Program Notes: Solo and Chamber Music

Atacamenos (2017)

In the northern end of Chile, about 800 miles from Santiago, sits the Atacama Desert. This desert — the driest on the planet — isn’t well-known outside South America, and most who recognize its name might conjure a mental image of desolation, a lifeless expanse supporting little in the way of life. They wouldn’t be wrong: the Atacama is inhabited by very few animals, even fewer humans. For a few decades in the 20th century, the desert saw a boom of nitrate mining towns, but as technology moved past the need for nitrate those have largely been abandoned. The Atacama is a tapestry of ghost towns, dead zones, and the occasional lone creature seeking survival.

In my creative work, I often dance around the concept of loneliness. I remain ever fascinated by the natural and historic offerings of Chile, where my mother was born. The Atacama is a touchstone for both — treasured by Chileans even in its bleakness, and the setting for a thousand meditations on loneliness through landform, creature, and the desert itself. For some of the Atacama’s few denizens, loneliness is a curse: it means a work of art without a viewer, a ghost town without a guardian from vandals, a lone man without a community. But many others experience not a curse but a blessing: not loneliness, but solitude. Intrinsic in the solitary nature of desert life is freedom, independence, and uniqueness. Only in the Atacama can you find a phenomenon like the desierto florido, or a creature like the culpeo. It is this solitude that shapes the paradoxical life of the desert, at once lonely and free, desolate and colorful.

I have wanted to write about the Atacama for years, but never found the right project — until my dear friend Sophia Han asked me for a violin solo. A soloist is lonely, yet strong and intimate in her solitude. The violin demands an unparalleled focus and vulnerability from its performer, as if the two are in private dialogue with one another. Any violin solo is a study in loneliness — what a fitting medium to give voice to figures of an arid desert, themselves lessons in isolation.

Atacameños is a quartet of portraits from the Atacama desert. The work is dedicated to Sophia Han.


Dead Cowboys

Every once in a while, I compose music for electronics which uses as its source American field recordings. These can include folk songs, narratives, or “found” sounds from somewhere in American life. I use these sources as beginning points, entering into a free dialogue with them and the stories they tell about what it means — and has meant — to be an American and to be an American artist. These pieces are loosely organized into an ongoing project which I call Dead Cowboys.


Step Inside (2016)

Step Inside is a fantasia on the work of French street artist Julien Malland, a.k.a. “Seth GlobePainter.” In his work, Malland (or “Seth”) creates images of young people gazing, stepping, or diving into surreal fields of color and imaginary (sometimes horrifying) creatures. The sprawling murals can take up a city block or the face of a building. Seth’s work combines childlike innocence and playfulness with a surrealist sensibility inherited from the likes of Dali and Braque; however, the viewer encounters it not in a manicured art gallery, but on the streets of their city. The harmony he achieves with these elements is like no other artistic work I’ve ever seen.

I hesitate to say that Step Inside is a narration of the experience of Seth’s viewers, or his characters, or even the artist himself. The piece was inspired by imagining the experience of one of Seth’s subjects “stepping inside” his colorful otherworlds; but as I composed, visualizing their emotions of excitement and curiosity (and maybe a bit of fear), they began to feel universally resonant. In a way, we “step inside” a similarly alien realm whenever we listen to a new piece, read a new book, visit a new place. We unlock new worlds by revealing our true selves to friends or strangers; we perceive the chimerical nature of the unknown in experiencing anything for the first time. In my own life, every morning’s act of sitting down at the writing desk is a leap into new worlds which may inspire, intimidate, bore, or even destroy. The very act of composing is an act of stepping inside.

So, Step Inside might be an attempt to capture all of these elements and the cartoonish, fantastical quality that defines Seth’s work. The music could be said to reflect the realm of the imagination, so beautifully represented in these paintings. It could also be said to portray the realm of reality: perhaps a pair of street musicians, playing rhythmic and improvisatory music on a corner near a GlobePainter mural. Or it could just be a musical journey through the real and imagined experience of the new: the moments of uncertainty and temptation, the sense of danger, and the tense breath before finally summoning courage and taking the first step.


Two Orchids (2015)

In my creative work, I continually return to the concept of “place”: the intangible sense of belonging we feel in a city, a home, a room. Certainly this fascination is born, in part, from my own sensitivity to place and its effect on my emotions and art; but I also find myself drawn to the concept’s universal nature. Regardless of our differences, we all connect emotionally and truly with locations in our lives, with seemingly arbitrary points on a map which provide the setting for moments and feelings we treasure and crave, even (or especially) when we are in far distant places ourselves. Whether we share them with others or with no one, we all have spots where we feel most centered… where we feel most in place.

In 2013, my wife and stepson left our former home of Denver, Colorado to join me on a new adventure in Ann Arbor, and we began the slow process of finding ourselves and our lives anew. One of the first additions to make our new surroundings more colorful was a small orchid. Orchids are my wife’s favorite flower, and she had decorated her Denver apartment with one just like the one we found in Ann Arbor. That single, delicate flower became an anchor: a connection to the beloved place we had left behind. Seeing the orchid reminded me of our place in Denver — not just the beauty of the landscape and the city, but the friends and memories we’d left behind, and the journeys we’d taken in that place. These memories helped our new surroundings to feel more like home, helped to rekindle our sense of belonging where we were. The orchid was a souvenir. It was a story. It was a connection to our place.

Two Orchids is a free exploration of the emotional journey of changing place. Throughout, the core material is refracted and misty, seeking an orientation and direction which changes with each new gesture. Small sonic memories drift in and out of the texture, and flashes of my own musical memories (Bill Evans and Aaron Copland, among others) take over the music and guide the emotional journey. The work is structured around two dramatic, quintuplet-driven sections: the “orchids”. The two sections are similar, melodically and harmonically; the second clearly recalls the first, and although the journey through memories and instabilities has left it changed, the two orchids connect what has passed to what is present, each lending the other more meaning than they could have alone. It is in this connection that the work ultimately finds its own sense of place.

Two Orchids was commissioned by Kellan Toohey.


Devil Winds (2014)

Devil Winds was commissioned in 2013 by Third Rail, as part of the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings’ Young Composer in Residence Program. The commission came, and the writing began, in the middle of a freezing Michigan winter, with feet of snow outside and temperatures in the double digits below zero. I had never experienced that kind of cold before; and I began writing for reed trio (oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), an ensemble I had never tried composing for.

Yearning for warmer weather led me to think of my native California, and I reencountered the peculiar California phenomenon of the Santa Ana winds. The Santa Ana’s are strong, dry winds that occur in the fall and bring blistering hot weather. Because of their propensity to fuel the ravaging Southern California wildfires, they’re also referred to by the name “devil winds.” It was easy to connect my new fascination with the Santa Anas to my project for reed trio, made of three agile woodwinds with fiercely strong personalities. I began to envision the reed trio as a collection of three “devil winds” all their own, at turns coy and boisterous, cunning and aggressive. The resulting project ended up a musical fantasy on this idea: a seven-minute tussle for dominance among the three woodwinds, allowing each moments of delicacy and moments of brilliance in equal parts.

This edition of Devil Winds is dedicated to Ozzy Molina.


The Way Through the Woods (2013)

The Way Through the Woods, commissioned by Alex Carter, began as a simple acoustic piece for narrator and trumpet. Specifically, it was a piece to feature my wife, Jodi — a poet and a gifted orator. The solo trumpet is a classic American sound, and early drafts of the piece drew heavily on the great American works for trumpet: Kennan, Stevens, Copland. Inspired by the woods behind my Ann Arbor apartment, which are brimming with life in the fall, I began sketching a nostalgic tune which paints Rudyard Kipling’s woods as lively and reclaimed by nature.

Everything changed in the winter.

A string of personal struggles coincided with one of Michigan’s coldest winters on record. The forest behind my house took on an alien energy: not the dormant freeze which usually accompanies winter, but something more permanent. It was as if the forest were dead, and would never be living again. I felt the cold of that winter inside and out, and in reading and rereading Kipling’s poem discovered a new perspective. I began instead drawing plans for a piece whose forest is eerily, heartbreakingly vacant, save for the memories of those — human and animal — who may have once inhabited it. Soon the piece became one for trumpet and electronics, which place the narrator in the space more readily than an acoustic stage performance ever could.

Jodi provided the electronics part’s narration and singing drones. Other sounds were collected live or from open sources. The trumpet part was written when I finally decided to discard my Americana sketches and simply record myself improvising with the electronics. The Way Through the Woods was premiered by Alex Carter in May 2014.


Blues in Red (2012)

Blues in Red was written for “Nomenclature,” an interactive performance event at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. In fall of 2012, the top floor of the UMMA featured a painting by David Salle, Untitled but subtitled “Dark Red.” The painting shows cool, grey objects, reminiscent of 50’s film noir, on a violent red background. I was immediately drawn in by the cool, disaffected panache of the foreground against the vibrant discomfort of the background – and even more fascinated when I came to understand that the artist’s primary tool for this schizophrenic duality isn’t an object or any tangible signifier, but purely the use of color. No context informs the painting’s objects; the they exist ripped from their surroundings and placed on a boundless sea of alien red. With Blues in Red, I try to capture this dichotomy between the cool grey and the violent red of Untitled. A cool, noir-esque blues and a frantic, chromatic babbling trade blows; their language and gestures are informed by my background as a jazz musician, but devoid of swing, improvisation, or any other context that would paint them as “jazz” licks. I couldn’t resist a few nods to my jazz background, though, and so I decided to write for a pair of musicians playing my favorite instrument: tenor saxophone.


All Roads Lead Two Ways (2012)

Life could be, and often is, likened to a road. The human experience is one of walking at a fixed, invariable pace, down an unmapped highway whose twists and turns we don’t know and can’t foresee. The sights we see, the other travelers we may encounter: all are unpredictable, and are perhaps the greatest joy of walking the road. This metaphor is virtually omnipresent in our lives, from philosophers and poetry to car commercials: life is a road, a highway, a trail. But seldom mentioned in these commercial metaphors is the downside to our forward motion: ephemerality. There is only one route on the road: forward, towards the new and the unknown. The terrain behind us, no matter how precious, is a forgotten relic, necessarily discarded so that we may see the road ahead.

But all roads, by their very nature, lead two ways. A traveler on a physical road changes its direction simply by turning around and walking the other way. Maybe, by doing so, he gains a new perspective on, or admiration of the scenery he had left behind. In life, perhaps the other way down the road is memory; our ability to recall and relive may grant us the ability to turn around and glimpse our past. It can bring back past joys, resurrect lost friends, and revive forgotten love; but only for a second, for time and distance blur the terrain into nothingness, and we move ever forward.

All Roads Lead Two Ways is about memory; but it is not about memory as we are forced to experience it. In this piece, I envision a kinder version of memory: a version with no decay and no loss, where time cannot strip away memories which we hold dear. I envision a world where revisiting one’s past – reliving a precious moment, even one separated from us by years – is simply a matter of turning and walking back down the road.


27 (2012)

Brian Jones, guitarist and songwriter, born 1942, died 1969 by drowning in his swimming pool.

Jimi Hendrix, guitarist and composer, born 1942, died 1970, of causes related to an overdose of sleeping pills.

Janis Joplin, singer and songwriter, born 1943, died 1970 of a heroin overdose, possibly also under the influence of alcohol.

Jim Morrison, singer and songwriter, born 1943, died 1971. Cause unknown, but a suspected drug overdose.

Kurt Cobain, singer, guitarist and songwriter, born 1967, died 1994, presumably of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Jeremy Michael Ward, guitarist and sound artist, born 1976, died 2003 of a heroin overdose.

Amy Winehouse, singer and songwriter, born 1983, died 2011 of alcohol related causes.

At the time of their deaths, all were 27.


Blood on the Curb (2011)

I have long had a fascination with our mass media and the ways in which it a!ects our society. In particular, I’m intrigued by the perverse relationship America and its denizens have with violence and carnage. We deplore it, we denounce it – yet in our media and in our culture we celebrate it with a zealous, almost pornographic fervor. I challenged myself to write a piece for soloist that pays a sort of ironic tribute to our violence fetish. The result was Blood on the Curb, a work that is aggressive and primal almost to the threshold of artlessness. As inspiration for the title, I chose the angriest, most violent image I could conjure: a “curb stomp,” the infamous, oft-fictionalized act of making an unconscious victim “bite” a street curb and stomping on their head. I imagine the act of a curb stomp, the vicious, brutal dance beforehand, and an aftermath where the reaction is not one of horror, but a manic, possessed glee.


Piano Quintet No. 1: Scenes From Childhood (2009)

I. Kites at Seal Rock – Age 12
When I was 12, my family left our home in the San Francisco Bay area for a new home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A distance of just under 600 miles meant a complete change in environment, inhabitants, and pace of life. Separated from everything I’d grown up knowing, I looked desperately for some sort of constant. I found it on the Oregon Coast, on a beach called Seal Rock.

The beaches of the Oregon Coast are much different from those along the Central Coast of California, from the sand to the terrain to the surf. However, they both have strong winds, and people on both coasts tap those winds to fly big, colorful kites. These kites were the constant I was looking for. On our trips to Seal Rock I would watch kite-flyers, mesmerized by their kites’ endless interplay between motion and stasis. They reminded me of the kites I’d seen on California beaches, and helped to ease my sense of foreignness in my new surroundings. Time went by, and I eventually felt at home in Oregon; but the kites’ vivid display on the windy beaches was always part of what that home meant. Even now, I think of Seal Rock whenever I see a kite dancing against the sky, and once again, I feel at home.

II. Jordan and Nadia – Age 4
A child growing up in America in the late 1980’s was surrounded by frightening things, from the events leading to the Gulf War to the Patrick Purdy massacre not far from our house in Stockton, CA. Each day I would see another horror on TV, in the newspaper, or at school. I might have gone to bed many nights with visions of these dangers in my mind, were it not for Jordan and Nadia. Jordan and Nadia were two characters in my parents’ bedtime stories, brother and sister. Named for some preschool friends, they would take all sorts of adventures; both to familiar places and surreal, magical worlds. These stories became some of my earliest memories, much stronger than the daily threats from near and far. Whenever I had trouble falling asleep, Jordan and Nadia were ready with a new quest, whether it was to Chile, to the supermarket or to the moon. My dreams as a child were filled with Jordan and Nadia’s colorful world, quieting the unrest and fear that was all too easy to find in the daily news.

III. Tag! – Age 8
Like many kids, games and sports were a large part of my life. My friends and I would play baseball, football and soccer; and occasionally we’d opt for our ill-advised invented sport, “bumper bikes.” Of course, sometimes simpler games were called for, and I never tired of suggesting that ultimate childhood pastime, tag. The rules were simple — the person who’s “it” tries to tag someone to pass that dreaded title onto them — but the game was always intense, quick, and often a bit dangerous. Any child who wandered by could join in simply by joining the pack of screaming children in avoiding “it.” Our games could last for hours; the game would consume us, with no one wanting to be the last “it” of the afternoon. But when we tired out, we promised to pick up the game later; so no one was ever “it” last, just until next time. The thousands of chapters of our endless game of tag combine to one of my favorite childhood scenes: a slow start to a pickup game on a sunny day, that quickly gets intense and fills with laughter, aggression and close calls, all coupled with the unshakeable joy and exuberance of an 8-year-old Californian kid.


Estadio (2009)

On September 15, 1973, Chilean songwriter and activist Victor Jara was murdered by the military forces who, days earlier, had overthrown Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. His last days were spent in captivity; along with thousands of innocent Chileans, he was detained by the military junta in Estadio Chile, the national stadium. The details of his death aren’t clear, but what is known is that even in his last days he was sketching for a new song, which he had named after the stadium which would hold him until his death.

Estadio was written in memory of Victor Jara, one of my most important and personal musical heroes. Its main themes are drawn from two of my most beloved of his songs, “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” and “El Alma Llena de Banderas.” Like his last work, it is named after the stadium in which he spent his final days.

Estadio was written for Andrew Krimm, during a residency at the Brevard Music Center.