants (strings) are hard at work and the grasshoppers (winds) are doing everything but work, including pestering the ants.
As with all the pieces in Menagerie, Insecta is ultimately about conservation. Since I began composing this piece (summer of 2019), the monarch population has decreased by 53%. The study released by Mexico’s World Wildlife Fund also stated that monarchs have lost an estimated 165 million acres of breeding habitat in the United States due to herbicide spraying and development. Though the count for 2020 is shockingly low, it is approximately 69% higher than the lowest count on record, which was recorded in 2015. [ii] Due to the loss of a reliable habitat as a result of increasing climate change and human interference, the monarch butterfly is only one bad summer or winter away from becoming critically endangered. While there is hope, and the number of Monarch Waystations throughout North America is growing, it is up to us to make the decision to help these spectacular creatures, before it is too late.
[i] UNESCO. 2008. Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1290/
[ii] Center for Biological Diversity. 2020, March 13. “Eastern Monarch Butterfly Population Plunges by More Than Half.” https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/monarch_butterfly/monarch-population-2020.html