Almost a Festival

If one performance is a concert, do two performances in quick succession in the same town constitute a festival? I don’t know about that, but there is a happy coincidence next week when my Philadelphia Chamber Music Society commission A Flutist’s Sketchbook will have its premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 22, and the next night Holy the Firm will be performed by soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Eric Sedgwick. Here are the details:

October 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm:
A Flutist’s Sketchbook (premiere)
Jeffrey Khaner, flute
Charles Abramovic, piano
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Settlement Music School
Queen Street Branch
Philadelphia, PA

October 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm
Holy the Firm
Mary Mackenzie, soprano
Eric Sedgwick, piano
Penn Contemporary Music
Rose Recital Hall (in Fisher-Bennett Hall)
34th and Walnut Streets
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

Jeffrey Khaner is the principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra; Charles Abramovic is a renowned chamber music partner, working with artists such as Midori and Sarah Chang as well as being a stalwart advocate for new music. I am greatly honored to have them perform my music. The commission was for a work accessible to players of modest attainments while remaining satisfying for professionals. I was uncertain as to exactly where to target the piece, and therefore this is a set of “13 easy and not so easy pieces” as the work’s subtitle describes it. Given the simplicity of some of the music, it strikes me that having Jeff and Charlie play the Sketchbook is like using nuclear weapons to kill a mosquito. Still, it will be a thrill to hear their formidable gifts put at the service of this modest music.

In contrast, Holy the Firm is rather immodest music. Written as it was for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish, this time I tried to make a big statement commensurate with the capabilities of those artists. Dawn specifically wanted a cycle, not an individual song, so H the F is a set of five movements, shaped by an expressive arc that binds the songs together quite literally – the songs follow each other with little or no pause (although individual songs can be extracted and performed separately, as has happened on many occasions). There are motivic recurrences that also tie the pieces together, with material from the first three songs (settings of Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard and the 7th century monk John Climacus) recurring in the finale, a kind of mad scene setting a found poem also by Annie Dillard. The expressive fulcrum of the piece is based on Susan Stewart’s Cinder, the first of 10 poems of Susan’s I have set, (with more settings to come). Here is Susan’s haunting text:

We need fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to mark
an end, an end that time
in time, could mend.
Born in love, the consequence –
born of love, the need.
Tell me, ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.

“Cinder” in New York and Boston

539wIt was about this time of year in 1999 that I completed a set of songs for Dawn Upshaw called Holy the Firm. The best song from the cycle, one that she and others have often performed, is “Cinder”, and it sets a poem by my friend Susan Stewart. I just got a message from Dawn that she has programmed that song on concerts to be given this week by herself and some of her students from Bard College. Here are the dates and locations:

Feb. 19 at Bard, in the new Bito Performance Space at 8pm
Feb. 21 at the Morgan Library in NYC at 7:30pm
Feb. 24 at the Longy School of Music in Boston at 7pm

Student Kameryn Lueng will sing “Cinder” – I don’t have her pianist’s name yet. The program will include a number of new songs written specifically for the students, three songs from John Harbison’s Simple Daylight, a song by Laura Schwendinger, as well as a new song by George Tsontakis performed by Dawn herself with pianist Kayo Iwama. (picture: Dawn Upshaw)

Update: Kameryn’s excellent accompanist is Christina Giuca.

Icy Miscellany

3-lazy-polar-bears-thumbYes, it’s pretty chilly here in Philly. Blogging has been sparse lately as I have been finishing the third in a set of six songs I am writing on texts of Susan Stewart. The cycle is called “A Sibyl”, and this latest song is one where the Cumean Sibyl is telling Aeneas about his trip to the underworld. My next task will be to complete a revision of the score and parts for my Chamber Concerto, a piece for clarinet and six players that will be done by Network for New Music here in Philadelphia on April 5. Here are a few links to keep you amused while I get back to work.

– my fellow Columbia alum Paul Moravec has a new album of orchestral music performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project that was selected as WQXR’s album of the week. I had been looking forward to the upcoming New York premiere of Paul’s opera The Letter, but this has been delayed until next season. UPDATE: a nice piece on Paul at Deceptive Cadence.

– you can hear performances from Yellow Barn at their website. Current offerings include Eight Songs for a Mad King of Peter Maxwell Davies. An excerpt from the Davies performed by ICE here.

– Lots of electronic music at Penn this spring. Benjamin Fingland, Steve Gosling, and Jessica Meyer present a program including my Icons for clarinet, piano and tape (tape? well, OK, a CD, actually. “Fixed media” is the fashionable term.) on February 13 at 8:00, Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall. Two days later, Network for New Music will screen videos of interviews with electronic music pioneers, more info here. Soprano Stacey Mastrian offers a program at Penn including a Nono work with electronics on March 13, and the Network performance mentioned above is part of their season of electronic music.

– The most inconvenient USB here.

Lyric Fest performs “Cinder”

I just found out that Lyric Fest, an organization here in Philly devoted to, as their website puts it, “connecting people through song”, will include my “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm on their upcoming October 14th concert. The program is at 3:00 pm and will be held at the Academy of Vocal Arts here in Philadelphia. Under the title “Old City ~ New Song”, Laura Ward, Randi Marrazzo, and Suzanne DuPlantis, the artistic directors of Lyric Fest, have put together an array of songs by Philadelphia composers, including premieres by Allen Krantz and Thomas Lloyd.

“Cinder” is probably my most popular song. Dawn Upshaw, who premiered Holy the Firm, extracted the song from that set and toured with it. The piece has been sung at memorial services, at Songfest, and was featured at a presentation by the Joseph Campbell Foundation at an event called the Parliament of the World’s Religions several years ago. When I told Susan Stewart (the author of the text for “Cinder”) about the Parliament, she remarked “I thought that’s what happens when we die.”

The Music of Poets Reading

I very much enjoyed the reading the other night at the 92nd Street Y in New York, given by my friend and collaborator Susan Stewart and by Mark Strand. Both are marvelous and wise poets, and they shared good, new, strong stuff.

I could tell you more about their work, but for this (mostly) music blog, let me comment that after the reading, I started mentally comparing the event with a new music concert. Neither type of gathering attracts a huge crowd, and there often seem to be a fair number of insiders in the audience. Compared with a concert, a reading is more informal in certain ways – poets (at least last night) don’t take bows. Could musicians learn something from the way the readings last night were made of numerous short pieces rather than a few lengthy ones? or from the way the evening was leavened with a good bit of humor?

The way a poet reads is a curious balance of artless and artful. Poets are not actors, they don’t use their voices’s full range of intonation and inflection. Yet poetry is generally not read in an everyday voice – there is that curious chant-like way poets have of intoning their texts. There were a few moments at last night’s reading when I lost my way in the meaning of the words (my fault, not theirs) and gave myself over to the sound of the poet’s voice, to the contour of the not quite pitched intonation, to the lengths of the phrases and sentences, to the rhythm, to accent, grouping, duration, to the tone and timbre at once intimate and public – to the music of poets reading.

Susan Stewart at the Y

Poet Susan Stewart, my collaborator on Songs for Adam (see David Patrick Stearns on the piece in the column at right) will be reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Monday, January 30. She shares the bill with Mark Strand. In addition to Adam, I’ve used texts by Susan in Holy the Firm and Dark the Star, two pieces that will be on the 21st Century Consort cd that is in the editing stage. The disc features Susan Narucki, soprano, and Bill Sharp, baritone. Susan has written another set of texts for me, this time having to do with a Sibyl – I hope to get to work on that setting soon.

Hear the Chicago Symphony play “Songs for Adam”

My Songs for Adam, a song cycle on poetry of Susan Stewart, was premiered last fall by baritone Brian Mulligan and the Chicago Symphony with Sir Andrew Davis conducting. Now the cycle is being included on the Chicago Symphony radio broadcast schedule.  Beginning February 12 for 7 days, the concert that included Adam will be broadcast on various radio stations throughout the country. Individual stations set their own times for offering the CSO broadcasts. You can find a list of stations and broadcast times here. Beginning February 15, and continuing for six weeks, the concert will be available for online streaming at the CSO website. You can find an excerpt from the score of Adam at my website. I hope you will have a chance to hear what was a superb performance of the piece.

Out on the Frontier

Frontiers, an online magazine about research, scholarship, and other forms of creative work being done in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, has posted a very nice article by Peter Nichols about the premiere of Songs for Adam. Thanks to Susan Stewart and Augusta Read Thomas for their kind contributions to the piece.


I had a fine talk on Friday with Brian Mulligan, soloist for Songs for Adam. He likes the piece, which is no small matter; a professional will always do his best, but enjoying what you are doing makes giving your best easier. Brian had smart questions about the poetry for the cycle, and after I talked with him about the issues he raised, I encouraged him to contact the poet herself, Susan Stewart. (You can read the poetry for Songs for Adam in her newest book, Red Rover.) Susan later sent a note to both Brian and me, with a link to the image seen at left of the Expulsion from Eden by Masaccio. You can hear my setting of Susan’s poem about the Expulsion at the audio samples page of