Setting The Shuttle Launch To Music

Mar 25, 2014

yMusic rehearses while in residency at Duke
Credit Eric Oberstein / Duke Performances

Scott Lee grew up on the Gulf coast of Florida. Once in a while, on a clear night, at the right time of year, he could walk outside, look 150 miles to the East, and see the glow of a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral.

"As they rise upwards, they kind of start to curve," Lee said. " And it's a really interesting phenomenon, because they're still just going straight up. But to you, it looks like they're coming back down. So you start to wonder... 'Is something wrong?' "

Lee is a composer at Duke. He's in his first year of a PhD program, and has been working on a piece for the yMusic ensemble. yMusic is a remarkably eclectic sextet, seemingly capable of reading music composed on the back of a cereal box and turning it into a filet mignon of musical dining. So, when he had the opportunity to compose for them, Lee drew from his roots, thinking about those shuttle launches.

Lee, along with 6 other composers, have been working with the group for the past year as they've been in residency at Duke. The pieces will premiere tonight at Motorco in Durham as part of Duke Performances. yMusic, Lee, and fellow composer Sid Richardson sat down for an in-studio performance and conversation at WUNC this week.

Richardson's piece pushed him to new limits, as well. For the first time, he asked string players to also vocalize in harmony with the piece.  The work, Richardson says, is a reaction to an excerpt taken from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novel Journey to the End of the Night that reads:

"Nobody can really resist music. You don't know what to do with your heart, you're glad to give it away. At the bottom of all music you have to hear the tune without notes, made just for us, the tune of Death."