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Arts & Life

Maestro Delta David Gier on SDSO's 100 years: Art helps us find our place in the world.

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Josh Haiar
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The following interview, audio posted above, is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra is celebrating 100 years as a statewide cultural institution. The celebration includes recognition of more than a thousand musicians who have performed with the orchestra.

Delta David Gier has been music director and conductor since 2004. He says the symphony is an integral part of South Dakota history and cultural development.

The following transcript has been auto-generated and edited for clarity.

Lori Walsh: One hundred years of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Delta David Gier, there's a lot to celebrate.

Delta David Gier:

Throughout this season, the centennial season, we've tried to honor various people in different aspects of the orchestra. But this final concert is all about the musicians. So there'll be, hopefully, a lot of people who have played with the South Dakota Symphony with us that evening. There's a big reception for them. We've had a lot of people that have done some really great research. All of our materials are at the Center for Western Studies. So some of the people, the musicians on our committee, actually took all of the names of anybody who's ever played in the SDSO. And there's over 1,000 people.

Lori Walsh:

Wow.

Delta David Gier:

And they have like 16 placards that they've created with like all of the violas that ever played in the South Dakota Symphony. It's pretty astonishing. And they're going to be displayed about the hall that evening. And there will be a moment during the concert where we'll honor some specific people like our librarian, who's been with us for 60 years. It will be a very celebratory atmosphere.

Lori Walsh:

What a legacy to be with the orchestra at this time. And much of that legacy for people who are living in South Dakota today in the last 20 years or so has to do with Delta David Gier. Who is also receiving the 2022 Conductor's Award, the Ditson Conductor's Award for the Advancement of American Music, a huge honor. Congratulations.

Delta David Gier:

Thank you.

Lori Walsh:

And thank you because you bring that to South Dakota with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Let's talk about the importance of American music, the world premieres, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composers you've brought in, the Lakota Music Project. There's a lot to celebrate there as well. So, congrats.

Delta David Gier:

Thanks. I appreciate that.

Lori Walsh:

Speaking of Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, John Luther Adams came to the symphony the first time, I believe, during that Pulitzer series. And we have him on the phone now because he is returning with a world premiere called An Atlas of Deep Time. John Luther Adams, welcome back to In the Moment. Thanks for being here again.

John Luther Adams:

Thank you so much. It's lovely to be back in Sioux Falls.

Lori Walsh:

I would love to hear your story, John, of when you first started talking about this commission for the centennial, was it when you were here in Sioux Falls last time?

John Luther Adams:

I believe it was. David reminded me last night, that was six years ago. And I think he started dropping hints at that time. And my process is, shall we say, deliberate. David has been incredibly patient with my process, and we've gone through a lot of different possibilities, a lot of different ideas for what we might do together to celebrate the centennial of this extraordinary orchestra. And we, finally, decided on An Atlas of Deep Time.

Lori Walsh:

John, I would love it if you would tell me a little bit about the composition. And then, David, if you could tell me a little bit about the audience experience that night. So John first, tell me about Atlas of Deep Time.

John Luther Adams:

I kind of think of it as a sort of a geology of faith. It's grounded in my desire amid the turbulence of the world that we're living in these days, all the craziness of human affairs, to listen for the older, deeper resonances beneath our feet, the 4 1/2 billion year history of this extraordinary planet that we inhabit.

John Luther Adams:

And so, the piece is conceived as a series of basins and ranges. It's kind of got a geologic and geographic form to it. And the orchestra is deployed in six different instrumental choirs scattered around the concert hall. Each of the choirs inhabits its own tonal space, its own physical space. And moves at its own rate, its own tempo. So, six different ensembles playing at six different speeds. I guess that's a way that I'm trying to evoke something like the multi-dimensional history of the rocks beneath our feet.

Lori Walsh:

Wow. Maestro-

John Luther Adams:

The colors, the textures, the weights of the Earth itself.

Delta David Gier:

So John, your inspiration, you live in New Mexico in the mountains. So your inspiration, you took from actually that landscape, is that correct?

John Luther Adams:

I think inadvertently that happened. I live at the southern an extreme of the basin and range province, that sweep of mountains and valleys that runs really from the Northwest corner of the continental us all the way down to the Mexican border, where I lived now. And without my being consciously aware of it, I think that landscape found its way into this piece.

John Luther Adams:

You know, David, the landscape, place has been the central metaphor of my life's work. I lived for 40 years in Alaska, in the subarctic. And a lot of my music has evoked specific places. But, in recent years, I've been trying to make music that somehow evokes a place in purely musical terms. So, it's my hope that a listener will find herself in the middle of this enveloping sound world. And feel as though she's in a place. Maybe a strange, beautiful, or maybe frightening place, someplace she's never been before.

Lori Walsh:

I want to jump in because I do want to talk more about landscape, but I want to go back, Maestro, to the question about audience experience. And John Luther Adams has given us a hint of that. But from your perspective, and your knowledge of the concert hall, and the musicians, and where they'll be positioned ... talk to me a little bit about what that experience will be for the audience.

Delta David Gier:

Well, so John's work is always based in the environment. He's an environmentalist himself. First piece of his we did was Become Ocean for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. And for that particular piece, the orchestra was separated into different choirs on the stage, but all on the stage. And the audience experience was quite immersive. And experience is the only real word to use. We even had one woman that told me that she got seasick listening to Become Ocean.

Delta David Gier:

But this piece, it'll be in surround sound. Like we'll have musicians in the hall. And each of these six choirs represent geographical layers. I imagine I'm walking through the Badlands, and being aware of the sedimentary rock, and the millions of years that represents. And you have these different choirs, so the choirs are layered on top of each other, but then the instruments within each choir are also layered on top of each other.

Delta David Gier:

So, my hope is that the audience will actually have that immersive experience of feeling like, I don't know, maybe you're in the canyon. Maybe it's the Badlands. Maybe it's New Mexico. But you're surrounded by these incredible, well, rocks. It's a rock concert, actually. You're surrounded by, by this landscape, but the awareness of the time that is there, the millions of years.

Delta David Gier:

What do you say, John? It's like 100 million years per minute in this piece?

Lori Walsh:

Per minute, yeah. 100 million years per minute.

John Luther Adams:

Is 4.6 billion years old. And this piece is 46 minutes long. So it's very, very fast, right?

Delta David Gier:

Yeah, right.

Lori Walsh:

[crosstalk 00:09:33]. I want to ask both of you a question.

John Luther Adams:

It's loud, it's not amplified, it's a symphony orchestra. But yeah, it is rock music. The tempo's 100 million years a minute.

Lori Walsh:

I want to ask you both a question because John, you published a book recently during the pandemic called Silence is so Deep, that talks about landscape, and your time in Alaska, and leaving Alaska behind. The friendships that you have, some of the decisions you made.

Lori Walsh:

And I think this is a question for both of you because one of the reviewers, author Alex Ross said, "In rare instances, work and self are aligned in a way that erases the boundary between the two." And when I think of both of your work, I think there is no boundary between work and self in the best possible way. And I thought that was such an insightful thing to say.

Lori Walsh:

John, will you address this sense of listening to the sound of silence, noise, music, earth, writing about it, being in conversation with people like Delta David Gier. And was there a point for you when those boundaries between what you do for commission, or what you do for promoting a concert is really no different than what you do when you are by yourself just being a human being? That those are integrated in a way that for most people never become whole.

John Luther Adams:

Lori it's always been that way for me. Music is not what I do, it's how I understand the world. It's really the only way that I know of being fully human, and fully present in the world. And, for me, music is not about expressing myself, it's about discovery. It's about that sense of being in direct contact with something larger, deeper, more mysterious than I can then I can fathom. So, that's what I want for myself. It's also what I want for you as a listener. To find myself slowing down, just listening deeply, and being more fully present in the place, in the moment.

Lori Walsh:

Delta David Gier, does that resonate with you too? What is music for you? It's not a form of self-expression. What is it?

Delta David Gier:

Well, I think of myself as a recreator rather than a creator. I mean, the composers are the immortal ones. It's my job to bring the composer to the center of the stage, to realize his or her vision the best that I can. In the process, I find my place in the world. I think that's something that great art does. It helps us to find our place in the world. It helps us to think deeply about who we are, why we're here, and our responsibility to each other. And, in John's case, to the planet as well. So it's a voyage of discovery for me also.

Delta David Gier:

We were talking to the crowd at USD last night of, largely, environmental sustainability faculty and students about exactly this responsibility that we have as an arts institution. When people come together to carefully listen to a piece of music, not to be entertained, but to contemplate something that someone who has written down for us to perform that communicates something higher.

Delta David Gier:

John and I've talked about this many times. It's not about entertaining people and playing cool things. It's a grappling with ideas and hopefully, by doing so, we're all made better people.

Lori Walsh:

Grappling with the biggest ideas of our time. And, John, ideas that people of the next generation will be thinking about long after we're gone.

John Luther Adams:

Lori, that's my hope. That's what keeps me going in the daily practice of my art is my love for, and my faith in the next generations.

You can see the livestream of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra's centennial season finale this weekend courtesy of SDPB on SD.Net.