Music Monday: Diemer: Santa Barbara Overture

Despite living less than two hours away from the place, I’ve never actually been up to Santa Barbara, which means, at least according to today’s composer, that I am Missing Out. Emma Lou Diemer describes the joyous theme at the start of her Santa Barbara Overture as reflecting what one might feel after “enduring the clogged freeways and smog of Los Angeles”, to which I can only rejoin “Yeah, no, that sounds about right.”. Diemer was born in November 1927 to a very musical family (she had learned piano by the age of five, and family road trips would often involve sing-alongs accompanied by her sister on flute and one of her brothers on trumpet. I can’t decide if this sounds amazing or horrifying.)

In the late 40s, she enrolled at Yale University, where she earned both undergraduate and Master’s degrees. She was one of only two women in the program at the time, and the numbers honestly weren’t a whole lot better during my time there. Subsequent studies would take her as far afield as Belgium before she settled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was instrumental in starting the electronic music program. Her works are as widely varied as her geography — some of them are quite astringent, while others are much closer to more familiar musical practices. She is currently a Professor Emerita at UCSB.

Even tho her term as composer-in-residence for the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra ended in 1992, in early 1995 the group commissioned her to write a piece for their upcoming season. Specifically, the conductor, Gisèle Ben-Dor, asked for a “happy, beautiful” concert opener, and Diemer, in her program note for the work, affirms that the piece “definitely [is] the former”. It begins with a low, incessant throbbing that quickly builds into the first statement of her joyous “free from LA smog” theme. There are repeated interjections of less assuredly positive music, but the piece barrels thru them more or less unscathed, carried forward by its own momentum.

Mysterious, distant percussion sounds — introduced by the vibraphone — subdue the opening volley, clearing space for the brass to launch a brash, off-kilter march, full of bombast, but also more than a little cheeky. This settles into a jazzy, laid-back groove, with muted brass instruments alternating with woodwinds over a walking bass line in the low strings. A woodblock enters and then gives way to castanets, which seem to usher in a delirious habañera, but the established groove keeps being interrupted by much faster interjections, suggesting, perhaps, the number of different musical traditions in the air in Santa Barbara, and the ease with which one can move from one to the next.

Even in the face of these needling interjections, the music builds in lushness and warmth until it spills over into a more fluid section, full of rapidly darting scales. Fragmentary echoes of the opening materials dot the landscape, but everything is mercurial and nothing is fixed firmly in place. A queasy, miasmatic section follows that seems to be building to something, even if its ultimate goal is unclear. At last, a suspended cymbal announces the return of the march, now even brasher than before. Instead of subsiding into quiet jazz, however, it builds to an invigorating re-launch of the joyous theme from the very beginning, complete with a reprise of the smoggy opening ostinato. The smog doesn’t last, however, and the piece ends in a blaze of radiance.