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Awesome Creatures

Composer Richard Einhorn on the Score for Red Angels


When it debuted on the NYCB stage in 1994 as part of the Diamond Project, Ulysses Dove's Red Angels was a showstopper. In addition to the innovative choreography, which blended precise classical technique with unexpected movements and vernacular vocabulary, the piece featured a highly unusual musical accompaniment. Played live on electric violin, usually by its original performer, Mary Rowell, Maxwell's Demon is an essential element of Red Angels' power. Here, composer Richard Einhorn shares the background of the score's creation. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

I can't remember exactly when I wrote the first Maxwell's Demon, but it was quite a while back. It was written, basically, because I was a rock drummer, and I’d always wondered what those rhythms would sound like if I had them played with instruments that one didn’t necessarily think of as percussion instruments. I didn’t mean imitating the sounds, I meant simply taking those rhythms and using pitches and notes. I’d had this idea for a while when I was reading a magazine that featured an interview with a young violinist by the name of Mary Rowell, and it said that in the early part of an evening, Mary, who was a Juilliard graduate, would play a Beethoven Concerto with an orchestra. Later in the evening, she'd be jamming with her rock band. I thought, “Man, this is somebody I really want to meet.” I don't know how I found her—it may even have been looking her up in the phonebook for all that I know, because that's how long ago all this was! So, I got in touch with her, we arranged to meet, and I knew immediately that Mary was an extremely compelling presence. She's just an extraordinary person with great personality and intensity, and that's exactly the sort of person who would play the kind of music that I was looking to write. We hit it off immediately. I told her, “I have this idea. If I write the piece, will you play it? Will you record it?” And she agreed. So I wrote Maxwell’s Demon, and about two weeks later, we recorded it. And, we've been friends ever since. And she plays the living daylights out of it. She’s played it exclusively for years, until Red Angels got very popular and there would often be multiple performances going on at once. She’ll speak to other violinists about how to play the piece, because it's phenomenally difficult—it was intended to be difficult, as a virtuoso showpiece.

The wonderful thing about an electric violin is that it has the capability of producing a lot of different kinds of sounds, and not only because of the effects that you can get with it. A traditional violin has four strings, and its range is just a little bit below the lowest part of a female voice. It's basically a treble instrument. But most electric violins have five strings, and they extend the range to almost the complete tenor range of a male singer. Instead of creating a single melody, or a two- or three-note chord, this gives you the opportunity to create four- and five-note chords, and all sorts of different sounds that you couldn't possibly get any other way. It's really quite a wonderful instrument.

Usually, I'll start to write music, and then, as the piece is finishing, I'll have an idea for what the piece’s title will be. In the case of Maxwell’s Demon, I was trying to think of something that would connect with the intense energy of the music—you know, “Piece Number Four for Violin” really didn't get it. I'm a big fan of the novels of Thomas Pynchon. He’s a wonderful writer whose work combines the high literary art of Herman Melville with underground comics. In his novel The Crying of Lot 49, he mentions this thought experiment from physics called “Maxwell's Demon.” He basically describes it as a creature that had been invented by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell that could outwit the second law of thermodynamics and create energy from nothing. The second law of thermodynamics is, essentially, that entropy cannot decrease—things are falling apart. Maxwell found this loophole in which a “creature” can outwit the second law of thermodynamics, and actually create order out of chaos. And I thought, “Well, that sounds like composition to me. That sounds like art.”

An excerpt from Maxwell’s Demon was on a tape that I gave to Margaret Selby, who was Ulysses Dove’s manager at the time. She was aware of me through Voices of Light. I didn't know Ulysses; she just said, “Give me a tape of your music.” So Ulysses heard Maxwell's Demon #4, and he freaked out. He said, “This is great.” Then we met, I played him the other numbers, and he decided to use three out of the four that I had written, and repeat one of the movements with some variations—that became the score for Red Angels. Ulysses was, I think, looking for a way to work within classical ballet movements and ideas, but going way, way further with it, and creating all sorts of dance interactions and situations that were pretty outrageous for the time. This may be a little bit too highfalutin and literary, but I’ve wondered whether Ulysses knew and was thinking about, at least on some level, Rilke’s poems about angels, the Duino Elegies. The angels in Rilke’s poems are awesome creatures, not these white, flippy-floppy winged creatures; they're incredibly strong, intense, supernatural forces as much as natural forces. I have no idea if Ulysses read Rilke at all, but it's that kind of an angel I'm sure he had in mind.

At the Gala, when it premiered, it was a sensation. Nobody had seen or heard anything like it. And it was really quite exciting. Of course, Ulysses was thrilled, and the original cast was just unbelievable—that they could actually perform his complicated choreography! I found the ballet utterly enthralling. It was not what I expected Maxwell's Demon to look like. It's Ulysses’ piece and it's astounding. I was just jaw to the floor.

Up until recently, almost all my music has been choreographed at one point or another by dance companies of all sorts. When I was a student at Columbia, I met a choreographer at Barnard and I wrote some music for her; that became the first of my pieces to premiere in New York. Maxwell’s Demon was never intended to be choreographed, but even Voices of Light, which is a piece about Joan of Arc that’s usually performed with the film, has been choreographed more times than I can remember. It's just something that's happened. I love it. Your pieces, no matter what they are, are children, and they go out into the world and get into all sorts of mischief; sometimes, they do something kind of amazing that astounds you. And that's certainly true with Max. When I wrote it, both Mary and I could never have imagined we'd be at a gala for New York City Ballet. But of course, we were delighted. And we’re thrilled that it's been heard by so many people. I think that Ulysses would be just as thrilled and delighted to know that it's still an exciting challenge for dancers and for the musicians, and both a challenge and a blast to watch.


Anatomy of a Dance: Adrian Danchig-Waring and Jared Angle on RED ANGELS

Adrian Danchig-Waring and Jared Angle break down the idiosyncratic movements that make Red Angels a "study in contrasts".

 Performance photos of Ashley Hod, Peter Walker, and Davide Riccardo © Erin Baiano. Performance photo of Preston Chamblee © Paul Kolnik. 

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