Wilderness of Woe
 

Wilderness of Woe, like an earlier piece of mine, The Carolina Lady, for baritone saxophone, grows out of free transcriptions of transformed audio—in this case, live recordings from the 1950s and 60s of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Through extreme time-stretching and sample “smearing,” tiny gestures, such as scratchy fiddle attacks, vocal yips, etc., become vast expanses of sound—simultaneously themselves, yet utterly transformed. I invite the listener to get lost in these vast wildernesses of sound.

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Resignation
 

“Resignation” takes its title from the American folk melody of the same name, better known as the tune for the Christian hymn, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” with words, by Isaac Watts (1675-1748), paraphrasing Psalm 23. My song is built of fragments of text and music from the hymn—re-ordered and frozen (as if film stills), and repeated.

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Separate Rooms

Separate Rooms was written for The Portrait Project, a performance organized by Periapsis Music and Dance. The dance created for the music suggests a kind of domestic drama/dispute. The music explores subtle timbral variations in repeated pulses—daily tedium and monotony giving way, unexpectedly, to moments of beauty, as well as to violent outbursts.

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The Carolina Lady

Many of my recent works have been for voice, and in them I have re-set existing Appalachian folksongs and hymn texts with newly composed music that loosely imitates the style of the original traditions from which the texts came. The Carolina Lady, however, is the first piece I’ve written in which I composed directly with the musical source material itself—material that I previously imitated only indirectly. Paradoxically, I believe this direct engagement can lead to a music that is less derivative, more flexible, and personal. What I am after is a deeper engagement with the underlying structures of these folksong traditions, as opposed to their surface-level melodic idioms and pitch language, as well as a more acute awareness of fleeting sonic details that often elude transcription. I am searching for a music that possesses all the incredible richness, complexity, and rawness of these folk traditions without being limited to their specific sound worlds: a kind of lost, distant cousin. This project is an attempt to find that cousin.

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Thousands of Years to Make It What It Was

Thousands of Years to Make It What It Was takes inspiration (and its title) from a poem by Wendell Berry about a field whose soil washed away after it was cleared for farmland. Berry laments the field’s former abundance—“The growth of fifty thousand years undone/In a few careless seasons”—and then tries to imagine what the field might become, knowing centuries must pass before it can heal. My piece is a loose evocation of Berry’s poem: a sequence of putting down roots, slow growth, the emergence of a kind of fertility, then a new identity, and swift, irrevocable erosion. Musically, the “erosion” here is both harmonic and timbral: the piece becomes less and less resonant in its second half. However, as Berry’s poem suggests, there is beauty to be found even in the barrenness. As with other pieces I’ve written, there is the sense of setting a process in motion and watching it unfold. Also of interest to me was the contrast in Berry’s poem between two different time-scales: nature’s versus humanity’s. There is no overt repetition in this music—that would be too easy—just constant change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. We try, we err, we hope.

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Two Songs from The Cold Pane

The Cold Pane sets five poems by esteemed Kentucky author, farmer, activist, and scholar, Wendell Berry. The cycle alternates between poems that describe the external, natural world—and particularly, the seasons—and poems that describe the internal, human world of grief. This basic opposition between external and internal carries with it other, related oppositions: cyclical versus linear conceptions of time and life, light versus darkness, and objectivity versus subjectivity. I composed the songs dealing with the natural world according to more-or-less strict processes—systems that, once set in motion, operate according to their own internal logic, without adjustment or interference on my part. My aim was to mirror, in a metaphorical way, the physical laws of the natural world. In contrast, for the songs dealing with the internal, human world—“The Cold Pane,” and “The Widower”—I wrote in a much more intuitive, spontaneous, and traditionally lyrical mode. “The Widower,” on a personal level, describes exactly an experience my father had, and it was with this poem that I began to build a cycle. As a whole, the cycle explores how we continually seek meaning in and attempt to draw significance from the qualities and events of the natural world, and asks whether the meaning and significance we find there is revelation, or just an imposition of our human desires, or both. When is nature actually speaking to us, and what can we know? 

Canon and imitation are central to the piece, both as formal constructive devices, and, more abstractly and poetically, as metaphors for one entity following or searching for another. The work’s harmonic structure oscillates between two centers: G-sharp minor and A major. This semitone relationship intentionally references the related tonal structure of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—a piece that has a very special place in my heart. The final song in The Cold Pane, “Again,” uses the harmonic series and the acoustic principle of sum tones as a sonic metaphor for the rebirth and return to light evoked in the song’s text. 

This piece’s unusual instrumentation grew out of two desires: first, to create an ensemble in which all the performers could stand; and second, to reference, but not explicitly duplicate, the instrumentation of the bluegrass band—a sound world and singing style that has been a major source of inspiration for me. Previous works of mine have drawn inspiration from certain folk singing traditions from Kentucky—particularly, Appalachian ballad singing and Old Regular Baptist hymnody. The influence of these traditions is less prevalent here, though the folk-wisdom quality of the words for Berry’s “The Cold Pane” did briefly invite a hymn-like sound world into the piece. In any case, this piece continues my investigation into the people, places, and cultural practices of my home state.

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Träumerei

Träumerei is a short dramatic scene for soprano and electronic sounds I composed for Ariadne Greif’s Dreams & Nightmares project. In this dream, a child searches for a lost or hidden friend. The electronic sounds are derived from a recording of the well-known “Träumerei” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. I “verticalized” sections of Schumann’s piece into blurred harmonic clouds and then transposed and layered each in accordance with the contour of Schumann’s melody. As successive clouds wash and collide into one another, one experiences a distorted, distant echo of the Schumann, refracted through a kind of microtonal hall of mirrors.

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Far Away

I wrote Far Away for the students of the 2014 Bard Summer Music Camp to play together. The instrumentation is open, but the piece sounds best with a group of at least 20 musicians playing melodic instruments of varied ranges. The premiere performance featured violins, violas, cellos, guitars, pianos, voices, and a large glockenspiel section.

The score is designed to be playable by young musicians. Individual parts are relatively simple, though the composite result is complex. The score is largely indeterminate, using spatial rhythmic notation; a two-line, high-low registral graph instead of the five-line staff; and a “scale signature” for each measure that specifies allowable note choices from one of three pitch collections: any white-key (piano) note, any black-key note, or any note. Each measure has a unique letter-plus-number identifier (A1, A2, etc.). A conductor controls the pacing by cueing each measure using American Sign Language. I called the piece Far Away because I pictured distant clouds rolling slowly across a sunny sky—sometimes blocking out the sun, sometimes letting it shine through.

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Payne Hollow

Payne Hollow is a love story, a ghost story, and a tribute to lives lived in harmony with the land. It celebrates two modern-day Thoreaus—Harlan and Anna Hubbard—who, from 1951–1986, lived in solitude and self-sufficiency, without electricity, in a small home they built on the bank of the Ohio River, at Payne Hollow. Their lives were filled with gardening, fishing, foraging, and scavenging, but also with reading, painting, writing, and playing music together. The opera’s libretto, by the distinguished Kentucky author, Wendell Berry, is an adaptation of Berry’s short verse play, “Sonata at Payne Hollow.” I am extremely grateful to Mr. Berry for his involvement in this project. For those interested in learning more about Harlan and Anna Hubbard, I would recommend Harlan Hubbard’s Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe of Society. In their later years, the Hubbards became good friends with Paul Hassfurder, who subsequently inherited Payne Hollow from them when they passed away. For over 20 years, Mr. Hassfurder has lovingly cared for Payne Hollow, continuing in the Hubbards' ways.

The opera is set in the future. In synopsis, two riverboat drifters come ashore at night, recognizing the landscape and ruins of the Hubbards’ old home. To their surprise, the drifters then hear distant music and witness the ghosts of the Hubbards appear. As perhaps they do every night, the ghosts re-enact their courtship. After speaking to one another from a distance, they finally embrace, and in so doing are momentarily transformed into their former selves, in the “brilliance of a spring morning.” Abruptly, the ghosts and the light disappear, and the opera ends, as it began, with the trilling of toads in the night. 

The Hubbards’ story is more important than ever. Faced with the increasingly daunting consequences of our destructive, and––Berry would say––blasphemous misuse of the sacred earth that sustains us, we could easily become resigned. Instead, we can look to the Hubbards: they made of their entire lives a powerful, humble protest against the systems of greed, waste, and ruin in which we find ourselves enmeshed. By living without many of the comforts we take for granted, the Hubbards achieved a simple, sustainable abundance and a spiritual wholeness that together stand as a shining refutation to the prevailing notion that more is better. In the words of Harlan: “What we need is at hand.”

Press/Media for Payne Hollow

Blog Review: Prufrock’s Dilemma

Jaeger’s intelligently spare music moved artfully with the line of the story, painting in music what the libretto put into words.


Radio Interview: WAMC

I join Bard College Conservatory Vocal Arts Program directors Dawn Upshaw and Kayo Iwama to talk with WAMC’s Joe Donahue about Payne Hollow.

Preview Article: Modern Farmer

“An Ag Opera Inspired by Wendell Berry Gets Ready to Make Its Debut”

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The Cold Pane

The Cold Pane sets five poems by esteemed Kentucky author, farmer, activist, and scholar, Wendell Berry. The cycle alternates between poems that describe the external, natural world—and particularly, the seasons—and poems that describe the internal, human world of grief. This basic opposition between external and internal carries with it other, related oppositions: cyclical versus linear conceptions of time and life, light versus darkness, and objectivity versus subjectivity. I composed the songs dealing with the natural world according to more-or-less strict processes—systems that, once set in motion, operate according to their own internal logic, without adjustment or interference on my part. My aim was to mirror, in a metaphorical way, the physical laws of the natural world. In contrast, for the songs dealing with the internal, human world—“The Cold Pane,” and “The Widower”—I wrote in a much more intuitive, spontaneous, and traditionally lyrical mode. “The Widower,” on a personal level, describes exactly an experience my father had, and it was with this poem that I began to build a cycle. As a whole, the cycle explores how we continually seek meaning in and attempt to draw significance from the qualities and events of the natural world, and asks whether the meaning and significance we find there is revelation, or just an imposition of our human desires, or both. When is nature actually speaking to us, and what can we know? 

Canon and imitation are central to the piece, both as formal constructive devices, and, more abstractly and poetically, as metaphors for one entity following or searching for another. The work’s harmonic structure oscillates between two centers: G-sharp minor and A major. This semitone relationship intentionally references the related tonal structure of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—a piece that has a very special place in my heart. The final song in The Cold Pane, “Again,” uses the harmonic series and the acoustic principle of sum tones as a sonic metaphor for the rebirth and return to light evoked in the song’s text. 

This piece’s unusual instrumentation grew out of two desires: first, to create an ensemble in which all the performers could stand; and second, to reference, but not explicitly duplicate, the instrumentation of the bluegrass band—a sound world and singing style that has been a major source of inspiration for me. Previous works of mine have drawn inspiration from certain folk singing traditions from Kentucky—particularly, Appalachian ballad singing and Old Regular Baptist hymnody. The influence of these traditions is less prevalent here, though the folk-wisdom quality of the words for Berry’s “The Cold Pane” did briefly invite a hymn-like sound world into the piece. In any case, this piece continues my investigation into the people, places, and cultural practices of my home state.

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In the Name of the Bee

“In the Name of the Bee” is a brief prayer-in-song on a text by Emily Dickinson. It is primarily a prayer of thanksgiving, but it is also––at least in my setting––something of a prayer for forgiveness, too.

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Letters Made with Gold

Letters Made with Gold is about being in love, and knowing that you, and your beloved, will die. The cycle traces a progression from youthful passion and optimism, through denial and anger, to acceptance. The three texts come from the repertoires of Appalachian sacred and secular song that I have been exploring over the past five years.

“My luve is like a red, red rose,” by Robert Burns (1797), is the first, and best-known text. In setting it, I was struck by the speaker’s frequently apocalyptic imagery, and the way in which thoughts of death sneak in and temper his otherwise ebullient mood. I first came across “And am I born to die?,” by Charles Wesley (1763), in the Southern Harmony, a long-boy hymnal popular within the Sacred Harp singing tradition. In this hymn, the speaker confronts her mortality and contemplates the nature of an afterlife. “My dearest dear,” the third and final song, is a variant of “The True Lover’s Farewell” that folksong collector Cecil Sharp transcribed in Virginia in 1918. Sharp subsequently published it in his anthology English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1918). In setting this text, I have chosen not to make any “corrections” to the grammar, etc.: I like it just the way it is!

While all three texts have associated tunes, I have deliberately not used them, but instead have composed my own tunes in a style that, I think, still betrays the influence of the repertoires from which they come. In particular, Old Regular Baptist lined-out hymnody was a source of inspiration. When I first heard Old Regular hymnody, I was overwhelmed by its honesty, immediacy, and rhythmic freedom, and it is these same qualities that I have tried to impart to Letters Made with Gold

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Thy Wondering Eyes

Thy Wondering Eyes takes the singing tradition of the Old Regular Baptists of central Appalachia as a point of departure. Old Regular hymnals contain words only, and so the tunes are transmitted orally. As a result, each member of the congregation sings the hymns a little differently, resulting in a highly heterophonic texture when these hymns are sung together in worship. In this piece, the quartet functions at times like an Old Regular Baptist congregation, “singing” a “hymn” I composed.

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Transit Song

I wrote Transit Song in 2009 as incidental music for a music-theatre work, entitled A Day in Chicago, created by violinist J. Austin Wulliman, and cellist Chris Wild. (I also acted and played violin in the show.) Transit Song is so named because it occurred at a point during which several characters in the drama rode the El. The piece alternates between two types of material: a simple, melancholic chaconne that grows increasingly unstable––metrically and harmonically––and a floating, long-breathed melody featuring large leaps over a drone.

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Poor & Wretched

Poor & Wretched, completed in 2008, is the first piece in which I have tried to pay homage to one of my great musical loves: the lined-out hymnody of the Old Regular Baptists of central Appalachia. The Old Regulars are a Baptist sub-denomination who trace their beliefs back to seventeenth-century Calvinism. Their singing tradition, lining-out, also stretches back to the seventeenth century. In the United States today, they constitute the sole preservers of this tradition.

Old Regular hymnals contain words only. The tunes are transmitted orally. A leader begins a hymn by singing the first line to brief melody. Immediately thereafter, the congregation sings the first line again, but to a very elaborated and extended melody. Furthermore, each member of the congregation sings the melody a little differently, resulting in a highly heterophonic texture. Some hold particular notes just a little bit longer than others, some add flourishes and decorations, some project vowels against the hard palate in the characteristic mountain style. All sing at the very top of their lungs.

This music is not intended for recordings or for concerts, but rather for praising the Lord. The Old Regulars believe that their song brings the Holy Spirit into their worship place. During the composition of Poor & Wretched, I traveled to Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, and spent an entire day listening to the William H. Tallmadge collection of sound recordings of lined-out hymnody. Without directly quoting any material, I sought, in this piece, to pay tribute to the complexity, the rawness, and the honesty of the Old Regulars’ singing. The title is taken a hymn printed in William Walker's The Southern Harmony (first edition, 1835), a shape-note hymnal that, although not used by the Old Regulars, contains many of their hymns.

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In Old Virginny

In Old Virginny is the second in what I hope will be an ongoing series of settings from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (the first was Pastor Hicks’ Farewell, also for soprano and double bass). Sharp’s anthology contains transcriptions he made of traditional ballad singing while traveling through the Appalachians in the early twentieth century. He often transcribed multiple versions of the same song, and the differences are striking. Some singers omit (forget) entire stanzas, or change certain words, or sing the words to a different tune altogether. In choosing to set Sharp’s transcriptions, I have chosen to accept the printed text, with all of its “imperfections,” as a given, and have not sought to “improve” it.

The first two stanzas of In Old Virginny present the weary remembrances of a man looking back on his travels and a long lost love. The fourth and fifth stanzas present the viewpoint of his female lover: her violent devotion to him, and her desperation and anger in the face of a terrible action he committed. The viewpoint of the third and sixth stanzas, however, is more ambiguous. I chose to imagine these two stanzas as shared memories, and pictured the two lovers, now much older, and separated by enormous geographical and emotional distances, both singing the same old song, both yearning, separately, for the love they lost.

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Pastor Hicks' Farewell

I wrote Pastor Hicks' Farewell for my friends, Evan Premo and Mary Bonhag. As I was finding my way into the piece, I decided to get to know the music of Kentucky, my home state. This decision proved to be a good one, because I fell in love with the incredible tradition of ballad singing in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Every aspect of this music fascinated me: the words, the tunes, the honesty of the music and its musicians, and the characteristic style of vocal inflection. One song in particular, “Hicks Farewell,” struck me as being particularly beautiful. The words of the song are the last words of a dying preacher, a man weary from many miles of travel, a man who dearly loved his wife, and who missed her every mile along the way. I chose to combine several variants of this song together to form the text of my song, and then set this version with the general vocal style of the Southern Appalachian tradition in mind, but without using any of the actual music.

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Prelude & Fugue

I wrote Prelude and Fugue for myself. At the time, I was experiencing some writer’s block, and so I figured that the rigor of fugue structure, on the one hand, and the familiarity of writing for the instrument I play would help to make the writing process easier. What resulted however, was a piece that was anything but easy, and it proved to be quite a challenge for me as a violinist. The Prelude features two contrasting characters, the first initially abrupt and compact, and the second more lyrical and suspended. However, the first character grows more emphatic as the movement unfolds, and eventually forms the link between the otherwise stylistically and motivically unrelated Fugue movement. This movement pays homage to the great Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin by J.S. Bach.

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