ASSORTEDSUBJECTS was commissioned by The New Juilliard Ensemble and premiered on November 8, 2011, in Alice Tully Hall, conducted by Joel Sachs.
Assorted Subjects comprises three movements, each of which takes a different basic shape and idea, musical or otherwise. Together, these movements express the gist of my obsessions in 2011. “Lilt” encompasses a tripping rhythmic quality and blocks of harmony; “Welded Angel” covers an ethereal junkyard in which strewn slivers and threads lead to an ephemeral sculpture, inspired by the work of a North Carolinian welder-artist; and “Ghost Dance” takes a motive from a Math-rock band called Hella and charts it in a rapid procession of growing variations, leading to a ecstatic view of the original.
(excerpts of the piece were also read by the Juilliard orchestra before the première)
This piece was commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, and funded in part by the Composer Assistance Program of the American Music Center. It was premiered by the Albany Symphony and music director David Alan Miller on March 12, on a concert with John Corigliano’s percussion concerto. The orchestra was filled with good people who did a gorgeous job with a tricky new piece. Here’s my program note:
I used to doubt artists who claimed geography as an influence on their work. I could understand a drummer going to Africa to learn about Zambian traditions, or a dancer studying with an Indonesian master, but couldn’t an artist working in Paris make his work in London, Rome, or Miami? However, after moving my country-Alaskan self to New York City, I became interested in opposing traits that occur in traffic: the fleet skittishness of people dashing through the crowded sidewalk, and the tumbling quality of vehicles in dense traffic. In using these characteristics to produce a musical impression of the city, I have to admit that location inspired my work. I didn’t set out to make a programmatic piece—a story that could be filmed—but even so Travel Lightly feels like a celebration of places I love, and a comment on the things we carry with us through ever-changing environments.
Ceilings is the winner of an ASCAP Morton Gould Award and the 2010 Juilliard Orchestra Competition, and it was premiered by the Juilliard Orchestra. This excerpt occurs near the end of the piece.
Heine, Heinrich, 1797–1856
The title of this orchestral work comes from a scene in the film, Water Lilies: the main character has learned that the last thing people see before they die is imprinted on their retinas, and she surmises that there must be a lot of people with ceilings in their eyes. I thought this was a compelling image for the piece, suggesting to me the personal limitations we all face our entire lives.
From the opening, ascending rush in the orchestra, I establish a split between big, expressive music, and small, introverted gestures. The music grows out of small-group textures, introducing long, expansive lines in the strings, pushing the expressive limits of the piece. But the momentum disappears prematurely, and the music reverts to fragments played by small groups of musicians. The final peak is by far the biggest, gaining significant momentum, but it too precedes a sudden collapse of intensity. The piece finishes with an echo, a final swell in the strings, with the ceiling in view.
All the violins are silent
That impelled our feet to dancing,
To the giddy dance of passion–
Silent are the violins.
Clip performed by the American Composers Orchestra, May, 2008
I’ve always enjoyed playing with ragtime rhythms on the piano: the left hand gets even notes, while the right hand fills in the time with lots of notes going at twice the speed of the left hand. And I love how musical styles get misappropriated over time. Mozart’s popular singspiels—read: commercial—become quintessential high art. Baroque dance music turns into meditative, relaxing music.
So I wrote this orchestra piece to express my fondness for ragtime rhythms and to deliberately misappropriate ragtime style. The harmonic progressions certainly aren’t classic ragtime. A huge orchestra is not ragtime. And what violence?
Commissioned by the New York Choreographic Institute. Studio recording made by Aaron Thomas Patterson, s.sax, Jay Rattman, a.sax, Elizabeth Derham, vln., Isabel Gehweiler, vc., Çağdaş Özkan, celesta.
Set in three compact movements, this ballet, choreographed by Justin Peck, adapts qualities of the cuisine and design elements of three distinct restaurants in New York City. Momofuku Ssäm Bar is built on simple combinations of unusal elements, WD-50 deploys opposites to trick the senses, and Roberta’s revels in the earth and the recycled. The title, Mise-En-Place, is a culinary phrase, meaning everything in place.
full recording from concert in Portland, ME, December, 2012
When I studied film scoring in my first grad days, I took an audio processing class and converted bit rates and listened to a lecture by John Chowning (the legendary man responsible for audio synthesis by frequency modulation, all your MIDI sounds, and collaterally, everything by Mannheim Steamroller!) that both overwhelmed and fascinated me. Audio synthesis and frequency modulation are processes by which one creates sound molecules from atoms; you add sine waves to square waves, multiplied by triangles, etc… I haven’t actually done that much with electronic music since, but I have always been fascinated by these simple wave forms and feel an irrational affection for their shapes.
So I made this piece, called Abiding Shapes, as a sort of pageant about these simple waveforms with sections devoted to sawtooth, square, and sine waves.
Japanese-translated chart. Nobody calls it a “ramp wave”
I tried, as much as possible, to imbed little dynamic triangles, sines, and squares (loud-to-silent, soft-loud-soft, etc.) into bigger ones to honor these shapes at every level.
Flutist Daniel James commissioned this work and premiered it on September 17, 2011 at the Juilliard School with Jocelin Pan on viola and Michelle Gott on harp.
Gossiping involves everything I want in chamber music: secretive conversation, gleeful indulgence, mockery, cruelty, misery, and further amusement. The cyclic nature of the practice—as in, secrets are fun until they hurt someone, and fun again when one forgets about the sting—informs the structure of the piece. In Part I, a persistent, jaunty gossip element alternates with lyrical passages and whispery exchanges among the instruments. Part 2 is steely, severe, full of sinking harmony, but of course the perky stuff creeps back in.
NoiseBox premieres the piece at the Gershwin Hotel on January 12, 2012
In the land of unpitched percussion (instruments of indefinite pitch) dynamics and pitch contour prevail. Here, each player has a collection of five primary instruments, outlining an even, low-to-high pitch contour; the drums occupy the low register, and the wood instruments occupy the high register. Though none of the instruments used in this piece is “pitched,” the entire collection constitutes a wide, graded pitch spectrum—from the deep kick drum to the piercing deskbells—suitable for recognizable themes.
Light and competitive, Rounds & Bells begins with a theme stated in perfect unison by the players, which is then subjected to all sorts of canonic imitation. First come the rounds, led by alternating players at various distances. This is followed by desk bells, almost like boxing bells or ringing chess clocks, which the players use to strike at each other. Later come further, polyrhythmic canons, in which one player runs circles around the other, tapping out the theme in a different tempo, leading up to a photo finish.
excerpt from the studio recording. David Kaplan, harpsichord; Hassan Anderson, oboe; Stuart Stephenson, trumpet; Lee Jarzembak, tuba; Conrad Winslow; conductor
I wrote a dance score for choreographer Zack Winokur, performed at Lincoln Center in December 2010, which features a trumpet, oboe, tuba, and amplified harpsichord, a deformed Monteverdi prologue, surround-sound, and a girl in a balloon dress. The dancers were incredible.
Here is the video of Chariot: (This will play in iTunes if not in your browser.)
Performed by the Guidonian Hand at The Juilliard School
This piece bears a loose relation to my parrot Charlie, who talks a lot but actually communicates his various emotional states by dilating—called pinning—his eyes. Seeing a bird’s eye go from pinhole to gaping black hole and back again was always captivating to me. It’s a bit unsettling to see for the first time, especially when you don’t know what he’s trying to say.
I wrote the piece with these memories and images. Pinning alternates between longing, lyrical lines and muscular, rhythmic interplay. In the most introverted moments in the piece, the players perform multiphonics; trombones one and two hold notes on their instruments while singing bits of a lyrical theme. A pair of unmuted trombones then signal the return of vigorous rhythmic material and the pinning-eye gestures from the beginning.
This excerpt comes from the last section of the piece.
A percussion, violin, and double bass trio is an unusual ensemble. There are unique challenges for the unamplified group: the bass must project to match the volume of the violin and percussion; the strings must match pitch (which can be more difficult when the pitch of the bass is often far from the violin); and the percussion must balance with the strings.
I heard “You Can Just Park Right Here” perform a Wuorinen trio for the combination and I was astounded by their ability to deal with these challenges with muscular flair. Matt Donello, the percussionist, asked me to write something for the group, and I said yes, knowing I wanted to explore bass technique, to work with kitchen percussion (pots-and-pans-type sounds), and to create an overall “earthy” sound world in a chamber ensemble. So I wrote a piece in which the strings often dispense with the silken approach of a Classical chamber ensemble in exchange for rugged and sometimes unruly sounds.
The structure for Getting There is largely characterized by rhythmic profile: the piece moves from regular, insistent pulse in the beginning to slower, fragmented rhythms in the middle, to regular pulse again. I accompany each shift in the piece with changing percussion sounds—drums, metal, ceramics, then drums again.
“Electroacoustic” music can mean several things. It can refer to a piece involving mic’d and live-manipulated instruments, electronic instruments performed live with an acoustic ensemble, or acoustic work performed with a prerecorded electronic part.
This third way is how I use electronics in my piano trio, Slippery Music. I like to write electronic music with Logic instruments, and here I’ve created a prerecorded electronic part which begins and ends the piece. The violin and cello instruments mimic the sliding sonorities and glitchiness of the electronic part in the episodic middle sections, while the piano’s staccato punctuations support the action of the strings.
In It’s Mutual, a marimba soloist leads a trio of percussionists, performing mostly on unpitched wood and skin instruments, through a series of volatile textures and rhythms. The material in the other percussion instruments often reflects the music of the marimba, but only in general, up-and-down, loud-soft contours.
I wrote this piece with the idiomatic marimba techniques I love. Because the marimba notes decay so quickly, I prefer harmonic progression by suggestion and arpeggiation over insistent, rolled four-note chords. Marimba notes have a characteristic and beautiful attack, so I use uneven groups of repeated notes punctuated by strong accents throughout the piece. Grand, five-octave marimbas—such as the one used in this piece—also have a unique property: the lowest notes produce more than one tone. They sound the fundamental deep pitch, but they also produce a clear tone much higher than the actual pitch of the rosewood bar: this ghost note is called an overtone. With this attribute in mind, I wrote melodies in the middle part of the piece that chain together high pitches with the overtones of the low pitches. This delicate section then gives way to exuberant music, clangorous at the climax, before closing as it began, with the marimba alone.
Avigail Bushakevitz and Yo-yo Fann, violin, Joan Topper, viola, Jay Campbell, cello, Eric Lamm, bass, and Trevor Doherty, samples, Conrad Winslow, conductor
This piece began as a small melody/harmony essay, a “chill pill” assignment from my teacher, really. But what came out isn’t that; instead, the piece has an agenda, and a real climax! Now, I recoil at Vesuvius melodrama, but I can get into a good dramatic peak. And for too long I’ve half-committed to climaxes in dramatic music, so it feels right to have one here.
Nevertheless, it’s still a harmonic piece which represents a good sample of my view of tonal harmony. Using three darkly-voiced chords, introduced at the beginning, I play with unresolved notes in otherwise neatly sewn chord progressions. Through its four connected sections, I explore different aspects of the harmonic language: chords alone, chords under a melody, chords in airy harmonics, and chords broken into independent voices.
In addition to the string quintet, there are a number of electronic samples which are triggered individually by a player, allowing the group to play with a flexible tempo.
Jing Yang plays the piece in Paul Hall at the Juilliard School in April 2011.
All Rise is a piece obsessed with ascension, prolonged lyrical lines and increasingly-prominent pulsing chords. The form is simple: thrice it goes up, then it goes down, growing to a climactic end. The origin is less so. I wrote all my childhood pieces for the piano, but I’ve avoided it in recent years for a silly reason. Since I often used the piano as a pitch machine and nothing more, I came to regard the piano timbre as an invisible sound, like a stage scrim on which other colors were projected. I took this piece as a challenge to listen to the piano again, to savor the power and charm of the piano’s enormous expressive range. It is dedicated to my teacher, John Corigliano, who stretched me as an artist as much as I stretched the melodic lines in this piece.
Carla Jablonski, soprano; Paulina Simkin, piano; Le Poisson Rouge, May 2, 2010
Carla Jablonski, mezzo-soprano
The text for this song comes from a large poem cycle by Sarah Kate Moore, called The Song Sings Itself. A contemporary gloss on the Eurydice and Orpheus myth, this work retells the Orpheus myth from the various perspectives of the women in Orpheus’ life. The excerpt used in the song comes from Eurydice’s chapter, where Orpheus is a rock star-like figure, irresistible and unfaithful.
The three sections of the song deal with initial love and infatuation; mid-relationship disappointment; and spite and bitterness at the end of their earthly relationship.
(2012) organ and percussion (samples), 12 minutes
This work renders the collision and joining of sustained organ chords with deep-layered, polyrhythmic sound effects. Many of the rhythms in the piece—some resembling idling engines—were developed using MIDI-generating software and Euclidean geometry.
I created this piece with five electronic instruments, in the fall of 2009. There are two similar episodes in this track, suggesting the idea of a recurring series of events—sleep phases or whatever; I wasn’t scientific about it.
This is a short piano+violin+cello+double bass interlude, written along several song arrangements for a show at Brooklyn’s Death By Audio, in the fall of 2009. The chords in the middle of the interlude form the basis of a composition for string quintet and electronic textures called Nearly Resolved Chords.
I wrote several jingles for Sirius radio, for their show “Doctor Radio.” I am told they used one for a promotional spot, though I never heard it on the air. Miniature compositions are fun to make! The material’s got to stand up immediately, do its business and go away. At the very least, it’s a fun exercise in production.
I played and wrote with the experimental rock band dodger from 2002–2007. We wrote weird music, rooted in 60s melodic sensibilities, theatre of the absurd, and a tendency to favor dense instrumentation. Matt Kamm (aka Telethon Veginald Cheeseburger) set the vibe for the band, Phil McCombs loved every bass line he wrote, Miguel Miranda and then Jeff Ilgenfritz (of Mumpsy) played drums, and multi-instrumentalist and composer Sean Moore wrote and recorded violins, trumpets, and vocals.
I love the collaborative approach to writing because your ego must absent itself. You can’t walk into an arranging job, for example, with the attitude of owning the piece; it doesn’t work. It’s liberating then, because you have to serve the project. Everyone involved must refer to a common tone.
This track, “The Organ Grinder” is a good example of that type of process. It was through-composed by all of us. Matt came in with a skeleton for a song, and we each wrote (recorded) sections of the song, and built the song out from that. This is maybe my favorite track we did.
I arranged and orchestrated this show, commissioned by the co-creator of the Blue Man Group, about two 14-year old girls who fall in love at a Christian summer camp. It received an extraordinary showcase production in the legendary La Mama experimental theatre club, the last production approved by founder and oracle, Ellen Stewart, before her death. The actors were so perfectly cast that it was beautiful and strange.