Program Notes: Large Ensemble

Promise Me You Won’t Believe A Single Word (2019)

“I’m the best liar in the world. Promise me you won’t believe a single word,” says a grandmother to her granddaughter in The Faery Handbag, a short story by Kelly Link, my favorite author. In the story, a hand-me- down handbag becomes the starting point for a series of magical tales from the grandmother’s past, with meanings for the granddaughter’s present and future. Evidence abounds that the incredible memoirs are, in fact, true; but the world of The Fairy Handbag is all cast in the light of the grandmother’s repeated demand to her granddaughter, “promise me you won’t believe a single word.”

The Faery Handbag asks powerful questions about how we perceive our past and our loved ones. Lovingly yet ruthlessly, Link examines how the unreliable stories of our parents and grandparents are often the only link we have to our histories, and when those people are gone, the lines between truth and fiction only become more blurred. I was inspired by this story from the first time I encountered it, during my doctoral study. A few years later, I approached my friend and colleague Tyler White about writing for his orchestra at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and in the fall of 2018, I started work on this piece.

Promise Me You Won’t Believe A Single Word starts with a musical “question,” asked by the oboe and clarinet. A series of fantasies on the musical question follow, each posing an answer in the form of either a “truth,” a “riddle,” or a “lie.” The emotional final act of the piece — which I called “Truth 3” while I was composing — is followed by one more iteration of the question. In my view of the piece’s narrative, it’s unclear whether any of the answers, even the sections of “truth,” were ever real. Promise Me You Won’t Believe A Single Word is a meditation on family, truth, and love. It questions how deeply we can ever trust what we hear, even from those closest to us; and it explores those things that, in the end, may be more important than the truth.

On December 6, 2018, as I was writing this piece, my own grandmother passed away, thousands of miles apart from me. Promise Me You Won’t Believe A Single Word is dedicated with love to Kela — te quiero para siempre.

Draw Me the Sun – Percussion Ensemble (2018)

“‘Draw me the sun,’ said the star. And the artist drew the sun. It was a warm sun.”

The original Draw Me the Sun, for chamber orchestra, was written for Alarm Will Sound in 2013. This version was commissioned by Dave Hall, my amazing friend and colleague at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for his tremendous percussion ensemble.

The story of Draw Me the Sun starts in 2013, when my stepson Leo was just seven years old. One day I asked him to tell me a story; he launched into a vivid, colorful tale of a young artist who, with his paintbrush, slowly draws the world into existence. Later I would find that this story comes from Draw Me A Star by the American author Eric Carle, but Leo’s telling of the story was so full of life and passion that it became his own.

With Draw Me the Sun, I wanted to capture the childlike wonder and exuberance of the story and of its 7-year-old narrator. The piece starts with a simple, diatonic idea – a blank musical canvas, perhaps – upon which every gesture is built. The music is colorful, fiery, and acrobatic. As I was composing the early versions, it reminded me more and more of the artist drawing the sun: a vivid, glowing orb in which a mélange of intricately woven colors resides. The artist covers the blank canvas in colors warm and cool, delicately intertwining them to reveal the sun – full of energy, flourish, and life.

Stamps (2016)

Stamps is built on a hymn tune called “Bompata” by W.J. Akyeampong, a composer from Ghana. I first learned the tune through a 1975 field recording by James Koetting, who recorded postal workers in Ghana whistling the hymn tune while they cancelled stamps. The recording is bright and cheery, with the postal workers accompanying themselves by hammering out a groovy rhythm on their equipment.

When I was writing Stamps, I’d just finished my doctoral work and was completely burned out, not finding much joy in composition anymore — but I had a commission for the new piece and a deadline. Around that time, I turned my attention back to the 1975 field recording of the whistling stamp cancellers. The more I thought about that recording, the more it spoke to me: workers from another time and place, using music to bring joy and life to their work. I listened to that recording on repeat for days, learning everything I could about their phrasing and the complex rhythms underneath the whistled melody, and gradually the jubilation and charm of the recording made its way to me. Suddenly composing was fun again: music once again seemed like a joyous act with the ability to bring people together.

I think of Stamps as a kind of dance party for the band. The party begins with the flutes singing out the melody, before the clarinets join in to harmonize. As the brass and percussion enter, the rhythm takes over the texture and the music starts to groove. As the main melody is transformed and explored, new ideas pop out of the texture and the band develops new ways of dancing. Finally the party leads to a raucous cheer for the whole ensemble, before the music fades and ends with a graceful flourish.

Outskirts (2015)

I have lived my musical life on the outskirts of two worlds.

My formative musical experiences were always a combination of jazz and classical music: I would play in band and orchestra, sing in choir, before going home to play along with recordings of Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. My compositional voice is tethered more closely to my voice as an improviser than it is to the giants of the Euro- classical tradition, but I have never been able to find a real creative voice in the short forms and stylistic limiters of traditional jazz composition. Similarly, while I call myself a jazz trumpeter, my approach to improvisation is guided by the development, forms, and textures of my favorite concert music before it is guided by bop conventions. I am a jazz musician and a classical composer, two identities inextricably bound to one another. My musical personality resides between the realms of jazz and classical music, in a world that is deeply indebted to both but is only at home in between.

Outskirts is a project which works to fuse these two identities organically and soulfully into one artistic statement. It begins from the belief that the storied attempts of 1960’s-era composers to blend jazz musicians into the orchestra failed not because the two cannot blend, but because the ingredients were wrong. Jazz-classical hybrid pieces too often attempt to mix superficial styles: the strings “swing” or play a “walking bass;” the orchestra plays angular, atonal gestures underneath a blues progression or some other jazz cliche. Outskirts reflects my belief that the identity of jazz arises not from its colloquialisms, but from the way jazz musicians improvise. Jazz improvisation is music of interaction, reaction, and spontaneous changes in direction and approach. This philosophy is the soul of jazz, and in Outskirts I worked to blend it with the soul of concert music: intricate, complex structures of form, texture and color which are only possible to build through notation.

The two movements of Outskirts break free of conventions of form and style. The jazz quintet is an organic part of the orchestra, and improvisation is in constant dialogue with written music. Improvisation occurs in short bursts and extended statements, developing continuously with the textures of the orchestra. The written music of the ensemble lends the improvisers textural and motivic material, guiding their creativity as would the choices of another jazz musician. This piece could not exist without a talented orchestra of interpretive musicians, nor could it exist without the five individual creative voices of the jazz quintet. It is a piece, then, which lives on the outskirts of the two traditions, built on a foundation which borrows soil from both.

For Angels, Slow Ascending (2014)

In December of 2013, a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT claimed the lives of 27 people, including twenty young children. Nearly a year later, Gio Santos asked me for a piece for his band at Loma Linda Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist school in California. I had wanted to write a tribute to the victims of this tragedy for a while, but hadn’t found the right project; when Gio offered me the chance to write for his band, full of talented young people who remember being the age of the children at Newtown, I knew immediately that this was the moment.

The title For Angels, Slow Ascending isn’t strictly Christian imagery. Rather, it refers to our collective understanding of angels as otherworldly, beautiful messengers who might bridge the gap between this world and whatever lays beyond. With the title (as with the music), I hoped to convey a reflective mourning that ultimately gives way to a prayer for peace.

For Angels, Slow Ascending is dedicated to Gio Santos.

Marble and Glass (2013)

Marble and Glass was written for my dear friend and mentor Ellen Rowe and her jazz ensemble at the University of Michigan, of which I was a member at the time. During my doctorate I took regular trips to Detroit from Ann Arbor, always via the same hectic stretch of I-96. The highway takes you through the Detroit outskirts, much of which is still recovering from the economic collapse of the 2000s, and directly into the gleaming downtown with its looming skyscrapers. Driving that stretch of highway shows you two Detroits: the gentrified, manicured downtown and the struggling surroundings. I was always moved by this grim, stark contrast, and Marble and Glass gave me a chance to put those feelings in music. I envision looking down from a skyscraper window – perhaps from the Ren Center or some such structure – and then looking up at that point from a street corner outside downtown, where the city’s struggles can be seen, heard, and felt all around. Marble and Glass is an attempt to paint these two forces and the tension between them.

Draw Me the Sun (2013)

One day I asked Nacho, a 7-year-old whom I was looking after, to tell me a story. Without hesitation, Nacho leapt into the story of an artist who draws the universe from scratch. He begins with a star, quickly followed by a big, warm sun; a simple green tree; a human couple and their dog; and so on and so forth, until a colorful universe with a beautiful night sky has been drawn.

Later I would find that the story comes from “Draw Me a Star” by the American children’s writer Eric Carle, but at the time, it was Nacho’s creation. He was captivated by his own story, telling it with passion, excitement, and wildly vivid color. His hands were flying; he would reach a fever pitch when the artist would finish an object. Watching him tell the tale was akin to watching the protagonist at work, starting with a blank canvas and bringing it to life in exquisite detail.

With Draw Me the Sun, I wanted to capture the childlike wonder and exuberance of the story and of its 7-year-old narrator. The piece starts with a simple, diatonic idea – a blank musical canvas, perhaps – upon which every gesture is built. The music is colorful, fiery, and acrobatic. As I was composing the early versions, it reminded me more and more of the artist drawing the sun: a vivid, glowing orb in which a mélange of intricately woven colors resides. The artist covers the blank canvas in colors warm and cool, delicately intertwining them to reveal the sun – full of energy, flourish, and life.

Of Stellar Waters (2011)

In January of 2011, I approached Charles Creighton, the director of the Corvallis Youth Symphony, about the possibility of writing for his orchestra. The opportunity to compose for this group was very special to me, for so many reasons: I’m an alumni of CYS, one of the best youth orchestras in the Pacific Northwest; they perform in my hometown of Corvallis, Oregon; and in the months and years before I’d become more passionate than ever about writing music for young ensembles. He was extremely receptive and enthusiastic about having a new piece for the group, and I was handed what might be called a dream project.
The inspiration for Of Stellar Waters comes, like so much of my music, from images of those places I love and treasure. Here, I concentrated on two images in particular: the infinite tidepools that scatter the Oregon Coast nearby where I grew up, and the giant, starlit sky over my new home of Denver, Colorado. In these scenes we have two beautiful landscapes of astounding depth and complexity, ever-changing and in near constant motion yet static and beautiful, like a still-life. Musically, I tried to recreate the act of taking in something as immense and massive as the stars or a bed of tidepools; as we examine the whole, we become hypnotized by one small part (a tidepool, a section of the sky, or in this case, a musical motive). In looking closer at the smaller section, we begin to see an entire universe within, and soon get lost in that universe before coming back to the whole. Of Stellar Waters is a series of microcosms, finding and exploring tiny musical ideas as deep as we can, while remembering the details we’ve already seen. At the end of the work, we feel a sense of tranquility around us, even as we stand in awe of our beautiful surroundings.
Of Stellar Waters is dedicated to Kari Kraakevik.

Foolish Fire (2009)

Across the United States, Canada and Europe can be found naturally-occuring light phenomena known as “ghost lights,” “will-o-the-wisp,” or ignis fatuus (which translates to “foolish fire”). Occuring mainly at night, these lights can flicker, dance, or stay stagnant. Some of these lights — like the ones in Marfa, Texas and Paulding, Michigan — have developed devoted followings of occultists and paranoramal enthusiasts, who come from all over the world to see the lights for themselves.

No definitive reason has ever been offered for the “ghost light” phenomena. The explanations have ranged from ignited swamp gas, to mischievous dead spirits, to car headlights and overly-enthusiastic viewers. Regardless of their origin, the lights appear to be innocous, posing no threat to their observers or surroundings; yet we continue to search for a logical explanation, and to view them with an unmitigated curiosity (and perhaps fear). So the question becomes: are we really fascinated by the Foolish Fire, or by our own inability to understand and explain it?