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.
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.
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.
In the summer of 2014, Dr. Eugene Rogers asked me to write a piece for his Glee Club at the University of Michigan that would fit into the theme of their fall concert: “Heartland”. We discussed the many meanings of that word – “heartland” – and how it might shape an artist’s voice. Around the same time, I revisited Walt Whitman’s text “Spirit that Form’d this Scene” (1881), Whitman’s reflections on a viewing of gorgeous Platte Canyon, Colorado.
Platte Canyon is less than an hour outside of my adoptive home of Denver, and rereading Whitman’s beautiful, majestic text was a vivid trip back to my personal heartland. But “Spirit that Form’d this Scene” also reveals how Whitman related to his inspiration, the inner voice that guided his choices… his poetic heartland. At the time he wrote this poem, Whitman had encountered criticism from the literary world and the public at large for eschewing lyric forms in favor of his free verse — accusations that his poetry had “forgotten art.” Here he writes of “wild arrays, for reasons of their own,” both in his writing and in the awe-inspiring scene around him, and declares that whatever technical aspects are present or absent in his work, his poetry always remembers his heartland. Spirit is, like the poem that inspired it, a fantasia on both of these heartlands: the sweeping American landscape of Whitman’s text, and the inner heartland to which all artists must listen if they are to form their own scenes.
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 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.
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.
Draw Me the Sun (2013)
“‘Draw me the sun,’ said the star. And the artist drew the sun. It was a warm sun.”
One day when he was 7, I asked my stepson Nacho 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 innocuous, 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?
Piano Quintet No. 1: Scenes From Childhood
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.
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.