for SSAA children's choir and piano
Twenty years ago, after encountering W.S. Merwin's translations of Pablo Neruda, I sought out the poet's own work. The literal meaning of Merwin's oblique, unpunctuated phrases can be elusive, but that often strengthens their figurative power. Merwin's writing reminds me of Claude Debussy's injunction about music: “Never Vague. Always Ambiguous.”
Witness sets to music three poems about the fraught relationship between human beings and the natural world. Merwin's environmental advocacy extends beyond the written word: over the course of four decades, he has cultivated a vast, biodiverse collection of palm trees at his home in Maui. In 2010, W.S. and Paula Merwin co-founded the Merwin Conservancy, to preserve this wellspring of art and life.
Witness was commissioned by the Peabody Children's Chorus, and premiered on their summer 2017 tour to Seattle, Washington, and Honolulu, Hawaii.
"Ash," "Witness," and "Place" by W.S. Merwin. Perusal score on Issuu.
For Martin (2017)
for TTBB choir
For Martin was written for the Yale Whiffenpoofs of 2017. The text, a poem by Keith Snipes entitled "Undone," was written on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2017: "I will rise each day / before the morning sun / filled with hope for the future / with victories won / I will map out a course / for the things undone." The Whiffenpoofs premiered the work on March 4, 2017 at First & Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD.
Listen on SoundCloud. Perusal score on Issuu.
For You (2016)
for voice and viola
For You is a setting of a poem by my friend Maureen McLane. I wrote it as a wedding-day surprise for my wife, Lavena Johanson. Caroline Shaw (voice) and Caleb Burhans (viola) made the recording that was played that day, August 19, 2016, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Listen on SoundCloud. Perusal score on Issuu.
The Beauty of the Protest (2016)
for singing cellist
The Beauty of the Protest was inspired by the work of photographer Devin Allen. In striking black & white images on Instagram, Allen told the story of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising as only a local artist could, offering a necessary counterbalance to the often one-dimensional narrative presented by the national media. My title comes from Allen’s words in a New York Times interview: “I wanted people to see the beauty of the protest."
for bass orchestra and drum set
Music making and grassroots social movements have much in common, mobilizing voices (or instruments) into collective action. Uprising, written in the aftermath of the 2015 protests in Baltimore, aims to evoke this phenomenon of disparate forces steadily coalescing into something stronger and more enduring than the sum of its parts.
Uprising was commissioned by Peabody Bass Works.
Perusal score on Issuu.
for double choir and chamber ensemble
Rise, a collaboration with the poet Tameka Cage Conley, bears witness to America's civil rights journey, from Selma to Ferguson and beyond. The work is at once a celebration and a reckoning, the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century refracted through the unimaginable triumphs and horrors – the election of the first African-American president, juxtaposed with the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement officers – of the 21st.
Rise was commissioned by the Cantate Chamber Singers for their 30th anniversary season, and premiered in conjunction with Howard University’s Afro Blue on April 19, 2015 at Washington, DC’s historic Metropolitan A.M.E. Church. The morning of the performance, a young black man named Freddie Gray died of severe injuries sustained while in Baltimore Police custody. The opening movement of Rise was recorded and released during the subsequent Baltimore Uprising, with all proceeds going to the Gray family.
Special thanks are due to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I first met Dr. Cage Conley and later worked on this music, and to Dr. & Mrs. Eli and Toni Adashi, for commissioning Dr. Cage Conley’s poetry. The work is dedicated to Dr. Jerry Thornbery, a devoted high-school teacher who sparked my engagement with the Civil Rights Movement, and to Maze Tru Cage Conley, an integral part of this project and the embodiment of its necessity.
Two poems from Rise ("O Light" and "Remains"), and an essay about meeting Congressman John Lewis, a central figure in Rise.
Commentary on Rise by the poet and composer, and an interview with both.
Information about Rise Bmore, an annual concert in Baltimore honoring the memory of Freddie Gray, featuring music from Rise.
More on Rise at Storify, Johns Hopkins Hub, Baltimore City Paper (also here), WBAL-TV, Chorus America, and the Baltimore Sun.
Watch (complete) on YouTube, listen and buy (excerpts) on Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Perusal score on Issuu.
Good Night (2014)
my heart comes undone (2014)
my heart comes undone is a meditation on patience and longing, inspired by the work of Björk (the title and musical point of departure come from her song “Unravel”) and Arvo Pärt. The score includes an epigraph by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell: “We don't accomplish our love in a single year / as the flowers do.” The piece was conceived with three possible scorings in mind -– solo cello with loop pedal, solo cello and strings, or string quartet -– but can be performed in a variety of blended instrumental or vocal combinations, in greater numbers, and with or without amplification, effects, lighting and movement.
my heart comes undone was commissioned by the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, specifically by the Preparatory String Department's Pre-Conservatory Violin Program. The work is dedicated to Lavena Johanson, who premiered the cello and loop pedal version on a concert presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series and Classical Revolution Baltimore at The Bun Shop in April 2014. A recording was released on Bandcamp in September 2014, with all proceeds going towards equipment and supplies for student cellists in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program.
Inner City (2013)
for piano and pre-recorded audio
Inner City is a kind of love song to my hometown of Baltimore, a sonic landscape depicting some of the ways in which I experience and carry with me the singular spirit of this place. The piano and pre-recorded audio (primarily field recordings) trace a figurative path through the city, beginning at Penn Station, going south on St. Paul Street, heading west on Conway Street to Camden Yards, and culminating in West Baltimore. The score contains an epigraph from one of Baltimore's most famous residents, F. Scott Fitzgerald: "I love Baltimore more than I thought -- it is so rich with memories..."
Inner City was commissioned by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, and premiered there by the composer in November 2013.
Watch on YouTube.
My friends Ken and Nora Osowski shared only 12 hours with their son, Aaron Michael Osowski. I was exploring this simple musical idea the night he was born, and gave this piece to his parents one year later. I think of the music as creating a "memory space" (to borrow a phrase from the composer John Adams) in which Aaron's spirit lives on. The title alludes both to Aaron's initials and to the Latin word meaning "I love."
Perusal score on Issuu.
Nina is my tribute to the great singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003). The piece begins with a tombeau in memory of Simone, followed by my own versions of two traditional folk songs that she recorded. Sharing a personal interpretation of this music is my way of invoking and honoring “The High Priestess of Soul.”
Nina was commissioned by York College of Pennsylvania to mark the dedication of its new Steinway. The work is warmly dedicated to the two pianists who premiered it: Gretchen Dekker, and my longtime friend Ken Osowski.
for voice and orchestra
I first encountered the poetry of Ciara Shuttleworth in The New Yorker, in November 2010. Her poem “Sestina” made an immediate impression on me, with its simplicity and depth of feeling. Ciara reimagines the traditional form for which her poem is named, compressing it – and the entire life cycle of a relationship – into six words, variously rotated. “Sestina” is at once intimate and epic; I tried to reflect that sensibility in this spare musical setting for voice and orchestra.
I am immensely grateful to the American Composers Orchestra (especially Artistic Director Derek Bermel and Music Director & Conductor George Manahan) for making Sestina part of the 2015 SONiC Festival, and to my friend Caroline Shaw for singing it. Caroline and the ACO premiered Sestina in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on October 23, 2015.
for soprano and guitar
I have long been drawn to Louise Glück’s poetry, finding in it the quality I feel closest to in music: a sadness that contains, if not joy, elements of hope and solace. Lament is tied to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the “double loss” therein. When my longtime mentor, Nicholas Maw, passed away last year – we had been out of touch for some time, in part because I was uncertain how to face his failing memory – it struck me that we often experience loss in this way, losing people in more ways than one. Given Nicholas’s masterful writing for voice and guitar, individually and in combination, it seems particularly apt to dedicate this piece to his memory.
Lament was written for soprano Tony Arnold and guitarist Daniel Lippel.
A terrible thing is happening – my love
is dying again, my love who has died already:
died and been mourned. And music continues,
music of separation: the trees
How cruel the earth, the willows shimmering,
the birches bending and sighing.
How cruel, how profoundly tender.
My love is dying; my love
not only a person, but an idea, a life.
What will I live for?
Where will I find him again
if not in grief, dark wood
from which the lute is made.
Once is enough. Once is enough
to say goodbye on earth.
And to grieve, that too, of course.
Once is enough to say goodbye forever.
The willows shimmer by the stone fountain,
paths of flowers abutting.
Once is enough: why is he living again?
And so briefly, and only in dream.
My love is dying; parting has started again.
And through the veils of the willows
sunlight rising and glowing,
not the light we knew.
And the birds singing again, even the mourning dove.
Ah, I have sung this song. By the stone fountain
the willows are singing again
with unspeakable tenderness, trailing their leaves
in the radiant water.
Clearly they know, they know. He is dying again,
and the world also. Dying the rest of my life,
so I believe.
— Louise Glück
Art and the Rain (2008)
In the summer of 1997, I heard Yo-Yo Ma play three of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello at Tanglewood. The concert took place in the festival’s open-air venue, the Shed, during a relentless downpour. Art and the Rain – the title is borrowed from a section of the poet Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs – juxtaposes material from the familiar Prelude of the First Suite in G Major, BWV 1007, with my own music, here associated with the rain. The marimba readily inhabits both worlds: the Suites are often performed on the instrument, while its sound evokes the imagery of water. My piece isn't concerned with Bach’s music so much as with my recollection of Ma's eloquent, intensely focused performance, refracted through weather and memory.
Art and the Rain was commissioned by Michigan State University for Gwendolyn Burgett, who premiered the work at the Interlochen Arts Academy in June 2008, and recorded it on her 2012 CD, Boomslang (Blue Griffin Recordings 189).
The Dark Hours (2007)
for bassoon and piano
The Dark Hours takes its title and inspiration from an early poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, here translated from the German by Robert Bly:
I love the dark hours of my being
in which my senses drop into the deep.
I have found in them, as in old letters,
my private life, that is already lived through,
and become wide and powerful now, like legends.
Then I know that there is room in me
for a second huge and timeless life.
But sometimes I am like the tree that stands
over a grave, a leafy tree, fully grown,
who has lived out that particular dream, that the dead boy
(around whom its warm roots are pressing)
lost through his sad moods and his poems.
The first stanza anticipates Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in which Rilke exhorts Franz Kappus to “go into yourself.” It is in the solitude of his own inner world – “the dark hours of my being” – that Rilke finds depth, freedom, and infinite possibilities. This stands in marked contrast to the second stanza, which suggests a different kind of darkness: the oppressive, claustrophobic feeling that the poet experiences in the outer world, what Rilke refers to elsewhere as “the great dark absence of the world.” Accordingly, the music of the opening movement is characterized by a restless, inward-directed longing, while a sense of constriction and unease pervades the second. In the final movement (played attacca after the second), musical ideas from the preceding movements are revisited in different guises. The poem’s encapsulation of Rilke’s sensibilities struck me as both an apt metaphor for the creative process, and a natural fit for the rich, dark sound world of the bassoon.
"The Dark Hours" was commissioned by the Carlos Surinach Fund of the BMI Foundation for Concert Artists Guild bassoonist Peter Kolkay and pianist Alexandra Nguyen. They premiered the work in April 2007 on the Lawrence University Concert Series in Appleton, WI, and recorded it on their 2011 CD, BassoonMusic (CAG Records 106).
Are You Looking for Me? (2006)
for SSAA children's choir and piano
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own next, nor in eating nothing but
When you really look for me, you will see me
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
– Kabir (1398-1448), trans. Robert Bly
Musica dell'Aria (2006)
for harp and string quartet
Musica dell’Aria is a meditation on the aria “Che farò senza Euridice?” (“What will I do without Euridice?”) from C.W. Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice. The piece begins not with Gluck’s opulent music but with my own material in the string quartet alone. The three major sections of the aria are then presented with the harp as the principal melodic voice. Interspersed between these sections are my variations on Gluck’s thematic ideas, in which the strings predominate. Each variation is a more significant departure from Gluck’s original than the one that preceded it. The result is a loosely antiphonal relationship between harp and string quartet, between past and present, throughout the work.
The title can be taken quite literally to mean “Music of the Aria,” or it can be construed in a more figurative sense, as “Music of the Air.” For me, the latter interpretation evokes an ineffable quality particular to music: the notion that echoes of Gluck’s poignant, centuries-old rendering of Orpheus’ loss still resound in the musical atmosphere.
Perusal score on Issuu.
Songs of Kabir (2005)
The fifteenth-century Indian mystic Kabir, a weaver by trade, "was essentially a poet and musician: rhythm and harmony were to him the garments of beauty and truth" (Evelyn Underhill, Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore's Songs of Kabir). These pieces for flute and guitar – inspired by poems by Kabir which make literal or figurative mention of the flute, or of various plucked string instruments – are, in a sense, songs without words. Much of the musical material evolved from the process of “setting to music” translations of Kabir’s poetry by Robert Bly (songs 1, 3, and 5) and Tagore (songs 2 and 4). The rhythms and overall flavor of these English versions significantly informed the writing for both instruments, as did the unique blend of mischievous humor and passionate devotion so integral to Kabir’s style.
Songs of Kabir was commissioned by the Diller-Quaile School for Arc Duo (guitarist Bradley Colten and flutist Heather Holden). They premiered the work in May 2005 at Merkin Hall in New York, NY, and recorded it on their 2012 CD, New Works for Flute and Guitar (Azica Records 71275).
Songs and Dances of Macondo (2004)
for woodwind quintet
The fictional town of Macondo is the setting Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. This suite for woodwind quintet (here imagined as a band of street musicians) was conceived as a songbook, inspired by musical elements and episodes in the novel. For the most part, these songs and dances employ a shared melodic and rhythmic vocabulary; each develops through harmonic and timbral modulations, while collectively, their chronological sequence loosely traverses a broader narrative thread.
Songs and Dances of Macondo was commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival. The piece was recognized with first prize in the 2005 Prix d’Été competition at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, and a 2005 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award.
Watch on YouTube (also here).
for solo violin, two horns and strings
Grace was composed in memory of the late rock musician Jeff Buckley (1966-1997), with his haunting, ethereal voice and singular musical sensibilities in mind. His songs speak with an elegant simplicity worthy of the title of his 1994 album Grace, the only full-length release that he completed prior to his untimely death-by-drowning in the Mississippi River. As the title of this composition, “grace” is not indicative of a divine presence, but rather of an earthly beauty captured so eloquently by Buckley’s music, or more broadly, of what the literary critic George Steiner identified in his book Language and Silence as “the quick of the human spirit.” The score bears the following epigraph, by Pablo Neruda (as translated by W.S. Merwin): "Your memory emerges from the night around me. / The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea."
Grace was selected by David Zinman, music director of the Aspen Music Festival, to receive the 2002 Jacob Druckman Award for Orchestral Composition. The work was also recognized with a 2003 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award.
Eight Haiku by Richard Wright (2001)
for violin and marimba
Richard Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his fiction, particularly his incendiary novel Native Son, published in 1940. These haiku were created during Wright’s self-imposed French exile, in the final year-and-a-half of his life. Wright culled 817 haiku from the 4000 that he had written to be published as This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner; I selected eight of these to represent musically, in the form of miniatures for violin and marimba. Wright uses stark, evocative imagery within the concise Japanese form to depict both natural and urban landscapes, the latter more familiar from the author’s literary masterpieces. On the surface these are spontaneous word paintings, but a closer look reveals great discipline and craftsmanship, in an economical form of self-expression.
Eight Haiku by Richard Wright was recognized with a 2001 BMI Student Composer Award, and was the winning work in the Auros Group for New Music’s 2002 International Composition Competition.
Meditation loosely represents the first three chapters of William Styron's memoir, Darkness Visible (the title is taken from Milton's Paradise Lost), which chronicles the author's struggle with clinical depression. The narrative – not reproduced here in its original sequence – begins with the American writer returning in 1985 to Paris, the site of his 1952 wanderjahr, to receive a prestigious literary prize. It is there that he becomes painfully aware of the rising desperation within, evidenced by his diminishing lucidity and a “despair beyond despair.” In the second chapter, Styron invokes the writings of Albert Camus, a literary idol also afflicted with depression, whose Myth of Sisyphus asserts that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to the fundamental question of philosophy.” After considering Camus' depression and eventual suicide, Styron devotes the third chapter to a catalogue of artists who were victimized by depression, and, ultimately, destroyed by it.
While the music does not end on a sanguine note, Styron's struggle does. After enduring a decisive confrontation with suicide, the author's narrative culminates in his survival. The guitar was chosen to capture the lyricism of Styron's prose, while also reflecting the highly introspective nature of his subject.
Meditation was recorded by Daniel Lippel on his 2005 CD, Resonance (New Focus Recordings 101).
Tres Canciónes (2000)
for soprano and piano
14 de julio
Today, catorce de julio,
a man kissed a woman in the rain.
On the corner of Independencia y Cinco de Mayo.
A man kissed a woman.
Because it is Friday.
Because no one has to go to work tomorrow.
Because, in direct opposition to Church and State,
a man kissed a woman
oblivious to the consequence of sorrow.
A man kisses a woman unashamed,
within a universe of two I’m certain.
Beside the sea of taxicabs on Cinco de Mayo.
In front of an open-air statue.
On an intersection busy with tourists and children.
Every day little miracles like this occur.
A man kisses a woman in the rain
and I am envious of that simple affirmation.
I who timidly took and timidly gave –
you who never admitted a public grace.
We of the half-dark who were unbrave.
The world without Rodrigo
moves at a slender pace
does not mind to hesitate
undoes one button
exhales with grace
walks, does not run
No doubt you are still
for your Beatrice.
Sudden on the steps
of a bridge where
as a boy you waited.
Hopeless even then.
I am an odd geometry
of elbows and skin,
a lopsided symmetry of sin
and virtue. And you.
I can feel your eyes
burning over the horizon
of my shoulders.