Crumbling buildings with windows long since blown out by bombs and gunfire line the solitary street. A young man walks down the road past a charred car. Debris and rubble are everywhere.
This is just one image of many images published recently by the BBC of the war in Syria. As Atlanta-based composer Richard Prior saw these pictures — as well as photos of conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the European migrant crisis and terrorism in the Middle East — time and again, he found musical inspiration. He wanted to capture these frozen moments of war and devastation, crafting a composition that tells the story of this continual heartbreak.
“It just started to strike me after a while that these images tell an incredible story,” said Prior, a director of performance studies at Emory University. “They were shadows, as it were, of the real. They’re snapshots into a reality that we very quickly get desensitized to.”
As part of a national tour, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will debut Prior’s latest composition, “A Canticle of Shadows,” on Friday at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The New York City-based 31-piece chamber orchestra, which plays without a conductor, will also perform Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto with violinist Vadim Gluzman. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 will round out the program.
For Prior, these pictures of devastation could easily translate into a thorny, dissonant piece of music that would force the audience to confront the pain of war. Instead, Prior has used chorale sections and restrained dynamics to create “an emotional release of grief,” he wrote in the program notes for the performance.
“I’m trying to create a sonic space, as it were, to reflect on those things but in a different medium,” he said. “You can project yourself into the sound and you find the emotional resonance with the music with the knowledge that it’s been driven by these images.”
For the ensemble’s Emory performance, Prior said the Orpheus ensemble was interested in highlighting an Atlanta-based composer, and Prior soon found himself discussing a new commission with the group’s management. Once the orchestra arrives in Atlanta, Prior will have a few short rehearsals with the group to iron out any bubbles in the work. This rehearsal collaboration is an important part of his compositional process, he said.
“What’s on the page is the starting point,” he said. “It’s the flat, two-dimensional representation of the music.”
Due to rehearsal and time constraints, Prior said he worked to keep the composition rather simple and straightforward so the musicians could approach the work with ease. And while he thought about Emory’s general audiences — a mix of students, community members and longtime art patrons — he didn’t consciously work to make the music more approachable to classical newbies. As a composer, he said he believes that audiences are sometimes averse to new classical works, but that his job is to wrap unfamiliar musical ideas “with things that are somehow familiar in the tapestry of the music and then extend beyond that,” he said. If done correctly, this alchemy creates classical converts.
Prior said he’s encouraged to live and write music in a city that takes pride in the arts and doesn’t shy away from presenting new classical works.
“There’s so much vibrancy and richness,” he said. “It’s a great place to be — particularly when you have the significant pillars of things like the symphony also embrace and support those efforts. There have been some bumps along the way, but it only seems to be gaining strength and continuing that momentum.”
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
8 p.m. Jan. 20. $10-$60. Emory University Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, 1700 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta. 404-727-5050, arts.emory.edu.