Cold Snap Miscellany

A few items of interest on a chilly day in Philadelphia:

– Two choirs that have performed my music offer Christmas concerts this weekend: The Crossing, and  Cantori New York.

– Did you know you can hear performances from Yellow Barn online? Lots of new music, including works by Michel van der Aa, Charles Wuorinen, Oliver Knussen, Hans Abrahamsen and many more, as well as traditional repertoire.

– The extraordinary violinist Rolf Schulte has made archival recordings of his performances of concertos by Roger Sessions and Donald Martino available on CD Baby here. The Sessions is performed by the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, with Janos Kulka, and the Martino is with the New Hampshire Symphony and James Bolle. The music is also available on the iTunes store.

– The Association for the Promotion of New Music presents an all-Babbitt program in his centennial year on December 19 at the Di Menna Center in New York, including performances by the New York New Music Ensemble.

– There will be a concert of music by Robert Capanna on Friday, January 6, at the Settlement Music School’s Queen Street Branch here in Philadelphia. Presented in collaboration with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the performers include the Network for New Ensemble conducted by Jan Krzywicki, soprano Sharon Harms, pianist Charles Abramovic, and the Prism Saxophone Quartet.

Graphing the Strata in Philly and NYC

Fabulous performances by the Prism Saxophone Quartet in Philadelphia and NYC over the past couple of days. The quartet took on 15 premieres (!!!) in a pair of concerts at University of Pennsylvania, then reprised the 2nd of those two concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York today. Marilyn Nonken joined the quartet for the first performances of my Stratigraphy. I was concerned that the textures of the piece seemed a little opaque after the first performance at Penn, but in a more congenial acoustic today at Tenri I felt more confident about the piece. Here are a few pictures. First, Prism and Marilyn with many composers – from left to right that’s Jay Reise, myself, Marc LeMay, Tim McAllister (soprano saxophone), Jacob Walls, Kai-Young Chan, Joshua Hey, Taimur Sullivan (baritone saxophone), Andrew Davis, Finola Merivale, Ben Hjertmann, Jane Lange, Marilyn Nonken (piano), Zachary Shemon (alto saxophone), Matt Levy (tenor saxophone). (To my regret, composers Anna Weesner, Kevin Laskey, and Kyle Bartlett didn’t get into the picture.)



Tenri Cultural Institute is on 13th between Sixth and Fifth in New York.



Anna did get into this shot – here’s the quartet along with Anna Weesner, speaking about her piece today at Tenri.


Stratigraphic Premiere

The Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Marilyn Nonken have been preparing the premiere of my Stratigraphy for a concert at U Penn this coming Saturday, March 19 at 7:30 pm in Rose Recital Hall. Rose is on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia. Go here to snag one of the last tickets available.

Here is a program note on Stratigraphy:

  1. Chronostratigraphic
  2. Hommage to Lutoslawski
  3. Game of Pairs
  4. Geochronologic
  5. Poem (after Christina Rosetti)
  6. Scalable

The New Oxford American Dictionary states that stratigraphy is “the branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.” I first came upon this word in pianist Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano. There she uses the term to refer to the layering effects created by musical shapes and their resonances in the works of spectralist composers such as Murail and Dufourt. While my piece for saxophone quartet and piano is not spectralist, I chose the title partly to honor Marilyn as the work’s first pianist, and partly to reflect my interest in exploring layered and juxtaposed strands of musical material.

In addition to the title of the entire set, I have used scientific terms for the first and fourth of the pieces. There is no special significance to these titles, other than that they are fun to say! Hommage to Lutoslawski makes use of a single chord from a piece by that composer. Game of Pairs refers to the movement of the same title in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra where pairs of instruments focus on particular intervals. Poem was suggested by Christina Rossetti’s Sleeping at Last. Wikipedia tells us “scalability is the capability of a system, network or process to handle a growing amount of work”, and in Scalable I have given my players scales and more that test the “scalability” of the ensemble.


Prismatic Tickets

Just a short note to say you should book your free tickets for the upcoming Prism Saxophone Quartet concerts at Penn right away – Rose Recital Hall is not that big, and we are issuing tickets to keep track of the head count. Go here to reserve tickets. The concerts are Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, both at 7:30, and will feature music by Penn faculty, students and alums. My own Stratigraphy, with pianist Marilyn Nonken joining the members of Prism, will be heard at the Saturday concert.

Post-Hiatus Miscellany

My pieces for the Mendelssohn Club and Prism (with Marilyn Nonken) are completed, and while I still need to put in a great deal of practice time on the music I will be playing at Penn on February 17 and 24 (more info below), I want to take a moment and catch up on a few things.

– First of all, a big thank you to the Philadelphia Sinfonia and its music director Gary White for their fine performance of my Variations on a Hymn Tune. I was terrifically impressed by the group and by Gary. Their hard work paid off in a performance that was spirited and elegantly shaped. Likewise, thank you to the Society for New Music for programming my Dancepiece – I heard from Neva Pilgrim that the performance went very well and was warmly received.

– the Eighty-Eight Lately series of concerts at Penn, featuring new and recent music for piano, continues with performances by Gregory DeTurck on February 17 (works by Crumb, Perle and Dutilleux) and by Matthew Bengtson on February 24 (works by Carter, Nancarrow, Melinda Wagner, Bolcom, Ligeti, and Takemitsu). In addition to the music Greg and Matt will play, I will contribute one piece to each program. On the 17th I will play the Berio Sequenza and on the 24th, a movement from Donald Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus. Both concerts are at 8 pm, and take place in Rose Recital Hall, found on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, 34th and Walnut, on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia.

– word has come in of a few additional performances this season. My Oboe Quartet has been programmed by the organization Weekend of Chamber Music. The performers will be Peggy Pearson, who commissioned and premiered the piece; Ari Streisfeld of the JACK Quartet; and Kathryn Lockwood and Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet – this is quite an all-star group. They will be at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC on March 25, and at The Cooperage in Honesdale, PA on March 26. On April 1, soprano Sarah Noone will sing my Four Sacred Songs for voice and chamber ensemble at Notre Dame University. And on Friday, April 8, my music will be heard at Bargemusic in NYC for the first time when pianist Geoffrey Burleson plays Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. You can always find a complete list of upcoming performances in the footer at the bottom of each page on this website. That information is also on the Performances page, along with an archive of past events.


The branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.

That’s the definition offered by the dictionary on my Mac’s dashboard. Despite a somewhat scientific aura that recalls titles of modernist pieces (such titles go back to Varese, I guess, and seem a little old-fashioned these days), I like the term “stratigraphy” as the title for my current project, a work for the Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Marilyn Nonken. The premiere will be at Penn on Saturday, March 19. I came across the word in Marilyn’s book, The Spectral Piano, where she uses it to describe the layering strategies employed in works by spectralist composers like Murail and Dufourt. While I don’t think of my piece as spectralist, I am concerned in this new piece with creating contrapuntal structures where the component parts are a little more differentiated than usual, either by rhythmic texture or harmonic process or both. Of course there are also places in the piece where the five instruments function as a single unit, but several spots emphasize contrasting elements. Here’s a fragment from the first movement as an example – just a draft, mind you (notation sounds as written):

stratig excerpt

The “rock layers” here are more juxtaposed than layered (though there is obviously a registral layering going on), but later in the movement things will start happening simultaneously.

The plan is to have a number of short movements exploring a variety of strategies. The players want their parts soon; better get back to work.

Tuesday Miscellany

– the Prism Quartet plays with guests Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane on June 9th at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia and June 10th at Symphony Space in New York. It’s the next installment of Heritage/Evolution, a project featuring new work by top jazz saxophonists, created for Prism.

– I was walking up Fifth Avenue a week ago Sunday, early for a Mass I was going to attend in celebration of the anniversary of a friend’s ordination as a priest. I decided to stop in at St. Patrick’s for a few minutes before continuing on my way to that anniversary celebration. It was shortly before the main Mass of the day at the cathedral, and the following little incident says something about the role of the arts in the liturgy of my denomination. An organ prelude begins: a Bach trio sonata. Pretty classy, no? Then – while the Bach is still going – someone steps up the microphone with a cheery “Good morning and welcome…” The trio sonata became a more or less pleasant, vaguely “church-y” background noise, or, rather, it became clear that it had been understood by those shaping the liturgy as background noise all along. There’s a rather different experience of Bach and of music in general at Emmanuel Church, which I have often written about here. It’s a place where my motets and Bach cantatas and organ works are understood to be an integral part of the service, not just atmosphere. My music takes on a pastoral role in that context.

– try taking this test to see if you can tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed audio files. I’ve been in situations where I felt a musical recording didn’t sound well, with a squished dynamic range, and it turned out to be a compressed file, but I was horrified to see how badly I did on the test, even with decent headphones.

Uri Caine Meets Prism

The mercurial voice of Uri Caine‘s pianism met the polished ensemble work of the Prism Saxophone Quartet last week at the WXPN World Cafe here in Philadelphia in a program presented by Live Connections.

It’s always a pleasure to hear a jazz musician work over a standard tune – knowing the underlying structures of a piece helps you grasp more clearly what the artist is doing. But for Uri, “standards” include the European classical canon. And so he started with the Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545. It was more of a fantasia on the materials of the piece rather than an embellishment of a straightforward circuit of the form, though at times a good bit of the structure could be traced beneath the busy textures. There were moments when pulses moving at different rates of speed gave a quasi-cubist perspective, looking at the same material from two angles simultaneously. The playful wit of bringing Mozartean gestures into contact with bits of stride or with bebop harmonies, with the resulting contrasting textures juxtaposed at lightning speed, required both pianistic and improvisational virtuosity.

Uri was more restrained when he played over two pieces by Jacob TV, whose work I had not previously encountered. Postnuclear Winterscenario No. 10 was restrained and remarkable pretty, given that title, while Pitch Black combined recordings of Chet Baker’s voice with Andriessen-esque minimalism. There were two short movements by Matthew Levy, harmonically sensitive and beautifully written for the quartet. The program closed with the premiere of a big suite by Uri for both he and Prism, The Book of Days. The seven movements had moods suggested by the particular time of day and day of the week. “Friday 5 pm” evoked rush hour, while “Sunday 11 am” was time for the players to take it to church. The writing was lively and imaginative but quite dense, and seven movements of that kind of density, combined with a harshly amplified piano, made for a listening experience that was a bit wearing. But there was superb playing and vivid compositional thinking throughout.

l to r: Uri Caine, Zachary Shemon, Robert Young, Matthew Levy, Taimur Sullivan


Coming Up in Philly

– The Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Uri Caine collaborate in a program at the World Cafe this Thursday, April 16 at 7:30 PM (The program is repeated in NYC on the 17th.) I’m going to be writing a piece for Prism and piano myself for next season.

Bowerbird is presenting an evening of “visual music” by composer and video artist Matthew Greenbaum at Temple University’s Rock Hall this coming Saturday, April 18, at 7:30 PM. The program features pieces that combine live performer with video. You might see this an extension of the live performer plus electronic sound genre so brilliantly cultivated by Matthew’s teacher Mario Davidovsky, but Matthew’s language – both sonic and visual – is very much his own.

– On April 19 at 3 pm, at the Curtis Institute, Network for New Music offers pieces by Michael Hersch, Jan Krzywicki and David Ludwig in a collaborative program bringing together Network with Curtis and the Print Center.