Fantasy for cello and guitar III (SoundCloud)

Program Note

Written in Autumn 2012, in Three Fantasies for Cello and Guitar I sought to explore various techniques for playing the guitar and ways that the cello might imitate or replicate them. There are sections highlighting harmonics, pizzicato (plucked strings), single-note melodies, arpeggiated and block chords, and rasgueado (flamenco style strumming). Descriptive terms like misterioso (mysteriously), dialogo (dialogue), birichino (mischievously), and solenne (solemn) locate the motivation for these technical etudes in the realm of character pieces.

Some MIDI demos below via my SoundCloud page.

Making Preparations

Three Premieres in One Day!

Today is the busiest day yet for my compositions. At 8 PM EST, the Locrian Chamber Players premiere Gilgamesh Suite at Riverside Church in NYC. At 8 PM Pacific, Hubert Ho and Amelia Archer give the West Coast premiere of Bagatelle for Alto Flute in Saratoga, CA. Also this evening, WGDR is broadcasting “Gilgamesh Variation,” a short piece for prepared piano and electronics, on the 60X60 project’s marathon.

Program Note – Gilgamesh Suite

Gilgamesh Suite is a newly composed work based on selections from incidental music I contributed to the play Gilgamesh Variations, produced at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr Theatre in 2011. Written to commemorate the 2012 Cage centenary, its touchstone work is Sonatas and Interludes. Instead of creating a trope on Cageian compositional practices, I focused on incorporating the rich sound palette of the work’s prepared piano into the play’s eclectic and highly gestural aesthetic.

The suite, composed for Locrian Chamber Players, is scored for flute, prepared piano, harp, and string quartet. The sixth movement embeds Locrian Flourish, a work commissioned by the ensemble for flutist Diva Goodfriend-Koven, as an extended cadenza.

Thursday: Pictures 2012 Concert at Montclair Art Museum

New Jersey Arts Collective is presenting their annual Pictures concert at the Montclair Art Museum on Thursday, May 24 (pre-concert talk at 6:45; show starts at 7:30). In response to a competition held earlier this Spring, high school and college age students submitted compositions for solo piano somehow inspired by the Philip Guston painting Untitled 142 (1979), which is part of MAM’s collection. The winning entries, as well as several “micro-commissions” of short works from area composers, will be performed on the concert by pianist Carl Patrick Bolleia. (Purchase tickets here).

NJAC was kind enough to program two new piano pieces by yours truly: the program notes are below.

Gloss on Guston is a brief piece for solo piano. After hearing a playthrough of the work, a colleague recently quipped, “You’ve fit all the notes of Feldman’s For Philip Guston into one minute!” Indeed, there are many more notes per bar in this piece than in Feldman’s lengthy meditation of contemplative pointillism on Guston’s artworks: with good reason. Feldman’s music regards earlier pieces by Guston – his program note indicates paintings from 1949 and 1950 were the impetus for his reliquary to his abstract expressionist painter friend. My work is a response to a late painting by Guston – Untitled #142 (1979) – which resides in the Montclair Art Museum’s collection. Its vivid colors and angular shapes suggest to me busy athleticism and even, at times, motoric gestures, as well as a taut formal design. It was composed in 2012 in response to a commission from New Jersey Arts Collective and receives its world premiere today.

Fiery Sunset is a coda to my previous commission from New Jersey Arts Collective and the Montclair Art Museum: Innesscapes, a piece composed in 2008 that responds to the museum’s extraordinary collection of pieces by New Jersey landscape painter George Inness. It is scored for clarinet, viola, and piano. The first two instruments play the piece’s first movement, while all three instruments participate in movements two and three. After hearing the premiere, in order to balance the work I wanted to add a movement, one in which the piano gets a solo turn.

Fiery Sunset may be played by itself or as part of Innesscapes as a whole. It responds to Inness’s painting Sunset and is dedicated to local composer George Walker as a small gift acknowledging his ninetieth birthday on June 27, 2012. It also receives its world premiere today.

Noteworthy in 2011: SONiC, Ensemble Klang and Oscar Bettison

One of my favorite projects this past Fall was writing the program essay for American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC festival. I had the chance to interview several composers (though only a small sampling of the many fine participants) featured on SONiC, including Hannah Lash, Anthony Cheung, Keniji Bunch (an old friend – one of my classmates at Juilliard), and the National’s Bryce Dessner.

All of the interview subjects proved diverting. But I was particularly glad to have a chance in the essay to spotlight Ensemble Klang, a Dutch new music group that performed Oscar Bettison’s O Death on SONiC. Their performance was critically acclaimed as one of the highlights of the festival. And if you weren’t fortunate enough to be there, my recommendation would be to get thee hence to the group’s web store for a copy of the O Death studio recording (with liner notes by Alex Rose!).

While you’re there, I’d recommend checking out Ensemble Klang’s other studio recordings. Cows, Chords, and Combinations a portrait disc of minimalist composer/theorist/critic Tom Johnson has proved to be an extraordinarily valuable recording to me. It has reframed my thinking about the process-based components of minimalism: how they can be crafted into quite complicated structures and how they remain a vital component of whichever post (post post?) incarnation of minimalism we’re currently experiencing. The slowly evolving, spectral-inspired structures found on Waves, a disc of music by Peter Adriaansz, is equally engaging: a collection of soundscapes that require, nay demand, immersively intensive listening. (I haven’t yet heard Ensemble Klang’s recording of music by Matthew Wright; an oversight I hope to correct shortly).

Below, I’ve included an excerpt of my interview with Bettison, in which he discusses his creative process and the collaborative genesis of O Death.


Traditional instruments are one way to go in new music. Another is to find or create new instruments altogether. Such is often the pathway of composer Oscar Bettison. He enjoys incorporating unconventional instruments, such as those made from found objects or junk metal, into his scores.

Bettison says, “This was all a result of moving to Holland to study in the early 2000s. Before that, I had written a lot of music for traditional forces and I wanted to get away from that: to stretch myself as a composer. So, I started to play around with things, even going as far as to build some instruments; percussion mostly, but later on I branched out into radically detuning stringed instruments – there’s some of that in the guitar part of “O Death.” These things I called “Cinderella instruments: the kind of things that shouldn’t be ‘musical’ but I do my best to make them sing. And I suppose as a counterpoint to that, I shunned traditional instruments for a long time.”

Cinderella instruments, as well as references to popular music of many varieties, are signatures found in his work O Death, played on SONIC October 19, 2011 by Ensemble Klang.

Of O Death, Bettison says, “It was written for Ensemble Klang between 2005-7 and is my longest piece to date. It’s about 65 minutes long and I wrote it very much in collaboration with the group. We were lucky enough to have a situation in which I was able to try things out on the group over a long period. This was very important in writing it. The piece is in seven movements and is a kind of instrumental requiem, which references popular music elements (especially blues) and kind of grafts them on to the requiem structure. It’s something that I fell into quite naturally.  This I think is tied to my idea of ‘Cinderella instruments:’ eschewing the “classical” tradition somewhat.”

Bettison continues, “The thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I come from a very strict classical background. I was a violinist; indeed I went to a specialist music school in London as a violinist from the age of 10. My rebellion to being in a hot-house classical music environment was getting into metal, playing the drums and listening to avant-garde classical music that was seen as outside the ‘canon’ and I think that carried on into my music. So, to psychoanalyze myself for a minute, I think I’ve done both things in a response (quite a delayed response!) to the classical tradition precisely because I feel so at home in that tradition.”

Guest post: Hayes Biggs

Hayes Biggs is an outstanding composer, vocalist, copyist, and longtime instructor at Manhattan School of Music. I was delighted when he agreed to help us judge the call for scores for the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (which will be on Oct. 25 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub in NYC). The concert will close with the final movement from Hayes’s String Quartet, a work he discusses in the following post.

If ever a piece required my patience as it slowly taught me what it needed to do and be, it was my String Quartet: O Sapientia /Steal Away. My first sketches for it date from 1996, but it was not completed until 2004. This eight-year span of course included numerous interruptions of various sorts, including time on the back burner while other more immediately pressing projects got done. Even in rare moments of front-burner status I struggled with it, but I remain as proud of this work as of anything I’ve ever composed. The Avalon String Quartet premiered it in 2006 and subsequently recorded it for the Albany label.

The title refers to the quartet’s two main sources of material: my Advent motet for unaccompanied voices, O Sapientia, composed in 1995, and the African-American spiritual Steal Away. It is the latter that is the focus of the third and final movement, the one that will be heard at Joe’s Pub on October 25.  It is in two parts played without interruption: an Epigraph—simply a straightforward presentation of the melody of the spiritual—followed by an extended free Fantasia on that melody.

The quartet bears an overall dedication to my wife, Susan Orzel-Biggs, but this movement carries a separate one in memory of my friend, teacher and mentor, Tony Lee Garner (1942-1998). He was the choral director at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), as well as an accomplished singer, actor and director, and he taught me as much about the joys and responsibilities of being an artist as anyone I have ever known. As a freshman member of the Southwestern Singers in the spring of 1976 I sang in a program of American music under Tony’s direction that included William Dawson’s beautiful arrangement of Steal Away. The printed key of that arrangement is F major, but Tony liked the way the choir sounded with it transposed up a half step, so in this movement the tune is always heard in the key of G-flat major.


The Sequenza 21 Concert is free.

Tickets and Tables are still available by phone.

Call 212.539.8778 to make your reservation

Program Note: MLK Practicing Peace Concert

Practicing Peace – a Celebration of the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 18, 7:30 PM
The Purnell School, Pottersville, NJ

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Program notes- Objective Art during Unsettling Times

It is often said of Stravinsky that his music studiously avoids overt autobiographical references in favor of an artistic detachment. This is really a half-truth. Stravinsky relates much of his personal experience through music, but often transmits these scraps of biography in codes and ciphers so that the listener must dig beneath the surface to find them.

Although it was composed in the midst of both World War I and the Russian Revolution, The Soldier’s Tale (1918) makes no direct mention of either of these events. Instead, Stravinsky chose (in collaboration with librettist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz) to base the work on stories of forced conscription from another conflict – the Russo-Turkish War of the 19th Century. Ramuz and Stravinsky used these stories, particularly the idea of Rekrutskya songs (the laments of wives and girlfriends abandoned as a result of the conscription), as a means to express some of the turmoil and hardship of World War I, without having to specifically comment on current events. They further refined their libretto so that it would not even mention the Russo-Turkish conflict directly – allowing Soldier’s Tale to be applicable to any nations at war.

The universal character of the piece is further supported by its resemblance to and reliance upon two archetypal stories from Western Literature: the Faust story (the Soldier vying with the Devil for a violin which represents his soul) and the Myth of Orpheus (the Soldier looking back for his princess, only to become the Devil’s prisoner once again).



The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that
recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only
normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to
run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.

-                   Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Darren Gage’s work normalcy (2001) is inspired by a more recent conflagration- the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The piece was written for the same instrumentation as The Soldier’s Tale (an unusual ensemble consisting of clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, bass, and percussion), but the similarity between the two works does not end there. As in the Stravinsky piece, in normalcy we see an attempt to frame the emotional impact of current events in music, but in a similarly detached fashion.

Rather than creating a work that is overtly programmatic, Gage chooses instead to subtly embed a cipher in the work, the ordered pitch class set 9-1-1-2-0-0-1, a musical representation of the now infamous date, which serves as a kind of ostinato throughout. The search for ‘normalcy’ is further characterized by the juxtaposition of the a-c minor third and the a-c# major third as a kind of chiaroscuro (light-dark) effect. The use of both the ostinato and thirds causes this piece to have a more regular cycling of pitch material than much of Gage’s other, more chromatic, concert music, which is instead concerned with extensions of the twelve-tone system. As such, the subliminal use of the date as an organizing factor in normalcy has a profound effect on the overall sound of the piece.

Despite the temporal distance between the events of 9/11 and today, many still struggle to return to a sense of everyday life. Bad news has been abundant of late, both domestically and internationally, and it is easy to feel a sense of dislocation and dispiritedness as a result. normalcy depicts this struggle through its reiteration of thirds, with their diatonic minor-major key implications. On the cusp of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, one may hear this dichotomy as a commingling of hopeful anticipation with an awareness of the damage wrought during the past eight years; an acknowledgment of our continued need for healing.

We are reminded of this duality of hopeful anticipation and needed prayers for healing in the songs we hear tonight as well. “I, Too” is a setting by Margaret Bonds of a poem by Langston Hughes (Westfield, New Jersey), one of the most eloquent voices for racial equality among poets during the mid-Twentieth century. “Old Man River” was a staple of Paul Robeson’s; Robeson (born Princeton, New Jersey) was a dedicated advocated for peace, tolerance, and racial equality. He used music as a powerful yet peaceful weapon against tyranny and oppression. It’s taken from the 1927 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein Broadway musical Showboat; a work that was groundbreaking in its time for dealing with racism frankly and compassionately in a genre previously known for insensitive portrayals. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Down by the Riverside” are beloved spirituals, identified both with the rich African-American musical repertoire and with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

The words of Dr. King quoted above indicate that the quest for a more equitable version of normalcy has been a long one, and will require continued vigilance. But on the eve of an historic inaugural, it is in the spirit of hope and healing, with renewed commitment to a peaceful pursuit of freedom, that we commemorate Dr. King’s legacy today, with sober reflections and joyful songs.