My Penelope (String Quartet no. 4) was composed in the spring and summer of 2006 for the Degas Quartet. The title is a personal take on the Odyssey of Homer: during the fall of '05 and the winter of '06 I saw New Orleans - my first love and the seat of my soul - bereft, ravaged, surrounded by suitors, buying time with her weaving (has the rest of the country ever before heard so many musicians, seen so much art and encountered so much personal testimony from the Crescent City?), while binding the wounds inflicted by both natural disaster and human incompetence. I came to see that, while my own anguish was limited to the empathetic and nostalgic, all of us who either came from or to New Orleans were grieving the separation from our city, and longing for its return (and to return to it). Thus, My Penelope; Our Penelope. For what other city would this mythic reference have as much resonance? We even have a street named after Penelope's son.
The piece itself falls into four movements, each linked to the others through a ritornello, a returning idea, that I associate with home and homecoming. Sometimes it peeks through the texture played sul ponticello, sounding like a cruel dream of home; at other times it sings full-voiced and joyfully. Framing and interrupting this home-music are episodes of mourning, terror, confusion, catharsis, and finally reunion, release, and calm. The concluding measures take up an idea from the middle of the second movement, a gesture that has something of the sea in it, a wave-rhythm that supports a long melodic outpouring from the violins. This sea-music also feels like home, and rather than running from it the piece heads straight into its embrace, sailing across its surface, singing and unbowed.
Stretched on the Beauty arises from several sources, among them Leaves of Grass, in which Whitman describes himself in a boat, "stretched" on his fancy across the beauty of the bay on which he glides towards a mountain in the distance; most important, however, is my father's vivid recollection of shipping out for Korea from Puget Sound, remaining on deck long after everyone else had gone below, bereft, transfixed, holding Mount Ranier in his gaze until the last possible moment, believing that as long as he could still see it he was still somehow connected to the continent, still somehow home.
Both Stretched on the Beauty and my mini-'cello concerto The Mountain Remains... are studies for a 4-'cello concerto for the ensemble CELLO.
Third String Quartet My third quartet was commissioned by Dickinson College for the Corigliano Quartet, and was composed between the summer of 2001 and the winter of '02. Like much of my music, the work moves between public and very private expressive worlds, seeking to understand and mediate the space between them. Chamber music is always described as an essentially personal medium, and so it can be difficult in a quartet to know just how to distinguish between public and private discourse when the whole experience is so intimate. In this piece it feels to me as if both are always engaged, the one speaking through the other; it’s the surface persona of the work that shifts over time. Thus the first movement is all personal, individual joy, ecstasy even, expressed through a mask of extrovert, public ebullience. The second, and much larger, movement responds to the things of the world, to collective, shared tragedy, through a voice of private lament and reflection. That’s not to say that the second is entirely a downer: like the first it wants, needs transcendence, and occasionally finds it. Cast as a large set of free variations, it finally settles into its expressive core, the particular voice for which is provided by the Wallflowers' tune, Sixth Avenue Heartache. At that point, hopefully, the piece's dual nature finds its center.
Legacy was commissioned for the Cassatt Quartet by Planned Parenthood Center of Syracuse to celebrate the dedication of their new facility, completed in 1996. The first movement, Love-Chorus was commissioned later, in 1999, by the Summit Institute for the Corigliano Quartet. The piece is intended both as an occasional work and as a rumination on the progress of women's rights in our society; the "legacy" of the title is that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and countless others who fought to raise the collective consciousness. What interests me about these women is that they shared no common ideology, no easy agenda. They were each simply committed to the realization of basic equality for women in a wide variety of contexts. Love-Chorus, celebrates a kind of collective spirit of renewal through Hendrix-like explosions of sound; it prepares the second movement, Legacy, which is carried along on a wave of propulsive rhythmic and harmonic motion. The voices are at times in unison, at others in canon, sometimes working together, sometimes not. They press ahead, however, with tremendous urgency. As the struggle, particularly for reproductive freedoms, has seen dark times in recent years, so too the music descends into the abyss and cries out, de profundis. The inevitable motion of the opening, however, sweeps these lamentations away; this legacy lives in an eternally renewed, and renewable, present. The work is dedicated, with love and gratitude, to the Cassatt and Corigliano Quartets.
The Desires of Ghosts was composed in the summer of 1999 for Fred Cohen and the ensemble Currents. The title reflects the rather sudden and unexpected resurfacing, during the work's composition, of some long-buried memories of the paranormal (whatever that is). The piece had gone without a title through several successive revisions of its opening minutes, and was on its way simply to being labeled "Piece for 5 Players", when its ghostly character began to assert itself. I was intrigued by the idea of taking a ghost's-eye view of the world, and found in the music some suggestion of what I felt were the two things the disembodied might want most: love, and the ability to represent themselves, to articulate their feelings, clearly. These, at least, were what I found most pressing in the memories that had once again opened themselves me; it seemed to me that my own encounters with the ineffable had radiated a kind of inchoate warmth, and that my inability wholly to recall them now, after thirty years, was evidence of the spectral need I heard floating in this music.
Pierrot Tells the Time was composed in the spring of 1998 as a kind of compositional etude, a way for me to get inside the Pierrot ensemble and also to begin working with some materials that had been pressing themselves upon me. As the piece took shape I began to hear at its center Pierrot himself, the drunken, love-sick clown, the modern everyman, approaching midlife and counting the seconds, haunted by memory but still transfixed by the sight of the moon. I like this little piece; it took me completely by surprise, then stayed on to color all the music I've written since.
This Powerful Rhyme was composed between 2003 and 2005 for Sequitur. The idea for the piece grew out of my 20-year friendship with actors Malcolm and Elizabeth Ingram; we started to dream up an evening of sonnets with music after having perpetrated a series of happening-like improvisations complete with snippets of Beckett, chunks of old film scores, ranting and raving, fists pummeling every instrument in sight. They were fun and surprisingly good, or at least entertaining, and gave the three of us the itch to explore a more permanent, and somewhat more refined, avenue for combining text and music.
When we got around actually to visualizing the piece, early in 2002, we knew only that we wanted there to be no singing, and that we wanted to do Shakespeare sonnets. Malc and Lizzie have a special relationship to these grail-like texts that examine (in some cases one could say exhume) almost every conceivable aspect of intimate human relationship. We toyed with attempting some kind of narrative arc that would carry the listener from sonnets to the young man, to the dark lady, etc., but eventually settled on a general framework that traced a progression of emotional states, from bliss, to anger and jealousy, to despair, to mature acceptance. From this I then whittled down the list of poems to two good-sized sets that move from youthful male braggadocio (Sonnet 55, Not marble nor the gilded monuments Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme), through genuine tenderness (Sonnet 23, As an imperfect actor on the stage, Who with his fear is put besides his part), teasing (Sonnet 8, Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?), and melancholy (Sonnet 17, Who will believe my verse in time to come?). A central preoccupation in these first few sonnets is the power of art, not only to give voice to love and its attendant joys and woes, but also to survive it, indeed, to survive death, with which love is always paired in the 16th and 17th-century imagination. To this end poetry is presented as a form of progeny, produced by the love union itself but outlasting each successive mortal generation (again, Sonnet 17: But were some child of yours alive that time, You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme).
After Sonnet 17 we have several poems that deal more directly with actual relationship, with desire (Sonnet 128, How oft when thou, my music, music playest, in which Shakespeare envies the harpsichord's saucy jacks, by which - in a mistaken sense of instrumental anatomy - he means keys, which kiss the tender inward of thy hand), with the pain of absence, bridged by spiritual union (Sonnets 113 & 44, If the dull substance of my flesh were thought, injurious distance should not stop my way), the comfort of love in the face of life's cyclic bouts of despair (Sonnet 29, When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes), and finally, dawning recognition of human limits, even of the power of art to withstand the onrushing of time (Sonnet 65, Since brass nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o'ersways their power, How, with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?).
Part two moves swiftly into a downward spiral of obsession and despair. Beginning innocently enough with Sonnet 34 (Why dids't thou promise such a beauteous day?), and heading further into the shadow with Sonnets 129 (The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action), and 57 (Being your slave, what should I do but tend, Upon the hours and times of your desire?), bottoming out with Sonnet 147 (My love is as a fever, longing still For that which longer nurseth the disease); a secondary low-point is reached with Sonnet 35 (No more be grieved at that which thou hast done), after which we move into a dream-state, hovering between madness and reconciliation, with simultaneous, antiphonal readings of Sonnets 148 (O me, what eyes hath love put in my head), and 144 (Two loves I have, of comfort and despair). We begin to climb out of this morass with Sonnets 120 (That you were once unkind befriends me now) and 110 (Alas, 'tis true, I have gone and here and there And made myself a motley to the view), coming back into the light with Sonnet 116 (Let me not, to the marriage of true minds, Admit impediments). The work closes with the resigned, centered clarity of Sonnet 60, Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end. One last appeal to the capacity of art to reach across the veil of death is made here: ...And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow, And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand, Praising thy worth despite his cruel hand.
Just to talk about the poems themselves is nearly impossible; they present us with an experience of inexhaustible layers of resonance (and the puny readings given above are meant only to open a door into hearing them). How then to talk about the music? Only a few things are important, really. My hope here was to place the texts into a setting that would illuminate their inherent musicality. Singing these poems feels superfluous to me (not that other, better, composers haven't pulled it off). All I really want is to hear the words themselves, in a sonic environment that somehow extends their sense and sound. Thus I hear the two sets of partners, actors and musicians, as equals in a synasthaetic pageant in which music is text, text is music.
The whole piece, really, is a dream, giving voice to the varied male and female presences in Shakespeare's imagination, listening in on the process whereby man and woman, text and music, actor and musician, find a way to share the same space.
The idea of writing a violin concerto was first proposed to me by the English conductor David Curtis back in 2008. At that time I had just finished a concerto for four cellos and orchestra, and the big arc and dramatic potential of the genre were both very much on my mind. I took the bait and wrote my Concerto for Violin (with an unconscious nod to Bartok in the title) in 2009, with revisions in 2014. I had originally thought that I might play the piece, but it eventually found a home with the great team of Michael Jinsoo Lim and conductor Julia Tai, to whom it is dedicated. Since writing the work I've embarked on a kind of extended concerto project, with another for guitar, soon to be followed by one for piano. While the works are (and will be) quite different from each other, they share a common memory of classical three-movement design, with fast, slow, fast being replaced by moderate, fast, slow. In both the concertos for guitar and violin the final slow movement reveals itself to be the emotional heart of the piece. But where the emotional weight in the guitar concerto slowly bends and eventually collapses a movement that seems not to trust emotive display, wishing instead to remain monumental and distant, the affective impulse in the violin concerto is unabashed and extrovert, born of an intense need for expression. Following an opening movement in which everything is in some way an acoustical trace of the solo violin's open A and E strings, and a second movement, itself arising from the open D and A, in which this buzzing of fifth-based resonance becomes a kaleidoscopic, at times unhinged, perpetuum mobile, the third is an elegy that wanders through a series of free variations until it explodes in a catharsis that is both excruciating and ecstatic. The violin and orchestra become unstuck from each other after this revelation, with the orchestra retreating into hushed echoes while the violin pushes farther outward, upward, deeper into its own anguished process of discovery. It is as if too many ghosts have been disturbed by the violence of the climax, and the orchestra wants to return them to rest, while the violin is determined to make them speak, to answer for something long neglected and denied.
Stretched on the Beauty was composed between 2004 and 2007 for the 'cello quartet CELLO and the Syracuse Symphony. It arises from several sources, two of them musical, one literary and one personal: my 4-'cello sketch, also called Stretched..., and the first of my efforts to grapple with the singular challenges the concerto would present; my somewhat larger sketch for solo 'cello and orchestra, called The Mountain Remains, an orchestral rethinking of the 4-'cello version of Stretched...; Leaves of Grass, in which Whitman describes himself in a boat, "stretched" on his fancy across the beauty of the bay on which he glides towards a mountain in the distance; and, most importantly, my father's vivid recollection of shipping out for Korea from Puget Sound, his first trip overseas and in fact his first extended foray out of his native Iowa. He was 23.
The concerto that has grown from these first compositional studies is built around a cluster of inter-related ideas, both expressive and technical. Certainly the basic challenge of balancing solo 'cello with orchestra (known to Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Britten, Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, to name just a few, and here, given the multiple soloists, multiplied by four!) held sway in imagining the basic tone and texture of the work, encouraging its lyricism and its desire for an orchestra that would dissolve into and grow out of the 'cello writing, rather than acting as a dramatic foil for the soloists. Lyricism then bridges the space between expression and technique, for it also speaks to the concerto's central emotional concern, that of the varied and persistent experiences of memory. Thus each of the work's four movements "remembers" aspects of the others, free associating in such a way that nothing ever recurs exactly as it was. Even the precise sequence of events seems at times difficult to pin down, as elements that seem to have a nostalgic quality appear only to initiate something new and unexpected.
Through it all one pitch, A, in various voicings and octaves, recurs again and again, giving us our heading when we're in danger of drifting off course. These insistent tollings are tied in my imagination both to the Whitman ("Through the clear atmosphere I stretch around on the wonderful beauty, The enormous masses of ice pass me and I pass them...The white-topped mountains point up in the distance... I fling out my fancies toward them..."), and to my father's memory of being onboard ship and remaining on deck long after everyone else had gone below, bereft, transfixed, holding Mount Rainier in his gaze until the last possible moment, believing that as long as he could still see it he was still somehow connected to the continent, still somehow home.
The concerto is in four movements, Prélude; Lament; Cadenzas; The Mountain Remains. It is dedicated to the wonderful artists of both CELLO and the Syracuse Symphony, and to my father.
Le Même ciel was composed over the winter and spring of 2003-04 for Frank Campos and the Eastman and Ithaca Wind Ensembles. The titles from L'Été of Camus reflect both my love for those visionary essays, and my sense of having stepped into them, living as I was in France during the time of the piece's composition. One of the most arresting, and beautiful, passages in these early works of Camus' (essentially travel essays in which he found and worked through the essence of his deeply felt and much-misunderstood worldview) is to be found in the essay called Love of Life: "For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. We can no longer cheat - hide behind the hours spent at the office or the factory (those hours we protest so loudly, and which protect us from the pain of being alone)...Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn't know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value." I felt those words singing within me over and over during my six months in France, and they set the tone for this concerto. Throughout the work's three movements the trumpet plays the role of the traveller, moving through a changing, at times threatening, but always miraculous landscape. The titles come from a number of different places in L'Été (Summer), from different essays with no surface connection to each other. What struck me about each was its musicality, that is both its rhythm and its limitless sense of suggestion. Rough translations follow:
Le Même ciel (The Same Sky)
Le Même ciel was commissioned with funds from the Howard Hanson Institute for American Music of the Eastman School, the Ithaca College School of Music, and with a generous gift from Deborah and Oliver Allen.
Le Nom: Upperline is prefaced with three quotes:
These three taken together conjure up something of the sense I had about this piece while writing it. Consumed each day by the news from my home town, I found myself incessantly repeating the street name "Upperline". This incantation was purely sonic: I attached no particular personal significance to the street itself (other than my love for the eponymous restaurant that one finds there, truly one of the greatest in the country). The name itself was music to me, and began to manifest as very high melodic material for the 'cello. An evocation of higher ground, the relative safety of a rooftop, an unbroken levee, perhaps. But I think the New Orleans of my grieving was less the city in the news than one of dreams and memory. Many of us who came from there found ourselves wondering, in the fetid and awful days that followed the storm, what it could mean to be anywhere if there were no longer to exist. The name – le nom – became a totem, a glyph, and it carried a whole history, both personal and collective, within it. Upperline was premiered in February of 2006 by Caroline Stinson at the Winnipeg Symphony Centara Corporation International New Music Festival, a minor miracle of a festival that lasts just a bit longer than the time it takes to say its name.