Places We Know

for digital piano trio (2018)

Places We Know, for violin, cello, and digital piano, uses ambient field recordings of five places in Kentucky and New York City significant to the composer and performers to generate unique microtonal scales/piano tunings. Derived from the specific spectral components of each place, these very long (up to 88-note) scales, by limiting certain pitches to certain registers, render each register a distinct musical place. The music I've written is thus grounded in each of the five recorded soundscapes, without necessarily sounding like them. Sometimes, sonic objects—such as train horns or cicadas—are treated as musical material, while other times, these objects sound only “indirectly,” by contributing to the microtonal piano tuning or functioning as creative metaphors (“alert,” or “swarm,” e.g.). 

Places We Know was written for Longleash, whose cellist, John Popham, and I both grew in Louisville, Kentucky. This gave me the idea of creating a set of sonic “portraits” of the neighborhoods in Louisville where John and I grew up, the neighborhoods in New York City where we now live, and, the place in Kentucky where Longleash holds an annual composition workshop—the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse, in Nerinx. All of these places are near waterways, so I titled each movement after them:
1. Muscota (Marsh; Inwood, Manhattan)
2. Beargrass (Creek; Louisville, KY)
3. Red Hook (Channel; Red Hook, Brooklyn)
4. Chenoweth (Run; Louisville, KY)
5. Coleman (Run; Nerinx, KY)

Rather than record all five locations myself, I asked members of Longleash to record, as well—I wanted to hear their sense of these places. I had originally planned to draw inspiration from each waterway’s unique sonic qualities, but our recordings ended up being dominated by the sounds of different modes of transportation—trains, jet skis, airplanes, ships, cars, and trucks.

Kirkpatrick Sale writes: “The only political vision that offers any hope of salvation is one based on […] a resacralization of place.” These places and their sounds are not particularly remarkable, but they are sacred, and we know and honor them accordingly.

Wilderness of Woe

for large chamber ensemble (2017)
(flute/picc., oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, perc. I, perc. II, piano, violin I, violin II, viola, cello, double bass)

Wilderness of Woe grows out of free transcriptions of remixed audio taken from live recordings of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys from the 1950s. By stretching brief sonic moments—the sound of slack bow hair scraping against a violin string, the grain of a voice as it begins to sing—up to 200 times their original length, I transform these moments into vast landscapes of sound, revealing their complex micro-structures. These audio landscapes then become the starting point for my composition.

We live in a culture of information overload and distraction; my working method, in contrast, affords an extended focus and reflection on single sounds. Anya Ventura writes: "To be slow is to be disobedient to the world as it is." I invite the listener to go slowly and get lost in these vast wildernesses of sound.

Thousands of Years to Make It What It Was

for violin and piano (2015)

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.

The Cold Pane

for soprano and ensemble (clarinet, mandolin, violin, double bass) (2013)

The Cold Pane sets five poems by esteemed Kentucky author, farmer, and activist, Wendell Berry. The cycle alternates between poems describing the external, natural world—particularly, the seasons—and poems describing the internal world of grief. This opposition carries with it other, related oppositions: cyclical versus linear conceptions of time, 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 rules, without interference. My aim was to mirror, metaphorically, the physical laws of the natural world. In contrast, for the songs dealing with the internal world—“The Cold Pane” and “The Widower”—I wrote in a more intuitive mode. “The Widower” describes exactly an experience my father had after my mother passed away, and it was with this poem that I began to build a cycle. As a whole, the cycle explores how we seek to draw significance from the qualities and events of the natural world, and asks whether the significance we find there is revelation, or just an imposition of our desires. Is nature telling us something, or do we just want it to?

Canon and imitation are central to the piece, both as formal devices, and as metaphors for one entity following or searching for another. The work’s tonal structure moves from G-sharp minor to A major, a reference to the structure of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—a piece that has a very special place in my heart. The final song, “Again,” uses the harmonic series and sum tones as metaphors for the return to light and rebirth evoked in the text.

The instrumentation grew out of two desires: first, to create an ensemble in which all the performers could stand; and second, to reference, but not duplicate, the instrumentation of the bluegrass band—a genre that has been consistently inspiring for me. Previous works of mine have drawn inspiration from folk singing traditions from Kentucky—particularly, Appalachian ballad singing and Old Regular Baptist hymnody. Theses influences are less prevalent here, though the folk-wisdom quality of Berry’s poem “The Cold Pane” did 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. 

Thy Wondering Eyes

for string quartet (2010)

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. 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 like an Old Regular Baptist congregation, “singing” a “hymn” I composed in six stanzas.

In Old Virginny

for soprano and double bass (2007)

In Old Virginny is the second setting for soprano and double bass I made from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. 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 entire stanzas that others sing, or change certain words, or sing the words to a different tune altogether. In setting Sharp’s transcriptions, I have chosen to accept the printed text, with all of its “imperfections,” as is.

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 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 stanzas as shared memories, imagining 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.