Mozart never had to worry about morning sickness. In 2008, around drinks and celebrating a recent premier of my work by the Millikin University Percussion Ensemble, Choral Music Director Michael Engelhardt and I brainstormed musical ideas around choir and electronics and percussion. That impromptu brainstorm led to a commission for the Creation Oratorio, a multilingual intermedia work for chorus, percussion, keyboard, tape and computer animation.
The musical sketches, birthed from the creation myth and other sacred texts, combined Afro-Cuban rhythms with my characteristic (and sometimes creepy) electronic tracks and full women’s choir. I envisioned a work a full hour or more in length, accompanied by complex computer animation and surreal imagery.
CREATION ORATORIO HIGHLIGHTS
Fate has a twisted sense of humor.
Shortly after I began working on the oratorio I became pregnant with my first child. I was ecstatic! A daughter! However, what I didn’t know was that, like my mother and my Abuela, I suffer from extreme hyperemesis gravidarum. What this meant was that I found myself much more often than not, in fact up to ten times a day, vomiting. The time in between spent sipping Ginger Ale and munching on crackers and vitamin drinks to keep baby and I alive. And if that sounds horrible and a little gross, it is much worse than you can picture.
At the time I was an adjunct music professor. I spent time between classes trying to keep food down. I lived only five minutes from campus but even that was too far, and I often spent hours a day inert in bed watching mindless TV shows to keep my mind off nausea and pain.
But I had an oratorio to write.
The bulk of my musical process takes place in my mind. When writing a new work I often immerse myself in music and thought for months at a time. I write film scores, too, and will find like minded artists to listen to for inspiration. I let the notes I hear inform the notes I create. Experimentation and improvisation play a key role. I jot down chicken scratch sketches on paper, using graphic notation indicating melodies, timbres, sound synthesis, and vocalizations.
TED TALK ON OPERA AND TECHNOLOGY
I often worked for hours on the oratorio, transferring my musical ideas into Finale. I would improvise on a Malletkat I got from Pauline Oliveros, from when I interned at the Deep Listening Gallery. My cat would wrap around my legs as I played, sometimes jumping on the keys and scratching at them mercilessly trying to catch the flying mallets. My cat didn’t like the Malletkat much.
The child forming inside of me began informing the music I wrote. I saw parallels between the formation of life from a void in the mysteries happening within my own body. What did she look like? What was she doing? It was mysterious to me, and in some ways, a miracle. My younger self never thought I would be in a place in life where bringing a child into the world would be welcomed. Yet here I was, a living vessel for a miracle. In the same way, Creation stared so small as a speck of an idea and morphed into a massive musical masterpiece.
As a Latina and a concert percussionist I often think in terms of the rhythm and timbre of my youth. The complex polyrhythms I heard growing up in South Florida have left indelible impressions on my musical psyche. Decades of drumming and technology give me a musical ear that parses out sound in terms of timbre and syncopation and dissonance, married to sound synthesis and electroacoustic experimentation and embracing the broad global diaspora. Creationincorporated African drumming ensembles and complex polyrhythms echoing the sounds of Cuba and West Africa, familiar rhythms from the ancient past.
The computer animation I created morphed fetal images from the womb with nature and the female form. I created a kind of sacred ballet with almost alien like silhouettes moving to the music in a sea of surreal space. An experimental video artist and filmmaker, my visual works often seem like out-of-this-world “moving paintings”, with even my narrative works having a distinct look and feel to them reminiscent of a life obsessed with early works in science fiction, suspense, and horror cinema.
By the time I was finishing the final notes of the oratorio, I had given birth to my beautiful girl Eva Rose. Eva meaning “Eve” or “first woman” in Spanish and in Danish, the languages of my spouse’s and my predecessors. I sampled my child’s young cries and added them to the first Movement, tiny newborn strains echoing in the animated firmament.
In the end the Creation Oratorio premiered to a packed hall, performed by the Millikin University Women’s choir and Millikin University Percussion Ensemble. The work later won the New Genre Prize from the International Alliance for Women in Music, with excerpts from the larger composition remaining some of my more popularly performed compositions like Light, an homage that in some ways is a cosmic love song.
The journey of a composition often begins much like life – a tiny invisible formless thought that evolves into a beautiful creation.
Since the Creation Oratorio I have had the opportunity to explore music and animation in extraordinary ways, from my animation science fiction virtual opera Libertaria to the Malletkat Fantasy Destiny: Eondwyr, to dozens of film scores and video projects. It has been an incredible journey. My art delves into a world of science fiction, technology, and rhythm – combining them into often epic sonic explorations.
During the pandemic year I admit that trying to simply survive has taken precedence over musical creation. Yet, as performers, composers, artists, and filmmakers emerge from the shadows again, ready to create, I look forward to a Renaissance of new music and art as humanity learns how to live again.
Download the score for Light: https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/light-for-soprano-and-piano-digital-sheet-music/21704395
Award-winning Latina composer best known for her futuristic animated opera Libertariaand decades of women’s arts advocacy. An international leader in internet collaboration and media technology, Peña Young gave a TEDx Talk on the importance of crowdsourcing, virtual spaces, and media arts in Buffalo, New York. Her works have been featured on NPR, Art Basil Miami, Opera America NYC, and countless venues on six continents. Recipient of the prestigious Cintas Foundation Brandon Fradd Composer Fellowship and the Lois Weber Filmmaker Award and author of the educational workbook Composer Boot Camp. Peña Young has worked in social justice with houseless populations and taught nontraditional and students at-risk for two decades before moving into digital marketing and media. A busy mom and first generation American, Peña Young has a passion for equitable education for all, regardless of zip code. Peña Young continues to create new music and works in progressive politics while pandemic schooling her young children.