Some examples of my non-concert music.
- A Hero Remembered
- Beyond the Stars
- Houses in Trees
- Journey into Exile
- Rabbit-Shaped Cloud
- Remaining in Motion
- Search the Forest
- The Shortest Distance
Some examples of my non-concert music.
The Kobold’s Workshop is to date my only foray into (academic) electronic music, and several years after its composition I look back on it with mixed feelings. At least theoretically, there are a lot of things in the piece that now strike me as poor compositional decisions: chiefly, a continuous right-to-left panning in places, a near absence of the flute until halfway through, an over-metered feel, and a score that wasn’t synced with the tape part and was never intended for live performance. In spite of this, I am always surprised when I relisten to the music by how well it works.
There’s something to be said for compositional intuition. When I was writing the piece, I felt like I had no idea how to properly approach the electronic medium, so I just experimented to find what seemed to sound right to me. Although this resulted in the slapdash mistakes mentioned above, I think on the whole that the experimentation served me well. Kobold is one of the few examples of my undergraduate work that I still show to other people.
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean
(Samuel Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” lns. 25-28)
There is a familiarity to major and minor scales, even when used outside of the context of functional tonality, that lends broad accessibility to a piece. The danger of divorcing a diatonic scale from its tonal underpinnings, however, is that harmonies lacking tonality’s impetus toward resolution tend to stagnate unless care is taken to vary them appropriately. This issue was on my mind as I prepared to write Five Miles of Mazy Motion, and I chose a method of harmonic variation that had implications on both a local and a global scale. Both the violin and the piano use diatonic scales, but each may use a different transposition of the scale at a given point in the music. Furthermore, the scale transpositions are changed over time in relation to each other, usually according to the circle of fifths.
Measures 40-44: The violin begins in a one-flat scale that becomes a two-flat scale with the introduction of E-flat in m. 42. The piano has three flats until the A-natural at the end of m. 42 moves it to a two-flat scale. By m. 43, the instruments have converged on a two-flat scale from opposite directions by circle of fifths motion.
This technique is not intended to evoke bitonality; in fact, it may be largely transparent to a listener. The disparity between the conflicting pitches of the dual scale transpositions never completely overwhelms the unity of the common pitches; the former, rather, serve as a judicious contrast to the latter, sometimes operating through simultaneous harmonic juxtaposition, other times through contrasting melodic ideas temporally mediated by the common pitches. The resulting effect is one of subtle harmonic diversification rather than Bartók-like simultaneous scalar contrast.
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away–
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
(Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark,” Fit 8, sts. 8-9)
Old joke: a man asks a friend what her watch says, and she replies, “Nothing. You have to look at it.”
If you were to ask me what The Vanishing says, or perhaps what I’m trying to communicate through the piece, I would reply, “Nothing. You have to look at it.”
The point I’m getting at is that you can’t sit passively and expect music to speak to you. You must engage it; you must decide what aspects of the sound to listen to, be they aspects of harmony, rhythm, timbre, or something else. You must also find a way to relate the elements on which you focus to a larger framework, either within the music or outside of it. People bring their own sets of preferences and biases to a piece of music, and no two will listen to exactly the same elements or relationships in it. If you are conscious of the way that you generally approach the act of listening, however, it becomes easier to step outside of that default approach and try new ways of dealing with music.
You might expect a composer to view his own work statically, sticking to the “correct” way of hearing his piece, but I have found this to be an extremely unproductive way of working (to say nothing of the fallacy of “correct” musical meaning). The name and poetic context of The Vanishing, in fact, arose in my mind weeks after I had finished writing the piece, and only after I had stepped back from it and explicitly looked for new approaches. Although my sanctioning of the Carroll text obviously indicates that I think it provides an easy, enjoyable way to approach the music, I by no means wish to imply that the specific programmatic context of the poetry is the only (or necessarily even the best) way of engaging the music. After all, you can’t rely on me to speak to you through the piece. No, you have to look at it.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not
full; unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.
(Ecclesiastes 1:7 KJV)
The biblical book of Ecclesiastes presents the somewhat nihilistic notion that there is nothing of lasting significance in the world. Time is presented as the great equalizer: all people will die eventually, and their ultimate impact will be negligible. Rather than despairing over the hopelessness of life as many seem to do upon reading the book, I read Ecclesiastes and muse upon the properties of time and their relationship with humanity.
As a composer, I deal with an art that is transient by nature and can only be experienced through the linear progression of time, so the issues brought up by Ecclesiastes are pertinent to my work. There were several temporal considerations on my mind as I sketched Vapor of Vapors. The piece was intended as a dedication for Grace United Methodist Church’s new set of handchimes, so I was working to a deadline. I’d had relatively short notice and would have little rehearsal time; additionally, the piece had to be brief in order to fit into an already busy Sunday worship service.
With these deadlines and length restrictions, the challenge was to evoke a sense of timelessness despite the very real temporal constraints. To help achieve this, I settled on a harmonic ostinato somewhat reminiscent of techniques employed by sacred minimalists such as Pärt and Górecki. The idea for this particular ostinato, in fact, was inspired by the final movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, in which the strings carry a similar part throughout the entire movement. The melodic motion in Vapors has a timeless character, too. The melody circles ever downward, searching for a resting place and never truly finding it until the very end, where it is crushed into octaves with the underlying parts – the same octaves found at the start of the piece – like a river returning again to the place from whence it came.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
(Acts 2:17-18 KJV)
As a young composer, the process of finding my compositional voice has been an exciting one. Each piece I write teaches me new things, and Anthem for Pentecost is no exception. This piece marks something of a change for me, laying the foundation for what I think of as a liturgical style distinct from my concert style. Whereas my concert style tends toward fragmented, Schoenberg-influenced rhythms and free treatment of dissonance, the liturgical style is primarily drawn from European sacred minimalism, exhibiting more rhythmic unity and greater continuity in melodic lines.
Initial inspiration for Anthem for Pentecost came from the choral works of Arvo Pärt, but I knew from the outset that I wanted my harmonies to develop much more rapidly than Pärt’s generally do. Although the presence of key signatures in the score is a concession to the notational preference of the choir that commissioned the piece rather than an indication of strict tonality, it nevertheless demonstrates that the pitch organization of the piece is distinctly diatonic. Within the broad ternary form of the piece, the music moves from a one-flat harmonic region to a four-sharp region, then back to a one-flat region. This harmonic contrast, along with other developments in the rhythm and texture, helps to emphasize a textual distinction between God’s annunciation of the prophesy and the actual contents of the prophesy.
Because the rhythmic and metric features of Anthem for Pentecost were largely derived from my interpretation of rhythm found naturally in the text, I left these rhythms mostly unnotated in my early sketches. Instead, I focused on harmonies and voice-leading, working out the rhythmic details only after the harmonic motion was firmly in place. The ultimate result of this process, as noted above, was something quite different from many of my other pieces: a distinctly contemplative form of music suited to liturgical use.
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