How ancient mythology inspires Nick Vasallo’s composing

painting of Egyptian gods

Elevate’s composer-in-residence Nick Vasallo has a brand new concerto on our season opener concert, written for piano-four-hands virtuosi ZOFO Duet. We asked Nick to share a bit about his piece and the inspirations behind it.

What can you tell us about your new concerto?

The piece is called Atum: Everything and Nothing. Pronounced [ah-tuh m] like Atom or Adam. Atum was an ancient Egyptian Sun God, also known as the first god. Atum meant both “Everything” and “Nothing” (in the sense of “no-particular-thing”). His being was full of limitless potential that had yet to be actualized. I tend to be inspired by mythology, and the story of Atum instantly gave me ideas for musical modeling.

What is it about mythology that is attractive to you? How does it show up in your work?

Mythology and ancient spiritual concepts resonate with me, especially when writing larger works. For example, in 2014, I wrote a work for concert band called The Eternal Return. There is a theory by the same name that states that there is infinite time but only a finite number of events, so eventually all events will recur again and again infinitely. And that process has no beginning or end. I thought that was a great idea for the form of a piece.

As such, the structure of The Eternal Return is based on the cycles of The Great Year, which is a term that certain ancient civilizations used to describe the slow procession of the equinox, a period that takes about 24,000 years.

Musically, the different ages in The Eternal Return are structured using proportional relationships to their actual durations in time. They form a palindromic cycle: Iron Age, Bronze Age, Silver Age, Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age. Each age has a different musical focus, texture, and sound world depicting their respective Greek mythological descriptions. And in keeping with the theory, my piece could repeat forever, as the end connects to the beginning.

Let’s turn to the instrumentation. What is it like writing for piano-four-hands? Does it feel like a different instrument?

Writing for piano-four-hands is a dichotomous feeling. On one hand you have the freedom to explore the piano in complex ways that would not be possible with a single player. On the other hand you are limited to the physical space that exists with two players on single keyboard, so the balancing act between idiomatic writing and superhuman playing is challenging.

Is dichotomy something you seek out in your music?

Yes, sometimes. In 2015, I wrote another work for orchestra called Ein Sof. The concept of Ein Sof is best understood as God prior to his self-manifestation in the production of any spiritual realm. Ein Sof is both perfectly simple and infinitely complex, nothing and everything, hidden and revealed, reality and illusion, creator of man and created by man. In this piece I searched for sounds of a dichotomous nature: both primitive yet complex. There is a slow evolution of musical elements culminating with harmony and melody finally meeting in a climactic coda.

Back to your concerto, how do you envision the musical relationship between pianists and ensemble?

It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship. The piano and ensemble function as two totally different entities that work together but oftentimes antagonize one another. When they are working in harmony, I tend to use color to bind them together. I wanted to make some sounds that do not sound like a piano. Because this is a concerto, the piece is very sectional. There are several main sections in the work, and each section has its own atmosphere that collides with the others. Rests are active and full of resonance.

“Antagonize each other” and “working together”: can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by those?

With piano concertos there is a natural timbral dissonance between the piano as an instrument and the rest of the ensemble. You can use this as a valuable tool in regards to color, form, rhythm, or time perception. When I conceive of instruments working together, on the other hand, I imagine their “energies,” so to speak. The piano can choose to agree with the energy of a certain section or break away and branch off into a new area.

Can you explain for our non-musician audiences how one would make rests “active” or “full or resonance”?

People sometimes think of silence as a cessation of music, or negative space. When involved in the act of “musicking,” or listening to music, silence is a musical event. Breaks in performance do not mean a void of activity. On the contrary, I strive to fill this cessation with active resonance, so remnants of a sound bleed into the creation of another sound. I am fascinated with the beginnings and endings of sound. I credit this influence from studying Asian music and Alvin Lucier.

Get your tickets for Elevate’s October 2 concert, or subscribe to our season today!