About the Classics Series (2020)
Much of my work over the last decade has drawn its inspiration from Classical literature. I have often made reading and writing texts a central part of the compositional process, finding great value in their capacity to contextualize the expressive domain of a particular piece or musical phrase. The texts themselves may remain in my sketches or they may work their way into the score itself to provide the performer with a distinctive source of interpretive data beyond the notated music.
During the US-led wars of the 21st century, the word ‘sacrifice’ has frequently been invoked by elites as they announce each escalation. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony Roberto Calasso notes the etymology of the word ‘sacrifice’: sacer + facio, or to make holy, reminding the reader that this term suggests an act with an intended outcome. When the prize is joining with the divine, then there is nothing too costly to gamble.
My String Quartet takes an episodic approach, consisting of 9 sections that nevertheless adhere to a 4-part design – a vague echo of traditional formal conventions. Each section refers to a synopsis of my own making that provides a narrative thread. Beginning with chorale texture, the piece understands the instruments in the quartet to be constitutionally drawn to each other in search of harmony, but again and again the individuals are stretched apart, out of alignment. The loss and suffering due to war is explored here with references to texts drawn from Calasso, and from The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Oresteia, connecting the victims of modern wars with those of the past through the concept of palaiòn pénthos, or ancient grief.
Accord (2010) for percussion and piano
Accord is concerned with the sorts of intractable conflicts that make encounters so volatile and fraught that they risk conflagration. The piece takes as its textual source The Eumenides by Aeschylus, in particular the last scene that features a confrontation between Athena and the Furies where the Furies threaten to plunge the world into catastrophic war. The Furies rigidly hold to their position, represented here by an idée fixe played mostly on snare drum, while Athena, a far more flexible thinker, attempts numerous varieties of entreaties.
These ideas were enormously useful in guiding the personas of the instrumental parts, though Accord holds a greater allegiance to the narrative unfolding of a particular text than any other piece in my Classics series. This is to say that musical procedures such as repetition, development, and variation were all bound to the premise of following the course of the narrative that Aeschylus provided. The score features a significant number of lines from the play, each appearing with linked musical material.
In this work, the accord finally reached is in a different plane entirely from the one in which the argument was made throughout the rest of the piece, an instructive illustration, perhaps, but not necessarily a hopeful one.
Absence (2012) for solo guitar
Whereas the musical events of Accord were rigidly attached to texts by Aeschylus that are peppered throughout the score and the String Quartet’s dramaturgy is governed by synthetic narrative synopses, Absence takes a more broadly interpretive approach by setting the expressive climate of each of its three movements with its own referential inscription. These texts, from Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Taurus, Homer’s The Iliad, and the Inferno by Dante, each engage with grief, loss, and impermanence. The continuing wars involving the US, the Syrian civil war, along with the earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan were environmental factors that informed my sensibilities regarding this project.
Although I have played guitar from a very early age, I had an ambivalent – even skeptical – view of the instrument’s potential in the sort of music I was interested in writing. Absence was an opportunity to review these concerns and find a meaningful direction forward. After a period of intensive research, I developed a repertoire of often-idiosyncratic instrumental behaviors that would eventually form the intimate sound world of the piece. Although it has its share of assertive moments, the piece is more typically characterized by obscure iterative scrapings and remote harmonics. In this piece one may sense a striving for resonance only to be thwarted by the unforgiving decay envelope of the guitar.
Flame (2013) for prepared guitar, bass flute, and ‘cello
With a newfound interest in the guitar I was very keen to explore its potential in a chamber setting. In this piece, the characterization of the three instruments is derived from The Aeneid, book IV, in which the guitar is Aeneas, the bass flute is Dido, and the ‘cello is Anchises, Aeneas’ father (a ghost). In The Aeneid, Aeneas is drawn by fate to continue his journey, thereby leaving his lover Dido, who in her anguish self immolates. There is a critical struggle between free will and fate, agency and predetermination. Virgil also makes clear that there are significant emotional costs as a result of these forces.
My approach to writing Flame was somewhat different than in the preceding works. While linking the instrumental parts to specific characters was also the framing device for Accord, in Flame the music proceeds without being accompanied by texts until very late in the score, where the inscription Italiam non sponte sequor appears in the guitar part, which plays solo for the rest of the piece. I think of the dramaturgy of Flame as being guided by an ‘interpretive’ narrative, clearly derived from The Aeneid book IV but not determined by a specific series of events or texts.
This dramatic framing also informs the comportment of the ensemble itself. Understanding Aeneas as temporarily pulled between opposing forces moved me to develop the piece as essentially a series of alternating duos between guitar-flute and guitar-‘cello, linked by a brief, ritornello-like tutti phrase. Meanwhile, the guitar’s preparation – a chopstick woven beneath the 4th string – alters intonation and inhibits resonance while adding a noise component. When, late in the piece, the chopstick is removed, the guitar is suddenly ‘itself’ for the first time, and from that point forward it allies itself with the ‘cello.
Sibyl (2015) for solo viola
Having spent considerable time with The Aeneid at the ready, it was only natural that other episodes besides book IV would capture my attention. I was particularly captivated by Virgil’s description of the Sibyl’s transformation in book VI when she became inhabited by the spirit, in which “neither her face nor hue went untransformed....” Her situation presents a strange duality in which she is visibly in flux while remaining ostensibly the same figure or vessel. She emerges with godlike knowledge and power, and Aeneas is stricken with fear.
The second idea has to do with multiplicity, as in the capacity for the singular to contain multiple identities. This is explored ‘vertically’ via polyphonic materials as well as ‘horizontally’ through sometimes rapidly juxtaposed materials. Once again, texts are not deployed in the score except as an inscription on the first page.
Shroud (2016) concerto for piano and chamber orchestra
The fear of female power that haunts the Sibyl story has unfortunate and disturbing manifestations in modern society, where far greater scrutiny is placed upon women than men when standing for public office or advancing to leadership roles in business. Misogyny, like racism, is a cultural illness whose symptoms permeate the body politic. It weakens society, and I believe it weakens art as well.
In the music, a ‘woven’ material introduces the piano part, which then engages in a wide variety of sometimes quite elaborate textures, before unraveling, and finally fragmenting.
Penelope’s story suggested a modification of the traditional concerto format. Rather than proceeding as an alternating series of statements by ensemble and soloist, in Shroud the piano takes very few breaks, so we are always in the presence of the protagonist whose expressive domain is often ruminative and melancholic, but when faced with various intrusions by the orchestra, the response is mercurial.
Penelope (2016) for piano solo
The solo part for Shroud was designed so that eventually (with a few modifications) it could be decoupled from the concerto format and played alone as a concert piece.1 Although there were obvious practical benefits to this scheme, both for the performer and composer, it seemed to me there were interesting dramatic implications as well. Without the presence of the orchestra as antagonist, what compels the piano’s various outbursts and soliloquies? And how does the comparative temporal flexibility implied by the solo medium (vs. the concerto) affect the sense of urgency with which these changes in attitude occur? On the other hand, the contrast between private ruminations and public remarks in the concerto can be heard in Penelope as shifting attitudes and fleeting thoughts, which has strong echoes in the late 19th century piano literature. One of the central features that defines the character of Penelope in The Odyssey is her solitude, her loneliness. Penelope, then, is well at-home in this solo context.
Much of the solo music I have composed has referred to multiplicity (or at least duality) in order to provide a central animating tension for the work. While I was working on Orpheus Dies I happened to be thinking about the nature of compromise, particularly in politics. While all politics effectively requires a degree of compromise, the idea of compromise (or moderation) has developed into a strange creed of its own, fetishized by major media entities. Compromise is content-free – it makes no claims of its own, so it is perilous terrain upon which to establish a values system. We have historical models readily at-hand in order to assess the weakness of this objective, notably the ‘3/5ths compromise,’ Neville Chamberlain, and Charlottesville (“very fine people on both sides”).
Epitaph (2019) for flute and piano
At the close of the decade the dark currents of nationalism and fascism swirling around the world had manifested themselves in the US with policies directly targeting Latinx and Muslim populations. The theatrics of the separation policy were clearly intended to provide propaganda that would scare would-be migrants away while giving racist xenophobes cause for celebration. Meanwhile, real people have been injured by these policies, and several have died, including small children. This climate of moral disaster has made making art occasionally seem trivial, but it remains a way for me to draw connections that help frame the moment by documenting an expressive response.
The two performers in Epitaph are widely separated in the performance space, and begin the work playing an array of percussion sounds, all of which is metaphorically associated with the experience of isolation and displacement. The materials in Epitaph are intensely rhetorical, and often seem stuck in fairly recursive loops, as if the constraints imposed on them prevent their development and inhibit fluency.
On the other hand, there is a general trajectory of expressive ‘spaces’ over the course of the work, from bewilderment, to loss, to pain, and finally to rage.
The eventual arrival of unison attacks between the piano and flute in the final section of the piece indicates that despite their physical isolation, these characters are joined by their common suffering.
It is a familiar trope to state that a piece of music (perhaps such as one of the Classics pieces) is about a particular topic. Given the amount of writing here about the textual basis for these projects I should clarify that this is not my position. These pieces are inspired by topics, events, and ideas, and make reference to literature and history, but the music itself is about relationships and memory : musical relationships such as those between instruments and pitches, whose disposition over time invokes memory. This is a generic description, of course, but I think it’s important to distinguish this work, in which musical components emerge through an encounter with texts, from theatrical works, in which case the texts are made explicit and animated through extra-musical vehicles.
1The two works are not identical. With an approximate duration of 14 minutes, Penelope is 3 minutes shorter than Shroud. While most of this compression is due to the removal of orchestral interjections (particularly the orchestral passages that open each movement), there are a few places where the absence of a dialogue required further culling of the piano part, and some recomposition.