Listening to Anthony Paul De Ritis's Devolution is somewhat akin to watching a Tarsem film: The mixture of influences, references and textures is both blindingly apparent and blindingly gorgeous.
But once your eyes get used to staring directly into the sun, your vision adjusts and you're able to see all of the other manifold, and vital, surrounding details. Likewise, once you're able to recognize that, yes, you are listening to an orchestra play while a DJ mixes in preexisting recordings of both Ravel's Bolero and the equally-iconic Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh, you hear how they serve as mirrors to the light of De Ritis's original music.
The two works were initially included as they were the pieces programmed to complement the world premiere of this work. But the ostinato loops of both the seductively-spinning Bolero and the dizzying march of Beethoven's Allegretto have much in common with the oscillating patterns of a DJ's own instruments in a turntable and mixers. Here, that takes form in DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, for whom this so-called "concerto" for DJ and orchestra was written in 2004. However, like the music itself, Miller's involvement in the concerto snowballs into an avalanche, rather than immediately taking center stage.
Once he does, his solo moments take on a similar collaged element. Like any DJ worth his weight in sound samples, Miller riffs on preexisting materials but does so in order to create a new sonic situation that leaves familiar bits seemingly renewed when heard in such out-of-place contexts. While the piece takes its title from a film De Ritis collaborated on called The Devolution of Ethan Chadwick, there is no shortage of evolution in this work.
In that vein, too, is a pair of De Ritis's shorter, earlier works that accompany Devolution on this latest offering from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. 1994's Legerdemain, or "Sleight of Hand," made some prescient use of computerized music that leaves the listener questioning what is performed "live" and what is prerecorded. The corresponding Chords of Dust (1992) takes on evolution in a different sense, inspired as it was by De Ritis's father's experiences in World War II and the shifts that came from such a world-changing event, shifts that effected both immortal concepts and mortal people. And it's in conveying these big ideas, even through what in lesser hands could be seen as gimmickry, that De Ritis truly succeeds.