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Mood Sequence : While composing Mood Sequence, I became interested in the idea of extreme contrast. The work unfolds as a series of stark juxtapositions between subtle, delicate music (1.Soulful 3.Meditative 5.Reprise), and bold, forceful music (2.Manic 4.Ecstatic). These juxtapositions are highly dramatic, and serve to create "hard edges" inside the form; this in turn helps bring clarity to the multi-movement structure. The movements are organized in a symmetrical manner, the final movement being a literal reprise of the first, except that the cello takes the melody over from the flute.
Red Desert Triptych [2006-11]: Red Desert Triptych is arguably my most ambitious work to date. Nearly forty minutes in duration, it is a veritable “symphony” for solo piano. The work’s textural palette ranges from intimately scored passages to fully “orchestral” effects. Each of the three movements is self-contained and revealing of its own unique sound universe. Like Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles…, my Red Desert Triptych was originally inspired by visits to the national parks of southern Utah. My own allusions to these desert landscapes are impressionistic. They are not intended to be depictive or programmatic in any way.
The first movement, Rock Cathedrals Rising, is one of my most organic compositions. Each successive musical event that appears is a natural outgrowth of what came before. Yet the overall harmonic context, that of a vast polytonal landscape, is only gradually revealed. I believe that this idea of gradual revelation is intensely dramatic in effect. It is a concept that I have utilized in several of my other compositions (for example, in September Elegy).
Dance of the Hoodoos, the middle movement, is infused with a driving, pulse-oriented energy that provides contrast to the meditative, suspended-time quality of the first movement. Trill figures, syncopations, and complex subdivisions serve to intensify the virtuosic textures.
The final movement, Arches: Fantasy-Passacaglia and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach, is based on the famous f-minor fugue subject from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. This particular subject is interesting in that it uses ten out of twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The initial passacaglia section comprises several variations, many of which explore close canonic settings. The fugal section comprises two fully developed fugues that are elided. The movement concludes with a quiet recitation of the Dies Irae hymn.
In performance notes, I allow that each of these movements can be performed independently.
Kinetikus : Kinetikus is essentially a composition for keyboard percussion orchestra. The main parts are scored for glockenspiel, crotales, tubular chimes, two xylophones, five marimbas, and three vibraphones. The concept of kinetic energy seemed to me an appropriate metaphor. The music is continuously “in motion” as passages of frenetic activity alternate with moments of relative repose. Pattern-based textures predominate, yet the overall form reflects a dramatic unfolding that sets Kinetikus apart from the more typical “minimalist” compositions, which are often static or process-oriented. Kinetikus was commissioned by the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble, and premiered in November 2009.
September Elegy (version for violin and orchestra) : In early 2001 my friend and colleague, violinist Fritz Gearhart, asked me for a piece that he could premiere at Weill Recital Hall/Carnegie Hall. After some thought, I decided to compose an elegy (a funereal “song”). This choice proved particularly prescient: I had barely sketched out the opening section when the horrific events of 9/11 transpired. I recall experiencing feelings of shock, sadness, and disbelief, and it was at this point that I chose to dedicate the piece to the victims of the terrorist attack.
The first section of September Elegy, that part that was composed prior to 9/11, is lyrical in style. The rather sudden dissolution of this music symbolizes the destructive, apocalyptic nature of the terrorist attack. A seemingly endless and suspended violin note emerges from this musical “void,” and is starkly scored against a softly pulsating pedal point in the piano. The middle section of the piece is harmonically and rhythmically tense and unstable. This energetic music ultimately leads to a climatic resolution, followed by a fairly literal reprise of the beginning. A return of the suspended violin note marks the onset of an extended coda. Out of a visceral sense of total desolation, delicate quotations of fragments from a J.S. Bach chorale emerge.
Hearing Bells [2004 - 2005]: Hearing Bells was commissioned by the Bowdoin International New Music Festival in honor of George Crumb's 75th birthday. It was written to be sung by Ann Crumb, the composer's sister. The cycle comprises three interlocking songs set to ancient Chinese poems dating from the Tang Dynasty. The poems are in English translation. The first, "Hearing Bells at Night in the Mountains" (Zhang Yue, 667-731), depicts one man's contemplation on the nature of existence as inspired by the sounds of Bhuddist temple bells. The second, "Song of the Magic Strings" (Li He, 791-817), tells the story of a female shaman exorcising evil spirits. The third, "Sun Lengthens" (Du Fu, 712-770), is an ode to spring.
Text of Chinese poems:
[I] Hearing Bells at Night in the Mountains (Zhang Yue, 667-731; translated by Stephen Owen)
Lying down by night I hear night's bells,
A night so still the mountains resound with them.
A frosty wind blows the cold moon,
Far and deep away it rises in the emptiness.
The first notes have been struck,
Then the later notes sweep flashing over.
I listen for them as though I could see them.
Try to pinpoint them—no fixed form.
Now truly I understand that ultimately we stand
at the edge of Nothingness,
But futile fantasies of life and death linger in my mind.
[II] Song of the Magic Strings (Li He, 791-817; translated by John Frodsham)
As the sun sets in the western hills
The eastern hills grow dark,
A whirlwind blows the horses along,
Steeds trampling the clouds.
Painted zithers and plain flutes
Play soft, weird tunes,
To the rustle of embroidered skirts
She treads the autumn dust.
Cassia leaves stripped by the wind,
Cassia seeds fall,
Blue racoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall, a painted dragon,
Tail inlaid with gold,
The rain God is riding it away
To an autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Laugh wildly as an emerald fire
Leaps from their nests.
[III] Sun Lengthens (Du Fu, 712-770; translated by Florence Ayscough)
Sun lengthens; streams, hills glorious;
Spring-wind breathes; flowers, grass fragrant.
Vapour rises from wet mud, young swallows fly;
Warmth radiates from soft sand, duck, drake sleep.
Improvisations on an English Folk Tune : The melody that I use as the basis for this cycle of nine improvisations, known as "Scarborough Fair," is from an anonymous English folk song that dates back to late medieval times. As a child, I first heard the tune in a popularized arrangement sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (from the 1966 album "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme"). This simple yet melancholy Dorian melody exhibits an exquisitely balanced phrase structure that ultimately allows for a variety of potential harmonizations, many of which I explore throughout the composition.
Improvisations on an English Folk Tune was commissioned in 2003 by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, and premiered by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble in January 2005.
Primordial Fantasy : Primordial Fantasy is an essay for solo piano that I have extended into the “orchestral” domain. While the piano part tends to serve as the primary thread of the composition, there exists a high level of integration of soloist with ensemble that creates the sense of a larger composite texture. The piece tends not to follow the traditional model of a concerto as a conversation between soloist and orchestra. Rather, it is a concerto for all the forces involved.
Primordial Fantasy was commissioned in 2003 by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard, and premiered by pianist Marcantonio Barone and the Orchestra 2001 on October 6, 2002.
September Elegy : In
early 2001 my friend and colleague, violinist Fritz Gearhart, asked me
for a piece that he could premiere at Weill Recital Hall/Carnegie Hall.
After some thought, I decided to compose an elegy (a funereal “song”).
This choice proved particularly prescient: I had barely sketched out
the opening section when the horrific events of 9/11 transpired. I
recall experiencing feelings of shock, sadness, and disbelief, and it
was at this point that I chose to dedicate the piece to the victims of
the terrorist attack.
Harmonia Mundi : I view composing for two pianos as analogous to scoring for two orchestras, since each piano occupies an independent acoustical space. In the slow first section of Harmonia Mundi, I explore this spatial relationship through the use of various antiphonal effects. The alternation between normal and muted tones characteristic of the opening theme is one example of responsorial technique. In the animated middle section, I am most intrigued by the possibilities of pure color. Here the texture is replete with tremolo effects, passages involving parallel triads, splashes of diatonic clusters, all of which are enhanced by the colorful use of resonating percussion. A polytonal/polychordal fabric pervades much of the piece, suggesting a world of harmony, or perhaps, as in the title, "Harmony of the World."
Harmonia Mundi was originally composed for Quattro Mani (duo-pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak), and premiered in August 2001.
Variation on 'Round Midnight : Variation on 'Round Midnight was commissioned in 2001 by virtuoso Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli (with support from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music). Initially I was reluctant to undertake the project, since my previous experience with jazz music was fairly limited. So rather than attempting a "cross-over" piece consciously derivative of jazz, I decided to compose a variation in my own style that preserved something of the essential flavor of this famous tune by Thelonius Monk.
other American composers, including such prominent figures as Milton
Babbitt, William Bolcom, John Harbison, Michael Torke, Augusta Read
Thomas, and Michael Daugherty, were also asked to contribute
variations. The resulting cycle of works has been performed extensively
throughout Europe and in the United States.
Awakening : Awakening, commissioned by the Dunn-Pennington Duo, was premiered at the University of Oregon in November 2000. When my colleague, Stephen Dunn, initially approached me about the project, I was immediately intrigued by the potential for dramatic interaction between the trumpet and a variety of percussion instruments. As I began composing, I was not disappointed by the range of expression and color available to my imagination.
The work begins abruptly with a violent unison statement of the principal motive by trumpet and vibraphone. Out of the resonance, a muted trumpet emerges—a distant, solitary voice, as if from a dream. Eventually, an oscillating, organ-like music enters in the marimba. As this hauntingly beautiful music unfolds, the trumpet’s character transforms, becoming increasingly biting and sarcastic. [There are hints of Stravinsky’s Petrushka in this section.] Once the marimba music fades away, the opening unison gesture reappears, signaling the beginning of the movement proper. A primal, pulsating ostinato is introduced in maracas and tambourine over which the trumpet explodes into wildly ecstatic flourishes of running notes and syncopated gestures. Throughout this section, an intense development of motivic material leads to a point of ultimate climax marked by the trumpet’s arrival on a high “B” over an intense splash of color provided by the vibraphone. As this energy dissipates, the solitary muted trumpet of the opening reemerges. The piece ends with a reprise of the organ-like music over which a soulful melody unfolds.
The Whisperer : Out of the quiet intensity of the opening measures evolves a music suspended both in time and tonality, yet full of portentous meaning. From an increasingly sonorous landscape, a chorale-like tune gradually emerges, and this becomes the primary thread of the composition. As tonal development ensues, the music reveals a bold dramatic context suggestive of the Romantic era. Yet my tonal language, which is often triadic and at times even functional, is nevertheless modern and highly idiosyncratic. In The Whisperer, I strive for a strong sense of "comprehensibility," something that I feel is lost in many contemporary styles. Ultimately, I believe in breaking new ground while reconnecting some of the broken threads that link the music of our time to music from the past.
Piano Quartet : Piano Quartet is one of two compositions that I produced while on a sabbatical made possible by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Written for faculty colleagues, the work was premiered in November 1999 as part of the University of Oregon’s “Festival of the Millennium.” Piano Quartet is an ambitious work, expansive in form and tonality, and wide-ranging in its emotional language. It is rather “orchestral” in spirit. The strings often function as a homogeneous choir, much like brass within an orchestra, set against a vast textural landscape painted by the piano.
Vestiges of a Distant Time [1996; revised 2003]: On occasion, while traveling to regions where ancient civilizations once stood, I have felt haunted by vestigial spirits from distant times. While exploring such places as old city Jerusalem, or strolling among ancient Mayan ruins, this nebulous feeling of being surrounded by the ghosts of antiquity, whether real or imagined, inspired me to compose the tone poem Vestiges of a Distant Time.
Conceptually, the piece evolves out of a simple yet evocative three-chord modal progression introduced near the beginning. To me, this pseudo-Renaissance progression feels ancient and nostalgic; the special sound of the Oboe d'amore is used to enhance this character. The three-chord progression continues to serve as the primary thread of the piece, propelling the music forward through strings of sequences that ultimately lead to an effusive dance-like music. Just as this music reaches an exhilarating point of climax, there is an abrupt interruption, marking a return to the melancholy descending line of the opening bars.
Originally commissioned by the Cumberland Valley Chamber Players, a chamber orchestra based in rural Pennsylvania (Wilson College), Vestiges of a Distant Time was premiered in April 1996. In fall 2003, I decided to substantially re-orchestrate the work, releasing it in its present version for full symphony orchestra.
Soundings : Soundings, commissioned in 1993 by the NEOS trio, was first performed at the "Foro Internacional de Musica Nueva 1994," in Mexico City. The style of the work is fairly "objective," and perhaps somewhat derivative of Stravinsky's music, especially in the contrapuntal treatment of the woodwinds, and the layering of textures. Perhaps less characteristic is my use of color, resonance, and blending textures creating a richness of sound that departs from the dry, functional approach that I associate with much wind chamber music I have heard. Although I never would have predicted it, Soundings has become my most often performed work.
Variations for Cello and Chamber Ensemble : I had in the past often contemplated writing a substantial work for cello. So it was with great enthusiasm that I began composing Variations for Cello and Chamber Ensemble, a work commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered in 1993 by world-renowned cellist Lynn Harrell and the orchestra’s New Music Group.
In concept, Variations came to me rather quickly. I wanted to produce a virtuoso piece, but not at the expense of musicality. Although I chose to feature a soloist, I was not interested in composing a traditional concerto, a form that seemed dated to me. In the end, I decided on a fairly non‑traditional “theme and variations,” a form well suited to the development of the musical materials I had in mind. The resulting variations are not overtly sectional, but tend to elide into one another, creating the sense of a large one‑movement form. The musical landscape is also shaped by the gradual emergence of the solo cello as an independent voice. In the initial variations, the soloist tends to play against the backdrop of a large instrumental texture and is more or less integrated into it. As the work progresses, the cello becomes increasingly soloistic until it breaks free of the ensemble altogether in Variation VII (which is, in fact, a cadenza). Much of the music of Variations... is generated from a single chord (a diatonic cluster) introduced near the beginning of the “theme.” This sonority is clearly reminiscent of the opening of Bartok's String Quartet No. 4, one of my favorite works.In Variations, as in most of my other compositions, I am primarily interested in working with tonal materials. I strive for a strong sense of comprehensibility in my music, something that I feel is lost in many contemporary styles. But, unlike some composers who are now writing in a tonal idiom, I am uninterested in merely reiterating the past, crossing over to the popular, or adopting a minimalist’s approach and sensibility. I believe in breaking new ground, but in doing so, mending some of the broken threads that link the music of our time to music of the past.
Clarino [1991; revised 1993, 1996]: Clarino was inspired by, and much of its thematic material derived from, a previous work: Miniatures for clarinet (1989). This, in part, explains my propensity for writing virtuoso passages for clarinets. The work at times verges on being a concerto for the clarinet section. 'Clarino' refers to the uppermost range of the clarinet, and it is in this register that the thematic material is most often presented. The term also refers to the school of baroque trumpet playing in which the extreme upper partials of the harmonic series were produced on the natural (valveless) trumpets of the day. There is a great deal of high trumpet and horn writing in Clarino.
As with my previous works, tonal elements predominate in Clarino. Specifically, two tonal 'spheres' exist. A D tonal center pervades much of the piece (note the D pedal at the beginning). But toward the middle there is a shift to E-flat that prepares the lyrical contrasting theme (presented by the oboe). This E-flat section serves as a temporary relief from the incessant agitato nature of the rest of the piece. Because of the harmonic language and rhythmic techniques I employ, I must admit to some influence from Stravinsky and perhaps Debussy as well.
Clarino was my first work for full symphony orchestra. It is in stark contrast to my previous chamber music, which is often rather delicate and subdued. Clarino is an aggressive work, the result of some pent-up energy that needed to be released. It is intended to create a kind of resonance that remains with the listener even after the piece is over.
Joyce Songs [1990; revised 1996]: In 1989-90, I had the opportunity to study with the gifted Russian-born composer Mark Kopytman at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem. Most of Joyce Songs was composed during this period. They are love songs inspired by the collection of poems "Chamber Music" by James Joyce. Throughout the cycle, I evoke the idea of "chamber music" by treating the voice as an integral part of the ensemble. Thus, the first three songs are rather contrapuntal, while the last song is a more traditional "theme with accompaniment" setting. This work more than any other marks an important turning point in my development as a composer. In certain ways, I consider it to be my first mature composition.
Text: selected fragments from Chamber Music by James Joyce
Piano Sonata : Piano Sonata is an early work that I composed while enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Similar to Alban Berg's early sonata—a work that I happened to be studying at the time—it unfolds as a single movement that loosely adheres to thematic principles associated with sonata-allegro form. More interesting, perhaps, is the seminal influence that this particular work had on my composing process. Previously, my approach had been almost entirely intuitive—so much so, that it felt as though I was merely "improvising" rather than composing. Most often I would simply sit at the piano and compose "by ear." In truth, I had not yet developed rigorous craft, nor had I arrived at a compelling rationale for the numerous compositional choices that I was making. While composing Piano Sonata, I learned to work more systematically in order to make deliberate, conscious choices based on rigorous compositional thinking. This experience served as a critical breakthrough for me.