Steve Heitzeg – Aqua

Aqua (Homage to Jacques Cousteau)

Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was the world’s most prominent explorer of the oceans, which he loved dearly and did everything in his power to protect. American composer Steve Heitzeg paid tribute to Cousteau in a six-minute compositions titled Aqua, which he described as “a set of variations on the opening Ocean Fanfare theme.” He wrote:

Trumpets introduce the heroic theme with the percussionists playing claves, driftwood and river stones. The variations then follow quickly, as if in waves. Blue Waves introduces the strings, horns and bassoon with percussionists playing a rainstick, coral and shell wind chimes. Green Waves encompasses the entire orchestra. Sea Horse Dances builds up to the turbulent and oppressive Polluted Seas. Industrial sounds abound as the percussionists play cow bells, brake drums and steel pipes. Here the Ocean Fanfare theme is fragmented and disconsolate. One percussionist plays two plastic six-pack rings as a protest against the destruction of aquatic life.

The protes continues in the Dying Seas variation. In the score, the names of the seven seas have been written directly under a violently6 repeating pattern in the percussion. The brass pick up the protest marking the start of Ban All Underwater Nuclear Testing! Rough sea waters subside and merge with the majestically flowing Boundless Ocean variation where the vastness of the ocean merges with the majestically flowing Boundless Ocean variation where the vastness of the ocean is portrayed with full orchestration. Percussionists and extra players play a diverse range of bells to evoke images of various culture’s rituals and rites based around the sea. This variation builds to tsunami-like proportions with wave after wave of full orchestra sounds cascading over each other.

The Boundless Ocean variation abruptly closes with the introduction of the Chorus of Sea Birds. Bird-like and shimmering in texture, this variation is carried by the woodwinds as if sea birds were carrying the theme farther out to sea. The raucous and bird-like sources give way to the low, tolling chords in the harp, horns and low strings, leading to the final variation, Seas Dirge Becoming Ocean. As percussionists play a large ocean drum and temple blocks in a ceremonious manner, the plaintive Ocean Fanfare theme is played by a solo violin. This is a sacred procession, in which one is being carried out to sea by the waves. More importantly, it is intended to sonically represent a departure from our anthropocentric world to the world of ocean and nature as home. As the solo violin’s distant Ocean Fanfare theme fades away, we are left with the sounds of stones, sea shells, fog bell and tolling harp and strings.

Steve Heitzeg Biography

Emmy Award-winning composer Steve Heitzeg (b. 1959) is known for his music written in celebration of the natural world, with evocative and lyrical scores frequently including naturally-found instruments, such as stones, birch bark wind chimes and sea glass shards. Heitzeg has written more than 100 works, including compositions for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble, ballet and PBS films.

Named “Composer of the Year” at the 2000 Minnesota Music Awards, Heitzeg has amassed a large body of compositions that address social and environmental issues with vision and compassion in such works as Aqua (Hommage à Jacques-Yves Cousteau), Blessed Are the Peacemakers, Blue Liberty, Elegy on Water, Endangered, Nobel Symphony, Symphony to the Prairie Farm, Voice of the Everglades (Epitaph for Marjory Stoneman Douglas) and Wounded Fields.

Two recent works, both funded through a 2005 Archibald Bush Artist Fellowship, include Social Movements, a ballet premiered by James Sewell Ballet in 2008, and Song Without Borders, a four-movement string quartet premiered in 2008 by the Daedalus Quartet at the United Nations’ New York headquarters. Four months later, the work was performed by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra String Quartet in Baghdad.

Heitzeg’s music has been commissioned or performed by the Atlanta Symphony, Auckland Philharmonia, Chanticleer, Daedalus Quartet, Dale Warland Singers, Detroit Symphony, James Sewell Ballet, Minnesota Orchestra, members of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and VocalEssence, among others. Marin Alsop, Philip Brunelle, William Eddins, JoAnn Falletta, Giancarlo Guerrero, Jahja Ling, Christopher Seaman, Osmo Vänskä and Dale Warland are among the conductors who have led his works.

Heitzeg’s debut recording earthworks: music in honor of nature was released in April 1998. In 2000, he received a regional Emmy for his original score for the public TV documentary Death of the Dream: Farmhouses in the Heartland and in 2004 his Voice of the Everglades was released on CD featuring the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Heitzeg attracted attention with his score for PBS’ A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz (starring Jane Alexander) in 1991 and for the award-winning children’s video On the Day You Were Born, released by the Minnesota Orchestra in 1996.

The recipient of a 2001 McKnight Fellowship, Heitzeg has also received grants from the American Composers Forum, Meet the Composer, and the Jerome Foundation. In addition to concert and film music, Heitzeg composes ecoscores (intimate works with inventive musical syntax) that seek to honor nature and promote peace. Two of these works, Peace March for Paul and Sheila Wellstone and American Symphony (Unfinished) are in the permanent collection of Minneapolis’ Weisman Art Museum.

Heitzeg received his Ph.D in music composition from the University of Minnesota, studying with Dominick Argento, and completed undergraduate work at Gustavus Adolphus College. Born and raised on a dairy farm in southern Minnesota, Heitzeg now lives in Saint Paul with his wife, daughter and their Weimarane

Notes by Steve Larsen