There'll be much more on this in the coming months, but, for now, I'll just say that I can't wait to get working on this! The creative team is dynamite: it'll be performed by the loadbang ensemble (and a talented cast of live actors), composed to a libretto by playwright Kevin Kordis, and will be directed by (and starring) Micah Greene. It's an honor to work with such talent.
Program Note – JUICY: Spectral Studies for a Citrus Juicer (2013-14)
JUICY, a shimmering little piece for electronics, represents two things for me: an homage to a classic piece of postmodern design, and a chance to fully embrace the lifelong habit I’ve had of smacking steel things together and listening to the resultant sounds.
The “design” homage is to the Juicy Salif, an aluminum squid Philippe Starck created as a citrus juicer as part of his contract with the Italian housewares maker Alessi in the late-‘80s. Starck’s genius isn’t in improving functionality (the Salif is actually a pretty awful juicer). It’s in redefining the lens through which we observe the built environment around us. He turns things askew so that we examine them, discuss them, come together and laugh and think a bit. This has become the droll go-to for a generation of postmodernists, but in the twilight of the Reagan years it was something novel and important.
When I finally found a Juicy Salif on sale, I leapt at the opportunity. It arrived at our doorstep a few weeks later, a gleaming, angular cephalopod just begging to be struck against a hard surface.
Let me explain.
Since I was a child, I’ve been endlessly fascinated by the ringing overtones that erupt whenever certain objects collide. I could honestly sit alone in a room with a triangle and a steel beater and be perfectly content for hours. Maybe days. It’s this same appreciation for harmonic partials, I think, that attracted me to music in the first place. Striking a supported piece of metal is like shining a light into the acoustical darkness with which we surround ourselves—one perceives that fundamental, resonant frequency, but one also hears buzzing, beating tones stretching out ad infinitum. When I knocked one of the Juicy Salif’s legs with a fork, I immediately perceived an extremely strong G and C (-ish), but this quickly dissolved into a harmonic wash that spread out and surrounded me. I knew immediately that I’d have to find an excuse to write a piece using these sounds.
As an homage to Starck, I’ve turned off (or at least quieted down) the left side of my brain in composing JUICY. The only pre-compositional work I undertook was analyzing the various spectra of the Salif being struck with assorted implements. I tried to highlight the relationships of the constituent harmonics with one another, to amplify and diminish certain intervals, to magnify interesting aspects of the juicer’s timbre, to manipulate and transpose partials, etc. The resultant piece is nothing more than a chance to bathe in the refulgent complexity of a piece of aluminum being struck with all manner of household objects.
I hope you enjoy it.
Sorry for the radio silence as of late! I took a few months off from "career schtuff" to dedicate my full attention to our new baby. Jude, by the way, is over four months old already. I simply can't believe it.
Anyway, I'm putting the finishing touches on Juicy, my piece for electronics programmed on the Fifth Floor Collective's PLUGGED IN 2 concert on January 14th. "Hercules," a nor'easter (why are we naming these things?!), ground Boston pretty much to a halt today, and I took advantage of the forced time indoors to work on this icy little piece.
Anyway, this one has been great fun to work on. I've gotten to use a whole battery of my favorite software (SPEAR ftw!), and I've been smashing a super-cool aluminum juicer against more or less every stationary object in our home. Jude's been loving it. Micah, not quite so much, but she's patient and supportive. I might be posting a brief preview of the piece in a few days, so be on the lookout!
Here’s the first glimpse of my piece for the FFC: Plugged In 2concert on January 14, 2014 at the Davis Square Theater in Somerville, MA.
Intrigued? Confused? So am I, don’t worry. Look for more on this in the coming months!
If you’re looking for new music and you happen to be in San Francisco this weekend, be sure to swing by the FFC Special Event: Friction Quartet concert on Saturday! They’re playing myVariations for String Quartet, alongside new works by Joseph M. Colombo, Andrew Paul Jackson, and Mario Godoy.
For more info, check out the Fifth Floor Collective’s website.
Just a brief note: our first child, a boy, entered the world on August 22, 2013. Jude Anthony Greene is a beautiful, vivacious little miracle, and I am constantly in awe of him.
I’ve never been so proud. I’ve never been so astounded by the depths of my wife‘s strength. And I’ve never been so inspired.
Welcome, my son. I can’t wait to see where life takes you.
I’m putting the finishing touches on my final notes to the recording engineer from last summer’s WGBH Tortoise and the Hare sessions in Boston! Look for this in CD/digital form in a few months—details will, of course, be posted here.
Boston Musica Viva, Marimba Magic, and Steve Aveson did a truly incredible job with my music and Mr. Pickett’s libretto. We can’t wait to share the finished product with all of you.
The premiere of Steel Symphony (July 2, 2013) by Christopher Houlihan in Hartford was truly one of the great nights of my musical life. It simply couldn’t have gone better—it was phenomenally well-attended, Chris played superbly, and the whole program really came together beautifully.
Steel Symphony, which was commissioned for this performance by Trinity College Chapel Music, was also one of the first pieces to be performed on Trinity College’s new four-manual Austin console. It proved itself very much up to the challenge.
I’ve posted some pictures below (thanks to Mike Raciti and Trinity College Communications for taking them!). You can watch a video of the third movement here, and I’ve added audio to my Music page. Here are quick links to the audio files: I. Putto 4 over 4 | II. Lincoln | III. Armour Boys. Chris and I were interviewed by Bob Parzych on WRTC’s Kitchen Sink the day before the performance, as well—you can check that out here, if you’re interested.I’m now officially on hiatus, for at least a few months, as my wife and I eagerly await the birth of our baby boy! Jude is due August 12, and Steel Symphony was dedicated to him. I sincerely can’t wait to show it to him someday.
Here are four examples, in one iPhone photo, of why I love this city and its august architectural/engineering lineages. On the left is the North Bank Bridge, a 700-foot-long footbridge that was opened last year to much fanfare. It connects Cambridge to Charlestown, and cuts the walk time between the two down from thirty minutes to five. Its sinewy, sinusoidal look isn’t just for aesthetics, though I’d still think it was a marvelous structure if that were the case (it’s beautiful enough that it’d be justified). The “sinusoidal” effect is actually from the trusses weaving below the bridge to above it and below again--- they dip below to create more space between the highway overpasses above them, then swing above to make more room for the commuter rail tracks passing beneath.
In the far background, of course, is the Zakim Bridge (or the “Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge,” if you want to get all fancy). From an engineering standpoint, it’s astounding: it’s the widest cable-stayed bridge on the planet (the bridge deck is 183 feet across, carrying 10 lanes), and it was the first cable-stayed bridge with an asymmetrical deck design. The pylons echo the nearby Bunker Hill Monument, and the white cables streaming down to the deck bring to mind the rigging of the USS Constitution, which is just down the harbor a bit.
A little closer (in front of the Zakim Bridge, middleground) is the Leverett Circle Connector Bridge. It might not look like all that much, but it’s the largest steel box girder bridge in the United States. It connects to I-93 in Somerville in the north, and to Storrow Drive and Leverett Circle (two high-volume Boston spots) in the south.
Finally, in the near-right, is the Boston & Maine Charles River Bridge. Built in 1931, this is one of the only functioning rolling-bascule bridges in the country, and it still works perfectly. All of the North Station Commuter Rail lines—almost 30,000 people every day—pass over this bridge, and it’s never failed. It’s beautiful, functional, and incredibly simple—the whole thing just rotates on a counterweight.
I'm currently on the home stretch of my piece for the wonderful organist Christopher Houlihan, and it's coming along well! The premiere is July 2 in Hartford, as part of the New England/New York AGO convention. He's going to be playing it shortly thereafter in South Carolina, too, for all you southerners out there.
The title, Steel Symphony, is born from two things: the fact that it's based on metal sculptures from the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum in Lincoln, MA (where my wife and I just moved (be on the lookout for adoring blog posts down the road w/r/t this)), and that the piece is in the tradition of the organ "symphonies" of composers like Widor, Frank, etc.
I'll just touch briefly on each movement to give you an idea of what's in store.
I. Putto 4 over 4
The American sculptor Michael Rees utilized a whole slew of technologies in creating this crazy-looking thing, and the end result is equal parts adorable and terrifying. A twelve-foot tall creature composed of cherubic feet and spindly fingers, Putto 4 over 4 stands mid-strut, frozen in place but full of kinetic momentum. The music for this movement is based on an imagined scenario: after the park lights turn off, Putto 4 over 4 stretches its legs and begins to roam around a bit.
It starts with a jolt of energy:
Then, creaking and groaning, it begins to untangle itself (in the form of a passacaglia growing gradually more complex):
Eventually, it takes off bounding through the sculpture garden:
Dewitt Godfrey's Lincoln, a truly massive assemblage of COR-TEN steel tumbling down the hillside from the museum to the road below, is an inspiring sight to behold. It's a series of self-similar, roughly cylindrical steel barrels, essentially. It begins and ends with piles of one or two tiny barrels, progressing towards and then away from the larger, more complexly-arranged stacks in the center.
This movement's music is from the perspective of someone walking the length of the sculpture from the top to the bottom, and follows the complexity/density of the work quite closely. It starts with a simple, geometric, sparse pattern:
Which gradually accrues weight and momentum:
Not to mention complexity:
It eventually works its way to a polyrhythmic climax before winding back down again to the sort of material with which it started.
III. Armour Boys
Armour Boys, a series of five bronze figures in the forest by the British/Welsh artist Laura Ford, is a haunting tableau that you only find by leaving the walking path at deCordova and wandering into the woods. The figures are the size of young boys---maybe ten years old---and they're covered in crumpled knight-in-shining-armor costumes. Each is splayed out; some on their bellies, some against the trunks of trees, etc. I think the thing that hits me the hardest with this piece is that, due to the face-masks on their helmets, you can't tell if they're asleep or dead. They could just be snoozing after a long day playing war games in the woods in their Halloween costumes, or they could be child soldiers conscripted into some sort of ancient army, laying abandoned in the woods.
This movement is still somewhat in progress, but the ideas have been ironed out (as well as the first few minutes' worth of musical material). The musical perspective of "Armour Boys" is that of the boys themselves, whether or not they can actually hear anything. The idea is that an anthem of some sort---perhaps religious, perhaps nationalistic, perhaps somewhere between the two---is playing far off in the distance, obscured by the trees and the leaves and the haze of a hot summer afternoon.
Here's a little snippet of that texture (the top staff is the swell, which is only about 10% open, and it's 8va):
As the movement progresses, the dissonant "haze" become more concrete, and the texture becomes a little nightmarish (this is very much pre-final, so the spacing issues will be remedied once it's mostly done (and I'll add articulations, slurs, etc.)):
And then, somehow, I've got to end the thing. I've got ideas---we'll have to see which one wins out. The piece is set to be sent to Mr. Houlihan in early May.
I got to meet with Chris (who happens to be a great friend of mine from college, and someone I've been looking forward to working with again for a quite a while) a couple of weeks ago, and we ran through some of the sketches on the instrument on which it'll be premiered in July (after the installation of a new console, among other things). Our mutual friend/mentor/teacher, John Rose, who's been an enormous influence on both of us, was there to snap some pictures:
Hope to see you in Hartford!
The FFC/Transient Canvas concert went really well! Here's some video of the first movement of my premiere, Charles & Ray, performed by Transient Canvas (Matt Sharrock and Amy Advocat). I'll get the second movement uploaded at some point, too, so stay tuned. :)
Just a reminder that Charles & Ray is being premiered by Transient Canvas tomorrow at 8pm! Admission is free, though donations are very much appreciated. The concert, the second one of the Fifth Floor Collective's third season, is at 8pm at the Lily Pad Gallery in Cambridge's Inman Square.
Hope you can make it!
Here's the program note for Charles & Ray, a piece I recently composed for Transient Canvas. It'll be premiered on March 15, 2013 at the Lily Pad Gallery in Cambridge, MA, during the second concert of the Fifth Floor Collective's third season.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I brought home a chair. It was canary yellow, all spindles and curves, a fiberglass profusion perched on steel-and-maple rockers. It looked like the way laughter feels. It was born sometime around 1950, in Zeeland, Michigan, at the Herman Miller factory. It was designed by team of young, wide-eyed designers in Venice, Los Angeles, in a little building that was once an automobile garage, but which was now a crazy, wild thing, filled with circus paraphernalia and toy-train sets and music and sheets of plywood bent into shapes that, five years earlier, could only have existed in dreams, or maybe on paper.
The leaders of the team were a husband and wife, and their names were Charles and Ray Eames.
They’d met and fallen in love about a decade earlier when both were students at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. They were an unlikely pairing—for one thing, Charles was married at the time—but they completed each other. He was studying to become an architect, she was training as an Abstract Expressionist painter; he was charismatic and brimming with loudly-voiced curiosity, she preferred to quietly observe, taking in the world and missing none of it. But she brought color and texture to his modernist aesthetic, and he created new canvases for her work in wild shapes and of novel materials, canvases which, given the affluence of post-WWII America, became parts of daily life in homes across the country.
Charles & Ray, written for the virtuosic clarinet/percussion duo Transient Canvas, is a little character study of its titular subjects. The first movement, “St. Louis,” is named for Charles’ birthplace, and attempts to capture his aesthetic essence in sound. Little bits of sonic data—stacked fourths, a rising major-third melodic fragment, a polyrhythmic snippet—are combined and modified throughout. To Charles, good design evolved from the unique properties of the materials of its construction. The materials in “St. Louis” are always individually identifiable, but new forms emerge from their combining.
The second movement, ”Sacramento” (named, as you might imagine, for Ray’s place of birth) is quite different. The extensive use of microtonally inflected pitch material lends a sense of otherworldliness, as do the clarinet’s plaintive multiphonics. Ray’s work was characterized by her incredible sense of color, and the music of the second movement attempts to coax out chromatic gradations of its own: not just of the timbres of these two instruments, but within the space and time of the music itself.
I’ll end with a little story. The original prototype of that canary-yellow rocking chair in our living room was, according to legend, a surprise gift to a new mother on the Eames’ staff. They wanted her to be able to rock her newborn to sleep in comfort, security, and modernity. It then evolved into something of a tradition in the Eames Office, and many Office-affiliated parents were given RARs when they brought new life into the world.
My wife and I are expecting our first child this August. This chair—our chair, born in that factory on the shores of Lake Michigan, designed in that garage at the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific, this physical artifact of the unique love between these two people I’ll never meet, who died years before I knew what a chair even was, this object that made its way, over six decades, to a store in Boston where you can dip your feet into the Atlantic from the parking lot—will be the first chair in which we rock our baby to sleep. I hope that a century from now, when we’re gone, some young couple will wander into a design-history store, see a little yellow chair that reminds them of laughter, and decide to bring it home. I hope their children, whom they’ve rocked to sleep on that very chair, will wonder where it came from, who designed it, if it was a relic of the past or something sent to earth from the future.
And I hope they decide to write some music about it.
Enter our 2013 Call for Scores! Head on over to our website for full details. This is the fourth time we've done this, and it's become something we truly look forward to every year. The deadline is April 1, so get writing!
Alright, this is likely the last I'll be writing on this particular piece for a while. It was premiered at the third-season-opener for the Fifth Floor Collective on Friday, and it went really, really well! I think the audience genuinely enjoyed it. I'm so lucky that Andrew Paul Jackson and Ben Runyan were such good sports about playing it, and each brought a good deal to the performance.
The concert, as a whole, was probably my favorite of all the FFC concerts we've put up so far. The program was wonderfully varied and interesting, the audience was receptive and diverse, and the whole thing had that feeling of relevance and newness for which we so often strive as a consortium. It really was a wonderful time.