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    Adam Greene     composer

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.

There are, of course, numerous examples of similar approaches by composers in recent music. I’m particularly indebted to the music of Elliott Carter, whose Double Concerto, for instance, invokes texts by Lucretius and Alexander Pope. I also think I couldn’t do without the music of Luigi Nono, whose string quartet Fragmente-Stille: an Diotima employs aphoristic quotes from Hölderlin. Reaching back into history a bit further, there are still more models. I have variously found myself preoccupied by Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze and Liszt’s Totentanz, if it’s safe to admit such a thing.

In some of my earlier work the texts I employed were evocative, intended to animate an expressive response either by reinforcing the musical character or by introducing a contrasting dimension. Original texts often had the impact of the former, such as in pieces like To Look Within (1998) and A Breath Between (2003). Here, the texts crystallized, or even summarized the expressive purpose behind musical behaviors that were often quite dense and subject to frequent juxtapositions. In other works, I quoted authors such as Calvino to introduce an oblique level of commentary that provides interpretive stimulus without a determinate outcome. Emblems (1997) uses quotes from Calvino’s Invisible Cities in this manner. Both approaches are still operative in the Classics series, though I’m partial to the ‘oblique’ usage because it has greater potential to invite individualized responses from performers.

The major change, then, from those earlier works to the Classics series is that the texts have greater cultural penetration, offering the potential for a dense, multidimensional encounter. While I certainly recommend reading Invisible Cities and experiencing Calvino’s inventive take on the interactions between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, I cannot expect all performers of Emblems to have done so, which limits the texts’ referential potential. By contrast, the events and the protagonists described in classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey are quite broadly understood, even if the specific texts are unfamiliar. If one were to invoke, say, Prometheus, a host of possible reference points would emerge even without reading Prometheus Bound, from literary analogs (Frankenstein) to historical (Oppenheimer), to topical (the Carceral State, political imprisonment). The range and level of cultural saturation here is staggering, and while no one source or tradition is universal, it’s reasonable to assume quite strong familiarity with these stories and characters among practitioners of western music.

Myths and legends have always been used to comment on contemporary issues. With this in mind, my own compositional approach has shifted somewhat. Whereas in earlier work a composition may be a poetic response to a piece of writing I was interested in, during the last decade I’ve often been animated by a social or political situation about which I was then moved to make a creative statement through the lens of Classical literature. This movement from an interior, or even insular headspace to one that engages a critical public issue or circumstance seems significant to me, though I should note that the music remains deeply personal, its language primarily rhetorical with a continuing emphasis on texture and instrumental character. This work is political to an extent, but not activist, given its intimate nature (not to mention the modest scale of its audience). It does not exhort or attempt to persuade; rather it empathizes and reflects. There is an undercurrent of sadness that connects all the works thus far in the Classics series, which ties into a sense of melancholy that is quite common in the literature, given its recounting of violence and suffering. The echoes of ancient folly in our current events are a constant source of sorrow and concern for me, and it continues to be the broad theme of my compositional work. Work born out of the concerns of the moment carries risks, though. The most challenging, for me, is the fact that the duration of the project is likely to exceed its timeliness. One of the benefits of the Classics framework is that it accommodates a linkage between the urgency of the moment to historical, and therefore timeless, events.

I had not planned on making a series, and to be clear: this is a series, not a cycle – subsets of the series can certainly be played in a program, but it strains credulity to think that the overall collection will be played in one evening. Nevertheless, it soon became evident that it can be quite useful to have a reliable window into a new project and there’s a certain elegance to having a consistent approach between projects, both for my own benefit and for the performers with whom I’m working. Much like the constraints that formal systems provide in the act of composing, knowing the first steps of how a piece will develop usefully delimits and directs the possible pathways toward creative volition. This explains why all but one piece (Ripples) composed in the decade between 2009-2019 was part of this series.

Having offered in this preamble some description of this project’s appeal for me, I would like to turn to the individual works themselves in order to demonstrate how these principles have been articulated in the music. In each case, there is a general impetus behind the piece, an identification of texts that help crystallize relevant ideas, and a distillation of salient attitudes, the expression of which becomes the central mission of the composition.

String Quartet Threnody (2009)

Quartet Score

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.

“Today, it should be clear that not only is weakness provocative, but the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative as well. A conclusion by our enemies that the United States lacks the will or the resolve to carry out missions that demand sacrifice and demand patience is every bit as dangerous as an imbalance of conventional military power.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Farewell Address, 2006

The sickening in men’s minds, tough, reckless in fresh cruelty brings daring. He endured then to sacrifice his daughter to stay the strength of war waged for a woman, first offering for the ship’s sake.

Aeschylus: Agamemnon (trans. Richmond Lattimore)

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.

Music examples: String Quartet Threnody
Formalist Quartet

Accord (2010) for percussion and piano

Athena Orestes and Erinyes
Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912

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.

Accord p1
Example 1: Percussion part, idée fixe, mm. 1-8.

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.

Accord p14
Example 2: Extension/variation of idée fixe in percussion part. This mostly linear material is met with vertical, euphonious sonorities in the piano, offering a harmonic embrace, mm. 153-157.
Accord p16
Example 3: at m. 174 the piano inflects Athena’s argument with the suggestion of menace, via a repeated chromatic cluster figure, mm. 167-175.

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.

Music example: Accord
Patti Cudd, percussion, Shannon Wettstein, piano

Absence (2012) for solo guitar

Absence p1
Example 4: opening measures of Absence, in which right hand taps lightly with nails at approximate locations along the strings while the
left hand applies light pressure while sliding along the fretboard.

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.

Abesence Formal Sketch
Example 5: Detail from sketches: formal outline of the second movement.

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.

Music example: Absence
Colin McAllister, 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.

Desine meque tuis incendere teque querelis;
Italiam non sponte sequor.

(No more of these appeals that set us both afire.
I sail for Italy not of my own free will.)

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.

Flame notebook
Example 6: Detail from sketches: dramaturgy, characterization, and outlining associated rhetorical behaviors.

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.

Flame Score Example
Example 7: Score sample: realization of the section described in Example 6 begins at the tempo change.

Music example: Flame
Lisa Cella, bass flute, Ashley Walters, ‘cello, Jay Sorce, prepared guitar

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.

In composing Sibyl I set out to explore two aspects of this remarkable image. The first was transformation, in this case of a generally arpeggiated material that is subjected to minute changes in pitch and in rhythm so that in a way it always retains a semblance of its identity despite undergoing constant variation.

Example 8: Score sample: opening phrase of Sibyl in which an arpeggiated phrase is subjected initially to very subtle changes in rhythm, metrical stress,
and intonation.

Example 9: Eventually, the phrase involves interpolation: essentially segmenting and repeating (with variations) portions of the initial phrase. Meanwhile,
modulation of intonation and rhythm continue.

Example 10: Modulation then involves timbre in a more significant way, including left hand finger pressure.

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.

One of the great failings of The Odyssey is in Homer’s depiction of Penelope. He takes some pains in describing her as every bit the intellectual equal of the brilliant Odysseus, but she remains seriously underwritten, with just over a dozen lines in the book prior to the events in the last chapter when Odysseus makes his return to Ithaca. Still, her ordeal is both harrowing and heartbreaking, as this proud and ingenious figure is eventually laid low, driven to fits of tears in her quarters.

As I developed the ideas for my piano concerto, Shroud, I centered upon making Penelope the protagonist of her own story – brilliant, but trapped, using her ingenuity to create the ruse of the shroud in order to fend off the advances of the suitors, but the delay tactic eventually fails. Constrained by the position of women in society, Penelope lacks the agency to simply tell her unwelcome guests to leave.

Shroud Part 2
Example 11: Sketchbook detail: formal design, from First Movement, in which I designated both gestural characteristics and expressive attitudes for the soloist.

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.

Shroud solo
Example 12: Piano solo entrance, featuring a ‘woven’ figure. Charles Rosen once remarked that the essential mystery of the concerto had to do with the
initial entrance of the soloist – precisely when would it happen? Although my concerto would have nothing to do with establishing themes in the traditional
sense, the dramatic implications of the form remain essential. In the case of Shroud, the orchestral introduction spans approximately 90 seconds.

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.

Music example: Shroud
Shannon Wettstein, piano soloist, The Center for New Music Ensemble, David Gompper, conductor

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.

Orpheus Dies (2017) for ‘cello solo

Score Print

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”).

The Orpheus myth provides one example of compromise leading to disaster. Once a favorite of Apollo, Orpheus eventually joined the Bacchic cults, singing his songs for Dionysus; thus he became the only figure to serve both these diametrically opposed gods. The Bacchic rites involved brutal sacrifice, which eventually disturbed Orpheus so much that he decided he had to leave the cult, but in doing so he was charged with apostasy and torn apart by the Maenads. The legend ends with his head floating down the river Hebrus upon his lyre, still singing. Orpheus Dies develops its dramaturgy through the exploration of impracticable coexistence. Broadly speaking, the Apollonian/Dionysian duality is viewed as a contrast between teleological or formal ideas vs. impulsive, emotional outbursts, a similar framing to that of Nietzsche and Adorno. In Orpheus Dies these ideas are expressed sometimes in alternating ‘panels’ while at other times there is an attempt to hold the warring factions in the same space via a strained polyphony that stratifies competing modes of playing. Of course, it all breaks apart in the end.

Music example: Orpheus Dies
Franklin Cox, ‘cello

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.

Epitaph draws its inspiration from the horrific stories of loss and isolation told by detainees in the US immigration system. Reaching back once again to the post-Trojan War period, I identified texts from Agamemnon and Hecuba by Aeschylus, and The Trojan Women, by Euripedes, consisting mostly of exclamations of utter despair that were then deployed throughout the score, usually as a means of framing the material of one instrument at a time.

Example 13: From sketches: formal detail, establishing when texts are deployed in the score. Note the disjunct parsing of durations, so that each performer’s
material has a unique sectional design.

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.

Example 14: Flute, mm. 81-83: the text “oh my city” appears with the flute part at m. 78. In this example, the “oh” sound becomes the source of a tropic loop.

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.

Example 15: Overall formal design

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.

Music example: Epitaph
Piano part (midi)

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.

Finally, I should mention here how grateful I am to have had the privilege of working with extraordinarily fine musicians on these projects who have inspired me and challenged me to develop my practice in order to meet a high artistic standard. Particular thanks go to Colin McAllister, The Formalist Quartet, Shannon Wettstein, Patti Cudd, Elizabeth McNutt, Lisa Cella, and Franklin Cox. It is simply impossible to imagine being able to do this sort of work without their input and support. Grants and support from the Fromm Music Foundation, American Composers Forum, and the University of Iowa Center for New Music as well as a UCROSS residency were all critical in providing space, time, and funding to pursue this work. I am enormously grateful to each of these institutions.


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.