solo instrument / voice

2016 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.

2015 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.

2014 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.

score excerpt

three reversed movements, to bring destroyed objects back to life for piano

For Michael Finnissy    ::    Duration: ca. 4′  
Premiere: Michael Finnissy – August 2014 [details tbc]

A small set of motions, extremely, painfully private, miniature rituals.

score excerpt

2012 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.

score excerpt     ::     mp3 (Ryan Muncy, University of Huddersfield, UK, 2013)

2011 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)

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.

score excerpt     ::     mp3 (Rachel Beetz, studio recording, 2014)

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)

2007 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.

score (complete)

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. ]

score excerpt     ::     mp3 (Mabel Kwan, Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, NY, 2013)

2005 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.
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)

2004 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)

2003 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.

score excerpt

2002 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)

2000 Shards for piano

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.

Contact the composer to request complete scores not available here.