Ladies and Gentlemen, today, I am a happy composer. What makes a composer happy? Well, basically nothing – we’re all tortured, existentially-fraught philosophers in sound who see this world for the vale of tears it really is.
But occasionally one receives a very decent recording of one’s own work, and one can’t help but feel a moment of pride. Therefore, I present to you now two of my newest musical children:
I composed this piece mainly this past January for the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra; we premiered it at the end of March and recorded it at the beginning of May. Here’s an earlier essay/manifesto I wrote about it.
A suite in five movements for brass quintet, timpani and organ, composed for the Gargoyle Brass Quintet. Each movement depicts the god or goddess assigned to one of the outermost celestial bodies in our solar system (click the title above for more info thereabout.)
I wrote this piece over the course of April and May, 2012. How it ever dawned on me to compose a set of tone poems in the mould of Holst’s The Planets featuring the deities assigned to the most distant celestial bodies I do not now remember. What I do remember thinking is “really?” and that the idea grew on me as I mulled it over.
The currently recognized Dwarf Planets are: Haumea, Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake. There are something like 50 other candidates, which may necessitate a second suite at some point in the future.
Three of these planets are named for European gods and goddesses: Pluto, Ceres, and Eris, but the ones that really got my juices flowing were the Polynesians: Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth, and Makemake, the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) god of the bird-man cult (about which, see more below.)
This piece was composed for the Gargoyle Brass Quintet and was commissioned by the group’s founder, tubist Rodney Holmes. I wrote it ahead of schedule (can you believe it!?) and it is being toured as part of the quintet’s 2014 season.
Haumea is the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth. Nearly all the Hawaiian gods and goddesses count her as their mother; she is a profoundly incestuous figure, bearing the offspring of her own sons and grandsons. The music is primordial and noble, and the main melody (a sort of chant) continues with variation throughout the piece.
Both the most famous dwarf planet and the most famous god on the list, Pluto is the Roman ruler of the underworld. The scene depicted in this movement is the abduction of Persephone, Pluto’s young bride. Often depicted as a violent abduction, here the music never rises above piano, portraying the scene as a mysterious disappearance. The opening melody depicts Persephone herself.
Like many ancient gods and goddesses, Ceres represents several ideas. The two most important are: agriculture and motherly relationships. Hence, the movement opens with a joyous harvest dance, the melody of which is then slowed down and turned into a lullaby in the central section. This is followed by a reprise of the festival dance and a coda.
Eris is the Greek goddess of strife and discord. This movement, a solo for the organ, presents a series of consonant chords that are disturbed by the addition of foreign notes. The dissonances grow greater and greater. An ostinato is played throughout by the middle C on the pedal board.
Makemake comes from the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, and is both the creator of humanity and the chief god of the bird-man cult. Each year, the youths of Easter Island were pitted against one another in a dangerous race, swimming out to sea to try to capture the eggs of the Sooty Tern, a bird that nested on rocks several kilometers out at sea. Many of the participants were devoured by sharks, but the winner earned god-like status for the rest of the year. This movement depicts the call to the race, the race itself, and the victory.
[Now. Something must be said about the poster image at the top of the page. The graphic designer (whom I know not) was inspired by my concept to create this insane, Game-of-Thrones fan art phantasmagoria, and when I saw it at the premiere I demanded a copy, and the poster is now proudly displayed on my studio wall. To whomever served as the model for Eris, the goddess of chaos, strife, and discord: I salute you, good lady.]
If anyone seriously interested in creating music isn’t listening to Björk, and namely her new album, Biophilia, I don’t know what they’re doing. I’m talking here to composers, producers, singers, instrumentalists, arrangers, whatever. Music industry types are certainly taking notice, since project is being released simultaneously as an album and an app. The app is said to be revolutionary, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is. Not having an iPad myself, I can’t comment. But that’s OK, since everyone else is already talking about the app, and I want to talk about the music itself, which is more than enough topic for conversation.
Many Björk albums have an orchestrational unity. With Vespertine, she explored the tinkly sounds of celestas, music boxes and harps; Medúlla was a study in a cappella; Volta was largely defined by brass. Biophilia incorporates all these sounds and textures, and of course Björk’s many flavors of electronic beats. She adds some startling instruments to her palette, the tesla coil being one, and the commissioned gameleste being another:
But Björk’s real sonic obsession on this album is the organ, and she gets everything she can out of it. There are Messiaen-like cluster progressions:
There’s are chiffy bass lines and percussive jabs:
And a sort of minimalist, modal/tonal hymnody:
Now, as with all Björk projects, this one is a collaboration, so one does wonder who is directly responsible for writing these organ parts. Until I can see some liner notes, I’m glad to believe that Björk herself. She arranged much of the brass music for Volta, and like that album, the organ harmonies here are so integrated with the vocal lines, it seems impossible that she is not their author. And even if she’s not, she certainly deserves credit for assembling the whole thing.
I think that what appeals so much to me about the organ on this album is that as Björk steadily expands her use of electronics, she also steadily expands her use of acoustic instruments. What’s more, it sounds to me like she has translated some of her previously electronic ideas into acoustic ones and, in some cases, even re-translated them back into electronic ones.
I don’t know if that even makes any sense. Just go listen to the album like 30 times. It has everything you’d want from Björk: epic hymns with brass and choir, aggressively undanceable dance music, bold modernist compositions, and haunting, contemplative etherea.
Cantata for SATB choir, Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano soloists, Brass Quintet, Timpani, English Handbell Choir, and Organ
I wrote this piece on a commission from the Union Church of Hinsdale, IL to celebrate the retirement of their long time Director of Music (and my one time boss), Michael Surratt.
Mike is a great guy and a really great organist, so I wanted to give him something to bite into. The church suggested I set the text of Psalm 46 (one of Mike’s favorites) and I seized the opportunity to use a translation that has fascinated me for years, namely, Young’s Literal Translation of 1862 (which you can read about on Wikipedia.) What makes this version of the bible unique is that Mr. Young, a self-educated Scotsman, translated from the Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek without rendering said languages grammatically into Modern English. Strangely though, he still uses the vocabularic style and tense endings of the King James Version, lending the text a distinct flavor that combines the ancient and the modern.
For comparison, here is the New Revised Version of Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; He utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD; See what desolations he has brought on the earth
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; He burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
And here is Young’s Literal Translation:
God [is] to us a refuge and strength, a help in adversities found most surely.
Therefore we fear not in the changing of earth, and in the slipping of mountains into the heart of the seas.
Roar — troubled are its waters, mountains they shake in its pride. Selah.
A river — its rivulets rejoice the city of God, Thy holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High.
God [is] in her midst — she is not moved, God doth help her at the turn of the morn!
Troubled have been nations, moved have been kingdoms, He hath given forth with His voice, earth melteth.
Jehovah of Hosts [is] with us, a tower for us [is] the God of Jacob. Selah.
Come ye, see the works of Jehovah, who hath done astonishing things in the earth,
Causing wars to cease, unto the end of the earth, the bow he shivereth, and the spear He hath cut asunder, chariots he doth burn with fire.
Desist, and know that I [am] God, I am exalted among nations, I am exalted in the earth.
Jehovah of hosts [is] with us, a tower for us [is] the God of Jacob! Selah.
I made just a few tiny adjustments to this text, mainly for musical purposes, and also because of Mike’s aversion to the use of the masculine pronoun for God. The piece was premiered in Hinsdale, IL in May of 2011, and I recorded it in Cincinnati, OH in December of the same year using funds from a Kickstarter campaign (which I discuss here.)
Astute listeners may recognize two hymn tunes which are quoted extensively (and often hidden) in the piece: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “O God Our Help In Ages Past”. Both are paraphrases of the Psalm 46 text and favorites of Mike’s.
Anthem for Soprano and Baritone Soloists, Choir, Organ, Brass and Timpani
Here’s an anthem for Palm Sunday; the festive crowd marches in from the distance, the Savior seated atop a bumbling ass (the dotted figure in the timpani.) Voluptuous solos for soprano and baritone, and a sensible choir part.
Why does the choral score cost so much?
Because I presume that, in purchasing it, you will simply make as many copies as you need for your singers. And that’s great! Much easier than me printing and shipping a whole bunch of them and charging you per part, which would probably cost you at least twice as much and make me have to write those annoying, guilt-ridden anti-photocopying messages in my music. I live in the real world. Copy what you need, and go in peace.
Here’s me conducting the recording session. I think I was having fun that day: