August 1, 1966 (2016) for string quartet
About: Commissioned by Texas Performing Arts with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Premiered on 18 November, 2016 in McCullough Theater by Spectrum Dance Theater, accompanied by Aeolus Quartet. Read the Austin Chronicle review of the premiere.
My fourth string quartet was written for Donald Byrd’s dance piece entitled “August 1, 1966”. In the early morning hours on that day, Charles Whitman took a number of guns to the top of the University of Texas Tower and used them to murder 14 people and wound 32. This year marked the 50th anniversary of that tragedy, and on the day of commemoration, in an ironic coincidence, the new Texas concealed carry law went into effect on the campus of my beloved university.
The premiere performance, by Spectrum Dance Theater with live accompaniment by Aeolus Quartet, took place on November 17, 2016, not far from the site of the shooting. Byrd’s powerful choreography featured dancers in contorted poses, twitching, trembling, vulnerable, especially in the second movement “turutukunu”. (The title of the movement is a nonsense arrangement of syllables, used by the musicians to articulate notes and phrases on the kazoo.)
I had written all of the music before I knew what the import of the dance would be, as an abstract piece for string quartet. For that reason, I want to stress that, taken alone, this music is not — nor was intended to be — about the tragedy or in remembrance of it. But it inspired Donald to mine a well many in Texas want to leave untouched — the shocking levels of gun violence in the state and the rest of the country. And so, in the spirit of our collaboration, my score bears his chosen title.
RIPEFG (2015) for string quartet
About: Commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music, for Aizuri Quartet, which premiered it in March 2016. Dedicated to the memory of Ethan Frederick Greene.
Read the review of RIPEFG in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
I wrote my first string quartet in 2000 while studying composition at Curtis. It received its premiere in Curtis Hall (now known as Field Hall) – the world’s most intimidating concert stage. Some 16 years later, I was thrilled to receive a commission from my alma mater to write a new quartet (no. 3) for the formidable Aizuri Quartet, and a bit worried, knowing that its premiere in the same hall would constitute coming full circle, which must usually go with a bit of artistic self-examination.
Soon after starting work, I lost someone who meant a great deal to me – my former student at the University of Texas, fellow composer, dear friend, melodica virtuoso, maverick artist, and a real mensch Ethan Frederick Greene. His death paralyzed me for months, so I couldn’t write. Instead, I listened to his music. When I resumed work, it felt as though we had switched places, and Ethan was now my teacher looking over my shoulder, urging me to be more patient with musical material.
On the surface, there are two ways in which Ethan left a mark on this quartet: the monogram EFG that bookends the second movement and the use of melodica – an instrument Ethan insisted on bringing to our lessons. There may also be countless others, less conscious, buried deep in the score.
Beyond that, there is little else I can say about this music. I so wish Ethan could hear it; he would have known exactly what to say about it.
touch divided, blocked (2015) for two pianos
About: Commissioned by the Viney-Grinberg Duo, with support by the Fromm Music Foundation. Premiered in September 2015.
touch divided, blocked (2015) is inspired by two techniques: the Impressionist brush stroke “la touche divisée”, most notably associated with Claude Monet, and György Ligeti’s keyboard effect of “les touches blocquées”.
Just the way a painter breaks down light and shape with short strokes of a brush, I subject a simple melodic line to a faux-granulation effect by dividing the same melody between two players, with each carrying a slightly different rhythmic version of it. I also use a variation of Ligeti’s technique of “blocked keys” – which incidentally made its first appearance in his own superb work for two pianos – but instead of blocking keys, it is certain strings that the player prevents from sounding. As the piece progresses, more and more notes drop out, signifying a song that struggles to be heard. And finally, I mean to convey the sensory and emotional implication of the word “touch”, though it is a literal translation of the French word that stands respectively for “brush stroke” and “piano key”.
I want to thank the Fromm Music Foundation, whose generous support made this piece possible. And I dedicate this piece to Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg who brought it to life.
Spare the Rod! (2015) for mixed quintet
About: Commissioned by the NOW Ensemble, which premiered it in November 2015 at National Sawdust, NYC.
The phrase “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a composite of several Old Testament verses often used to justify physical discipline of children. At the risk of sounding preachy myself, I believe that the rod must be spared, period; or as the title of my new piece for the NOW Ensemble has it – exclamation point.
The piece tracks a day in the life of a child, from dawn to dusk; life as every child must experience it, filled with curiosity and carefree wonder. There is no place in it for violence, even if well-intentioned. The three movements are: “Rise”, “Play”, “Dream”. It takes inspiration from PLAY ME – a series of music boxes by my wife and visual artist Yuliya Lanina which presents scenes from classic fairy tales that hide a dark underbelly of violence and incest behind their innocuous façade. Two of the music boxes, featuring my original music, are used throughout the piece; they function as objects that symbolize blamelessness, while providing much of the thematic material.
String Quartet no. 2 "Moth" (2013)
About: Commissioned by the Caramoor Festival as part of its commissioning program “A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century”. Dedicated to the Amphion String Quartet, which premiered it at Caramoor on 19 July 2013.
In a short fragment entitled “Farfallettina”, Rainer Maria Rilke ponders the violent death of a moth, “like a miniature lady who is having a heart attack on the way to the theater.” The idea of beings that are tiny, fragile, easily broken, yet inconceivably beautiful – like moths – captivated me as I was working on this new string quartet. In it, I attempt to answer in the affirmative Rilke’s question, “Is there a theater for such fragile spectators?”
Duration: ca. 22′
Crisis Variations (2011)
About: Commissioned by the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and ensemble Le Train Bleu. Premiered in November 2011 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York with live accompaniment conducted by Ransom Wilson. Scored for flute (+ piccolo), tenor saxophone, violin, contrabass, and keyboards. Based on Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Performed regularly throughout the United States. Lar Lubovitch was awarded the Bolshoi Theater’s prestigious “Prix Benois de la Danse” for the choreography. Duration: ca. 19′
Piano Quartet (2007)
About: Commissioned by Astral Artistic Services. Premiered in Philadelphia in March 2008.
Duration: ca. 25′
Read Peter Dobrin’s review of the work in The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Piano Quartetis my first multi-movement work that is entirely cyclical. Its first page lays the foundation for the rest of the piece. However, it was my intent to create a unique sound world for each movement despite their uninterrupted succession. The quartet is structured symmetrically in three large movements, with the second one split into five smaller units that form an arch with “Fantasia” at the center. These middle five movements showcase duets (the “Morceaux”), a trio (“Fantasia”), and short transitional “serenades” performed tutti. While the central block is varied, the outer movements sustain a perpetual motion and rely on a more deliberate framework. “Toccata” is fashioned after the stereotypical double-expositions in classical concertos, with piano acting as the soloist; in it, the opening string exposition is later interspersed between piano and “orchestra” (though never conjointly) on the second run. “Chorale” is indebted to Bach’s elaborate chorale preludes complete with a walking bass. The cantus firmus is original and is taken from the opening. Pitch-wise, the entire movement is limited to a mode consisting of all white keys of the piano and an E-flat. All material brought back from the preceding movements (most prominently one from “Toccata” and “Fantasia”) is therefore mapped onto this mode.
Much of the work’s fabric is conceived using rhythmic ratios of 2:3 and 3:4. Elsewhere, regular metric groupings of notes are contrasted with groups of 5 notes of the same value. The last movement brings all of these relationships together, often vertically.
Divertissement (2006) for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello
About: Commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Players. Performed throughout the US and Europe.
Duration: ca. 19′
The title “Divertissement” is half-cynical. The piece is meant to be trivially entertaining to neither the performers nor the listeners. It is closer in meaning to the divertissements in French ballets – as dance numbers that display a dancer’s technical skill without advancing the plot. All four instruments are showcased separately in their respective caprices. The short canzone – the only slow movements – are intended to provide a degree of lyrical relief. Due to their strong motivic alliance, it is the canzone that perhaps sequentially carry the real plot, while the caprices persistently “divert” our attention away from it.
Krespel-Haus (2005) for Baroque soprano, violin, clarinet, harpsichord
About: Incidental music for play based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Rath Krespel. Premiered at Yale College of Sacred Music. Subsequently performed in Philadelphia and Basel, Switzerland.
Duration: ca. 25′
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale “Councilor Krespel” is well known in its bowdlerized version to operagoers as one of the acts in Offenbach’s last opera. The Krespel of the story is a mad jurist and music enthusiast who, in his spare time, crafts toys for children and dissects violins in order to learn the secret of their beautiful tone. If only he could cut open his daughter Antonia to study the source of her gorgeous voice! What causes her to produce heavenly sounds is, according to Krespel, a flaw in her chest; she will die if she continues to sing. Meanwhile, Antonia is being wooed by a young composer of some renown. Fearing that the manwould not resist having Antonia sing his compositions, the violinmaker banishes the innamorato from his house. John Ellis attributes it to incestuous possessiveness, claiming that the disease is invented by the father to keep his daughter for himself. Whether the disease is real or imagined, Antonia becomes a caged bird in Krespel’s house, where she eventually dies and is buried next to the only violin that could sing as magnificently as she.
Krespel-Haus was conceived as music for theater. The instrumentation is derived from the main characters of the story: clarinet (Krespel), violin (The Violin), soprano (Antonia), and harpsichord (the Young Composer). Each musical number is played on stage; hence it has a dramatic significance. “Fachwerk” underscores the building of the house. “Scherzo” is a pantomime danced by Krespel; it is based on Hoffmann’s own piano sonata. “Grave” accompanies Antonia’s funeral, and it is her singing of the final aria “Mio ben ricordati” that, according to Krespel, brings about her death. It is the only number that employs a text – taken from Metastasio’s Alessandro nell’Indie, which is featured in another Hoffmann’s tale “The Automaton”. In my mind, Antonia, knowing that singing this aria would be suicidal, is directing these words to her young lover in defiance of Krespel’s ban on singing.
Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy (2003)
About: Incidental Music for a Yale Cabaret production of the eponymous play by V. Mayakovsky. Winner of the 2003 ASCAP Morton Gould Award.
Instrumentation: flute (picc.), E-flat clarinet, alto sax, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano, 3 cellos, male narrator
Duration: ca. 15′
3 fragments In Memoriam (2001) for violin and piano
Duration: ca. 11′
Concertino for viola and 8 players (2000)
About: Commissioned and premiered by Anton Jivaev. Subsequently performed by Sharon Wei with the UT New Music Ensemble (Dan Welcher, conductor).
Instrumentation: flute (picc.), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, cello, double bass, viola concertante.
Duration: ca. 22′
String Quartet no. 1 (1999)
About: dedicated to Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky and is based on a chord from the “Andante funebre” movement of his String Quartet no. 3 in es-moll.
Duration: ca. 17′