In 2013, composer Erich Stem set out to write music about the individual towns and cities in the country he calls home. The project, called America By: A Symphonic Tour, started out on a small scale:
At the time, I was directing, producing, and writing music for a record label called New Dynamic Records, which recorded all new chamber music written by living composers. I got away from that world for a year and wrote an orchestra piece called “Kentucky By,” which I farmed out to different orchestras across the country. One of the directors I sent it to – from the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra – responded to me and asked if I could write a piece about their town/state. I said ‘yes’, and then began to wonder what it would be like to do this for orchestras in every state as part of a ‘tour.’ Six years and four states later, the tour remains strong.
Bainbridge Island’s (WA) symphony orchestra was the first collaboration and served as the model for other commissions down the road. Stem infused this work with traditional Japanese music to reflect the historical significance of the culture Japanese immigrants brought to Bainbridge. He also drew inspiration from the personality of the island by evoking the thriving arts scene and small-town atmosphere it has today.
The mixing of Bainbridge’s history with the contemporary scene of the Island served as a model for the recording you’ll hear on the DIMENSIONS 2 album, Portland (Portland, OR):
For Portland, I wanted the music to be a soundtrack for the history of the region, evoking the views Lewis and Clark may have witnessed traveling to the region in 1805. I also wanted to incorporate the music of Portland’s prior inhabitants, the upper Chinook Native Americans, by featuring a chant-like theme and climactic drumming at the end.
Portland was commissioned by the University of Portland Orchestra, which premiered the music to a packed audience in April of 2018. People who were not able to attend the performance can log onto www.Americaby.com to not only hear the music but also see videos of the region, Stem’s journal entries, and listen to the musicians talk about working with a living composer. In the case of Portland, Stem was able to document the sources of inspiration for the piece in its present day:
The second idea of the tour involves me documenting my travels and sharing video footage of important spots of each town. Before the Portland premiere, I was able to film the western most point of the Columbia River Gorge, Portland’s Japanese botanical gardens, and the impressive views from the upper deck at Marquam Hill (overlooking the city of Portland, with Mt. Hood and Mt. Saint Helens in the background).
In addition to the University of Portland Orchestra and the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra, Stem composed pieces that were performed by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra. His current America By commission (2020 season) consists of writing for the James Madison University Symphony Orchestra in a piece that will be about the Shenandoah Valley region. To join Erich Stem as he documents his work with JMU, please log onto www.AmericaBy.com