Blog: Secret Geometry

“Annenberg at Home” blog posts

Check out two recent blog posts from Penn’s Annenberg Center relevant to the recent release of Carthage and Descent/Return – the first springs from a chat I did with Alexander Freeman of the Annenberg staff; the second is about The Crossing and Carthage specifically. Go here to visit the websites of the performers on Descent/Return: Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan McCullough.

Carthage Released Today

It’s the big day. Navona Records is releasing Carthage today, with The Crossing singing a program of my choral music, conducted by Donald Nally. Go here to learn more, to stream the music, and to purchase a CD.

This project means a great deal to me and not just because of the astonishing performances and excellent recorded sound. The spiritual orientation of these pieces makes them especially close to my heart. I am profoundly grateful to have such a marvelous document of my music, and of my relationships with The Crossing and Emmanuel Music, the two groups for whom I wrote the pieces on this album

My experiences with choral music began with my work as a church musician starting in my teens and continuing to this day. I’ve had a long relationship with Emmanuel Music, having written numerous pieces for that group over the past 26 years, three of which are on the new album. I’ve written for chorus and ensemble as well, with works for the Cantata Singers and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. All of these experiences nourished the three pieces I composed for The Crossing that make up the bulk of the album, most notably the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my interweaving of the Latin Mass texts with poems of Denise Levertov that comment on those liturgical texts.

The members of The Crossing possess extraordinary skill, but in working with them to prepare performances and make this recording, I have also experienced their patience, their high standards, their generosity, and their sensitivity.

I think there is a unique vulnerability inherent in vocal music, but there is a unique power as well. These qualities come across particularly strongly in a cappella choral music and you will sense this when you listen to Carthage.

Without Ceremony

May 20 announcement in the New York Times of the 2020 recipients of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I am mentioned at the lower right as recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music.


Or I should say without Ceremonial. That’s how the American Academy of Arts and Letters refers to the annual gathering at their headquarters in upper Manhattan, which would have taken place today if not for the pandemic. (What’s the correct name for the neighborhood around 155th and Broadway? Wikipedia tells me 155th is the dividing line between Hamilton Heights to the south and Washington Heights to the north, with Hamilton Heights being a subset of Harlem.) If the novelty has not worn off for you (it has for some colleagues of mine, but not for me) it is an exciting event. I know the details from having attended previously. A reception when you come in is a good moment to oooh and aaah at the famous members of the Academy, (go here for a list of current members) as well as guests – I saw Jackie Kennedy there once. Then there is a luncheon. You are seated with a member of the Academy from your own field; the last time I was there I met the late Arthur Berger for the first and only time. Then you file into the auditorium and take a seat on stage, with prize winners mixed in with members on tiers of seats. (The fine acoustics of the auditorium make it a prized venue for recording sessions; I’ve had two pieces recorded there.) As I recall, Charles Wuorinen was on my left one year, with John Corigliano nearby and Mary Gordon behind me. First, photographs are taken of the whole crowd on stage. Then the audience is admitted, and the speeches and awarding of prizes begins. One time I saw Robertson Davies give an address (there are honorary members from foreign countries). Another reception closes the day.

A member of the Academy once told me that when he was elected his first thought was that “wow, I am in among” (let’s say, at the time) “Saul Bellow and Willem De Kooning”. But then his second thought was that “hmm, I am also  in with so and so or such and such” which is to say, with some decidedly lesser lights. Exalting and humbling pretty much at the same time.

I am very grateful to the Academy for the support signaled by this honor. Congratulations to all my colleagues who received recognition!

Podcast on Carthage with Donald Nally

Donald Nally, Artistic Director of The Crossing did an interview with WGTE Public Media in which he discusses the choir’s recent recording of Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man, as well as my own about-to-be-released Carthage. Go here to listen to or download the podcast. The discussion of Carthage begins at about 15:30 – or, if you are playing the podcast on the WGTE website, when there is about 12:30 left to go. (The player indicates how much time is left, not how much time has passed.)

Spotify single, Albany release

Two happy events today: The Crossing has released on Spotify a track from Carthage, their forthcoming Navona album of my choral music. It’s the Gloria from Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, a piece that interweaves a setting of the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems by Denise Levertov reflecting on the Latin texts.

The second piece of news is that the album Descent/Return is out on the Albany label. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough offer a program of songs and piano solo pieces by myself and John Harbison. Ryan made a trailer for album, find it here. There’s a nice article about the release from the Cornell Chronicle here.

Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift – the set of piano pieces on Descent/Return – is published by Theodore Presser, find it here. For scores of the other items, contact me directly.

A track list for Descent/Return:

Two New Videos

This afternoon I heard about two new videos posted on YouTube. The first is a trailer for Descent/Return, the new album on Albany with Ryan McCullough, piano, and Lucy Fitz Gibbon, soprano. Ryan put together a score follower video with excerpts from the record. I joked to Ryan that my first score follower video means I have now truly made it as a composer.

The other video was posted by Emmanuel Music as part of a series of postings sharing their performances during the pandemic. There’s a chat with Emmanuel’s artistic director Ryan Turner and myself (enjoy my lockdown beard), followed by three movements from my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. This happens to be the major work on Carthage, the new album by The Crossing that is coming out later this month.

To be clear, the new album is with The Crossing, not Emmanuel. It’s just a nice coincidence that Emmanuel chose to share this video during the same month The Crossing’s cd is coming out.

Latest Recordings (pinned post)

Carthage is a survey of my choral music by two-time Grammy-winners The Crossing, including three pieces written on commission from them, and three more composed for Emmanuel Music. There are settings here of texts by Meister Eckhart, Marilynne Robinson, E. E. Cummings, Thomas Merton, and Wendell Berry. The major work on the disc is the Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, which interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass with poems by Denise Levertov reflecting on the Mass texts. Donald Nally conducts on a Navona disc. Find it online here. Read a review from AllMusic here.

Descent/Return features five of my songs with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough as well as the piano preludes that make up the set Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. The title track is extracted from my cycle for soprano and ensemble, A Sibyl, setting poems written specifically for the project by Susan Stewart.  John Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight and his Piano Sonata No. 2 complete the album. (None of the songs on Vocalisms are duplicated on Descent/Return.) Go to the Albany Records website to order. American Record Guide says about Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift: “there’s marvelous variety in tempo and mood…” and on the songs included on the album: “I find myself enchanted by his lucid text setting…”

Vocalisms is a grand two-disc anthology of songs by four composers: Ned Rorem, John Harbison, Daniel Crozier, and myself. Mary Mackenzie sings 10 of my songs, including the Three Folk Hymns and the complete Holy the Firm, originally written for Dawn Upshaw. The pianist is Heidi Williams. Again, find it at Albany Records.

Sacred Songs offers four song cycles for voice and chamber ensemble, with Susan Narucki singing From a Book of Hours, Four Sacred Songs, and an orchestrated version of Holy the Firm while William Sharp sings Dark the Star. Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort on a Bridge Records release.

Descent/Return is coming

Sometimes not much is happening, but suddenly when things do happen they come in clumps. I’ve seen it with performances that cluster together, with empty weeks before and after. And now I have two CDs coming out a week apart.

I wrote previously about Carthage, my album of choral music with The Crossing; here is another record with my vocal music – this time for solo voice and piano, and alongside solo piano music. On the Albany label, the release date is May 15. Order the album at the Albany website here. I am pleased to share the disc with my teacher, mentor, and friend,  John Harbison. I first met John when I studied with him at Tanglewood, back in 1984, and we have been in close contact over the years. It was John who put me in touch with Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, the married couple who recorded this program about two years ago in Barnes Hall at Cornell University. Ryan himself edited the record, with the final touches applied by George Blood, with whom I have been fortunate to work on several of my projects.

The title piece is a pair of songs from my cycle A Sibyl, a Fromm commission for Collage New Music, which was premiered by them with Mary Mackenzie, soprano, in 2017. Susan Stewart wrote the poems specifically for this project. The descent and return in the title refers to Aeneas’s visit to the underworld, and the second song speaks of brambles and a sky mirrored in the water. Given those images, a photo that Lucy took some time ago, before this project, turned out to be the perfect cover picture.

We mixed vocal and piano solo pieces in ordering the program. The album opens with John’s cycle on Michael Fried poems, Simple Daylight. Originally written for Dawn Upshaw and recorded by her for a now out-of-print Nonesuch release with Alan Feinberg at the piano, our recording returns the piece to the active catalog. My set of five piano preludes follows, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. Ryan was one of the co-commissioners of the piece.*  You can read about this set here, and find it in the Theodore Presser catalog here. After the title work, Ryan plays a major piece by John, his Piano Sonata No. 2, written for the brilliant Robert Levin. The album closes with three independent songs of mine: The Old Astronomer, The Pitcher, and Who Do You Say That I Am? These set texts by Sarah Wiliams, Robert Francis, and Kathleen Norris, respectively.

Lucy and Ryan meet all the varied challenges of this program with passion and precision, with beauty of sound, and with complete unanimity in the vocal works. I am very grateful to them and to all who worked on this project.

*) This is the second recording of the piece, there is also a fine performance by Youmee Kim on a Centaur disc.