Rehearsal in Woolsey Hall with conductor Jonathan Brandani

Rehearsal in Woolsey Hall with conductor Jonathan Brandani

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- for full orchestra, 2017. -

Of All This Unintelligible World takes its inspiration from a William Wordsworth poem, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” In the poem, Wordsworth contemplates the landscape surrounding the titular abbey, an impressively large gothic structure that’s been abandoned. The abbey’s roof is missing, its stone walls are overgrown with vines, and just a few miles away, plumes of smoke rise off the riverbank, the product of some of England’s first factories. For Wordsworth, one of the first Romantic poets, returning to the countryside offers a sense of calm and “tranquil restoration,” and one particular phrase to that effect caught my attention. Wordsworth writes that his experience of nature creates a sublime mood “in which the heavy and weary weight / of all this unintelligible world, / is lightened.” I know I, like many others, have found the weight of our unintelligible world especially burdensome in recent months. This music responds both to that experience of heaviness and to the bracing optimism of Wordsworth’s poetry. 

 

- for brass sextet, 2016. -

An “ornithopter,” from the Greek “ornithos” (bird) and “pteron” (wing), is a flying machine designed to fly by flapping its wings. The history of human flight is full of attempts at ornithopters of various shapes and sizes, all characterized by their bird-like flight mechanics. In spite of efforts by Leonardo da Vinci and many other great minds, ornithopters are also almost categorically characterized by failure; these machines simply don’t work. After all, when compared to birds, people are frankly quite heavy. My piece takes the image of a struggling ornithopter as a guiding metaphor: the brass players work together here, flapping furiously, working against the odds to achieve lift in spite of their—pardon my candor—tremendous collective weight. Capricious and vigorous, and always a little unstable, this music imagines a whimsical ride in a giant brass ornithopter. Our flying machine is, like any good ornithopter, clearly prone to failure. Even so, it is still surprisingly potent.

 

- for full orchestra, 2016. -

Mercury-Redstone 3 is the name of the NASA mission that first sent an American astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space. I find it interesting that this tremendous accomplishment has been overshadowed by two other, more celebrated historical events. Just three weeks before Shepard’s suborbital flight, the Soviet Union launched the first person ever into space, beating the States to the punch. Then, eight months after the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, NASA launched John Glenn all the way into orbit aboard Mercury-Atlas 6. These feats by Glenn and the USSR are more readily remembered than Shepard's, but for me, the somewhat unheralded nature of the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission imbues it with a special quality. To imagine that first U.S. spaceflight is to think of the unadulterated thrill of exploration and an unfathomable exhilaration. What must it have felt like to be among the first to touch the sky? I hope in this piece to capture some of the sense of wonder and excitement that NASA, and the sheer audacity of human spaceflight, have brought me since I was young. 

 

- for full orchestra, 2014. -

Asphodel takes its name from a Mediterranean flower. Though it blooms near the sea to this day, the asphodel is most famous for its symbolic role in Homer’s Odyssey: Homer tells us that the asphodel covers the meadows of the afterlife. My piece peripherally ponders the ancients’ notion of afterlife by responding to three of the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, moral edicts meant to guide mortals toward godhood. The first section of Asphodel is titled “it is ordained by destiny;” the full phrase in Pythagoras reads, “It is ordained by destiny that all men shall die.” The second section is titled “support your lot with patience,” a phrase Pythagoras intends as an edict not to complain about misfortune. The final section, “the nature of this universe is in all things alike,” reflects upon Pythagoras' declamation of a deep knowledge of the spiritual mysteries of the world.

 

- for chamber orchestra, 2016. -

To the Colors is loosely based on the first movement of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. The Haffner opens with a fiery, tutti forte passage that immediately calls its listeners to attention, featuring dramatic octave leaps that descend four scale steps. To the Colors seeks to capture the thrilling energy of Mozart's opening movement in its own way, aiming to offer its audience a similar spirit of excitement and enthusiasm. 

This work’s title is a reference to its attention-grabbing function. “To the Colors” is the name of a bugle call I heard often at summer camp growing up. While its official function is to honor our nation’s flag, we at the camp seem also to have adapted it for use as a signal that a mealtime or a special event was approaching. In my life, “To the Colors” has been the most authentic American cultural analog to the ear-catching function of Haffner’s opening gambit. Though the bugle call itself doesn’t influence the musical material in To the Colors, I like to think some of the energy it used to instill in me in my childhood has made its way into this music.

 

- for bass clarinet and organ, 2015. -

My Broken Arcs, Sufficient takes as its inspiration a text by friend, teacher, and author Jeff Nunokawa. I found his “Dream Song: Late-Summer Night” especially striking for its pensive, poetic message, and I hope the music I’ve set forth in these pages has in some way captured a hint of the tone and beauty of Jeff’s prose. Jeff’s essay reads as follows:

--

I thought that was something ugly that I had dreamed, said Mrs. Stone, or if it was real, that it could be forgotten (Tennessee Williams, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone)

Lately, when I wake to remember something (nasty, nice; flat; sharp; hard, soft) that I have dreamed, or done (somehow conducted; somehow composed), I'm more glad than grieved to know that I will never know how much of all that jazz-age is passed, and how much of it is permanent; how much forgotten and forgiven; how much merely transmitted to a different device--pressed to play, when I am ready; depressed even when I'm not.

 All those chords that toll me back to myself and others, chords sounded or seeming silent, will slip away soon enough--[s]liding by semitones till I sink to the minor--soon enough, the resting-place is found

Meanwhile (before the fall--through a spring, like a stone-to the final Rest, where all is silence), I see the Rock of Ages: [s]urveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep and I do what I can to make my  broken arcs, sufficient Arks to [t]he C Major of this life--

Note: before I try to sleep (Robert Browning, 'Abt Vogler').

--

My music doesn’t trace any particular narrative implication from this text, but it does meditate on the sense of dream-like temporality Jeff conveys. And, skirting around the edges of both the music and the prose, there lies the open question of how we might seek meaning in our relentlessly finite moments in time.

 

- for clarinet, trombone, percussion, piano, violin, and double bass, 2011. -

A Compo Sunrise was inspired, in part, by the music of Charles Ives. Though its surface style is not particularly Ivesian, the basic concept is: A Compo Sunrise attempts to evoke a setting through sound, just as so many of Ives’ works do. Ives happens to have been from Danbury, Connecticut, just a few towns away from my native Westport, so it seems appropriate that the setting of this particular homage is Westport’s Compo Beach. The work is essentially in binary form: the opening sixty measures are a kind of "night music," and the second half of the piece, with its faster tempo, represents a kind of daybreak. The static materials of the work's opening rather suddenly, if gradually, give way to the lyrical materials at its end, and it is my hope that in listening to this piece, you will find these transformations to be as beautiful and satisfying as I do—evocative, sweeping, and grand.

 

- for double wind quintet, two trombones, percussion, harp, and double bass, 2014. -

At the core of 'world without end' lies a melody, a single musical line whose cells and contour were loosely inspired by two source materials: the O Vis Aeternitatis responsorium by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), and, primarily, the Gloria Patri from an In Festo Sanctissimae Trinitatis by Étienne de Liège (c. 850 – 920). While this work’s resulting melody reflects in some ways the spiritual gracefulness of its ecclesiastical forebears, it also strives, struggles, and fails—it labors towards some kind of transcendence but frequently flounders and falters, entangled by its imperfections. For me, this piece has become an analogy for the deeply human struggle to come to terms with the concept of eternity. Can we, both eccentric and ephemeral in the colossal scope of the cosmos, look past our limitations to contemplate in saecula saeculorum—the ages of ages, the world without end? More immediately, this piece is also meant as an elegy and eulogy for a friend and brother.

- for piano trio, 2011. -

I started writing 27 Morningside with purely musical ideas in mind: the gradual evolution of a rhythm of African derivation; the development of shifting contexts around a common motivic thread. But as the narrative arc of the piece developed, I realized I’d been expressing more emotion with this music than I’d first intended. Started in the summer of 2010, while my family was separating and the last wisps of childhood were fluttering through my fingers, 27 Morningside became for me a sort of ode to home, a testament to wonderful moments passed. To some extent, you can hear the sounds of our house in the piece: an unrelenting bustle, some unexpected interruptions, and various people knocking on the door. But 27 Morningside is only loosely programmatic; it’s meant to convey, above all else, the spirit of home and that feeling, both wistful and heartening, that comes with the remembrance of the many things home has offered over the years.

 

- for string quartet, 2012. -

Celestial Dances, I: 'ex nihilo' attempts to examine, however obliquely, a physical process: the mysterious quantum mechanics of vacuum energy, whereby particles can pop in and out of existence without any apparent cause. At the outset of the work the viola sparkles softly, flickering faintly out from the silent background; then, a sudden, wild burst!—fragile and otherworldly sound rises upward, unleashing a dramatic and energetic impulse that surges ahead despite several false starts. Slowly, gradually, this delicate music begins to grow firmer foundations, consistently flowing forward across a kaleidoscopic diversity of textures. As the energy of the opening continues to churn, we hear the quartet explore a new and diverse universe for itself, moving through musical material that is sometimes referential, sometimes radical. The players search, build, and struggle, trying always to fashion meaning from the initial creative spark of the work. They finally find, together, a lyrical and triumphant place, singing forth loudly and without restraint—but as the music fades back into churning quietude, we are left again only with silence, memory, and a question... how, ultimately, can we make sense of this transience? 

 

- for wind ensemble, 2009. -

Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky was impressed enough by sailors’ tales of massive "ninth waves" that he titled his 1850 masterpiece "The Ninth Wave." The painting depicts a tiny group of people clinging to the mast of their wrecked ship, still stranded in the middle of a merciless sea. Completely indifferent to their struggle, a beautiful sunrise (or, perhaps, sunset) dominates the work, shining through the chaos and casting the brutal waves in a strangely positive light. I used Aivazovsky's painting as a loose source of narrative inspiration for The Ninth Wave—you may hear a storm gather at sea, the sailors nearly beating the elements, and the panic of their eventual shipwreck. As they’re left adrift, battered and totally alone, the piece sways with slow, ambiguous harmonies, leaving us to wonder what ultimately will become of these shipwrecked men.

 

- for three flutes, 2009. -

Sparkplug is a driving, energetic piece that seeks to use the flutes as a shimmering rhythm machine. Over the course of its brief arch form, it whirls through many different modes and textures. All the while, the flute players are passing musical material around the room to one another, exchanging parts, almost as if they are panning the contrapuntal material back and forth.

 

- for solo piano, 2009. -

Harmonia charts a course through many different scales and modes, taking a small set of materials through a wide variety of harmonic colors. The piece's overall affect is steady, refined, and almost etude-like in its sense of focus, but I hope the overall shape and dramatic arc of the work are still powerful.