070 What’s The Frequency – Kurt Nelson – After The Darkling Thrush


The piece of music featured in this episode is called After The Darkling Thrush. It’s a chamber piece which I wrote for a performance in New York City in 2015. The piece was later adapted to the psychedelic noir audio drama What’s The Frequency, which tells the story of Walter “Troubles” Mix and his partner Whitney as they search for a missing writer and navigate through a city quickly falling into madness. This week we’ll look at some of the insights into why and how it was made. My name is Kurt Nelson. I’m a composer from New York, and this is How I Make Music.


01:04 About What’s The Frequency and the backstory of how I got involved.

02:55 The work was inspired by European composers from the second half of the 20th Century, including Witold Lutoslawski, Alban Berg and Luigi Dalapicco.

04:44 I draw heavily on the symmetry of the octatonic scale in this composition. The flute solo demonstrates this in a very clear way.

06:47 This atonal type of music is a good match for a show like What’s The Frequency. The inconsistency of the tonality reflects the meltdown in reality that we experience when we listen to the audio drama. The tonality of music by Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven provides a stability. In an atonal composition, we experience a kind of freedom from that.

09:18 I use identifiable motifs to bind the piece together. One example is the dotted rhythm first heard in the piano, then the piccolo and repeatedly throughout the composition. 

09:48 In a dramatic flourish, I use the piano and the vibraphone to separately play the eight notes of the octatonic scale, which I find to be a brilliant instrumental effect. 

10:38 The original inspiration for After The Darkling Thrush was a poem by Thomas Hardy. The poem depicts a bleak view of the arrival of the 20th Century. The thrush in the poem is a bird that sings, oblivious to the cynicism of the poet. The flute takes a solo role to depict this innocence. 

12:24 Many composers who write concert music have just one performance before they have to move on to the next project. With podcasts, I find a wonderful opportunity to give the music some life after its initial performance. 


* Listen to audio drama What’s The Frequency by James Oliva wtfrequency.com/
* Check out other work by Kurt Nelson kurtcnelson.com/
* Bonus video: watch ‘After The Darkling Thrush’ being performed www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgoN2nUnrLk


* Witold Lutoslawski – Five Songs
* Alban Berg – Violin Concerto
* Joseph Haydn – The Creation
* The Darkling Thrush (by Thomas Hardy) – read by Tom O’Bedlam)
* Thaighaudio – Concert Applause 4 (CC0)
* Artemis R Swann – Song Thrush (CC0)
* Victor Herbert – The Prima Donna


How I Make Music is where behind-the-scenes musicians tell their own stories. Every Wednesday, we break apart a song, soundtrack or composition and investigate the insights into how it was made.

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How I Make Music is created by John Bartmann johnbartmann.com