||Linke Hand eines Apostels for harpsichord and ensemble (ob, bcl, bn, tbn, perc, gtr, pno, 2vn, va, vc, db)
Commissioned by the Riot Ensemble, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and BBC Radio 3
Duration: ca. 20′
Premiere: Goska Isphording (hps), Riot Ensemble / Aaron Holloway-Nahum – 16 November 2019, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Huddersfield, UK
Linke Hand eines Apostels (“Left hand of an apostle,” after a sketch by Albrecht Dürer for a small but central detail of a large and spectacular altarpiece, attending feverishly to details of vein, bone, skin, draped folds of cloth, and an almost painful-looking torsion of joints and knuckles–details largely lost in the oil painting that resulted; but here highlighted and exaggerated with a feverish and ultimately unproductive intensity) is written for harpsichord and twelve instruments, among them an obbligato violin and a larger and mostly inactive concertante group of guitar and percussion: proceeding, after an initial fruitless and immediately evaporating burst of articulatory energy, along a thin, frail, friable, unreliable thread, about nineteen minutes long, a single torqued and flexed line.
The harpsichord is a soloist not by virtue of density of rhetoric or soloistic vigor but merely from the sheer unavoidable fact of its mechanism, whose particularities and interior personality dictate the material of the solo part, and a pair of spare, silence-filled cadenzas. The whole work, because of the harpsichord, is about tensed strings, frail resonances, and hammered attacks: an extremely quiet, disappearingly unstable fantasia on what makes the harpsichord possible.
Notable among the opening weekend’s premieres were the St Paul’s Hall performance by the Riot Ensemble under Aaron Holloway-Nahum, of the American Evan Johnson’s curious, minutely gestic Linke Hand eines Apostels — a kind of concerto for a harpsichordist (Goska Isphording) who no sooner starts playing than seems to want to stop. — Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
||mon petit pleurant for piano
||Plan and section of the same reservoir for soprano saxophone, percussion and piano
Commissioned by Trio Accanto with funding from the Siemens Music Foundation and the Luxembourg Philharmonie
Duration: ca. 15′
Premiere: Trio Accanto – 11 February 2020, Luxembourg Philharmonie, Luxembourg
Several canons, as usual; several scrims laid over them: some general (atmospheric, constant), some of varying subjectivities, physicalities, modes of rhetoric: stuttering, breathing, scraping, whistling. “Plan and section”: i.e. a pale, colorless, wavering, stumbling surface, seen from above, or maybe from the side.
||in nomines (1-4), surrogates, limbs, etc. for clarinet and string trio
For Distractfold :: Duration: ca. 33′
Four readings of Taverner’s famous “In nomine”, the one from the “Benedictus” of his Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas; joined, overlaid, expanded and troped with surrogates, recirculating rereadings, and limbs, momentary expansions, hesitations, gettings lost, forgettings: the whole rendered in the faintest, most indistinguishable grays and off-whites on old, tattered, worm-eaten paper.
||measurement as contrition: three canons for orchestra (184.108.40.206 220.127.116.11 hp 3perc 10.10.10.6.4)
Duration: ca. 17′
Premiere: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (cond. Ilan Volkov) – 6 May 2018, Tectonics Festival, Glasgow, Scotland
Gregory the Great’s Homilies on the Prophet Ezekiel include extended discourses on the penitential act of measuring the dimensions of the prophet’s imagined citadel: a physically impossible space. ‘Look upon divine realities,’ writes Gregory, ‘and yet remember your human limitations.’1
measurement as contrition is an inaccessible, distant, privately meditative hovering over the measurement of spaces and the weighing of volumes. Most of the volumes here are empty or nearly so, their boundaries suggested extremely faintly; the spaces are negative. The orchestra is there, in large part, as potential, an outer bound.
Some of these spaces contain fragments from Matteo da Perugia’s chanson “Le grant desir”, but they have been wiped almost entirely away.
1 Translated by Mary Carruthers; see her The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge UP: 1998), p. 242.
|| qu’en joye on vous demaine for piano
|| Wolke über Bäumen for violin (with gut strings and baroque bow)
|| Rückenfigur for tuba
|| dozens of canons: Anaîs Faivre Haumonté for cello
for Séverine Ballon :: Duration: ca. 8′
Premiere: Séverine Ballon – 15 April 2016, Tectonics Festival, Reykjavik, Iceland
Georges Seurat, Anaïs Faivre Haumonté sur son lit de mort (1887):
A silent, intimate scene, poorly lit, with key details – … the face, the (presumably) interlaced fingers, the crucifix … — hard to discern, lost to a deliberate technique and its limited means: a small drawing not meant to reveal itself to passing spectators.
There are, in fact, dozens of canons here, some of them expansive, many quite tiny, all of them compressed to a private hovering within inches of the performer’s body and her instrument: sieved through a formal progression that refuses to support them, and refuses to settle into a forward motion, but rather offers a series of suspended tableaux: each filled with tiny, indiscernible motions, balances, weights, gaps, attractions and repulsions. Maybe a series of epilogues.
|| indolentiae ars, a medium to be kept for 9-key 'Stadler' basset clarinet
Commissioned by MusikFabrik for Carl Rosman :: Duration: ca. 20′
Premiere: Carl Rosman – 15 February 2016, “Montagskonzert in der Musikfabrik”, Cologne, Germany
‘twas Germanicus’ advice of old, that we should not dwell too long upon our passions, to be desperately sad, immoderate grievers, to let them tyrannize, there ‘s indolentiae ars [an art in suppressing grief], a medium to be kept: we do not (saith Austin) forbid men to grieve, but to grieve overmuch.
— Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. 2, Sec. 3, Mem. 5: Cure of Melancholy – Remedies against Discontents
Not grief so much as duration, which can amount to the same thing: the challenge of an old, obsolete instrument, limited in some respects, impossibly flexible in others, and possessing ghosts of a specific musical rhetoric, confronted with a large space to fill, a number of strategies attempted, circled back upon, rejected, various stubbornnesses indulged, digressions pursued, durations confronted and deferred.
One of those stubbornnesses is that of Robert Grosseteste, whose treatise De luce is also about the filling of spaces physical and rhetorical, with its imagined spheres and its hysterically repetitive phraseology:
Ex his patet, quod denarius sit numerus universitatis perfectus, quia omne totum et perfectum aliquid habet in se sicut formam et unitatem, et aliquid sicut materiam et binarium, et aliquid sicut compositionem et ternarium, et aliquid sicut compositum et quaternarium. Nec contingit ultra haec quattuor quintum addere. Quapropter omne totum et perfectum est decem. His autem manifestum est, quod solae quinque proportiones repertae in his quattuor numeris unum, duo, tria, quattuor aptantur compositioni et concordiae stabilienti omne compositum. Quapropter istae solae quinque proportiones concordes sunt in musicis modulationibus, gesticulationibus et rythmicis temporibus.
Explicit tractatus de luce Lincolniensis.
|| vray dieu d'amours / vray dieu d'amours for horn
Commissioned by Samuel Stoll :: Duration: ca. 6′
Premiere: Samuel Stoll – 21 April 2015, Leipzig, Germany
Vray dieu d’amours is a simple, lovely , essentially homophonic chanson in four voices by the Flemish composer Matthaeus Pipelare (c. 1450-1515), which was popular enough to be quickly recast around 1500 by Jean Japart as a macaronic contrafactum in the form of a litany: Vray dieu d’amours / Sancte Johannes baptista / Ora pro nobis. This piece is a modest collection of shadows left by both of these works laid atop one another, collecting scraps in the form of a hermetic, private practice, to which the instrument is a more or less awkward, more or less insistent mediator, which misses entirely some things that transpire and throws perhaps too much weight behind others. We only see what comes through.
||three reversed movements, to bring destroyed objects back to life for piano
For Michael Finnissy :: Duration: ca. 4′
Premiere: Michael Finnissy – 20 August 2014, Doncaster, UK
A small set of motions, extremely, painfully private, miniature rituals.
||inscribed, in the center: '1520, Antorff' for string quartet
Commissioned by the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt for the MIVOS Quartet :: Duration: ca. 11′
Premiere: MIVOS Quartet – 5 august 2014, Darmstadt Summer Courses, Germany
During his storied visit to Antwerp in 1520-21, Albrecht Dürer made a sketch of fishing boats pressed up against the harbor of the river Scheldt: a diagonal line of hulls, masts and riggings, getting denser as they recede from the picture plane until they are little more than a tangle of lines. Loosely mirroring the boats, on the right side of the drawing, are the maritime buildings on shore, the counting-house, towers, walls, which—strangely—are rendered more finely and closely the further away they are from the viewer. The point at which these two nearly perpendicular diagonal axes meet is a riot of indiscernible detail.
Everything else is negative space: the land itself is just blank whiteness, as is the sky, as is the water. The narrow band of fine detail in this mostly rapidly sketched drawing is hemmed in from all directions, but more than that, it is infiltrated, eaten away from within, rendered indistinct by the actively pressing weight of the untouched expanses of paper delimiting it.
Active negative space is the material of this quartet: the silences and large-scale inactivities, of course, but also the pervasive presence of hair’s-breadth separations, vacancies, pressurelessnesses: the sounding of the instruments is not an expression of force or the presentation of material but its overcoming.
||my pouert and goyng ouer for baritone, bass clarinet, trumpet and trombone
Commissioned by loadbang :: Duration: ca. 9′
Premiere: loadbang – 10 may 2014, DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York, NY
From the second version of the Wycliffe Bible (ca. 1402), Lamentations 3:19, 29:
Zai. Haue thou mynde on my pouert and goyng ouer.
Joth. He schal sette his mouth in dust, if perauenture hope is.
Badly lit, interiorized, atomized, fragmentary, mumbled, private and unclear: focused intently on the minor detail and on marginal, intermittently audible pressures.
||'atendant, souffrir', lists, little stars for two pianos
Commissioned by the TRANSIT Festival :: Duration: ca. 14′
Premiere: Ian Pace and Frederik Croene – 27 October 2013, TRANSIT Festival, Leuven, Belgium
The ground slides away: no zone of concentration holds for long: the interior intricacies of the key mechanism, its internal stops and half-arrested motions that yield the most intensely impalpable pianissimos if they succeed in sounding at all and make of the simplest figures a demanding, tensely and privately virtuosic exercise; the elided distinction between harmony, voicing and articulation; the air above this monstrous pair of machines keeping the two musicians farther apart than they’d like to be, a point halfway between them that neither can reach.
The piece begins with a proposal for how to proceed, and declines to accept it. Instead, a series of zero points are reached, inhabited, and abandoned, coalescing like hollow knots out of a long string of awkward, individuated gestures: lists, little stars, and waves of imbalance, and an increasingly tense and unstable dialogue of long silences. Hovering behind, its melodic material and harmonic predilections more or less graspable, sometimes, as fodder for a welter of momentary fragments of canons and figures, is Philopoctus de Caserta’s late fourteenth-century motet “En atendant souffrir m’estuet grief payne”. “Waiting, I must suffer great torments…”
||thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg for cello and high voice
||Largo calligrafico / 'patientiam' for baritone saxophone
For Ryan Muncy :: Duration: ca. 6′
Premiere: Ryan Muncy – 11 March 2013, University of Huddersfield, UK
Largo calligrafico / “patientiam” is a perforated gloss of an absent center. Ludwig Senfl’s haunting sixteenth-century tenorlied “Patientiam muss ich han” contributes background pitch structures, proportional matrices, formal guidelines, and large-scale gestural shapes, but the fluttering, intermittent, unstably more or less repetitive ornamental marginalia, forced through an instrument not given to fluttering, form a drifting supplement to all of that. It is not terribly clear, and it is an open question whether it would remind us of the song if it were there.
||Three in, ad abundantiam ('solo e pensoso') for two sopranos and alto
Commissioned by EXAUDI :: Duration: ca. 5′
Premiere: EXAUDI – 21 October 2012, Wigmore Hall, London, UK
I. “solo e pensoso” – ca. 12 canons
II. “la mia vita” – three madrigals
III. “et io con lui” – solo accompagnato
Three in, ad abundantiam – tentative supplements; insecure, mumbled marginalia to another work (vo mesurando for four high voices); three denied attempts at entry. Fragments of text from Petrarch: “Solo e pensoso,” a hymn in sonnet form to ineloquence and to refusal, which admits the possibility of communication only unwillingly, and only because communication is what happens.
“Alone and pensive…”; “my life, which is hidden from others…”; “with me, and me with it…”
score excerpt :: mp3 (Ekmeles, Brooklyn, NY, 2013)
vo mesurando for four high voices
Commissioned by EXAUDI :: Duration: ca. 5′
Premiere: EXAUDI – 23 October 2013, London, UK
If a madrigal is an unaccompanied chamber-scale vocal work, intimate, reliant on knife-edge unanimity of purpose and gesture, dedicated to the illustration and evocation of a poetic text, then vo mesurando is a madrigal. The Petrarch sonnet which lends detached phrases of its text, “Solo e pensoso,” describes an incommunicable state of inner torment, a compulsive evasion of connection and communication with humankind, and a denial of the possibilities of vocal eloquence—and so it is here. The material and energies of the work are private, quite often simply inaudible, and aimed if they are audible at a space as close to the singers as possible. The gently aggressive regularity of the gridded form; the fragmentary repetitions, sequences, and canons; the emergent shards of syllables and glimpsed phrases; these are all madrigalian figures that you are overhearing, but they are not for you.
||die bewegung der augen for nine instruments
Commissioned by Meet the Composer/Commissioning Music USA for Dal Niente :: Duration: ca. 13′
Premiere: Dal Niente – 24 July 2012, Darmstadt Summer Courses, Germany
die bewegung der augen is four small attempted mechanisms: provisional local regularities, tentative lattices of simultaneity, obstacles and ornamented planes, networks forming and diffusing; constellations of approaches to a hazy framework of durations, gestures, instrumental groupings, and sometimes harmonies. The constant tendency is to fade: into silence, into noise, into regularity, into impassivity. “The movements of the eyes”—among and between similar gestures, looping restatements, angled perspectival boundaries.
[ This work was awarded a Fellowship Prize at the 2012 Darmstadt Summer Courses. ]
||L'art de toucher le clavecin, 3: three sequences for piccolo with violin and percussion |
Dedicated to Richard Craig :: Duration: ca. 12′
Premiere: ensemble mosaik – 2 May 2012, Acht Brücken Festival, Köln, Germany
L’art de toucher le clavecin is the title of a famous instructional pamphlet by François Couperin, the master claveciniste of the French Baroque, which gives a concise but invaluable guide to interpretation, performance, and ornamentation of the singular keyboard music of that time and place.
The present series of works (a forthcoming piccolo solo, L’art de toucher le clavecin, 2 for piccolo with violin , and this trio) forms, I suppose, some sort of oblique homage to Couperin’s aesthetic of ornamented surface, of a simple ground-gesture that is forced to proliferate if it wants to inhabit a space. Most obviously, there is “melodic” ornamentation everywhere, not only where one expects to see it—in the form of trills, mordents, and other related figures adorning fundamentally simple gestures of pitch, bow, and breath—but also in the structure of the piece, which takes the form of a fitful and gap-filled flowering of a small stable of “stock figures.”
L’art de toucher le clavecin, 3 is based on the previously composed duo for piccolo with violin. The insinuating presence of the percussion is an excuse to disarm the forces that shape the duo into a singular whole. Instead, here is a collection of fragments, sorted into three separately programmed “sequences” and, within each sequence, separated by pauses or frozen events that disperse accumulated energies and enforce an uneasy calm. The spikes and eddies of the duo are smoothed out, replaced by a uniformly stifled dynamic level and a reduced sound palette, wiped over by sandblocks or gently articulated by muffled crotales and small wooden percussion, the regular pulses that were buried by figuration in the duet brought gently if vaguely to the fore.
The L’art de toucher le clavecin series was commissioned by Richard Craig and is dedicated to him, Karin Hellqvist, and Pontus Langendorf. Its composition was supported in part by funds provided by a Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship from the Rhode Island Foundation. L’art de toucher le clavecin, 3 was begun while in residence at Copland House, Cortlandt Manor, NY, as a recipient of the Aaron Copland Award.
score excerpt :: mp3 (ensemble mosaik, 2012 Acht Brücken Festival)
||A general interrupter to ongoing activity for solo voice (any type)
For Deborah Kayser :: Duration: ca. 5′
Premiere: Carl Rosman – 22 October 2011, Transit Festival, Leuven, Belgium
A general interrupter to ongoing activity is a study of the voice as an instrument that is uniquely capable of occluding itself. This occlusion takes place on a number of levels: the noisily tongue-blocked airflow of fricative and sibilant consonants, which comprise the fundamental sonic material of the piece; the diffusion of the text’s vowels into whistles and hisses, as more or less destructive background colorations; and the fragile compromises necessitated by an overloaded structure wherein almost every physical effort partially overwrites every other.
The result is a navigation of the boundary between audible and inaudible, communicable and private, vocal and muscular.
The text, an anonymous Middle English versification of a passage from Augustine’s Confessions, is meant as both an evocative epigraph and a source of occlusive possibilities and repetitive structures:
Thole [i.e., “wait”] yet, thole a litel
But yet and yet was endeles
And thole a litel a long wey is
score excerpt :: mp3 (Carl Rosman, 2011 Transit Festival)
||à un quart de voix for oboe, E flat clarinet and prepared cello
For ELISION, dedicated to Daryl Buckley :: Duration: ca. 3′
Premiere: ELISION – 6 December 2010, Kings Place, London
“à un quart de voix” – a particularly evocative and punishing performance indication from Hector Berlioz’s Nuits d’été (the fifth song, “Au cimetière”): “with a quarter of the voice,” not merely (as most translations of this phrase take it) “to be sung very softly,” but with a fierce sense of restraint, a strenuous physical effort towards the abdication of projective power.
This is a pair of movements of equal length, each comprising collections of approximately corresponding, approximately repetitive, approximately canonic melodic detritus in the winds over a faint grounding echo in a droning, staticky cello. It may be too much to imagine this piece as an homage to Berlioz’s ubiquitous, painfully expressive linear awkwardnesses…
score excerpt :: mp3 (ELISION, Kings Place, London, 2010)
||hwil for heavily muted piano
||émoi for bass flute
Commissioned by BMI and Concert Artists Guild, and written for Claire Chase :: Duration: ca. 9′
Premiere: Claire Chase – 8 March 2013, Roulette, Brooklyn, NY
émoi (esmai, confusion, agitation…) – dismay, “the most profound form of being disturbed in the dimension of movement” (Lacan); ex-magere, to deprive of powers, of strength, of energy; to make so it cannot be done. Et moi.
All of this is a way of approaching the two main concerns of this work, as of my work in general: the relationship of local musical material to unsuitable durational contexts, the inhibition, dismay, the deprivation of forced repetition, restatement, being bled into silence by durational pressure; and the instability of the exuberantly excessive notation’s relationship to instrument and to instrumentalist, the removal of mastery, a profound form of being disturbed. And moi: the performer and her instrument, the breath and throat that articulate everything.
Ground for contrabass clarinet
Commissioned by the City of Witten for the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2010 :: Duration: ca. 11′
Premiere: Gareth Davis – 25 April 2010, Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, Witten, Germany
Ground is a tracing of the 1933 Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler standard “Stormy Weather,” a meditation on the physical act of singing its melody, in the form of a single, awkward instrument’s attempt to capture the remarkable divagations of that melody, with the contrabass clarinet skimming fitfully over the surface as the tune proliferates into an overlapping, folded, canonic space that serves as a slippery ground.
This is an admittedly idiosyncratic approach to the request from Gareth Davis to write a work based on a tune from the Great American Songbook, insofar as it involves virtually no audible snippets of the melody in question. The most direct trace is in the form of the piece, its large-scale looping repetitions, which faithfully retraces the sectional pattern of the original. Otherwise, Ground operates in indirect homage to what is most interesting to me about the song: its pressure on the breath and on the lowest register, its repetitions, its aimless chromatic wanderings followed by plunging descents. It is an incredibly demanding melody, physically speaking, in a way that the suavity of a standard performance can barely contain. Ground is a record of what lies beneath.
score excerpt :: mp3 (Gareth Davis, 2010 Wittener Tage)
||L'art de toucher le clavecin, 2 for piccolo with violin
For Richard Craig :: Duration: ca. 8′
Premiere: Richard Craig and Karin Hellqvist – 17 November 2009, Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland
Recording: Richard Craig and Karin Hellqvist, Metier MSV 28517 [see “discography“]
L’art de toucher le clavecin is the title of a famous instructional pamphlet by François Couperin, the master claveciniste of the French Baroque, which gives a concise but invaluable guide to interpretation, performance, and ornamentation of the singular keyboard music of that time and place.
The present series of works (one for piccolo solo, this duet, and a third for piccolo with violin and percussion) forms, I suppose, some sort of oblique homage to Couperin’s aesthetic of ornamented surface, of a simple ground-gesture that is forced to proliferate if it wants to inhabit a space. Most obviously, there is “melodic” ornamentation everywhere, not only where one expects to see it—in the form of trills, mordents, and other related figures adorning fundamentally simple gestures of pitch and breath—but also in the structure of the piece, which takes the form of a fitful and gap-filled flowering of a small stable of “stock figures.”
The purest expression of the aesthetic of ornament in this work, though, is in the role played by the violin. Given its own, somewhat non-specific set of ad hoc notational conventions, the violin is always absolutely subordinate and reactive to the piccolo, in its shadow dynamically, gesturally and structurally, playing out a servile dedication to filling the spaces that the piccolo suggests and then abandons. The violin exists as ornamentor in a pure sense: it is an intermediary between the bare facts of recurrence, restatement and progression that the piccolo proposes as the structure of the work and a continuous temporal surface that it seeks to fill with gesture, to say nothing of lyricism.
||Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) for quarter-tone flugelhorn and alto trombone
For ELISION :: Duration: ca. 6′
Premiere: ELISION – 26 July 2009, Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, Australia
Recording: ELISION (Tristram Williams and Ben Marks), Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR03 [see “discography“]
This is an abbreviated, stunted, stifled, altogether more effortful sequel to the sixteen-minute Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint) for two bass clarinets (2008). Apostrophe 2 scavenges most of its pitch, durational, and structural material from its predecessor, but the three smoothly connected sections of Apostrophe 1 are recast as floating islands of forced-out ornament, its prevailing air of lyricism and gentleness replaced by feebleness and strain. This is an athletic piece, a physical piece, whose discomfort and urgency are evoked by the subtitle; but there is still a kernel of lyricism, of a recognizable relation between ornament and melody, and of a welter of hinted-at canons, near-canons, and repetitions that attempts to manage the unmanageable whole.
||Quintet, camera lucida for viola, cello, double bass, guitar and percussion
Commissioned by the Ensemblia Festival :: Duration: ca. 5′
Premiere: ART Ensemble NRW – 22 April 2009, Mönchengladbach, Germany
Roland Barthes is beside the point; I mean the camera lucida, the optical device that allows an image or scene to be superimposed upon a blank drawing surface for tracing purposes. Here, the two ensembles—the string trio basso and the guitar/percussion duet—are in a state of equilibrium, projected image upon blank surface, trading stripped-down, more or less repetitive gestures that each make their own attempts at transparency and traceability but are each also resigned to a fundamental obscurity that will not lift.
score (complete) :: mp3 (ART Ensemble NRW, 2009 Ensemblia Festival)
||Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint) for two bass clarinets
For ELISION :: Duration: ca. 18′
Premiere: ELISION – 7 August 2008, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
Apostrophein – to turn aside, to address another space, to create an exception to the parameters of discourse, to draw in something that was outside.
This piece emerged as an aside—an apostrophe—to a larger, hypothetical work-in-progress, a concerto for bass/contrabass clarinet and ensemble. It pinches off a small amount of material (defined not only as pitches and rhythms but also physicality, affect, range of motion, conception of the instrument) and then trips over it, tentatively embraces it, and twists it until it exhausts itself.
There is simultaneously too little and too much to work with: too little, probably, to sustain large-scale musical discourse as traditionally experienced; too much, though, for the instruments to handle comfortably, with intercrossing and superimposed lines redefining areas of impenetrable obstacles with unworkable solutions as musical material. Too little and too much, also, for the notational practices that are called into service: “complex” rhythms (tuplets, tuplets within tuplets, …) are stressed until they overlap, stretch, and fracture, uncoupling themselves from any coherent rhythmic context and becoming affective markers as much as metrical devices.
After the assaultive and intrusive form has had its way, what remains is only a reflection of a reflection and the second movement’s fitful and incomplete attempt at a reprise. Because of this aggressive structure, everything that is heard is approximately heard again; what began as fundamentally canonic evolved into a chaotic, bent, mutilated, often frenzied, multi-dimensional hall of mirrors that exists on the edge of audibility, “pressed tightly,” as the score indicates, “between two panes of glass.”
score excerpt :: mp3 (ELISION, Melbourne, Australia, 2008)
||Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894 for clarinet (with film)
For Joshua Rubin :: Duration: 4.5″ (yes, seconds)
Premiere: Joshua Rubin – 8 December 2007, Museum of the Moving Image, New York, NY
Written to accompany the film of the same name, also called “Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” recorded by W. K. L. Dickson.
||Positioning in Radiography for three toy pianos (one player)
For Isabel Ettenauer :: Duration: ca. 11′
Positioning in Radiography takes its title from a classic medical textbook, first published in 1939, discussing the ways in which a patient’s body is best manipulated for the acquisition of diagnostic radiographic imagery. It was a favorite source for the painter Francis Bacon, who found ample material there for his drawings and paintings of twisted, contorted, stressed bodies.
Strain and awkwardness are among the watchwords of this piece as well, because of the nature of the instruments involved: the relations between the performer and the frail, inconvenient instruments and between the complex, subtle, ramified musical material and the limited capacity of the instruments to convey it can be thus understood. The world inhabited by the musical substance exists in reference to that of a nobler but similarly limited keyboard instrument, the harpsichord, and in particular to the works of Johann Jakob Froberger; everything is ornament upon ornament, from the twisting local figuration to the overlaying of repetition and restatement. The disjunction between the finely tuned filigree (which itself struggles with a tendency towards obstinacy and zeroing-out of expressive content) and the rough, detuned bell-sounds of the instrument produces an unstable and uncomfortable situation, like a patient, neck bent, head pressed between heavy metal plates.
[ The composition of this work was supported in part by a fellowship from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. ]
Colophons ('That other that ich not whenne'), reflecting pool / monument (2006) for six voices and violin (or eight voices)
For James Weeks and EXAUDI :: Duration: ca. 8′
Premiere: EXAUDI – 28 November 2007, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland
The quite extraordinarily awkward title, which refers parenthetically to a Middle English lament that has nothing to do with the piece at hand, reflects this work’s status as companion piece to Dehiscences, Lullay (“Thou nost whider it whil turne”) (2005) for piano and cassette. In the piano piece, staticky noise drowns out almost all of the sounding results of the pianist’s activity; here the tables are turned, and a flickeringly unstable drone on a detuned low violin string sets an impossible standard of quietness and fragility for the ensemble of voices that accompanies it. An intermittently repeated, fluttery “signal” from the violin beats time, demarcating a form based on bent, folded and otherwise contorted proportional structures. The “reflecting pool / monument” is in the middle.
The text is two lines from the Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale: “Ye, for an heyre clowt to wrappe me” and “Lo how I vanysshe.” It is deployed mainly to mark preexisting repetitive and affective structures in the music, but I cannot pretend that these phrases were not chosen for their semantic content. Dehiscences, Lullay (the partner piece for piano and cassette) is dedicated to the memory of my father.
[ This work received a 2008 ASCAP / Morton Gould Young Composers’ Award. ]
score excerpt :: mp3 (EXAUDI, Elita Bungard, vn; Edinburgh, Scotland, 2007)
||down / among the altitudes for fifteen instruments
Dedicated to David Felder :: Duration: ca. 16′
Premiere: Slee Sinfonietta – 9 April 2009, SUNY Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
The title down / among the altitudes is taken from the book-length poem Anathemata by the Welsh poet David Jones. The passage from which the phrase in the title is taken describes, in a wide-ranging fashion typical of the poem, the changing of the Earth’s surface on a geologic time-scale as it intersects with the genius loci-based nature of native Celtic mythology – itself in turn a distorted reference to the Catholic Mass, around which the entire poem is somehow constructed.
All that aside, the present work is, in its first half (comprising the first movement), a similarly “geologic” endeavor. Very little happens on the large scale, and that which does happen takes place slowly, and within a strictly circumscribed zone: one unchanging tempo, a narrow (very quiet) dynamic range, a narrow (high) registral environment, and virtually without exception one single (undifferentiatedly active) texture. The focus of this movement is entirely on the fact of the entry and exit of various instrumental subgroups, and the various innate energies they bring to their own struggles with these restrictions. The piano and percussion (exclusively crotales, with the exception of a vibraphone passage near the beginning) play characterlessly and aimlessly throughout, grounding the music even more tightly around a single timbral strand.
The second half of the piece, comprising movements II through VI (which, theoretically speaking, together have a duration exactly equal to that of the first movement, and share an identical sequence of bar lengths and time signatures), is a spectacular explosion of this singularity and simultaneously an attempt to “fill in the gaps” that are an artifact of the eddies of local repetition that destroy much of the material meant to appear in the first movement. That material appears in these broken shards instead, placed in time where they ought to have appeared in the first movement, as the piece stumbles fitfully to a close. down / among the altitudes finally ends in exhaustion, as it manages, gasping, to present the last chord for which it is responsible.
||Stripe for vibraphone (with video by Ray Fulton)
For Will Redman and Joanna Raczynska :: Duration: 3’20”
Video premiere: 27 April 2005, SUNY Buffalo
Concert premiere: Michael Caterisano – 10 August 2007, Brooklyn Center for Contemporary Music, Brooklyn, NY
||Dehiscences, Lullay ('Thou nost whider it whil turne') for piano with cassette
For Sebastian Berweck :: Duration: 8′
Premiere: Sebastian Berweck – 16 February 2006, University of Redlands, CA
Dehiscence: the discharging of the contents of an organic enclosure by splitting along a natural seam.
Lullay: a soothing refrain, or a genre of medieval English poetry utilizing such a refrain, as to lull a child to sleep:
|Lullay, lullay, litel child,
thy fote is in the whele;
Thou nost whider it whil turne,
to wo other to whele.
|Lullaby, lullaby, little child,
Your foot is in the wheel;
You know not which way it will turn,
To misery or to prosperity.
||Reaktionmaschine for piccolo, violin, cello, piano and percussion
Dedicated to Eugenie Brinkema :: Duration: ca. 16′
Premiere: Ensemble SurPlus – 9 June 2005, June in Buffalo Festival, Buffalo, NY
Reaktionmaschine is derived from an earlier one-minute miniature for crotales entitled hyphen. In hyphen, I make use of the extremely resonant sound of the crotales to infiltrate, recharacterize and thus appropriate the silence that surrounds the piece’s brief duration. The music is very quiet throughout; but more importantly, there are large swaths of resonant silence in which harmonic detritus is left floating, redefining the lack of musical (notated, performative) activity as a primary locus of musical interest.
In Reaktionmaschine, the components of hyphen are dissected, “orchestrated” for the larger ensemble, and spread throughout the timespan of the work according to a scheme of layered proportional strata that infiltrates every temporal aspect of the music. And while there is no literal attempt to recreate the sheer sound of the originary work, the soundworld of the piece (with the strongest, most secure and most active sonic vocabulary at the top of the spectrum, becoming softer, more fragile, and less stable in the lower registers) is a direct response to the lopsided sonic profile of the crotales as a solo instrument. The silences of hyphen are reinterpreted both as detached events in their own right (witness the one-minute-long, scarcely active – but extremely intricately notated – cello solo a bit less than halfway through the second movement) and as pervasive sonic and gestural influences, giving the resulting larger-scale work a spare, fragile, continuously flickering presence.
The seven-minute econd movement of Reaktionmaschine is performable separately as Reaktionmaschine: II.
[ This work received the 2006 Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University. ]
||Line of Wreckage for string quartet
Dedicated to Aaron Cassidy :: Duration: ca. 6’30”
Premiere: Cantus Ensemble – 3 June 2007, Ensemblia Festival, Mönchengladbach, Germany
Line of Wreckage (the title is from a “non-site” artwork by the American land artist Robert Smithson) takes as its postulates a number of extremely limiting factors, several of which were chosen specifically to counteract intuitive tendencies in my own recent work. Most obviously, the hair of the players’ bows is loosened and as little rosin applied as possible, greatly compromising the dynamic and timbral range of the ensemble (and highlighting those actions, including col legno bowing, pizzicati, col legno battuto, etc. where the bowhair is not used); other restrictions, aimed against my own habits, include the stipulation that there is to be no silence in the music, a bias towards locally regular rhythmic impulses and “open” intervals, and an emphasis on repeated notes. In other ways, continuing interests of mine are manifest: an insistence on physical awkwardness and instability, a pronounced disconnect between the performers’ physical exertion and the sonic result, and the fundamental importance of proportional duration structures that have the potential to frustrate the local materials’ ability to fill them.
[ This work was shortlisted for performance at the 2007 Ensemblia Festival. ]
||clutch for violin
For Erik Carlson :: Duration: 1’15”
Premiere: Erik Carlson – 10 December 2005, Chelsea Art Museum, New York, NY
clutch was written for the New York Miniaturist Ensemble, which requires that works consist of 100 notes or fewer. It is rare for a composer to have such a rigid numerical stipulation, and, as much of my own compositional work is based on manipulations of various proportional structures, the a priori fact of 100-ness meant that a good deal of my work was done for me. This small piece is entirely based on the fact of its exactly 100 notes and two other axioms: a single 6:8 proportional division,whose multifarious ramifications completely provide the piece’s temporal and rhythmic structure, and the interval of the 11th, which has for years held for me a particular fascination, and which emerges in this piece as a result of the reuse of the pitch universe of the 2002 percussion work hyphen, also premiered by NYME.
score (complete) :: mp3 (Mark Menzies, Auckland, NZ, 2008)
||Supplement for bass clarinet
For Gareth Davis :: Duration: ca. 9′
Premiere: Gareth Davis – 15 October 2006, Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL
Supplement takes its title and genesis from the psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan’s exploration (in a wholly different context) of the distinction between the relations of “supplementarity” and “complementarity.” In concrete terms, the piece is a study in layered ornamentation, in concentric encrustations of material and of performative states that more often than not conspire to overwhelm and irretrievably distort that which is ornamented. There is too much material, too much reaction to and too much enthusiasm for that material; a basic melodic line is “supplemented” beyond recognition and beyond the capacity of a monophonic instrument to control it.
score excerpt :: mp3 (Richard Haynes, 2010 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival)
iij for SATB chorus
Duration: ca. 4′
Premiere: Fairfax (VA) Choral Society – 20 November 2005, Cathedral of St. Thomas More, Arlington, VA
iij is based on the “Benedictus” of Claudio Monteverdi’s Messe a quattro voci da cappella, published posthumously in 1650. The present work is a reflection on the strict, repeating three-part form of the Monteverdi, with its curiously weightless harmonic structure (g minor-D major; d minor-A major; g minor-D major) underpinning a simple descending melody; it consists of three pairs of identically structured, though differently proportioned, “chord progressions.”
Virtually every pitch in iij is taken directly from this “Benedictus,” but that is almost beside the point; rather, I have attempted to isolate and restate the striking formal aura of the Monteverdi, filtering it through my own compositional praxis of expanding and contracting proportional structures. Some of the held chords and silences are “too long,” creating a tension that inflects and underscores the beautiful disorientation borrowed from Monteverdi’s original.
The title is the indication used in medieval and pre-medieval chant manuscripts to signify three-fold repetition, e.g. of a Kyrie chant; the text is simply a threefold repetition of the word “Benedictus”.
||Ausschnitte for bass clarinet, violin and piano
Duration: ca. 3′
Premiere: Jean Kopperud, Movses Pogossian, Jacob Greenberg – 30 March 2004, SUNY Buffalo
The metaphor of viewing a solid object from different angles in three-dimensional space is an overused one in the discussion of musical form, but it is overused because it is apt. Because of the relentlessly linear canvas in which composers are forced to work, whether they call their forms “circular” or “spiral” or “nonlinear”, repetition is the only basic mechanism we have to expose and explore the various potentialities of a single material locus. Repetition, in Ausschnitte, is linearized heterophony.
Given the repetitive framework and the short duration of the piece, the “trailing-off” form seemed to me to be a necessity; the definite harmonic region expostulated by the piano in minutely different ways, followed inevitably by the lyrically unfocused, failed response in the other two instruments, is not so much an object in three-dimensional space but an object trailed by its anti-object, from which it will not be separated.
The title locates this small piece in a series of works reacting to paintings of Gerhard Richter.
[ This work received the 2007 Red Light New Music Young Composers’ Prize. ]
score excerpt :: mp3 (Echoi, Buffalo, NY, 2008)
||se relire contre le piano jouet for toy pianist (with music theatre directed by Richard Brunel)
Commissioned by the Fondation Royaumont :: Duration 20′ (theatre), 11′ (concert)
Premiere of theatrical version: Isabel Ettenauer – 4 October 2003, Abbaye de Royaumont, Asnières-sur-Oise, France
Premiere of concert version: Isabel Ettenauer – 4 April 2004, Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg, Austria
This piece was written not for but alongside the theatrical work of Richard Brunel. Our shared interest in the dramatic and structural implications of Oliver Sacks’ work with various neurological deficits resulted in parallel projects with strong conceptual ties: his dramatic, interpersonal, local; mine structural, abstracted, global.
More restrictive than the theatrical subject matter, compositionally speaking, was the instrumentation: a set of four toy pianos, two chromatic and two diatonic, belonging to Isabel Ettenauer. Along with its bizarre sound, out-of-tune and noisy, and its extremely limited pitch space, the toy piano brings with it a host of quasi-semantic associations – innocence and the loss thereof, youth and its opposite, naïveté and its opposite – which I resolved to leave to their own devices, accepting their affective influences as beyond my control and outside my sphere of interest. I wrote, then, “against the toy piano” (in the words of the title), seeking to externalize its restrictions in an ultimately destructive and futile rhetoric without recourse to their traditional redeeming affects. The intrusive noise of the instruments’ action, for example, is a key component of the work’s sound, to the extent that the almost overwhelming amount of detail notated in the score is not infrequently submerged by the shortcomings – that is to say, the features – of the instruments. And what on a well-tempered piano would be simple intervals – the octave, the fourth – are at key points lingered over and exposed in their detuned messiness.
So how does this music react to its theatrical surroundings? Among the touchpoints with Richard’s work was my own pre-existing formal strategy of the moment: the construction of an irregular set of miniatures, ranging in length from a few seconds to a few minutes, which revolve obsessively and frustratedly about a limited set of materials and in which the interstitial breaks assume their own problematically independent existence. The surface parallels to such neurological symptoms as echolalia, glossolalia, and “ticcing” are clear and potent in this context, and my goal was to use these features of my own aesthetic as an illustrative but also independent counterpoint to Richard’s dramatic miniatures.
(The actors in the first two theatrical performances were Geoffrey Carey and Jerôme Ragon.)
||Dehiscence, flottements for piano
For Ian Pace :: Duration: ca. 13′
Premiere: Ian Pace – 22 November 2007, Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik, Austria
I think of [Beethoven’s] earlier compositions where into the body of the musical statement he incorporates a punctuation of dehiscence, flottements, the coherence gone to pieces, the continuity bitched to hell because the units of continuity have abdicated their unity, they have gone multiple…
–Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Women
Writing program notes for this work in the summer of 2007, five years after I began working on it, is an unusual experience. In the aesthetic chronology of a young composer five years can be a very long time indeed, and I see Dehiscence, flottements purely in retrospect: as a strong, almost desperately flailing thrust towards a vaguely sensed constellation of compositional concerns that have guided all the work I have since produced. It is a zero point. The ostentatiously off-kilter movement lengths, which swing wildly between a handful of seconds and seven minutes, imposing a destabilizing unpredictability on the repetitive, static material; the ebb and flow of physicality and the choreography of the pianist’s gestures, which at the end of the piece wind up totally dominating the musical argument; the sheer stubbornness and extremity of the notational situations (the fifth movement, for example, is written on nine staves): reflected in this long-unperformed piece I see a 22-year-old composer staking out a variety of almost untenable claims, and almost inadvertently mapping out a musical territory that I am still exploring. This is not the earliest of my works whose performance I encourage, but it is the first that I do not yet fully understand.
Dehiscence, flottements has nothing at all to do with Beethoven, and nothing in particular to do with Beckett. But the idea of “dehiscence” (the biological process wherein a sac ruptures along a natural seam and spills its contents) captures the organic yet destructive relation of the dominant second movement with the first, third and fourth, which surround it with its own disgorged detritus, as well as that between the first five movements and the final one, wherein the fact of the pianist’s arms outlasts the intricate structural concerns of the first eleven minutes of the piece. As for “flottements” (French for, approximately, “undulations”)—the static yet intransigently slippery material is continually slipping away from the pianist’s fingers, from the temporal boundaries of thevarious movements, and finally from the inherent mechanics of the keyboard itself, in an unstoppable but resolutely calm series of lapping waves.
Dehiscence, flottements is dedicated to Ian Pace, whose initial plans to premiere the piece in 2003 were stymied by American border policy. As a result, I have to supplement the initial words of dedication from four and a half years ago. This work, then, is dedicated to Ian “with sincerest respect and equal parts astonishment and admiration”—and with gratitude for his persistence as well.
||hyphen for crotales
Duration: ca. 1′
Premiere: Michael Caterisano – Chez Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY
The most difficult challenge in the composition of a very short work is to characterize the musical material strongly enough that the piece’s effect is not buried in the cheap shock of its brevity. Music that is contained in a miniature space, it seems to me, must engage with that containment, make it an indispensable and inevitable result of musical processes.
In hyphen, I make use of the extremely resonant sound of the crotales to infiltrate, recharacterize and thus appropriate the silence that surrounds the piece’s one-minute duration. The music is very quiet throughout; but more importantly, there are large swaths of resonant silence in which harmonic detritus is left floating, redefining the lack of musical (notated, performative) activity as a primary locus of musical interest.
The brevity of the piece is also motivated internally by its extreme difficulty of performance – not just because of its technical requirements and intricate rhythmic language, but in physical terms as well. The instrument is struck in two ways: first, with mallets, absolutely as softly as possible; and second, with the fingers and knuckles of the hands, which requires exertion (and some tolerance for pain!) on the performer’s part if any sound is to result at all. In both cases, bodily fatigue is an integral part of the performance experience, and a minute becomes a long time indeed.
score (complete) / mp3 (Jonathan Hepfer, Buffalo, NY, 2008)
||sunk: one for string quartet
For the Quatuor Bozzini :: Duration: ca. 8′
Premiere: Quatuor Bozzini – 5 June 2002, June in Buffalo Festival, Buffalo, NY
The “sinking” to which the title of this string quartet refers has both temporal and atemporal – that is, conceptual – meaning for the piece. The conceptual meaning – “sunk” – illustrates the primary aesthetic motivation for the work: the compromising, blurring, “wiping-over” of a musical language of considerable rhythmic, gestural and textural complexity by an intentionally obscuring layer of noise and other instrumental obfuscation. The temporal meaning – “sinking” – is a summary of the piece’s most obvious formal mechanism: the successive attempts and failures of the intricate gestures to maintain an uncompromised grasp on the musical surface, a process that literally grinds to a halt as the piece ends.
[This work received the 2003 Brian M. Israel Prize from the Society for New Music. ]
||Horizontals White over Dark for orchestra
For Yvonne Wu :: Duration: ca. 7′
Premiere: 27 April 2000, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Shards (written in early 2000) is a set of six small piano pieces, each about a minute long. Each piece is restricted to a different two-octave range of the piano, and each attempts to exploit particular pianistic qualities of its range: the aggressive percussiveness and inside-the-piano harmonics of the lowest register, for example, or the dry brashness of the upper middle, or the mercurial rustlings of the extreme high end.
The pieces are given in the score in order of range, but the pianist must perform them in a shuffled order – that is, any order except ascending or descending – either through preparation of an alternate sequence or through random selection.
Shards is dedicated to Yvonne Wu, who gave its first two performances.