for Electric Guitar and Orchestra
"I already have no hesitation recommending this piece to other orchestras." - Leonard Slatkin
Composed for Marc Ribot, Electric Guitar
World Premiere National Symphony Orchestra Kennedy Center Washington, DC June 2004
Conducted by Leonard Slatkin
Commissioned by the National Symphony
Premiere - Revised Version Cabrillo Festival
Santa Cruz, California August 2005
Marin Alsop conducting
Marc Ribot, Electric Guitar
This work continues a theatrical approach to music grounded in years of writing operas and is part of Wallace's electric series which includes Book of Five for the amplified British ensemble Icebreaker and orchestra and Supermax, a new opera.
Skvera is dedicated to Leonard Slatkin.
Skvera for Electric Guitar and Orchestra is inspired by a trip to Skvera, the shtetl my grandparents left at the time of the Russian revolution to come to America. During the summer of 2000, I travelled there with my wife who had been the NBC News Moscow bureau chief during the first four Yeltsin years.
Skvera is two hours south from Kiev by car, even though my Bubby used to refer to it as Kiev Gebernya or suburb of Kiev. As my father said, she probably never saw Kiev except in the back of a wagon on her way out of town.
We went to find a few simple things: the cemetery, the synagogue, perhaps someone who remembered the family.
The plateau where the old Jewish cemetery had been was barren except for an austere Bauhaus factory. The headstones had been tossed into the nearby river more than 50 years ago.
At the base of the plateau now were two outhouse-like structures, crude memorials each of which housed a concrete coffin stuffed with notes for the dead from their surviving family.
After much searching in town, we found what was left of the synagogue. The ornate façade, the synagogue's only remaining wall, had been turned into the backside of yet another Bauhaus factory. The exhaust pipes now provocatively come through the synagogue's windows directly underneath the Hebrew inscriptions.
At the end of the day we discovered an elderly blind Jewish woman living in one of the few remaining prerevolutionary houses. She proceeded to tell us of her life there, though she didn't know any of members of my family. She was too young. In fact, she was about the same age as my father.
She held my hands tightly throughout the hour and a half we spent with her, and I sang the Hashkivenu, a cantorial prayer, as a thank you for her hospitality and kindness. She said she hadn't heard music like that since she was a child and began to weep.
The four movements of Skvera are:
1. Road Trip Decidedly comic - a misguided trip down a desolate "road to nowhere" with no idea what we might find on the other end. My wife and I were crowded into a Soviet model car with my cousin, her husband and their granddaughter - a tight fit.
2. Cemetery Factory incorporates music from Kaddish for Harvey Milk juxtaposed with more motoric, factory sounds as a way of commemorating the unfound resting places of the dead.
3. Synagogue Factory alternates sections of pure noise with moments of lyricism. Haunting the music are portions of a recording of Av Harachamim sung in the Ukraine by the renowned cantor Yosele Rosenblatt in 1916, only a year before my grandparents left Skvera.
4. Blind Woman Hashkiveinu The final movement takes a refrain from the Hashkiveinu and repeats it over and over again, each time more aggressively, as in the first movement of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. By the end, the lyrical, spiritual music has turned grotesque and overbearing.