5 Pastoral Scenes. My initial idea for this music was to write a short romance of sorts for oboe and bassoon, with accompanying strings. However, as often happens, the music took off in a direction of its own, and the piece grew into a more ambitious series of musical scenes with a pastoral character. Without having planned it, it quickly expanded to 5 scenes in all, with an overall fast-slow-fast-slow-fast relationship between the movements. It started out with the dull, but functional title of “Quintet” before I knew where it was going, but now the work is titled, “5 Pastoral Scenes.” All the time I was writing this, I thought it would be lovely to see Marsha Heller and Bill Scribner playing it together, so this music is dedicated to them both.
American Landscapes is a quartet for strings in 4 movements. As often happens when I write music, an image is evoked by some initial musical ideas. These create a mental landscape which I then follow, whereever it happens to lead. I start at the first notes and these lead to the next, like traveling down a winding road whose ultimate direction and destination is out of sight and unknown. In an abstract way, I was trying to capture something of the America that exists in my imagination – one which happens to be a far better place than the reality. My mental America is populated by the same disparities that exist in the real one: the stark contrasts between hectic cities teeming with people of all kinds, small quiet towns with houses out of Hopper paintings, vast stretches of unpopulated forests and mountains, smoke stacks belching smoke for miles, trains that go on forever, endless fields of grain. It is an America that exists only in books: it lacks, because I dream of better, the violence, crassness and extremism that is as ingrained in American culture as what is best about us.
Ariettas Without Words. Requested to compose a song for soprano, cello and harp, I worked on another piece which was soon completed. However, it seems that ideas for this combination had not been satisfied by that piece, as shortly afterwards, on a day intended for other activities, these ariettas sprang forth in quick succession, seemingly of their own volition.
The Beckoning Stars was my attempt to capture something of the yearning I feel when looking up at the night field of stars. It is the closest I have come to writing a “tone poem” and having the music be representative of aspects of this complex feeling. The high melody in the first violin is the distant stars, so out of reach. The cello is me, grounded on earth, unable to do more than think about and yearn for the stars. The middle section of the piece, with its sudden flurries of motion, was intended to represent the energetic fluxes of energy in the depths of space out of which stars and everything else we know are born. At the end, the stars continue to flash indifferently in the sky, while below on earth I fall silent…
Civil War Songs were composed after watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Civil War and hearing its beautiful violin solo accompaniment. It was only after writing the variations on that lovely tune, that I learned it did not hark back to the Civil War, but had been written for the documentary. Oh, well – no matter. Then, afterwards, I decided to set the famous Battle Hymn of the Republic. The series should have at least one real Civil War tune, after all!
Crazy Jane Sings. In my view, WB Yeats is the foremost musical voice in English poetry. His poems seem to cry out for music, they sing themselves. Over the years, I’ve set many of his poems, but the writing of this particular grouping was in my mind for many years before taking their current form. The story he tells in this series of poems was one that struck me deeply upon first read. Their extraordinary passion, the struggle they express between natural feeling and the imposition of social expectation, their subtle secret meanings of a veiled mind – these deserve special music. I only hope my effort has been up to the task.
Driven by the Wind was a happy experiment on my part in writing music that was less formally constructed than anything I’d composed previously – and more in the nature of a written down long improvisation. As the title suggests, the work has something to do with the sound and nature of the wind – its fits and starts, its private mutterings and conversations – and with that feeling in mind, I wrote down whatever notes came to mind. From the opening phrase, it seemed to grow by itself into a full blown work of four contrasting sections – fast and steady, calmly swaying, dead calm, and fast and lively.
Ecstasy was composed after re-reading the poems of Rilke after many years – and realizing that when reading them as a young man I could not have possibly understood them. The poems are unusual and remarkable in their vivid portrayal of the interior landscapes of the human psyche. Even when the poet describes something on the outside, it is but a representation of a state of being. In these two works, I was trying to capture something of the feeling expressed in some of Rilke’s poems of that ecstatic reception that we long for and only rarely experience when, in deep contemplation, the barriers of the external world evaporate, and one feels as large and unbounded as the entire universe.
Elements is intended to portray, in a series of brief musical vignettes, something about the nature of matter. Each movement focuses are one of the common and familiar of the family of elements – gold, silver, carbon, xenon, oxygen, mercury and copper. I did not attempt to directly correlate notes to the underlying nature of these elements. Rather, I wrote the music in response to my own feel for what these elements represent – the lustre and warmth of gold, the bright shine and quickness of silver, and so on.
In Their Flight. Commissioned by One World Symphony to compose a chamber work to start off a concert to honor the memory of those who lost their lives on 9/11, the next day found me in the poetry section of Barnes & Noble, picking out book after book, searching for a living NYC poet and a poem. Fortunately, I had only to search through the Ds – when I found the perfect poem in a slim volume of wonderful poems by the poet Mark Doty. In Their Flight is a remarkably poignant poem, whose images brought me right back to that day.
The morning of 9/11, I was at a meeting in mid-town, but eventually made my way back to my office in downtown Brooklyn. From my 6th floor window, I watched thousands of sheets of paper (which earlier had been on someone’s desk – someone like me – sitting in an office working) fly by like birds, having been carried over the bay in the arms of the wind. When I read Doty’s words about “souls, newly set free, wheeling in the air over the site of their last engagements…like one of those autumn flocks of sparrows” – I knew I had found my poem. And whatever really will be the end of us all, I want to believe that those thousands of innocents, as Mr. Doty puts it so beautifully, are forever “incorporated into a radiant vitality without ceasing…”
The text is excerpted from Mr. Doty’s somewhat longer poem. As in much of my music, the textures are influenced by the sound of fluid, contrapuntal voicings heard in early music. I attempted to capture something of the wheeling and turning in the air of a cloud of birds in flight in the melismatic flurries of the violin and cello, over which the voices, in slower motions, sing Mr. Doty’s extraordinary text. Hopefully, my music adds to what Mr. Doty has already accomplished – creating a connection between us and those who have been lost, not only in memory, but now, feeling perhaps in the sound of the wind, “lots of spirits blowing around today.”
The Invisible Ballet is intended to exercise the human faculty of “active imagination” – a faculty which seems to be very much diminished in our modern society where we are all almost constantly exposed to visual media. The audience awaits the dancers, but the music begins without them and they never come onto the stage. The dancers, at first, are confused, and mill about backstage and argue with the stage manager. Eventually they are resigned to the situation, and leave the theatre, some to go home, others to spend the remaining hours of the evening in other pursuits. Eventually, the evening grows late, the city becomes quiet, and all go to sleep.
Love’s Little Pleasures. Settings of several poems by various poets that describe the lighter side of love, these songs are dedicated to my wife. Our love is always a source of many pleasures – some little – as described in these songs – and some not little at all.
Morning Music is intended to convey something of that mysterious time when the world transitions from the quiet and dark of night into the light of day. Perhaps one awakens in response to some unconscious prompting to find oneself swathed in gentle darkness, the world outside silent and waiting, only the sound of an occasional distant passing car anticipating the certainty of the day to come. Light, in almost imperceptibly small steps, seeps into the blend of night, until by some process that at such an hour seems more like magic than physics, daytime arrives.
Mystical Songs. Commissioned by the Universidad Technica Particular de Loja, this music sets four poems by Fernando Rielo – mystical poet, philosopher, author, metaphysician. The poems I selected share common images – birds, wings, branches, wind – that seemed to me to vividly capture in symbolic language a sense of wonderment in the way the forms of the world are but representations of higher ideals – and ultimately, love.
Nonet was composed shortly after hearing Bohuslav Martinu’s Nonet for the first time, with an aim towards achieving the same buoyant, passionate and optimistic expressiveness. The combination of a standard woodwind quintet plus a standard string quartet is a slight departure from the “Czech” nonet, which employs a single violin and a doublebass. As I worked with the orchestral colors that this combination of instruments makes possible, I decided to make the work a ‘quasi’ concerto, and rather than balance the strings evenly, gave the first violinist a prominent role to play.
As it often does, life intervened to influence this piece – this time more so than usual. I started writing it during the summer of 2001, and was part way through the first movement on September 11th. That changed everything – as I found myself unable to write for months afterwards. Besides being preoccupied by the task of dealing with the disaster at work, writing music just seemed pointless in the face of the horror of that terrible event. Months later, having concluded that the awful things that some people seem willing to do to one another make it all the more necessary for others to strive to create beautiful things, I started back to work on the Nonet, completing it in the Spring.
The piece starts out trying to convey something of the energy and motion of people in a big city going about their busy day – however this forward motion is broken, to resume, post 9/11, with the nine voices joined together in a hymn-like reprise. The juxtaposition of energetic motion with somber reflection, entirely unanticipated at the beginning, came to characterize the Nonet. The second movement is a gentle song. Somehow, the emotional strain of events caused me to start listening, rather obsessively, to Bruckner symphonies during this period, and the third and final movement is somewhat indebted to his penchant for orchestrating groups in blocks, even if stylistically very different.
An Ode to the Possibility of Peace. There was a short time in my life, when the achievement of peace seemed to be a tangible, real possibility. Naive and illusory as that feeling might have been, for a few moments, enough momentum towards peace had accumulated, and so very many people were actively in the streets expressing their desire for it, that we could almost taste a change coming about in the world.
I cannot bear the fact that those precious moments evaporated into nothing, and the world has kept on, as it always has, continually lapsing into paroxyms of violence. I truly believe that a large majority of people desire peace, but this desire is continually thwarted by a small but powerful minority for whom war is too exciting and profitable a prospect to forego.
Much credit should be given to John Lennon, who actively used his musical gifts to campaign for peace, and who, in his remarkable song, encouraged people to “imagine” a world entirely different from the violent one in which we all seem inevitably fated to live and die. In this spirit, An Ode to the Possibility of Peace was composed as a series of short meditations on the idea of peace, to create in the minds of its listeners images of a world without violence. Each movement, by its brief title, is intended to conjure up a series of thoughts and feelings connected to the conviction that peace is possible. If enough people feel it, believe it, desire it – it can happen.
On the Edge of Sleep & Dreaming is composed in the manner of a Baroque chamber sonata, in four movements of contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast tempi. As suggested by the title, this piece was intended to suggest something of those moments, when poised between wakefulness and sleep, the border between reality and dreaming is blurred. The instrumentation of this trio seemed to lend itself well to that sort of feeling.
Ophelia Songs, composed on commission by One World Symphony for a program of music based on Shakespeare, sets the 6 songs that Ophelia sings in the first folio edition of Hamlet. Though a minor character in the play, Ophelia is an extraordinary archetype. My picture of her is that of a lovely, naive girl, brought up by her father to be blissfully unaware of the monstrous politics and passions that surround her. Her passionate, innocent love is no match for Hamlet’s calculated madness.
Pavanne (for a world without war) is a work composed after having made a decision that my music needed to serve another purpose besides the obvious one of touching the hearts of those who listened to it. However unlikely of success, that purpose is the achievement of world peace. That cause seemed to be making some, albeit small, progress through the latter part of the 20th century. The end of the Cold War that I grow up with, with its threat of imminent mutual destruction, was an enormous step forward. However, more recent events have been terribly discouraging, with America, despite its great wealth and strength, seeming to be incapable of taking a leadership role in the cause of peace. Instead, America seems set on exacerbating the tensions that could potentially lead, once again, to worldwide conflict.
I believe the majority of people throughout the world desire nothing more than to live in peace and safety. If that desire is kindled sufficiently, than perhaps it would be enough to overcome the will of that powerful minority for whom violence is beneficial. This music is dedicated to encouraging the spirit of non-violence in those who hear it.
Pluto. Composed for One World Symphony to provide the missing planet in a program presenting Holst’s The Planets, this music is intended to capture something of the eternal sweep of this cold and mysterious planet around its distant sun. The music is structured in great circles, expanding and then returning again and again to the opening theme. It is a reminder that as we sit here, at this very moment as in every moment of our lives, through unimaginable distances, stars move, vast energies are released and exchanged, and mysteries both within and beyond our capacity for knowing are at work. Such matters may seem distant to our concerns, but I believe it hugely important that we hold the vast and mysterious world ever present in our hearts. If more did so, perhaps we would find more cause for the pursuit of knowledge and less for the unceasing violence that has marked us throughout that tiny fraction of time/space that we think of as our history.
Rilke Songs. My musical thoughts are often influenced by the sounds of early music, and gradually I became interested in the possibility of composing for early instruments. After reaching out, over the internet, to the Pandolfis Ensemble, I worked on two songs for them, settings of poems by Rilke: “Buddha in Der Glorie” and “Der Panther”. I had intended to write one song, but after reading through many poems, I thought these two poems worked together perfectly. “Buddha in Der Glorie” describes a state of being that perhaps we all, in some way, aspire to – but cannot achieve. It reflects our yearning for connectedness with the universe around us – and for eternity. “Der Panther” is the opposite, but truer description of the human condition. We all pace behind the thousand bars created by the limitations of our imaginations, knowledge, capabilities and illusions. Occasionally a glimmer of something beyond what we are capable of gets through – goes right to the core of our being – and then disappears. I thought that the two poems belonged together, since “Der Panther” describes the way we are, and “Buddha in Der Glorie” describes what we yearn to become.
Later, having read through many more of Rilke’s poems and finding myself immersed in his world, I decided to expand upon the cycle, adding three more songs based on poems that I thought demonstrated a transition from the trapped existence of the panther, to the spiritual freedom of the Buddha. The poems were taken from Rilke’s Book of Hours.
Serenade was composed in memory of my friend Behrooz Khorramian. Behrooz was, at the same time, a rigorous and brilliant chemical scientist – and a dreamer and spiritually insightful person. He was equally at home in a laboratory and exploring the pages of the ancient Persian poets. A conversation with Behrooz was unlike any others in my experience – no unintended meandering from subject to subject – but an intense focus on the subject at hand that never left off until it had been thoroughly and completely covered. Any stream of consciousness interruption was gently but firmly countered – and it is these aspects of his character that Serenade attempts to capture.
The theme introduced at the beginning continues throughout – and is presented in various aspects. The decision to incorporate the flute into the ensemble was made to suggest something of the importance of the flute in Persian culture – and at times blends in with the ensemble and at others becomes rhapsodic in an echo of Persian rhapsodic poetry. The same theme is also presented as a fugue, this section intended to capture something of the scientist in Behrooz – an orderly, logical presentation of an idea.
The single theme returns over and over again from every excursion, but each time in a somewhat more transparent texture – until at the end, like my friend Beyrooz, it seems to disappear into the silence.
Thinking of You. Requested to compose a song for soprano, cello and harp, I worked on another piece which was soon completed. However, it seems that ideas for this combination had not been satisfied by that piece, as shortly afterwards, on a day intended for other activities, these ariettas sprang forth in quick succession, seemingly of their own volition.
The Four Elements. This music is intended to represent the spirit of the four ancient elements – earth, air, water and fire. It was composed at the request of violist Brett Deubner, to whom, for his avid interest in my music, it is gratefully dedicated.
To a child. This music was composed for my son when he was six years old. Every parent has endless dreams about their children, coupled equally with fears of what can go wrong. The four poems by W.B. Yeats included in this group of songs captured those feelings so wonderfully that I decided to set them for female voice with string quartet accompaniment. The form of the work is a little unusual – it begins with an opening prelude for string quartet alone, followed by the first song. Thereafter, each song is followed by a brief interlude for the strings that is a variation on the opening prelude. The work closes with a postlude that brings back the opening theme.
Two Sad Songs. There is not much to say about the music – it will speak for itself. But of the poetry, it is important to say that W.B. Yeats is, to my ear, by far the most musical of poets ever to write in the English language. English is not naturally a musical language, but somehow, whenever I read Yeats, the rhythms and sounds of the words always seem to me to call for music, and I have set many of his poems. The poems in “Two Sad Songs” seemed to be companion poems, expressing in different words a similar sentiment, although Yeats did not intend them as such. When you are Sad was published in 1892 in The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics and The Cloak, the Boat, and the Shoes was included in Yeats’ first published work, the 1889 Crossways.
Vignettes-Flowers sets various poems by W.C. Williams for small chorus with a solo cello accompaniment. Each poem is about a kind of flower – but, of course, they are not really about flowers at all – but about us.
Vignettes-Trees is a companion piece to my cycle Vignettes-Flowers – the latter setting poems about flowers for SATB with solo cello accompaniment, and the former setting poems which have trees as a central image for 2 cellos and 2 voices. The poems in both works are all by the wonderfully unique New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams. Of course, these poems are not really about trees and flowers at all – but use the image of trees to say something important about the usual subjects of poetry – love, for instance.