The Krog Street tunnel is a dark, narrow passage beneath the CSX rail line that connects the historic Atlanta neighborhoods of Inman Park and Cabbagetown. More than that, though, it is a canvas for graffiti artists who plaster the walls, posts and archways with an ever-changing array of colorful images, slogans and club announcements.
And for Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bass player and composer Michael Kurth, it is a place of inspiration. The title of his first symphony, which has its world premiere with the ASO under the baton of Music Director Robert Spano on April 4, is “Everything Lasts Forever,” and it comes from a phrase he saw painted over the tunnel entrance.
“Everything changes there so much,” said Kurth, 41, who joined the ASO in 1994. “I saw that the phrase was peeling and fading and being shredded by the weather. It struck me as really remarkable that we can create something that explicitly says ‘Everything lasts forever’ with the full knowledge that it will be gone in a few weeks.”
Knowing it would soon be covered up by another graffiti artist, Kurth pulled over and snapped a photo of the slogan, content in the knowledge it was preserved in his camera. But the phrase stayed with him and he began to see in it parallels to the act of writing music.
“It’s sort of emblematic of the process of composing,” he said. “A piece has permanence in the way it’s stored and saved, but it has an ephemeral quality in the way it’s performed once or twice, and then it just evaporates the moment it’s done. It’s almost disposable.”
“Everything Lasts Forever” consists of three movements, each based on a particular piece of graffiti Kurth saw on his circuitous drives from his home in Kirkwood to the Woodruff Arts Center. The jazzy, percussive, stomping first movement is called “Toes,” and it’s inspired by a mural on Memorial Drive of cartoonish feet by a street artist who signs his name “Toes.”
“I just thought it was captivating,” Kurth said of the artwork. “I assume he had to get up on a ladder to do it. That takes tremendous dedication and a little bit of lunacy.”
The second movement, “Bird Sing Love,” is romantic and melodic. It opens with a haunting tune played on a celeste, a keyboard instrument that creates an ethereal tinkling sound. The piece eventually expands with strings and woodwinds.
It was inspired by a mural of a bird, its mouth open as if in song, that Kurth saw one day on an old door near Oakland Cemetery. When he passed the same mural again a few days later, someone had added a heart just where a speech balloon might go.
“It was like the bird decided to sing a love song,” said Kurth.
The final movement, “We Have All the Time in the World,” is named after another phrase Kurth saw scrawled on a wall in Cabbagetown, and it brings back the idea of impermanence with its tuneful, optimistic but plaintive theme. “It just seemed like a really succinct and deep and simple statement,” he said. “What does it mean to have that much time? To me, this phrase expresses the hope that what we create can endure long enough to have an impact on the space we occupy.”
While “Everything Lasts Forever” marks Kurth’s first symphony, he has composed several works for smaller Atlanta chamber groups, and his compositions often defy expectations of what symphonic music should sound like. The blues-inflected score for his work “The Zombie Attack, Though Terrifying, Was Funkier Than They Had Anticipated,” written for middle school orchestra, asks the students to put down their instruments and give blood-curdling shrieks or stomp their feet at various points during the performance.
Growing up outside Baltimore, Kurth became exposed to music when his parents made each of their two sons pick one sport and one instrument. “I swam and played bass,” he said. “I turned out to be pretty good at the bass.”
Kurth picked the instrument after a third grade teacher showed his class a film illustrating all the musical instruments in the orchestra. Kurth, one of the youngest and smallest kids in his class, thought the other students would think he was cool if he played the enormous bass.
“It didn’t work,” he said. “It didn’t make me cool, but it was very fulfilling and challenging.” He ended up studying music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and began playing for the ASO after a stint with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach.
Acknowledging the significance of having a world premiere with a major symphony orchestra under the baton of one of the most renowned conductors of contemporary music, Kurth expresses modesty.
“I sort of snuck in through the servant’s entrance,” he said. “I’m one of the few composers who is happy to be called ‘accessible.’ A lot of composers don’t like that label because they feel as if it lowers their art, but I like writing music that people like.”
About Kurth, Spano said, “his music is fresh and innovative. The first movement is full of the most wonderful humor, and that’s a rare quality.”
Working with contemporary composers like Kurth is a crucial part of what the orchestra does, said Spano.
“That process keeps us in touch with the necessity of continually exploring the intention of the composer who’s no longer with us, knowing the page is an indicator, not a stone tablet.”
“Everything Lasts Forever.” The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs a world premiere by Michael Kurth. 8 p.m. April 4-5. $24-$74. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4900. www.atlantasymphony.org