Palimpsests

Composed 2018

Instrumentation Open

Premiered March 31, 2018, Camp Rockmont, Black Mountain, NC (Palimpsests starts at 7:30 in the above recording)

This piece was written for Polyorchard for their performance at the 2018 Black Mountain College {Re}Happening. The idea of the piece was to take piano scores by Cage, Messaien, Webern, Saariaho, Ligeti, and others, and remove all the notes and staves, leaving only articulations, dynamics, accidentals, and other miscellaneous markings on the page. The performers can interpret those markings however they deem fit.

Hallmarks, Sigils, and Colophons

Composed 2012–13

Instrumentation soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, violin, violin/viola, cello, bass, flute/piccolo/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, alto/tenor sax, bassoon, trumpet, bass trombone, percussion

Texts Eunoia by Christian Bök (texts used with kind permission of the author)

Premiered March 3, 2013

Program Notes

Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or the “Workshop for Potential Literature”) was a literary school founded in 1960 whose goal is to create literature based on constraints, word games, and other formal restrictions. Some Oulipian constraints include anagrams, palindromse, the lipogram, in which specific letters are omitted (this program note is a lipogram of the letter z, or at least it was before this comment); and the N+7, in which every noun is replaced by the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (“Lots of frogs hop from rock to rock: ‘frog, pond, plop’” becomes “Lounges of frontbenchers hop from rogue to rogue: ‘frontbencher, poodle, ploy.’”). Perhaps the best-known Oulipian work is Georges Perec’s La disparition, a novel in French that avoids the letter e, and the group’s membership has included such luminaries as Italo Calvino and Marcel Duchamp (an honorary member).

Christian Bök, while not himself a member of Oulipo, is certainly inspired by their methods.  His novel/prose poem Eunoia consists of five chapters, each of which only uses a single vowel—“Chapter A” uses only words with the letter a, “Chapter E” uses only e, and so on. He also insists that each chapter use at least 98 percent of the available words; that sentences must include a certain amount of syntactical parallelism; and that a certain set of events happen in each chapter, including “a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”  He even goes on to suggest that, in an ideal world, he would use only each word once! Despite all those rules, each chapter has its own distinct grain and texture, and Bök succeeds. What interests me most about Eunoia, though, is the way it sounds, the curious palate that emerges when vowels are isolation.  In college, I had the opportunity to recite a few extended passages from the book, and I was immediately struck by the way my tongue and mouth felt afterward.  It is unlike any other language I have ever encountered.

Thus, this composition imbues vowels with esoteric, supernatural powers.  They are the hallmarks, sigils, or colophons which grace speech with the differentiation needed to produce meaning.  They also bestow upon each movement its own unique character and temperament.  Although my intent is not to mimic Bök’s rigorous constraints, I do attempt to evoke the idea of constraint in the music.  For instance, each chapter of Eunoia is dedicated to a creative thinker whose name uses only that chapter’s vowel: Hans Arp, René Crevel, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, and Zhu Yu.  Conversely, each movement of my piece is dedicated to a composer whose name uses all five vowels and whose music I found particularly inspirational for whatever was going on. Each movement’s flavor is derived from the sound of its vowel: “Movement A” is bright and brash, “Movement I” is clipped and flighty, “Movement O” is languid and serene, “Movement U” is full of guttural groans and drones, and “Movement E” is expansive and extroverted.  Of course, none of these characteristics are all encompassing, and every movement pushes against its frame.  I allowed the music and words take me where they would, using their own internal logic to propel me forward.

So consider Hallmarks, Sigils & Colophons an album of sorts.  Each movement is a self-contained whole within a larger self-contained whole.  Each can stand on its own, but all gain additional meaning through their collective interrelations.  The piece tells no overall story, but is rather a series of concatenated vignettes that occasionally fold back onto themselves. It embraces its heterogeneity. Like a good DJ, it knows that new things emerge when disparate sounds and genres grind against each other.

Floes


Composed 2010–11

Instrumentation piano, bass, drums

Recording Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King of the Bad Plus, March 28, 2011. Recorded and mixed by Jason Richmond at SoundPure Studios

Program Notes

Movement across ice floes with flat edges is free, but you need a rope to leave or enter an ice floe with pack ice (you leave the rope behind on the tile you left). You can also swim across one stretch of open water by eating a fish (which is discarded).  The sun had just dipped into a fog bank and tinted the surrounding floes with brushstrokes of peach and magenta. Before us lay huge blocks of ice tumbled together like an upended box of Legos. The ice floes resembling towers and minarets may actually have been mirage-reflections of some weird and aeon-haunted alien metropolis at far remove… Floes are self-similar because they are composed of aggregates of aggregates.  I’d give a lot for taste of deep antarctic ice. Imagine drinking water that’s been out of circulation since before our species was born! In 1991, the Floes cleared the debris and cut the blackberries on their property and the disputed parcel back to a line approximately 15 to 20 feet from the drainage ditch. Please note: Cold Snap now has a base cooldown of 8 minutes, so 2/2 Ice Floes brings its cooldown to 6 minutes 24 seconds.

However, the seamless yet never ending layers of “Ice Floe” rage with ease. There’s even remnants of a pop song buried underneath all this glorious noise, one that’s marched on with armies of steal drums and washes of avant rhythms. The sound as the floe passed the hull seemed like someone trying to open the hull with a can opener! Several days later, when the surface wind speeds and computed stress at all four buoys dropped to ∼60% and e1 of their respective peak storm values, a counterclockwise rotation began at each buoy with a concomitant impulsive ambient noise peak. The rotationally‐induced “noise bursts” are called icequakes in an analogy with earthquakes. I was thinking, do you think it is worth it to take the 3 points out of ice floes and put it into arctic winds?

When people look at the name Floe, they might ask the question, “is Floe a man or a woman?”, or “what is the gender of the name Floe?” When an electric current floes through a long conductor each free electron moves? Where is the Army when you need it? The floes are now pressed further and further towards the shore … The southern wind helps … It seems pretty cool because of the humidity … I hope the wind will soon come from a different direction … To the ice floes, useless eaters!

Frog, Pond, Plop

Composed 2012

Instrumentation mezzo-soprano and piano

Text from Eunoia by Christian Bök

Premiered February 2012 by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo, and Jung-Min Lee, piano

Written for Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek

Training Wheels

Composed 2007

instrumentation Viola and Cello

Premiered March 2008

Program Notes

This piece began with trains.  The cartoon trains that always run away and end up causing mayhem.  The two trains on a collision from high school math.  The toy train set my grandfather had at his house.  But really, it started with the idea of two trains racing.  The piece is in roughly two parts, one for each train.  They begin at rest, the engine roars to life, each train begins to move, slowly but surely picking up speed, passing through endless, non-descript terrain, when the engineer suddenly loses control on a downhill and the two trains rush toward some kind of inevitable disaster that gets cut short by the film breaking and a blank screen for a few moments before the lights come up and everyone leaves the theatre.

Or something like that.  I’ve never been a big believer in program music, even if I am a fan of Looney Tunes.  So take my fanciful tale above with a grain of salt and the realization that, except for the initial image of racing trains, all of it was made up after the ink had settled on the completed score.  But the damage has already been done, and you’ll be thinking of trains plummeting to their doom regardless of what I say.  So enjoy the eminent catastrophe your brain now tells you you’re about to hear, even if there is no catastrophe to be heard.

Defenestration #4

Composed 2007

Instrumentation Bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, bassoon, trombone

Premiered November 17, 2007

Program Notes

Defenstration n. – The act of throwing someone or something out a window.  From the Defenestration of Prague, the action of the Bohemian insurgents who, on the 21st of May 1618, broke up a meeting of Imperial commissioners and deputies of the States, held in the castle of the Hradshin, and threw two of the commissioners and their secretary out of the window; this formed the prelude to the Thirty Years’ War.

Four, a. and n. – The cardinal number next after three, represented by the symbols 4 or IV.