It was about 2 AM on the morning of March 14 – while I was fervently finishing the program notes for my doctoral composition recital – when it struck me that I have had a few premieres in the last twelve months. That recital included two itself – Late, for solo guitar, and Bound, for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble – but these simply continued a trend dating back to last May. I was very much taken aback early that morning when I realized Late and Bound would be the fifth and sixth world premieres in the preceding twelve months – last Tuesday, I enjoyed the seventh in that period. So, understanding how incredibly special this kind of run is, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on these pieces and present them to you in the order they were made public.
Escapement (prepared piano)
Premiered in May 2014 by Jeannette Fang in Ann Arbor, MI
Jeannette not only premiered Escapement, she also commissioned it for her final dissertation recital at the University of Michigan. Driven by her passion for adventurous repertoire and collaboration, Jeannette approached me, David Biedenbender, Roger Zare, and Jeremy Crosmer for new works for prepared piano. Escapement‘s title, form, and sound world are based on my experiences as a part-time piano technician at the University of Michigan. I even recorded myself while at work to capture the special kind of unintentional music that emerges during a tuning. The piece’s preparation is also influenced by the craft of piano technology, as I decided to use only two felt temperament strips to mute the instrument’s middle register from the C below Middle C to the C above it.
When you spend time working on a piano, you begin to understand how every part of the instrument collaborates to produce and shape its sound. I wrote Escapement to explore this sound, the soul of the instrument, in a raw, unvarnished way. For this reason, I avoid clear melodies, meter, or rhythmic formulations for most, if not all, of Escapement. I aspire that the ambiguity of Escapement‘s language helps to draw people into the sound of the instrument, which, at least at first, seems restrained and vulnerable on account of the felt’s dampening effect. Sound is probably my greatest fascination as a composer, and I think Escapement is my greatest achievement in exploring timbre and texture.
Even though Escapement is not even a year old, Jeannette has already played it several times across the country including at the inaugural New Music Gathering in San Francisco last January. There, she and I preceded the performance by presenting our insights on creating daring, evocative, and piano/pianist-friendly preparations.
For Piano (solo piano)
Premiered in May 2014 by Dalton Yu in New Haven, CT
The Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT commissioned this piece from me for their annual competition for Middle School and High School-level pianists. I was asked to write for the Middle School division, and I feel I should point out the young man who premiered the piece was only fourteen years old. The above recording is from my aforementioned March 14 recital where Jeanette Fang played For Piano along with Escapement and some other of my piano music.
Having not grown up a pianist, I am always self-conscious when I write for piano. I try my best to mask my lack of experience by painstakingly considering how my ideas are. For Piano started out of this carefulness: because they commissioned me for the middle school division of their piano competition, the Neighborhood Music School gave me very clear, instructions as to what the work’s technical limitations and personality should be. To this end, I was told not to write any harmonic intervals larger than a major sixth and that a faster, more technique-driven piece would probably be easier for the pianists to interpret than something slow and atmospheric. I was happy to oblige, and conceived of For Piano as a kind of toccata. I worked hard to make sure all the licks fit my hands well (after all, if I can play a line slowly, a real pianist should have no trouble, right?), and, to my surprise, was actually encouraged by the Neighborhood Music School’s composer-in-residence to make the piece more difficult.
Dalton, the fourteen-year-old pianist who premiered For Piano last May, did an incredible job with the piece, and showed me that it is really a wild piece. Jeannette, too, played For Piano with a thrilling intensity that surprised me. However, I have learned to love and savor the lessons the performers I work with can teach me about my pieces. Indeed, For Piano is one case where I have come to know the piece’s true nature through the gifted interpretations of the people who have played it.
Mechanismus (stereo electronics)
Premiered in August 2015 in Portsmouth, NH
Mechanismus remains my latest work for electronics, although I do not expect it to be my last. The work has unexciting origins, as I wrote it for my final project in the advanced electronic music seminar I took last year. Technically, Mechanismus was premiered in that class’s final meeting, almost exactly a year ago from the time I am writing this post. However, it did not receive a public playing until the following August, at the PARMA Festival in Portsmouth, NH.
I had a lot of fun composing Mechanismus, although I’m not sure any other piece of mine has required as much discipline on my part. I tried to make Mechanismus as “from scratch” as possible, which meant I made myself draw on one sample for most of the piece’s sounds, and did not allow myself to use quantization to keep the piece’s tempo and rhythms precise. Therefore, I measured every single sound individually, and composed the piece like a mosaic, connecting segments of audio lasting no longer than an eighth of second into lengthy phrases. This process was, perhaps, overcomplicated, but it enabled me to have complete control over Mechanismus‘s form and flow.
Mechanismus draws very obviously on a number of styles of synth pop music. The predominant, raw synthesizer sounds, which I samples from a 30-year-old toy Muppets keyboard, are an homage to early Kraftwerk. On the other hand, Mechanismus‘s pace, its eventual ‘beat drop’ figuration, and certain of the work’s melodies and harmonic progressions are meant to suggest more recent trends.
Chant-Fanfare (brass ensemble)
Premiered by the UWSP Wind Ensemble in March 2015 in Stevens-Point, WI
Chant-Fanfare is the first piece I have composed for any kind of wind ensemble since I was in high school. Jonathan Caldwell, the director of bands at University of Wisconsin at Stevens-Point, asked me to write the piece last July for the final concert of his first season at UWSP. As the title suggests, the piece is a fanfare that opens with a contrapuntal fantasy on the Gregorian Chant, “Puer Natus Est Nobis”.
To further respect its reference to early Catholic music, Chant-Fanfare is scored for three antiphonal choirs of brass instruments: one group of four horns, and two sextets each with two trumpets, two trombones, euphonium and tuba. At the premiere, Jonathan placed the sextets on either side of the hall, with the horns center stage. I thought this setup showcased the piece’s antiphonal characteristics beautifully. With this said, I look forward to the possibility that future performances of Chant-Fanfare might further experiment with the work’s considerations.
In addition to premiering Chant-Fanfare, Jonathan arranged for me to conduct a brief residency with UWSP’s composition department, which I enjoyed greatly. Charles Rodchester Young, the chair of the UWSP composition department, was a wonderful host, and I was quite impressed with the composition students I met.
Late (solo guitar)
Premiered by Jordan Knudson in March 2015 in Ypsilanti, MI
Of the seven works I have had premiered in the last twelve months, Late is the oldest. The earliest draft of the piece probably dates to the summer of 2012, but my collaboration with Jordan is even older. We met at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2011 and, after hitting it off, vowed to work together. Jordan was as huge part of bringing this piece to fruition, because my instincts in writing for guitar were not always the wisest.
No other piece of mine has undergone as much revision as Late, but I am very thankful for the opportunity to perfect the work’s delicate and meditative character. Late is episodic, and does not convey a grand or dramatic structure, opting, instead, to present a series of refractions of the same saturnine material. The drone motif that dominates Late‘s opening section is the work’s heart and spine, and rhythm, overall, plays a very important role in the overall evolution of the piece’s basic ideas. With the exception of one section, Late’s melodies tend to be obstuse, which means Jordan deserves a great deal of credit for his lyrical performance. His expert playing clarified an otherwise translucent network of melodic lines, which, in Jordan hands, are stunning.
In particular, Jordan was an invaluable coach to my writing for classical guitar, which proved a challenge. Electric guitar was the first instrument I wrote music on, and, because of that, I probably took my knowledge of guitar writing for granted. Luckily, Jordan was patient with my early drafts, and I am extremely pleased with the fruits of our collaborative labor.
Bound (for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble)
Premiered in March 2015 by Megan Ihnen and Latitude49 in Ypsilanti, MI
Bound is my composition dissertation, and bringing it to life was easily the most fulfilling musical experience I have had. Work-shopping Bound with Megan Ihnen and Chris Sies, Andy Hall, Jake Woollen, and Jason Paige of Latitude49 was as endlessly thrilling as their premiere performance. Bound is a song cycle that sets the poetry of Lauren Clark, an award-winning poet who has been a terrific friend and colleague of mine over the last few years.
Bound deals with themes of love and loss, and explores the kind of trauma the causes and results from the dissolution of our most important relationships. The music draws on a small battery of motives to produce a vibrant, narrative landscape that is austere, yearning, and, above all, dramatic. The voice is at times lyrical and percussive, taking center stage to tell Bound‘s story. It is hard to express the profound satisfaction I felt working with Megan and Latitude49, and I am excited for the next time they perform bound
In addition to Megan, whose insightful connection to the work’s text made her premiere performance a true tour-de-force, Chris Sies was an enormous influence on Bound. His guidance with the percussion part, both as I was writing Bound and in rehearsal, proved crucial to the premiere’s success. Obviously, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to rely on these incredible artists, surely I profited immensely from their talents and generosity.
Responsoria (string quartet)
Premiered in April 2015 by Davis West, Jenny Wang, Chisato Suga, and Daniel Poceta in Ann Arbor, MI
Responsoria is my most recent piece, and the last in the magnificent seven premieres I am sharing in this post. I wrote it for a collaborative project the University of Michigan composition department conducted with the chamber music program. And, almost unbelievably, Responsoria is my first work for this storied instrumentation.
The piece responds and references Carlo Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsorias, which captivated me last winter, around the time I was composing this work. In particular, Responsoria’s main motive is drawn from Gesualdo’s “Triste Anima Mea”, the second of the long set of litugical works written to celebrate Maundy Thursday. My Responsoria juxtaposes two worlds of material, one frenetic and thorny, the other spacious, contrapuntal, and yearning. The overall form more closely resembles the aged precedents of Gesualdo’s choral works or Purcell’s Fantasias for viol ensemble than the climactic and tumultuous quartets of the Romantic period.
Responsoria‘s premiere was very exciting for me because I did not hear the quartet play the piece until the afternoon of the performance. I was lucky to have so gifted a set of players, because their unsupervised rehearsals had been extremely productive and extremely perspicacious. They needed very little coaching to pull off a deeply impressive premiere later that evening, for which I am very grateful.
I would be remiss not to thank Nelson T. Gast, a colleague of mine here in the University of Michigan Composition Department, who engineered the recordings of Bound, Late, and Responsoria.