Program notes

a melody which the air had strained (2019)

Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “Sounds”

Compression (2017)

The title refers to compressive and positional asphyxia, particularly as a result of police brutality.

Whorl (2016)

As the title suggests, Whorl is preoccupied with lines that twist, wrap, and spiral around one another. The somewhat unusual ensemble — solo guitar with English horn, bass clarinet, viola, and ‘cello — compresses the ensemble’s tessitura around a low center, allowing for intertwining that occasionally obscures the identities of the instruments. The teeming textures that result are sometimes violently torn apart, only to re-coalesce, as if drawn together by an unseen force, circling back to a central axis.

Practical Alchemy (2015)

Practical Alchemy was written for and is dedicated to Jay Campbell. I discovered the titular phrase while reading about the early experiments of the eighth-century alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. While reflecting whimsically on the idea of "practical alchemy" it struck me that composing consists of a precarious balance between the pragmatic and the fantastic. Further, my piece changes states through metastatic processes that alter the properties and behaviors of its materials, somewhat like the metals that Jabir sought to transform. 

The Silenced (2015)

The Silenced is a meditation on those who are muted, by force or by political, economic, or social circumstances, yet still struggle to be heard. While composing the work, I was concerned with the ideas of trauma and self expression during and after an emotionally damaging experience. This is manifested musically by gagged, stifled sounds that are perpetually in transition towards a clearer articulation that is never fully reached. Significantly, it is the flute, not the voice, that comes closest to realizing a kind of expressive "purity," free of the noise and interference that typify so much of multilayered sound strata in the piece.

The Silenced is dedicated with great love and admiration to Claire Chase for her Density 2036 project.

suspension/bridge (2015)

Having long been preoccupied with projecting musical tension in novel ways, I find myself drawn to examples tension in the physical world. Recently, I was inspired by the suspension bridges that I regularly cross while traveling in and out of New York City. While on these bridges, I am struck by how the weight of the deck — which sometimes vibrates with alarming force — is transferred to the impossibly thin cables stretched above. In suspension/bridge, sustained sounds connect — or bridge — together irregular outbursts of activity, the latter full of volatile energy, the former transparent and taut.

Ascension (2014)

The Ascension is the second quartet in Passage, a musical triptych concerned with the psychological effects of torture and their aftermath. While Subject, the first quartet, expresses the brutality of the acts themselves, Ascension begins with a dark memory of these events with various attempts to reconcile the anxiety and uncertainty caused by them while at the same time moving forward. This progress, however, is not without violent flashbacks and temporary regressions. Ascension concludes with an intense moment of focus that is simultaneously the attainment of clarity and the trigger of angry resentment in search of justice.

pulse-echo (2013)

When I composed pulse-echo I was both inspired and constrained by the fundamental design of the piano: it is a set of vibrating strings inside a resonant body. Rather than contextualizing my work in the pianistic tradition, I approached the piano as a physical object, pregnant with possibilities to explore in the service of sound production. While there are several “traditional” piano sounds in my piece, I integrate them with more novel timbres in an effort to exploit the various “nontraditional” potentials of the instrument. With this in mind, the string quartet, as I imagined it here, is not a mere accompaniment to the piano but rather an extension and embodiment of it. 

pulse-echo derives its title, in part, from a quote by Arnold Schoenberg: “Art is the cry of distress of those who personally experience the fate of mankind. Within themselves they carry the pulse of the world and only an echo reaches the outside. And that echo is the work of art.” The title is also a reference to the onset of attacks, their decay, and the play of reiterative and timbral continuities that were the conceptual genesis of the piece.

pulse-echo was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress for Jason Hardink and the NOVA Chamber Music Series.

Strömkarl (2012)

When I was first approached by Miranda Cuckson for a new work to be recorded alongside Elliott Carter’s Duo (a formidable piece I’ve long prized for its austerity) and Roger Sessions’ Sonata (a work that I became familiar with upon this occasion) I immediately began to think about how a new composition could compliment those by my respected predecessors: Sessions’ robust yet sophisticated music and Carter’s multivalent temporal and contrapuntal designs fused with humanity and wit. With this in mind I turned to a fragment of music dating from 2007, seventeen measures that were written as a gift for my dear friends Per and Karin von Zelowitz, a Swedish-American couple who were celebrating their wedding. This occasional piece, a short violin solo, now reimagined as the beginning of a larger work, with its eight-part rotational pitch canon, seemed to speak to Carter’s penchant for stratification. The newly-composed piano part attempted to embody the muscularity and melodic inventiveness found in Sessions’ piece. However, it was my admiration for Miranda and Blair and my love for Per, Karin, and their children Gustav and Astrid that ultimately inspired the creation of my composition. The title is taken from the Swedish folk tradition and may be traced to Norse mythology. Strömkarl — also known as Näcken and immortalized in the E.J. Stagnelius poem of the same title — is a solitary creature that lives in a stream or waterfall and plays the violin either to delight or tempt any humans who encounter him. While accounts vary with regard to his malevolence, all agree that his instrumental skill is such that even inanimate objects begin to dance upon hearing him play.

Strömkarl was commissioned by Gene Gaudette for Miranda Cuckson who recorded the work, along with Blair McMillen, for Urlicht Audiovisual. 

"to be held..." (2012)

"to be held..." is dedicated to the loving memory of Anne Solomon. The title is taken from a sentence in Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse": "If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time." The idea of holding something that is so elusive, in my case the memory of a departed friend, seemed appropriate for the work. (More mundanely, there is the act of holding the instrument, and sustaining sound.) Of course, the idea of breath, a life source and the fuel for the combustion of language, is poignant as well. As Olson writes at the conclusion of his essay, "[A] projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs."

Olson also believed a poem is "energy transferred." I could say the exact same thing about my music: I am trying to compose works that have kind of kineticism, a friction that is transmitted from abstract idea, to symbolic notation, to interpretive realization by the performer. Again, Olson says, "The poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, a high-energy discharge." The idea of energy transferred is also the basis for life in that on a physical plane the entropic disintegration of the body upon death is a transference of materials from one iteration to another. Perhaps also it is another kind of metaphysical transference but I am not inclined to believe so. 

Although I greatly admire Olson’s poetry, the poetic economy and directness of Olson’s colleague Robert Creeley seemed more appropriate to my piece. The vocalizations in both the live and electronic parts are phonemes extracted from Creeley’s "The Language."

Finally, "to be held..." is also a companion piece to Giacinto Scelsi’s "Manto III," from which some of the pitch material in my work was derived. 

"to be held..." was commissioned by Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum and was premiered by Wendy Richman, for whom it was written and who appears on the prerecorded materials. I am also indebted to Nicholas Nelson for his assistance with the electronic part.

Subject (2011)

Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA became very interested in psychological research being conducted on the effects of sensory deprivation on humans. The research, that suggested rapid regression in those tested, provided a framework for sections of what would later be known as the KUBARK manual, the first in a series of US-government documents that provided techniques for interrogating detainees. These methods involved radically altering a detainee’s sense of time and environment.

Among these techniques, some developed independently of the manuals by interrogators, were the manipulation of light and sound. In order to weaken the resolve of a detainee and prolong “capture shock,” complete sensory deprivation followed by blasts of light or noise, or very loud music, proved effective. So much so that variations and combinations of these techniques were widely used by the United States as well as both its allies and enemies in Vietnam, Latin America, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. 

Though the idea of sound as a weapon is at least as old as the account of Joshua’s siege of Jericho, it was only recently deemed “inhuman and degrading” for the purposes of interrogation by the European Court of Human Rights in the 1978 case “Ireland v. the United Kingdom.”

Subject is part one of the triptych Passage.

Still (2007)

The title of this work intentionally encourages the consideration of the word's multiple meanings.

The stasis of the music may evoke a sense of motionlessness, or something at rest.

The persistence of the musical materials also suggests something that remains, perhaps in the face of adversity.  

As a proper noun, the title is an homage to the sensuality and depth of Clyfford Still's penetrating paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I had the opportunity to revisit while composing this work.

Still is dedicated to Taimur Sullivan, Allison Sloan, and Soraya Sullivan.

A way [tracing] (2006) 

A way [tracing] takes its title from the opening line of Laura Mullen’s “The Distance (This),” a poem that is set at the conclusion of the Undersong cycle. The present work opens the cycle. By suggesting multiple possible trajectories, A way [tracing] lays out a network of paths to be taken but does not necessary follow them. The work is also a compression of materials that are unfolded later in the cycle as well as a standalone solo piece. As such, hearing A way [tracing] performed on its own is to experience both an encapsulation of yet unheard musical ideas and a densely tangled skein of textures, harmonies, and timbres that progress rapidly and, often, simultaneously.

A way [tracing] was written for and is dedicated to Fred Sherry with great admiration.

Sweet Creature (2006)

When presented with the opportunity to compose a work for the bodhran, naturally, I had to consider its specific attributes. Since the instrument at my disposal were not specifically pitched — only relatively, high to low —, rhythm emerged as a primary concern. For ideas, I decided to return the music of Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-77), whose complex rhythmic polyphony has always been an inspiration. The radical music of Machaut was fiercely criticized by members of the church, not unlike certain recent artworks that have been condemned by today's conservative factions. 

So, in technical and political solidarity with my fourteenth-century forebears, I adopted their technique of isorhythm, long rhythmic patterns that are layered upon one another. Using this compositional method, I devised a system of rhythmic organization that underlies the structure of my piece. The title of the work is taken from "douce creature," a turn of phrase that Machaut used in some of his love poems that he later set to music. 

While the elegance of Machaut's courtly art may at first seem difficult to reconcile with the rustic assertiveness of an Irish hand drum, I find that this intersection of cultures and eras is appropriately contemporary without disrespecting the heritages from which I have drawn.

Rendition (2006)

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the CIA instituted a program of extraordinary rendition, wherein foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activity were detained, without legal process, and then covertly transported to countries where regulations for interrogation were less stringent than those imposed the United States or completely absent. The program was dramatically escalated after the September 11 attacks and has been defended vigorously by the Bush administration. Former CIA agent Robert Baer describes renditions bleakly: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt."

The etymology of "extraordinary rendition" can perhaps be traced to the meaning of the verb rend: to tear, to remove from a place by violence, to wrest. Other meanings include to tear (the hair or clothing) as a sign of anger, grief, or despair, to lacerate with painful feelings, and to pierce with sound.

Trespass (2005)

I have always been interested in boundaries, how they are created, and what happens when they are transgressed. While remaining within these divisions produces a more reliable and predictable experience, it is only by crossing them that one gains the hindsight of where one has been and the knowledge of what lies beyond them. On the other hand, the forceful occupation that results from breaching these boundaries may have a different destabilizing effect, one that throws established norms into uncertain, sometimes violent flux. 

My composition for piano and chamber ensemble establishes formal boundaries between thirteen telescoping sections, each slightly more than half the length of its immediate predecessor. The opening, longer sections contain several contrasting subsections that are united by the necessary relief that they provide through internal proportional and tensional balance. As the later sections are radically diminished in length, their contents — some of which have been displaced from previous sections — become more homogenous and the juxtapositions between them are intensified. This formal contraction produces an implosive momentum that brings the work to its turbulent conclusion. 

Trespass was commissioned by the Oberlin Conservatory Contemporary Music Division, was written for the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Timothy Weiss, Director, and is dedicated to Marilyn Nonken.

A Fractured Silence (2004)

A Fractured Silence is a set of six brief vignettes that provide multiple perspectives on limited material. The work was commissioned by the Prism Saxophone Quartet for its twentieth anniversary and is dedicated to Nick Winter and Seong Chun in celebration of their marriage.

Mirror-glass skyscrapers (2004)

A companion piece to Performance, Mirror-glass skyscrapers follows its predecessor directly when performed. While the vocal setting contains novel material, all the piano music, with the exception of a brief solo and a momentary appearance of a truly polyphonic texture, is derived from the earlier work. Mirror-glass skyscrapers was written for Mary Nessinger, to whom it is dedicated.

16 (2003)

The work's title refers to the sixteen words that should have been excised from George Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." This false claim illustrates the policy of deceit typical of the morally impoverished current administration. As an artist angered and ashamed by my country's actions, my deepest response is expressed in my work and my faith in art's ability to contribute to — if not transform — society.

Reul na Coille (2002)

My concerto for percussion and orchestra is named for the Scottish Highlands flower known, like the concerto’s dedicatee, as much for its uniqueness as for its rare beauty. The literal translation of the Gaelic, "star of the wood," is further testimony for the flower’s exceptional splendor. 

The work opens like the flower’s unfolding pedals, with a delicate sound that expands outwards. As the piece grows, the sound is transformed in both density and color. Throughout the composition, I explored and reinterpreted the flower metaphor, seeking to mimic how complex and variegated structures spring organically from small yet fecund events. 

Performance (2001)

Performance was composed in response to a commission from "Works & Process" at the Guggenheim Museum to honor the work of Australian poet Les Murray. I chose this particular poem because of its exuberant celebration of virtuosity, its suggestive language, and its vivid stellar imagery, the latter being the inspiration for the pointillistic constellations in the piano music. Performance is dedicated to Mary Sharp Cronson in gratitude for her support of contemporary music.

Tongues (2001)

The title of this work refers to glossolalia, better known as "speaking in tongues," an ecstatic outburst of unintelligible vocal sounds that resembles spoken language. The vocal writing in Tongues evokes the volatile grip of possession that is said to hold the human vessels through which the divine or supernatural passes. In six sections that vary in instrumentation and character, the soprano articulates sounds that suggest the transformation from self-awareness to rapture. These sounds, not limited to phonetic utterances, often reflect the timbral properties of the accompanying ensemble. The soprano oscillates between influencing and imitating her instrumental counterparts, alternately supporting, amplifying, and leading the ensemble.

Dithyramb (2001) 

Dithyramb is an excerpt of a larger work, Tongues, which was inspired in part glossolalia, better known as “speaking in tongues”: an ecstatic outburst of unintelligible vocal sounds that resembles spoken language. The vocal writing in here evokes the volatile grip of possession that is said to hold the human vessels through which the divine or supernatural passes.

A Dithyramb is an ancient Greek hymn, sung in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and pleasure. Performances were said to be riotously ecstatic.

After Serra (2000)

Although connections between the American sculptor Richard Serra's monolithic, post-minimalist works and my music may not be immediately apparent, I seek to convey in sound the simultaneous imposition and precariousness that I perceive in his pieces.

Serra's sculptures overwhelm the observer with their massive dimensions and sharply defined form. At the same time, they appear as if they might, with the slightest disturbance, collapse. As Serra's work disrupts the observer's sense of physical balance, "After Serra" similarly intends to undermine the listener's sense of temporal stability. My composition attempts to thwart expectations of formal and gestural continuity, juxtaposing a volatile and restless surface with steadily unfolding underlying processes. 

Transience (1999)

Transience is music in a perpetual state of change. The title refers to its mercurial surface, whose materials, never able take root in their surroundings, exist only in the moment. They are pulled by the force of their own momentum into an ever-changing present, which itself is simultaneously destroyed and rejuvenated by the irrepressible flux of transformation.

The work's structure is bound not by referential motifs or programmatic formal designs, but by extended metastatic processes that motivate local and global changes in pitch, rhythm, dynamic, register, and melodic contour. The resulting developmental progressions are either linear, unfolding in a continuous fashion, or fragmented, featuring the rapid succession of disparate materials. In part, the drama of Transience depends on the listener's retrospective assessment of the diverse musical landscapes traversed. Yet the emotive power of Transience is also closely tied to the intense physical demands made upon the performer.

A Glimpse Retraced (1999)

The title of this concerto for piano with four instruments is a metaphor for its formal design: a fleeting observation, made in passing, is retraced and elaborated, then condensed and distilled.

The figurative glimpse is represented by an introductory section of brief ensemble episodes, which together feature all possible combinations of the four instruments -- from solo to quartet -- that accompany the piano solo. After all instrumental combinations are exhausted, more detailed sections follow that are themselves generated from the material of the opening episodes; and, with regard to their instrumental combinations, they appear in the same order. The most extended of these are duets between a single instrument and the piano, which offer the opportunity for a second soloist to emerge and a foil to the piano's relentless activity throughout the rest of the work. The finale, an extended cadenza, is animated by a structural process similar to that heard in the introduction and main body of the piece, but reversed: the piano reiterates a radically imploded version of its former material, concluding with the same music, further compressed and retrograded.

Polarities (1998)

Polarities is primarily concerned with various states of opposition: independence vs. subservience, accretion vs. degradation, expansion vs. contraction, and convergence vs. divergence. These oppositions are mediated by processes whose completion or disintegration mark formal boundaries within the work. The processes are themselves subject to interruptions, elisions, and sudden changes in velocity, resulting in interference patterns that skew the bearings of their kinetic momentum.

The clearest manifestation of these oppositions is the way in which instruments gather into groups and maintain their own independence. At times, an instrumental group may forcefully impose its identity on an instrument in another group, inspiring a defection. If an individual instrument's trajectory is unstable or weak, it may be subsumed by a group or drawn to another instrument. Conversely, a maverick instrument may break free from a group and stake its own musical pathway, even initiating the formation of a new instrumental group.

These oppositions, which inform the work's dramatic character and influence its underlying processes, never completely polarize the musical environment. Rather, they animate a discourse of conflict and struggle, a conflict that, at the work's end, has failed to be resolved.

Paths of Resistance (1997)

The dramatic tension in Paths of Resistance results from the thwarting and redirection of musical trajectories. Specific structural elements, which remain invariant throughout the work, recur in different and contradictory contexts, forging pathways through the densely polyphonic environment. In Paths of Resistance, the surface conflicts occur within the constraints of a formal design which bisects the musical flow into proportionally related time spans. The durations of these spans are embedded in several temporal strata, providing the palpable self-similarity, with regard to formal continuity, which underlies the work's volatile exterior.

Echoes' White Veil (1996)

This work was inspired substantially by W.S. Merwin's prose poem, "Echoes." It reads:

Everything we hear is an echo. Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings. But not everyone realizes that as a result silence becomes harder and harder for us to grasp„though in itself it is unchanged„because of the echoes pouring through us out of the past, unless we can learn to set them at rest. We are still hearing the bolting of the doors of Thermopylae, and do not recognize the sounds. How did we sound to the past? And there are sounds that rush away from us: echoes of future words.

So we know that there are words in the future, some of them loud and terrible. And we know that there is silence in the future. But will the words recognize their unchanging homeland?

I am sitting on the shore of a lake. I am a child, in the evening, at the time when the animals lose heart for a moment. Everyone has gone, as I wanted them to go, and in the silence I call across the water, "Oh!" And I see the sound appear running away from me over the water in her white veil, growing taller, becoming a cloud with raised arms, in the dusk. Then there is such silence that the trees are bent. And afterwards a shock like wind, that throws me back against the hill, for I had not known who I was calling.

Tangled Loops (1996)

As its title implies, a characteristic of this composition is the irregular return of material. Specific gestural and harmonic elements can be heard cycling through the work and unifying disparate musical sections through their reappearance. Their repetition, however, is rarely exact; certain features of the returning music are reconfigured. Rather than recurring periodically, the reiterations occur at uneven intervals, at times overlapping, other times embedded within one another. This compositional strategy is the premise for the work's formal design, which distributes material in complex and unpredictable loops.

Cuts (1996)

Cuts is a compositional etude of singular focus. Throughout this work, harmonic, rhythmic, and textural characteristics remain invariant, while the music's registral, dynamic, and timbral aspects witness continual mutation. The first minute of Cuts presents basic materials, and the remaining music is realized through their temporal, directional, and parametrical redistribution. Cuts is also an etude for the performer, as a certain virtuosity is required to bring the changing details of the musical surface into relief.

Flux (1994)

As the title suggests, Flux is in a perpetual state of transformation. Although there are passing moments of relative stability, the music never finds lasting repose. This surface volatility is balanced by clear trajectories toward registral areas or textural densities that provide continuity and define the work's large-scale structure. Flux also pays homage to Elliott Carter's life and work and includes veiled references to his miniature masterpiece Enchanted Preludes.

Excelsior ab Intra (1994)

Excelsior ab Intra was composed for a concert that took place at the Abbaye de Royamont, in Asnières-sur-Oise, near Paris. The thought of writing a work for a vocal quartet that was to be premiered in a 13th-century abbey inspired me to look back, once again, to the Medieval composers whom I so admire. While none of the techniques I used to compose the present work are directly related to Medieval practice, I attempted to evoke the bracing "friction" between coinciding materials that I sense in Medieval art.

Multiplicities (1993)

In this piece the flute, usually only responsible for projecting a single line, assumes multiple melodic responsibilities. Three individual lines stake their own pathways through an array of harmonic, registeral, dynamic, rhythmic, and articulative trajectories while simultaneously intermingling with one another. As such, the surface at times implies notes continuing while other lines, often violently, interrupt them. While the middle line remains intact throughout, the upper and lower lines shift their parametric assignments within the piece and return to the their original formation for the closing, which finds the polyphonic totality slowly transforming into a more homogeneous whole.