June, 2017

A recent venture deserves mention here: our tour of England with my opera, Jane’s History of England. We went during Longy’s spring break, departing on Friday night and arriving in London on Saturday, March 18. The tour was for more than just the opera, thanks to Vivian’s great planning mind! She had the idea to surround the opera with songs from Jane Austen’s time, or songs that reflect upon a woman’s role in society at that time. The whole program was called “Jane’s History: A Theatrical Concert of Pincushion Wit.”

We rehearsed in Cambridge, MA, with the chorus made up of three Longy alums, Ketti Muschler, Susannah Thornton, and Megan (Dirr) Gabriel, and travelled with Longy faculty Carol Mastrodomenico (who sang the part of the master of ceremonies) and Vivian Montgomery (fortepiano). We met up with English singers Catherine Bott (funny Jane) and Emily Gray (angry Jane) and rehearsed in locations around London (Fenton House and Richmond and Putney Unitarian Church) before doing the first presentation of the opera at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich.

The whole show went on first at Chawton House Library, Jane Austen’s brothers’ estate (for which he changed his name to Knight and was adopted into the family). We were treated extremely well there, staying in converted stables and eating meals in the 15th-century kitchen at Chawton House. The audience was so knowledgeable of Jane Austen, they caught all the jokes in the very funny text! The singers did wonderfully, both in performing the opera and in doing their solo and ensemble songs. A tremendously gratifying experience there.

Then we drove to Godmersham Village Hall (not far from Canterbury, JHM at the wheel throughout the trip!) for the second performance. Jane Austen wrote a lot at Godmersham Park, a large estate with a parish chapel mentioned in the novels. Again, incredibly well treated, great crowd, etc. Video recording was difficult everywhere, using two Zoom recorders on loan from Longy, in a fixed position, no moving them after the start. The setup at Chawton turned out to have been better, the performance was slightly better, so that is the performance linked here. Maybe I’ll edit some of the songs and post them eventually, since several were truly memorable and noteworthy.

At this point, a statement of gratitude is in order. First, for Carol Mastrodomenico and Libor Dudas for asking me to compose the piece, to Carol for creating an excellent slide show which is the set and therefore easy to travel with, and to Vivian for suggesting the incredible little tract that is Jane Austen’s A History of England. Gratitude as well for the Longy alums who dedicated themselves to learning and executing the complex staging. Lots of gratitude and admiration for the English singers who contributed so much, Catherine Bott (whose bio includes being an original Swingle Singer and who hosts popular radio shows in the UK) and Emily Jane Gray, a rising star of incredible talent and poise. Finally, the generous support of the Longy School of Music of Bard College deserves mention, for it is hard to imagine shouldering all the costs ourselves.

So, if you haven’t already, take a look and listen to the video, visit the Jane’s History tour Facebook page, where you will find lots of photos from throughout the trip. It was fun for us, and we hope it is fun for you!


February 2017

More reflections on On Further Reflection

Traveling to DC last week for the premiere of
On Further Reflection, wonderfully rendered by the commissioning ensemble, the Atlantic Reed Consort, has yielded a few additional insights. First, just before departure, I realized that I should add subtitles to the movements. It was during my daily meditation, first thing in the morning, and I suddenly understood more of the what was in the piece. As described in another essay on the piece (below), I used the I Ching to generate a series of energy states that I then allowed to guide the sectional changes in the piece.

Now, I had a realization of how the changes in energy related to each other in a loosely narrative sense. The meaning deepened as I described my realization to the ensemble, and seems rather to arise from consideration of what conditions nurture a sense of well-being. Each movement has four sections, and is connected to a trigram from the
I Ching. The trigram Tui/Joy kept showing up, and I used the energy, but the kind of joy I was using was not very overt or cheerful. It was more a matter of fleeting moments, particularly in the first movement, where glimpses of joy or swagger come between lower, almost foreboding energies which punctuate. Once I had the flash of appropriate subtitles, things settled into place in my mind.

The subtitles:
I. Seeking Refuge, II. Sheltered, III. Confident.

What I realized was that the joy of the first movement was a limited, restricted kind of joy, and that the primary content of the second movement was, even as I composed it, marked by the image of rain, of keeping still and being sheltered, protected. (These images came from the
I Ching.) Wind shows up as short sections throughout, connected to the concept of dispersion. The final pair of those sections comes at the end of the second movement and the beginning of the third, where I chose to use the sense of wind as a penetrating force. That penetration then sets off the last movement, which offers a confident flowering of the materials which gradually emerged during the protection of the previous movement.

What is so interesting to me about this whole progression is that I composed with the energies offered by the trigrams, pondered them at great length, generated music which carried them, and yet never quite grasped the underlying implications of their order. These energies and relationships had as much to do with my personal life as with the larger world “out there”. Only in working with the group, hearing actual instruments play the notes, and fielding questions about how to treat this place or that, did I gradually admit to myself that there might be a narrative that fits the shape and structure of the piece.

I have never wished to offer programmatic narratives for my music, and I will not now. Whatever I might state at this time would be to make up something that wasn’t intended while composing, and would replace the open-ended pondering that can happen in a listener with what would surely be received as the “correct” interpretation of the energies heard. So I leave the story there, as one of a composer learning more about the piece he has composed by experiencing it with the people who are bringing it to life.


August 2016

On Further Reflection

As seems to happen regularly, I haven’t updated the site in a while. A project has come and reached completion this summer, a commissioned piece for the
Atlantic Reed Consort, a group of reed players from the US Air Force Band (Brooke Emery, clarinet; Emily Snyder, oboe; Eddie Sanders, bassoon; John Romano, bass clarinet; and Jeremy Koch alto saxophone) who will premiere the piece in a concert at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on February 15, 2017. I’ve been exploring a particular way of going about pitch usage and selection over the past three years, and this piece takes that a step further. It’s a symmetrical set, and I used extensive reflections of the set to create interesting sounds that I like, and so I’ve given the piece a title to match, On Further Reflection. As much work as it takes to really dig in and find exciting pitch material, the piece is of course not really “about” that.

The way I went about organizing the piece, drawing it gradually into existence on a formal level, was in using a resource that has been invaluable to me over the years, both in composing and in life itself, the
I Ching. It has been the source of much reflection on my part, since I’ve used it in times of trouble and opportunity alike as an oracle. It has never failed to illuminate questions I bring to it, so I decided to start with a random opening of pages, noting the hexagram that was on the page I opened the book to, until I had generated six hexagrams. I then read extensively about the energies of each trigram (two trigrams make one hexagram, and there are eight trigrams that generate the 64 hexagrams contained in the I Ching) and other esoteric information about the organization of the book itself. I believe that if one uses a random procedure in composing, one is rather obligated to use what one gets, so I stuck with the order of trigrams as originally discovered. As I worked with my materials, I matched the energies of the materials with the energies of the outline of the piece, which has three movements with two hexagrams each, or four trigrams/subsections per movement.

It’s always fascinating that meaningful patterns emerge from such processes, and
On Further Reflection carries those patterns on a formal level. The subtext of energy through the piece, denoted by the title of each trigram, was Joy, with additional important energies of Wind (Gentle, Penetrating) and Danger (Rain). Of course, much reflection on my part was necessary to imagine what musical materials and processes corresponded to these energies, and that was great fun, a real intellectual and musical challenge. I am really looking forward to hearing the group play the piece, and to working with them ahead of the premiere. We’ll bring the group and piece to Boston next year for a local premiere.

Jane’s History of England

The one-act opera I composed in 2014 and revised in 2015 is set for performance at
Chawton House, the estate of Jane Austen’s brother, and home to the Chawton House Library. We’re actively working on the tour, which will likely include performances in a couple of other locations in England. I am very excited about the tour, which will include Catherine Bott, soprano, Vivian Montgomery, fortepiano, three alumni of the Longy School of Music (Megan Dirr, Ketty Muschler, and Susanna Thornton) as well as Longy faculty member Carol Mastrodomenico (soprano and director) along with rising English soprano Emily Gray. We’ll be raising money to sponsor the tour from various sources, probably including a Kickstarter campaign later this year.


November 2015

I am heading out in a few minutes after writing this to attend a unique premiere. As a result of the Eudaimonia experience (described below), a member of the group, Na’ama Lion, asked me if I’d compose a piece for her series of performances with
Shelter Music Boston with Joyce Alper. The piece is for flute and English Horn (or baroque flute and oboe da caccia), and called In the Dark (the Moon’s Luminous Cloak). I got the title from a poem by a homeless poet in San Francisco, Claire Baker. The piece is slow, focusing on the relation of the two parts, the influence one has on the other, similar to the way two people might walk through unfamiliar terrain in the dark. Fun to compose, and I hope interesting for the audience to try and figure out.


August 2015

Finally I realize how infrequently I update my website, and how worthwhile it might be to leave past notes on current projects for future reference!

This summer I have composed two new pieces. The second will be the first to be premiered, so I’ll write about it first.

In July I composed a short piece for baroque orchestra and two sopranos for the new ensemble,
Eudaimonia, a Purposeful Period Band. It sets a poem by Jennifer Michael Hecht, September, which gives the piece its title. The poem aligns nicely with the goals of the group, which will pair with organizations doing work of value to the community, and the first pairing is with a group called Shelter Music Boston. That group takes performances of classical music to audiences which otherwise might not have access, such as those who are homeless. The poem shares one person’s insight into being adrift in the world while aware of the lives of others driven ahead by their goals and activities. As such, the text can be interpreted as an insight into homelessness. I composed this piece directly after finishing Late Bloom, described below, which turned out to be fortuitous because I discovered the materials of September as I composed Late Bloom. Some composers lament their borrowings from themselves, and I’ve always started fresh on every piece, so utilizing the same materials in a different context was an interesting and enjoyable experience.

Late Bloom, composed for the Horzofsky Trio, is written in memory of David Maxwell, the amazing blues pianist, new-music enthusiast and friend who died during the composing process. I started collecting ideas for the piece a couple of years ago, and various things interrupted the process. As I resumed work on the piece, I found myself often at the Longy School of Music with time to fill between classes and a piano in front of me. I had the desire to extend a harmonic discovery I’d made a couple of years back, a symmetrical set of pitches that in one combination produces an outcome that is very blues-like, so I would sit and play with new combinations, write down discoveries which extended the magic. Eventually I had to start composing the actual piece, and as I did so, realized (as always) that many things I’d come across could not find a way into the piece. One essential element that did make it into the music was so naturally aligned with the piece I was preparing to write for Eudaimonia that I immediately knew how the element would function with the text I was coming to know intimately. It is a repeated, very simple chord progression that shows up in both pieces. As a composer, one thing that excites me about the discovery is that it seems so utterly simple in its presentation but emerges from a rigorous process. Regarding the piece, Late Bloom, it is exciting to write for such a sensitive and excellent ensemble as the Horzofsky Trio, and to have discovered a harmonic world that seems so aligned with repertoire the group revels in is a wonderful thing.


April 2014

In December, I was asked to write a 15-minute opera for the Longy voice department’s opera workshop. I almost immediately came across Jane Austen’s
History of England, which was written when she was 16 years old. It seemed to be a text I could treat quickly and effectively, and complete by March vacation, so I agreed to do the piece. It was a tremendous amount of fun to compose and I believe the singers (it’s for six sopranos with piano) are having fun working on it. The result should be really fun to witness as well. I’ll be sending out announcements to folks on my publicity list very soon.


July 2013

I just completed a piece, in fact delivered the score and parts to the ensemble just a few hours ago (on July 16, 2013). It’s a piece for the
Flying Flutistas, a flute duo in the Boston area. The ensemble explores how flying trapeze informs their flute teaching and performing for greater whole-body awareness and more accurate movement precision, so the piece utilizes principles from the physics of trapeze, and extends those principles beyond the possible and into the realm of fantasy. One thing they stress is doing things outside one’s comfort zone to push one’s boundaries and discover more fully who one is. I believe deeply in that approach.

The piece I did for the duo (Vanessa Mulvey and Lynne Krayer-Luke) should push them out of their comfort zone, at least until they’ve learned it well! The title,
Beyond There and Back, refers to the music’s basis in swinging on a trapeze, and using the forces to fly well beyond what is literally possible. I used approaches in writing the piece that took me beyond my comfort zone as well. It was a very fun piece to compose. I hope it will be as fun to play, and certainly as fun to listen to. I am thankful to Vanessa and Lynne for the opportunity to write the piece for them.