When I joined the Kent State faculty in 2018, I already knew saxophonist Noa Even who was on faculty at the time, and we began to discuss the idea of my writing her a concerto for saxophone and wind ensemble. We were quickly approaching the 50th anniversary of the Kent State Shootings, THE defining event from KSU’s history, and a painful and important collective memory from our country’s history, so I decided to write a concerto that would be dedicated to the victims of the shooting. My concerto, entitled For Those Who Fell is programmatic, and tells an imagined version of the events of that day, with the soloist acting as a leader of student protestors. The piece is in five main sections: Introduction, Gathering Energy, Energy of Protest, Shots Ring Out in Slow Motion, and Elegy. The piece begins with a single note in the saxophone and monolithic chords in the ensemble, sounding a call for protest. Through “Gathering Energy,” the piece’s harmonies begin to slowly move and the soloist plays melodic figuration in an anticipation of protest. “Energy of Protest” is the longest section in the work and drives rhythmically towards the moment when the National Guard shoots into the crowd of students, killing four and injuring nine others. With “Shots Ring Out in Slow Motion” I make time suddenly slow, zooming into this traumatic memory and witnessing the National Guard shooting into the crowd of students. Finally, the piece ends with a bittersweet elegy, during which four members of the ensemble stand one at a time and speak the names of the dead.
2 flutes (both double piccolo) 2oboes (second doubles English Horn) 2 clarinets (second doubles bass clarinet) 2 bassoons (second doubles contrabassoon) 2.2.1 (bass trombone) timp. 2 percussion (Player 1: 4 tom toms, snare drum, 2 bongos, tambourine, 1 wood block, suspended cymbal; Player 2: snare drum, large tam-tam, medium tam-tam, suspended cymbal, ratchet, mark tree, tambourine, maracas) solo percussion (bass drum, kick bass drum, 5 tom-toms, 2 bongos, snare drum, 5 wood/temple blocks, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, crotales, glockenspiel), strings
In 2018 andPlay commissioned me to write a new work for them—they had played my miniature Shift Differential for several years—and now wanted a longer piece. I eventually settled on writing a piece in two unequal parts. In my imagination these parts were like panels that could be hung side by side and viewed simultaneously rather than musical movements, which follow one another in time. I was attracted by the tense polarity that exists between two experiences that comment on one another without a concluding/balancing third part (historically, two movement forms are rare—Beethoven’s Op. 111 is an iconic example, and Op. 54, Op. 78 and Op. 90 are also digressions from the more balanced norm).
The two parts of Diptych are very different from each other in both length and character. Part I is ca. 5 ½ minutes while Part II clocks in at 9 ½ minutes. Part I is about sound, touch, and line, and like Shift Differential, exhibits a range of sonority from light, ethereal touch to intense overpressure (this is enacted in the first 1:15, with a movement from niente to white noise and back again). Subtle glissandi slide over each other and delicate lines sinuously snake upwards. Guttural sounds, anxious whispers and pensive harmonies combine to form a tense, contemplative atmosphere.
In contrast to Part I, Part II is more dynamic and gestural. The piece uses tetrachords as fundamental building blocks, combining and recombining them into intricate tapestries of sound. These move through different rates of time, as in the opening, which builds and stretches these chords into dense, warm clusters, and later, when they liquify into rapid scales off of which new melodic gestures leap. In the middle of the piece, the instruments chase and tumble over each other, further complexifying the texture. If Part I is a meditation on sound and experience, Part II is a visceral dance, pulling, stretching and pushing outward.
Commissioned by the Johnstone Fund for Contemporary Music, happy/angry music was composed between May and August of 2017 for Bearthoven, who premiered the work at the Short North Stage in Columbus, Ohio.
Happy/Angry Music’s first three minutes are like a rock song that implodes in on itself: the rhythmic, hiccuping repetitions of the opening are eventually pulled apart by cascading, descending figures into ever-elongating resonances and moments of rest. A contrasting middle section reveals a core of inward simplicity, as the the gregarious, rebellious music of the opening has evaporated to reveal music of childlike innocence, articulated by the piano, mbira and bass playing a diatonic, geometric heterophony. Quiet, resonant piano lays the ground over which the bass sings, moving through a kaleidoscope of harmonic colors. The music gradually works towards a roaring apotheosis, with the piano spiraling upwards as the bass moves through increasingly large, jagged leaps, and the tam-tam blooms into fortissimo white noise. A descent, and then rest. The music reawakens and briefly dances into an exuberant ending.
My Oboe Quartet was commissioned by the Society for Chamber Music Rochester for its 40th Anniversary Season. I knew at the outset that my piece would be programmed alongside the Mozart Oboe Quartet, a fact which influenced my process from the beginning. I structured the outline of the form as an homage to Mozart’s piece—it’s in three movements that follow a fast-slow-fast structure. The materials of my piece are wholly my own, however, creating a dialogue with Mozart’s sound world. The first movement, for example, features a section where scratchy sul ponticello string harmonics and oboe multiphonics meld together to create a distorted texture, dissolving into “pure sound”.
A few other references to capital-C classical music entered the piece: the second movement is titled “lament: hommage á J.S. Bach”, and features a descending bass line that repeats in a chaconne-like manner, and the third movement includes a quotation of part of the first movement of Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, Op. 74.
I am very grateful to the SCMR for commissioning this piece and to its members for their generous spirit, support, and for beautifully premiering the work in April 2017.
I wrote Filtered Light on a commission from Emlyn Johnson, who spearheaded the Music in the American Wild project. Music in the American Wild (http://www.musicintheamericanwild.com/) set out to celebrate the centenary of the National Parks Service by commissioning several composers to write for flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, violin, viola, and cello and then perform these commissioned works outdoors in national parks around the U.S.
When beginning the process of writing this piece, I set the intention of meditating on nature and then allowing these meditations to inform my writing, perhaps in subconscious ways that I might not understand (my music is generally not programmatic in a literal way). As a resident of NYC at the time of writing the piece, I reflected on how nature intersects with the city. Parks in NYC are for me incredibly important. I chose to live on the Upper West Side in part because I love knowing that Riverside Park and Central Park flank the few avenues that exist in between them. I imagine these parks as providing much needed oxygen to city dwellers, and they connect us to the softer parts of our humanity within the harder concrete edges that greet us as sidewalks, skyscrapers and zooming traffic. Sometimes, standing in Central Park, I look out at the city and am astounded at how (manmade) nature gives way over one sharp line to streets and high-rises.
While the piece is not programmatic, I am conscious of how a few images appear in the music. The opening texture is like sunlight dancing on a million small leaves that are rustling in a slight breeze. The more aggressive, rhythmic music is a tribal, urban dance. The stacked-fifth harmonies that appear at times are a small nod to Americana (think Copland and fifths meaning nature in some way). I’m grateful to Emlyn for the enormous musical and organizational effort she put into this project.
I wrote Dark Matter for the one-of-a-kind duo, Ums ‘n Jip (http://umsnjip.ch/umsnjip.htm). I met Ulrike and Javier while I was teaching in Istanbul, as they had connected with the Center for Advanced Studies in Music at Istanbul Technical University when they were in residence for the Turkey chapter of their international commissioning project. While I didn’t write for them at this time, I had a chance to observe Ulrike’s nuanced playing on her many different recorders and to hear Javier’s extraordinary range of vocal sounds and utterances.
Later, when they did commission me, I was faced with the task of deciding what to write for this duo who can do anything. I finally decided that I needed a text (I had considered writing an extended contemporary vocalise) and began the hunt for a poet I could set. I was looking for something current that would spark my imagination, but was not sure beyond that where to look or what I would find.
Sitting one day in the basement poetry section at McNally’s in Soho, I pulled Rae Armantrout’s Dark Matter off the shelf and was immediately floored by the work. I can’t claim to have understood it, but I was drawn into the quick and often contrasting images that flit between observations of the world around her, mass media, somber reflection, existential philosophy, and random interjection. I had my muse.
I ended up setting ten poems from this work. Though Rae was not in attendance at the premiere (nor was I, as it was in Switzerland and I could not attend), the three of us (Rae, Ums n’ Jip and myself) were in attendance for a poetry reading of Rae’s at the Zinc Bar downtown, during which Rae and Ums n’ Jip alternated reading an performing five poems from the set. I wish to thank Rae for allowing me to set her words, and for Ums ‘n Jip for commissioning the work and performing it so beautifully.
I wrote Lacuna for David Michael Hughes to premiere at the Orleans Piano Competition, a competition that features music of the 20th-21st centuries, and which encourages competitors to perform a work written for the occasion. I was connected to David through Stephen Drury, the great pianist and new-music advocate, who had met David at Tanglewood. The piece was awarded a prize at the Orleans Competition for best new premiere.
David was invited back to perform an all-American program at Orleans a year later and performed the piece again there. Alex Bernstein has also performed the piece.
Lacuna is in three distinct sections. The first is fluid and angular and makes use of the whole range of the piano as a resonating body. The second section is a manic dance, and is in many respects a tribute to textures found in Ligeti’s piano etudes. The third section is a meditative, resonant reflection on the previous two sections.
I wrote Nostalgia Variations for the Boston-based clarinet/marimba duo Transient Canvas. I first worked with the excellent Amy Advocat in the context of my chamber opera, Giver of Light.
Nostalgia Variations engages with the tradition of theme and variation. The title refers to the emotional quality of the opening tema. “Nostalgia” is a wrought-emotion in contemporary art, bordered on one end by saccharin expression, and on the other end of the spectrum by irony and rejection of emotion. The piece is about finding a way to engage with such emotions in, as a Buddhist would say, the middle path.
The piece has eleven short variations, some more obviously based on the Tema, some less. The piece asks the question of how different can a variation be and still connect to a beginning idea?
I wrote Jubilee for pianist Jerfi Aji for a concert celebrating the 15th anniversary of MIAM (the Center for Advanced Studies in Music in Istanbul, Turkey) where I taught from 2011-2014. As the title suggests, the piece is a high-energy celebratory work. The piece is dedicated with fondness to Jerfi, an excellent pianist and friend.
I wrote Flight Patterns for the MIAM Modern Music Ensemble, an ensemble based at MIAM (or the Center for Advanced Studies in Music) at Istanbul Technical University. Though I was on faculty at MIAM for four years, from 2010-2014, I wrote this piece in New York City, where I lived for the summer of 2014 in a small studio in Harlem. I composed the work for an exchange between MIAM and Humboldt University in Berlin that celebrated Turkish culture. The concert that included the premiere of Flight Patterns also included the premieres of other faculty composers, as well as traditional Turkish music.
This seven-minute piece is in two parts, similar to and different from each other. The two halves begin in similar ways, with delicate material that coalesces into firmer gestures, though each half follows its own trajectory. The second half is not a variation of the first, per se; rather, the piece is like a day lived twice, with similar conditions, but different choices and outcomes. The piece is about both narrative and texture, and plays with different qualities of touch as the story unfolds.
I conducted the premiere. The ensemble consisted of Filiz Kirapinar on flute, Amy Salsgiver on percussion, Jerfi Aji on piano, Aida Pulake on violin, and Yelda Ozgen on cello.
Giver of Light is a chamber opera based on the life of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet Rumi. Rumi’s life story is an extraordinary tale of transformation, one which is as relevant today as it was nearly one thousand years ago.
As the myth goes, Rumi began as a respected scholar and was transformed when Shams of Tabriz, a wandering mystic, walked into town and challenged Rumi to transcend his book learning and taste the waters of existence through direct experience. Rumi was intensely drawn to Shams, and their electric connection was one of the forces that changed Rumi into the mystical poet we know and love today. The other main catalyzing ingredient was grief: it is rumored that certain townspeople were jealous of Rumi’s relationship with Shams, and one of them—perhaps even one of Rumi’s sons—may have murdered Shams. In any case, we know that Shams disappeared, and Rumi’s longing for the absent Shams inspired Rumi to begin creating poetry.
In deciding on a subject matter for my chamber opera, I felt that Rumi’s life story was particularly relevant for this time. We are living in an age of soundbites and cool detachment in which we cultivate our identities through social media alone in our rooms. We are more “connected” than ever before and perhaps more lonely. I can only imagine that people today must relate to Rumi’s longing for intensity. I certainly do.
My idea in writing the libretto for this opera was to translate the main events of Rumi’s story into a modern tale set somewhere in the American Midwest. In Giver of Light, Rumi is John, a white male in his forties who “has it all,” a beautiful wife (Elena), child (Brian), and a good job selling hybrid cars. He is conscientious and well respected. He does yoga and recycles. But he feels empty on the inside and when he encounters Darren, a mystic who drives Brian’s school bus, John’s world is turned upside down.
In working on this piece, I attempted to create two distinct musical spaces: one which represents “normal,” “outer” life, and is generally rhythmic and conversational in tone, and another space which represents the “inner” life of John and Darren and that is more abstract and sonically strange. The electronics, composed by Anıl Çamcı, are primarily heard in the second type of music to create a sense of space and ritual during the meditative scenes. In this way I was inspired by Jonathan Harvey’s point of view, in seeing electronics as a way of “expanding a listener’s consciousness outside the normal world of instruments.”*
The main characters of this opera are everyman and everywoman, archetypes that are general enough that we may see our own reflections in them. I hope that as the opera unfolds we as audience members have the chance to experience this drama through John, Elena, Darren, and Brian’s eyes. I believe that Rumi’s longings were and are universal, and it is my hope that this piece might allow Rumi’s experiences to resonate in us here and now.
*Harvey, Jonathan. “Composer in Focus: Jonathan Harvey- Interview.” Composer’s Notebook Quarterly. Trigueros, Francisco Castillo, Ed. Dec., 2007. Web. May 19, 2013.