small ensemble

2014 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.

score excerpt

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.

score excerpt

2013 '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…”

score excerpt

thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg for cello and high voice

Written for the ELISION Ensemble     ::     Duration: ca. 4’30”
Premiere: ELISION – 17 March 2014, Melbourne, Australia

Very little happens in this constrained environment: the cello embroiders an intensely intricate, virtuosically physical, but almost completely still language around a slow-moving, looping, microtonal cantus firmus, pianississimo; the voice accompanies it with a repeating pair of atomized phrases, or collections of micro-phrases, on the same melodic source; the whole is concluded in less than five minutes. In other words, a study in boundaries: formal, physical, harmonic, instrumental, rhetorical.

This passage was initially intended as a prelude to a larger work, but it serves here as an introduction to its own brief coda.

The title is also the only text: thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg, “that passed over, this can too,” in Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Old English, itself an incantatory refrain to a mournful lyric the meaning of which has become obscure.

2011 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 [2009], 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)

2010 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)

2009 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.

score excerpt

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.

score excerpt

2008 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)

2005 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. ]
2003 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)

2002 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. ]
Contact the composer to request complete scores not available here.