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NOTES ON THE COMPOSITIONS
Listed in reverse chronological order
A Mother's Note and a Single Vote
(2018, 16 minutes, for violin and piano)
World premiere by Courtney Orlando and John Orfe of Alarm Will Sound,
Coolidge Auditorium, The Library of Congress, November 9, 2018.
Commissioned by the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress
It is an honor to be commissioned by the McKim Fund, Alarm Will Sound, and the Library of Congress. Composing a piece for this venerable institution made me think about American sources, and inspired me to draw on a childhood spent listening to my parents’ and older siblings’ records, absorbing blues, jazz, rock, and country music, as well as the inside the piano work of Cowell and Cage. As we near the centenary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, A Mother’s Note and a Single Vote is also about making one’s voice heard in a noisy world.
Guitar has always been part of my life, whether it was being played by my older brother, my longtime partner, or briefly (and not very well) by myself. In a classic guitaristic move, the violinist shimmies up the A string to meet the pitch of its neighbor, the open E string. These sliding unisons repeat, like the ones I heard on records by guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lightnin’ Hopkins and so many others. Vibrato warbles and stings, and the minor third rubs against the major third, as if bent by Buddy Guy. Close unisons vibrate, wobbling sharp and flat like a Theremin. Left hand pizzicatos make their percussive pop, like the “ding ding” of the Orange Blossom Special.
The pull of the long strings hidden inside the piano drew me to the great American tradition of the diddley bow, a one-string instrument that was often constructed with a length of baling wire nailed to the side of a house. Echoing its buzz and twang, the pianist bypasses the other 12,000 moving parts of the piano to pluck the string directly. (Popular in the Deep South, the diddley bow was a common “starter instrument” for musicians who later took up the guitar, and was probably derived from one-string instruments from West Africa.) The piano strings are also strummed, scraped, and muted. Two-fisted alternating clusters are slapped rhythmically on the highest range of the keyboard, which turns the piano into an (almost) unpitched percussion instrument. Jazz and stride piano have crept in, and the pianist temporarily sidesteps his role as a supporting duo partner to step out on his own for a raucous solo minute.
I also considered the weighty history of the violin sonata, and an instrumentation that inspires soloistic virtuosity, tempered here with gentle washes of texture. The piece starts and ends with shifting combinations of sustained pitches, tremolos, harmonics, and open strings on the violin - I imagined a series of shifting colors being revealed, like light shifting, reflecting changing hues in a pane of glass at the end of the day.
In order to negotiate the inherent dynamic extremes between these two instruments, I often consigned the piano to its less resonant upper register, those lovable plinky notes, and I used quiet “inside the piano” techniques. There are still moments when the violin is swept away by the sheer volume of the half ton wonder of wood and iron. But ultimately, the violin persists, and her voice is heard.
About the title: in 1920, after decades of protest and activism, women were finally granted the right to vote when Harry T. Burn, a 23-year old member of the Tennessee General Assembly, cast a single tie breaking vote for the ratification of the 19th amendment. He originally opposed the amendment, until his mother wrote him a letter that said “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” Burn, a Republican, voted against party lines to dramatically end a historic deadlock, explaining “I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.” The struggle for equality for all disenfranchised people is just as relevant as it was almost a century ago. Writing these notes on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, these hard won votes are more important than ever. Like the audacious music of Alarm Will Sound, for whom the piece was written, we must sound the alarm and make our voices heard.
The Goddess Stamps Metal While the Blast Furnace Sings
(2018, 26 minutes, for tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, perc.. piano/sampling keyboard, violin and cello)
World premiere by New Music Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts, May 25, 2018
When New Music Detroit invited me to write a piece, I jumped at the chance, and decided to compose something inspired by Diego Rivera's iconic “Detroit Industry” murals. I didn’t know at that point that it would be performed under them! The frescoes were an early influence on my work combining art and industry, and I proudly hung reproductions on the wall of my dorm as a freshman composition student.
As for the title, "The Goddess Stamps Metal" refers to the Aztec deity Coatlicue, which Rivera incorporated in his image of a metal stamping machine on the South wall. Coatlicue was both a creator and destroyer of life: she was fed human hearts in order to maintain the order of the universe."The Blast Furnace Sings" is represented visually by a fiery image that hovers over the North wall, and manifested sonically in the eerie whistle of an early recording of a blast furnace, which is heard in sampled form, as well as in melodic fragments transcribed for the strings and woodwinds.
Many aspects of “Detroit Industry” were a part of writing this piece. The process of creating the frescoes, starting with monochrome sketches (actually called “cartoons”) then adding color quickly to the outlines (each section of the fresco had to be finished in a matter of hours) inspired me to shift between skeletal rhythmic outlines and fully orchestrated sections, exposing the bare outlines and then filling them with color.
Individual portraits of Edsel Ford, DIA director William Valentiner, Rivera himself, and many others, are represented in the murals. Similarly, each musician has their own musical likeness embedded into the piece. Frida Kahlo takes voice in the violin, in imaginary conversations between her and Rivera on the scaffolding. I thought of nature in the shadow of industry, and for the West wall’s river, boats, and aviation, the ensemble creates music that is fluid and buzzing. The hiss of steam and electricity add to the mix, and the ear listens back. I interpreted the assembly line, and its drive towards building an object with repeated motions, with musical fragments that repeat and build in density and complexity. Taking a cue from the visuals, lines snake through the piece, winding their way through mechanical rhythms, passing from musician to musician, each with their own unique role in the production of the machine. The predellas, the lower panels that show daily events in the worker’s day, take the form of instrumental work songs. 1932 was a time of dance bands, Rube Goldberg machines, Max Fleischer, and the great depression, and they all figured in to this piece as well.
Sampled electronic sounds are all of industrial origin: from modern steelworks to an old blast furnace. While investigating the Detroit Industry murals, I learned that Diego Rivera researched his work extensively, visiting many factories in Detroit. I was fortunate to have a similar experience in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, during a residency sponsored by the Siemens Corporation to “combine art and industry” where I harvested some of these sounds.
Voices Over the Buzz and Clatter
(2018, 5 minutes, for flute/picc, bass clarinet, perc. violin, viola, cello, and bass) World premiere by Liminar, MATA 20th anniversary, The Kitchen, NYC, April 10 2018)
This piece was inspired by women’s voices being heard above the din. From our immigrant grandmothers to today’s Dreamers; from Emma Goldman to Emma Gonzalez and the massive protests against guns, violence, and misconduct. Drawing from my grandmother’s immigrant experiences working in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, and my own experiences researching the sound of industrial environments, I imagined first the odd ambient sounds of a factory at rest, and a constellation of still, ghostly high notes suspended above a web of a shifting low rumbles. Once the machines are turned on and come to life, melodic fragments persist, and rise above the noisy, clattering metal rhythms. Sometimes quiet and measured, sometimes wild and urgent, these messages emerge.
War of the Worlds
(2017, 65 minutes, an opera in one act for seven singers, two actors, and orchestra)
World premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, November 12, 2017
Libretto by Yuval Sharon, based on the 1938 radio broadcast
Commissioned by Los Angeles Philharmonic Association with Margaret Morgan and Wesley Phoa in honor of the Deborah Borda Women in the Arts Initiative
A nine year old girl was playing stickball in the street in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1938. Suddenly her father threw open the door on East 2nd St. and yelled “Something’s happening, come inside!” My mother, always the skeptic, came indoors and replied “Aw, nothing’s happening” but she still remembers the jittery buzz caused by the broadcast of War of the Worlds.
When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, I was fascinated by the air raid sirens that stood virtually unnoticed throughout the city. Largely silent, except for the occasional Reagan-era cold war paranoia air raid test, the thrill of hearing their rare howl superseded the nagging anxiety that the alarm might actually signal nuclear war. Naturally I was very excited when the LA Phil contacted me to discuss a mystery project with Yuval Sharon. Little did I know this dream project would be an opera that incorporated air raid sirens, Martians, radio noise, and a road trip to from Gardena to Sun Valley. Multiple trips to L.A. gave me a chance to get to know my partners in crime and work with the performers, collecting Martian percussion sounds, wild organ timbres, and a few bars of Suzanna Guzman singing in the voice of her octagenarian father.
Radio looms large. The 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” featured a series of live performances of dance music from hotel ballrooms in New York City. In our opening group of pieces, ostensibly written for the centennial of “The Planets,” I wanted to evoke the crackling ambience of a radio orchestra performing a selection of dance numbers that shift through a cycle of interplanetary moods. Mercury serves as our opening theme, kicking off the show with a fast-paced sample-driven whirl that pays tribute to Sun Ra, King Tubby, and the sci-fi sounds of analog synthesis. Venus employs James Hayden as the modern counterpart to a ballroom crooner, who sings a ballad about Venus, who longed to escape her lonely planetary existence, only to wind up reading “The Hollywood Star” (an astronomically named gossip rag that was published in the basement of the L.A. apartment building where I lived years ago). Earth makes use of Disney Hall’s remarkable organ, focusing on its visceral, psychedelically low terrestrial frequencies, like an earthly ritual gone awry. Imaginary radio music influences rhythm and melody throughout the opera, issuing echoes from the ballroom, the airwaves, and the outer atmosphere.
The vocal pieces are the heart of “War of the Worlds,” written for a cadre of characters who are our eyes and ears outside of the concert hall. The Martian attack is seen from the vantage point of an astrophysicist, a restaurant owner, a meteorologist, an army general, the acting secretary of the interior, and a hippy, in a series of intimate settings, accompanied by one, two, or three musicians. In a fourth virtual site, a trio of unseen airmen sing from an invisible location circling the skies of Los Angeles, reporting their shifting positions and military maneuvers from three out of sight bombers overhead, blending their radio transmissions with the fine musicianship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. My father was a bombardier in WWII, and whenever I hit a rough patch compositionally, I imagined him as one of those airmen, keeping the skies safe, sending encouragement, and protecting me from writer’s block.
Radio noise factors in too, and is deployed in the “interruptions” that transport us from the concert to the outside world. As the performance is wrested away from Disney Hall and thrown onto the streets of Los Angeles, on-site performers interact with static, radio noise, and 1938 era jammed radio signals, shifting in character and timbre, like a radio drifting between stations, evoking terrestrial broadcasts mixed with faraway Martian atmosphere. Radio noise and World War II era radio jamming has been a longtime fascination of mine and an important element in my work. Some of the source material came out of research that I conducted during a 2012 fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin.
The Martians are represented sonically by La Sirena ensemble, featuring Hila Plittman as the voice of the Martian; Joanne Pearce Martin on theremin, celesta, and sampler; and Matthew Howard on a variety of Martian-tinged percussion instruments. Their performance is beamed directly to retrofitted air raid sirens, which is why we chose the name “La Sirena,” inspired also by the sirens of myth, not only for their siren song, but for their ability to transport themselves instantaneously, bringing the story of the interplanetary invasion to the luminous yellow cylinders in mysterious Martianese.
At times the orchestra in the concert hall is layered with musical reports from the streets, overlaid with Martian transmissions from air raid sirens. We never knew exactly how the different sources might align, so I thought in terms of music that had a forgiving margin for overlap, like an almost instantaneous interplanetary translation. The unknown, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants factors made this project an irresistible challenge.
I thank Yuval, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Industry, Christopher Rountree, and all of our collaborators and performers. I’ve never had so much fun writing music. I was continually surprised that so much humor and freewheeling collaboration could spring from such a dark subject. Developing a piece based on Fake News became unexpectedly relevant, adding another layer of menace and absurdity to this timely subject.
Annie Gosfield, November 2017
Number Six Goerck Street
(2017, 10 minutes, for mezzo-soprano and violin)
Commissioned by the YIVO Institute with support from
the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
Thanks to Alex Weiser and Eddy Portnoy
Number Six Goerck Street is about a 1905 rent strike by immigrants in the Lower East Side. It is inspired by the reports of the tenants’ humor and resourcefulness, and how they organized after their landlord imposed a fifty-cent tax on each baby. The text is drawn from several articles about the rent strike, and the mothers’ desperate (but poetic) pleas to the court. It was composed for Duo Cortona, to make use of Rachel Calloway’s beautiful voice and irrepressible spirit, coupled with Ari Streisfeld’s great command of extended violin techniques, and his ability to spin music out of unusual timbres. The music quotes Bernard Herrmann, Aaron Lebedeff, Lieber and Stoller, and a letter to Theodore Roosevelt from 13-year-old resident Abe Zabriskie. I snuck in a little family history, naming “the twin babies, Lena and Abie” after my own grandmother and her brother, who would soon be arriving in America as immigrant children themselves.
I researched the piece at YIVO, not always sure what I was looking for, but enjoying every minute of it. As a long time resident of the “Upper West Lower East Side” I was particularly interested in the neighborhood I shared with my ancestors, and my grandparents’ generation of immigrants. In my research, Irving Howe led me to “Gangs of New York” which led me to Little Augie, an infamous Jewish gangster who was shot dead in front of the future site of one my favorite defunct hangouts, Tonic. That led me to a reference to “The Goerck Street Boys” in an article that named the toughs who showed up to Little Augie’s funeral, to view his body in a resplendent cherry red coffin.
Goerck Street? I never heard of it, but I got curious. Apparently it existed from around 1811 to 1933 and was reputed to be one of the roughest streets in all of Manhattan. The Baruch houses now stand on the site, South of Houston and just West of the East River. Thomas Edison opened the Edison Machine Works on Goerck St. in 1881, and employed Nikola Tesla in 1884. I found references to murders, robberies, gangs, saloons, fires, and little children buying beer, as well as the “baby tax” charged to the tenants of no. 6 Goerck Street. With the new administration's hostility towards immigrants, my research became more focused on New York’s new residents, and how they organized as they became such a critical part of the city. I found this story of humor and activism an inspiration, even if they did use “a dead cat brought in from the street.” I unearthed so much wonderful material this project could have become a song cycle - and I hope one day it does.
Almost Truths and Open Deceptions
(2016, 24 minutes, cello concerto)
World premiere by Felix Fan and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under Rossen Milanov
Chautauqua, New York, July 21, 2016
Almost Truths and Open Deceptions is titled for the almost-unisons (almost truths) that clash and glissando towards a mass of open D strings (open D-ceptions). It is the culmination of several years of working with cellist Felix Fan, and getting to know his dynamic playing and unique energy. I used microtones and almost-unisons to enhance the harmonic palette of a piece that includes aggressive, almost out of control tutti sections; mysterious buzzing trills; atmospheric undulating half steps; rough, scratchy timbres; and driving, rhythmic pizzicati.
The piece originally came to life as a chamber concerto for seven musicians: strings, piano, and percussion. The piano part was aggressive, rhythmic, and cluster-heavy, so it was a fun challenge to adapt these driving pianoisms to percussive parts for the brass and woodwinds. Naturally there was more to the process than just replacing the piano, such as enhancing many sections, expanding some, and creating interplay between winds and strings. Almost Truths and Open Deceptions was initially intended for an orchestra, but our plans changed, so it's a real joy to finally realize our original goal. I am thrilled to expand this work with the Chautauqua Symphony orchestra under Maestro Milanov, and delighted that Felix Fan is bringing his fiery presence and magnetic energy to this performance. Thanks to Deborah Sunya-Moore, Felix Fan, The Chautauqua Institution, Meet the Composer, and the League of American Orchestras for making this MusicAlive! orchestral residency happen.
Radio Moonbounce and Meteor Scatter
(2016, 8-11 minutes, modular work for orchestra
World premiere by the MFSO under Timothy Muffitt
at the Chautauqua Institution, New York, July 18, 2016
Thanks to the Foundation for Contemporary Art’s Emergency Grant for copywork assistance.
Radio Moonbounce and Meteor Scatter is inspired by far away radio noise, transmission of codes, and the gradual deterioration of signal that occurs when a radio loses reception. I am fascinated by incidental (and accidental) radio sounds, the hums, buzzes, and static, and how our perceptions change as a radio is tuned in and shifts from noise to music.
In order to focus on these factors, and emphasize how the sound itself changes, I stripped down the musical materials. Almost all of the pitches in the piece are E. There are two main figures: a repeated high E in the violins and woodwinds, and a slow semitone slide in the trombones and strings. These two ideas represent the high buzz of a stray radio signal and a low, changing hum of tubes. A repeated rhythmic figure builds in density and becomes distorted, representing transmission of coded messages. High harmonics and alternative techniques evoke the quiet artifacts of radio distortion. As for the title, “Radio Moonbounce” and “Meteor Scatter” are two phenomenae in the transmission of signals.
The piece is part of my research for my next project: an opera about a historical radio transmission. Radio Moonbounce and Meteor Scatter is a work in progress, developed collaboratively with Timothy Muffitt and Chautauqua’s Music School Festival Orchestra.
Refracted Reflections and Telepathic Static
(2016, 16 minutes, for two pianos and electronics/audio playback)
World premiere by Christina and Michelle Naughton
Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella Series,
Disney Hall, March 1, 2016
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director
Refracted Reflections and Telepathic Static was written for Christina and Michelle Naughton, who astonished me with their breathtaking technique and their seemingly telepathic communication. Inspired by their near-mirror image, I composed parallel lines that merge and diverge from identical parts. Separated by small intervals, these lines become flying tone clusters that swoop and dive, spinning a web of fast-moving almost unisons that clash and unite.
I was struck by Michelle and Christina’s powerful connection when they perform: it’s almost as if they communicate on their own private radio frequency. I imagined the air thick with their own invisible transmissions, a world of colorful and abstract signals loaded with secret meanings and coded messages. In response to these mysterious communications, I assembled an elusive, shifting audio backdrop made up of the sounds of shortwaves, Morse code, radio static, and jammed radio signals. I also incorporated prepared piano sounds that I recorded while composing the piece at the American Academy in Rome. I altered the piano samples to create sustained, atmospheric sounds that reflected my environment: an eerie studio where the air was thick with the damp of the ancient Roman cistern below.
I originally considered writing a companion piece to the Nancarrow on this program, and immersed myself in his work for player piano. It ultimately brought me back to my fascination with the mechanical instruments themselves, and the hours that I spent in San Francisco’s old Musée Mechanique, racing around with a handful of quarters, attempting to start up every instrument in the collection, in search of the glorious cacophony that can only be achieved by an army of oddly timed and oddly tuned musical machines all blaring away at once. The player piano’s inhuman speed originally had more to do with commerce than art; speeding up the instruments’ timing mechanisms brought in more nickels per hour in a barroom or carnival fairway. Christina and Michelle achieve an almost superhuman momentum that echoes the speed and wild colliding harmonies of those multiple musical machines. In a tip of the hat to these mechanical wonders, I also incorporated samples of an early 20th century Orchestrion (a musical behemoth with pipes, percussion, and other instruments) that I recorded in Utrecht, Holland. Its sometimes mournful, sometimes bright bell-like melodies repeat in slower sections of the piece.
Being raised in a household that valued jazz, boogie woogie, and barrelhouse piano above all else has left an indelible mark on my piano music. To me, two pianists playing together will always bring to mind Chicago’s great piano duos: Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson playing together in different configurations. This piece is dedicated to another great pair; my mother, whose wild chromaticisms at the piano were indeed accidentals; and my father, who was born and raised in Chicago in the shadow of those powerful piano pairings.
The Dybbuk on Second Avenue
(2015, 13 minutes, for piano)
World premiere by Nadia Shpachenko, Piano Spheres Series, Redcat Theater, Los Angeles, October 27, 2015
Commissioned by Piano Spheres
The Dybbuk on Second Avenue was inspired by the The Yiddish Art Theatre, which opened in 1926 on Twelfth Street and Second Avenue. I see the theater out my window every day, and think of my grandfather, an immigrant from Latvia, who frequented the venue when Second Avenue was known as “The Jewish Rialto.” The piece reflects the shifting influences that effected the theater over the years: its checkered history ranges from performances of Yiddish theater to burlesque, from Chekhov to William Burroughs. Although Yiddish Theater thrived, the theater itself changed hands frequently (at one point it was owned by Molly Picon, one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish theater).
The Dybbuk on Second Avenue borrows some fragments from a recording that I found in YIVO’s archive called Tshastushki: Lomir zikh tsukishn (Let’s Kiss Each Other), a Yiddish/Russian song from the Yiddish 1928 theater production “Goldene teg” (“Golden Days”). Like the theater itself, the melodies and harmonies often change hands, moving from treble to bass, colliding, diverging, and overlapping as the composition develops. Repeating elements in the architecture of the theater are echoed by repeated elements in the music. Surface noise, scratches, and other artifacts from the original 78 inspired the relentless repeats of a needle stuck in a groove. The theater’s burlesque history inspired a hint of bump and grind, and the drag cabaret that was housed in the basement lends some swagger and swing to its step. Second Avenue was never a stranger to street noise and sirens, and occasionally the Doppler effect is invoked by rising and descending intervals.
In Jewish folklore a dybbuk is an evil spirit that enters into a living person, and represents a separate and alien personality. “The Dybbuk” is the name of a classic play (and later film) of the Yiddish theater. In the case of this piece, the not-so-evil lively spirit of the Yiddish Theater reenters a building that has become dislocated from its roots and reminds us all of the wildly mixed history of Downtown New York.
Four Roses and a Five Spot
(1997/ 2015, 12 minutes, for cello and sampler
World premiere of a new companion piece to Four Roses
by Michael Nicolas, cello; and Annie Gosfield, sampler
The Stone, New York City, September 7, 2015
Recorded on "Transitions" on Sono Luminus
I composed Four Roses in 1997, and in 2015 Michael Nicolas commissioned a companion piece, titled A Five Spot. Four Roses is named for a rather inexpensive whiskey favored by my parents when they were courting. Even at the low price of 35 cents a shot, it had some bite. A “five spot” is a five dollar bill, which would have bought more than an evening’s worth of Four Roses. In both pieces, three of the cello strings are tuned conventionally, and the "A" string is tuned 80 cents flat (just short of a semitone). This scordatura has its own inebriating bite, creating pungent microtonal intervals between the open "A" string and the normally tuned strings. The keyboards use prepared piano and piano samples, tuned to a scale that is 32 notes per octave, as well as samples of sweeping cello harmonics. A Five Spot references the sounds and techniques used in Four Roses, and is further inspired by Michael’s impeccable technique, with a cadenza that features his ability to move fluidly from traditional repertoire to extended techniques.
Four Roses is recorded on “Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires.”
Both pieces were recorded by Michael Nicolas and myself on “Transitions” released on Sono Luminous in 2016.
Signal Jamming and Random Interference
(2014, 40 minutes, for string quartet with electronics)
World premiere by the JACK Quartet
and Annie Gosfield, electronics
Roulette, New York City, December 7, 2014
Score and parts available for sale
commissioned by NYSCA
Signal Jamming and Random Interference is inspired by the sounds, processes, and perceptions of jammed radio signals, a wartime technique used to block an opponent’s radio transmission by broadcasting noise, speech, or other sonic effluvia on the same frequency. I originally planned to write a “tape” piece for string quartet accompanied by recordings of jammed radio signals from World War II. After meeting with the JACK Quartet and working together to interpret these surreal wartime signals, I chose to focus on the quartet’s mastery of extended techniques to evoke the elusive, transformative nature of the jamming process. It was far more compelling to recreate the sonic spoils of disruption and distortion using the human element and acoustic means. The members of JACK were important collaborators, and we developed the piece together, using subtones, stratosperic upper partials, double harmonics, imperfect repeats, and many other unorthodox techniques to produce unstable sounds that evoke radio distortion, oscillating tones, and noise. The recordings of jammed radio signals are still critical to the piece, but have been layered and edited to function as an intermittent interruption (as they did originally) and as a reference and reminder of a very odd form of audio warfare.
Radio also has an influence on the structure of the piece. Music, speech, noise, and a variety of themes come and go, as if different frequencies are drifting in and out of range to a listener. Musical materials (in the form of shifting melodic figures as well as abstract extended techniques) recur and replicate, just as jamming signals might repeatedly interrupt a changing radio broadcast.
Signal Jamming and Random Interference includes a reference to Beethoven’s “Harp Quartet”, introduced in an electronic fragment that rapidly becomes more distorted and abstract. The notes deteriorate and fade away, slipping into noise like a jammed radio broadcast. The quartet continues the theme, battling in pairs for dominance, as the figure is reduced to just a few notes, sharing characteristics with the repetitive tones used for signal jamming.
Thanks to the JACK Quartet, Jim Staley and Roulette, NYSCA, who commissioned this work, and thanks as well to the American Academy in Berlin, where I began my research on the subject in 2012, and to the Agosto Foundation (Prague) and Robert Wilson’s “Watermill Center” (Long Island) where I composed the piece during residencies earlier this year. Special thanks to Roger Kleier who endured months of jammed radio noise at home.
Captured Signals and Radio Ephemera
(2014, 20 minutes, for sampler and electric guitar)
Premiere by Annie Gosfield (sampler) and Roger Kleier (guitar)
vs. Interpretation Festival, Roxy NoD, Prague July 18, 2014
Captured Signals and Radio Ephemera was created for vs. Interpretation. It uses a library of sounds that that combine original broadcasts of jammed radio signals with string sounds that mirror the unique processes of radio jamming. I edited, altered, and sculpted this atmospheric and varied palette of sounds to create a loosely structured format for a duet with guitarist Roger Kleier that draws largely on improvisation and extended techniques.
Static Strands and String Noise
(2014, 40 minutes, for two violins and electronics,
2016 spatialized version 16 minutes
World premiere by String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, violins) and Annie Gosfield, electronics
The Stone, New York City, May 1, 2014
Invisible Interference and String Noise is a concert-length piece for two violins and electronics composed in close collaboration with the dynamic violin duo of Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris. Inspired by the transformations, collisions, and wild sonic phenomena of jammed radio signals, the work combines clandestine radio broadcasts, improvisation, and traditional notation. The two violinists’ roles shift in a soundfield where music, noise, and pure signal meld and collide, evoking the jamming process both acoustically and electronically.
In 2016/17 a new, shorter version was created with a dynamic, spatialized, multi-speaker set up, as part of an AIR award at Harvestworks, NYC.
Tenacious Friction and Swerving Conviction
(2014, 7 minutes, for viola and piano)
World premiere by Max Mandel and Eric Huebner
at Roulette, NYC, March 25, 2014
Since this piece was commissioned for two great musicians, and intended to be only five minutes long, I chose to write something that was technically demanding but emphasized just a few elements. Clocking in at just over six minutes, it can clip along at a breakneck speed without taxing the players too much. Microtones are used to broaden the harmonic palette and provide some musical friction, not to achieve pure tone. In other words, the effect is fast and dirty (although as usual for me, the compositional process was slow and painstaking). Composing a six minute piece allowed me the extravagance of tenacious repeats: short figures and limited pitches are reconfigured, repeated, and unrelenting in the brief span of time.
Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens
(2013, 9 minutes, for contrabass)
World premiere by James Ilgenfritz
at Roulette, NYC, March 25, 2014
Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens makes frequent use of sevenths: both the interval of a seventh and the seventh partial (which is a slightly flat dominant seventh). It also incorporates the eleventh partial, which can be more elusive and unstable. I originally talked to James Ilgenfritz about writing a piece for solo bass and electronics (part of a series of solo works with tape that I started in 2003). James and I went over many of the unusual techniques and sounds that he had at his fingertips, which made me think “who needs electronics?” This piece was especially fun to write, using a textural approach that I would normally use when constructing a tape part, but using acoustic sounds instead. I was especially taken with James’ command of what I called “Rolling Sevens” - a tremolo on a double stop that sounded to me like a very unusual boogie woogie and blues. The “Dreaming Elevens” may be up there in the overtone series, but as I worked with the recordings we made together, the sound always reminded me most of Baby Cox’s singing on Ellington’s “The Mooche,” irresistible and rich in overtones.
Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind
(2013, 21 minutes, for piano and tape, inspired by Debussy)
World premiere by Kathleen Supové in her "Digital Debussy" project, The Flea Theater, New York City, April 25-27, 2013
Commissioned by Commissioning Music USA
“Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind” is an extended work for piano and electronics in four movements commissioned for Kathleen Supové’s “Digital Debussy” program. Imagined as a hallucinatory duet with Claude Debussy and further inspired by Hurricane Sandy, the piece couples Supové’s wild playing with recordings of distorted fragments of the original prelude and on-site recordings of Hurricane Sandy.
I had already chosen to use Debussy’s stormy prelude “What the West Wind Saw” (Ce Qu'A Vu Le Vent D'Ouest) as a starting point for this piece, referencing Debussy’s untamed and imaginative interpretation of the destructive forces of nature, when the Eastern Seaboard was hit by Hurricane Sandy. After experiencing the power of the storm first hand, I was struck by the wild contrasts that the hurricane left in her wake: some sections of the city were untouched, while adjoining areas suffered total destruction. I used melodic and harmonic elements from the original prelude in small, untouched phrases alongside altered fragments that were seemingly twisted, distorted, and destroyed by the wind to echo these odd contradictions. The electronic backing track is made up entirely of the sounds of piano and wind: altered fragments of the original prelude are coupled with recordings made of Hurricane Sandy. I also morphed these two sources electronically to create oddly intertwined hybrid sounds that meld the noisy, crackling energy of the storm with the prelude’s tumultuous piano. The piece shifts between the acoustic and electronic realms, contrasting the eerie stillness of the eye of the storm with the violent force of the wind rending everything in its path, creating an electronic counterpart to a windswept landscape. Composed for Kathleen Supové, the piece is driven by her unique approach to the piano, her mad energy, her dramatic, virtuosic style, and the notion of this dynamic pianist duetting with a ghostly apparition of Debussy and his interpretation of these universally destructive forces.
“Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind” was commissioned as part of a national series of works from NEW MUSIC USA’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund.
Long Waves and Random Pulses
(2012, 13 minutes, for violin and tape) World premiere by Monica Germino at the Night of the Unexpected Festival, Utrecht, Holland, September 6, 2012.
(2012, 13 minutes, for violin) World premiere by Elfa Run Kristindottir at the Oudemuziek Festival, Utrecht, Holland, August 26, 2012.
Commissioned by Gaudeamus Muziekweek
Long Waves and Random Pulses is a duet for violin and jammed radio signals. The piece was presented in a unique double premiere: one version (without tape) was performed by Elfa Run Kristindottir at Utrecht’s Oudemuziek (early music) Festival, the other version (with tape) was performed by Monica Germino at Holland’s 3-city new music festival “Night of the Unexpected”. I composed and researched the piece at the American Academy in Berlin, using original recordings of jamming sounds that were used to block radio transmissions in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union in World War II. The violin merges and emerges, shifting from music, to noise, to pure signal while fading in and out of the sounds of intentional radio interference. The electronic backing track includes a repeated six-note figure that was drawn from original recordings of an Italian radio jamming device, a buzzing pitched pulse from a German jamming device, a quote from J. S. Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor as it could have been heard in a jammed broadcast, and many extended techniques that evoke the sounds of these otherworldly radio signals. The violin part alternates between virtuosic and textural playing, shifting between notes and noise, custom made for Monica’s great technique and dramatic performance skills. The all acoustic version features Elfa Run Kristindottir’s unique blend of beautiful tone and fine control of extended techniques, with the radio-inspired noise incorporated into the notated part. I considered how a listener might perceive these unpredictable shifting sounds when he or she turned on the radio and was confronted with the odd results of two very different signals competing for the same wavelength, as well as the constant transformation and the dynamic tension between music, noise, and the interference of pure signal. As for the title, Long Waves refers to the long wave radio frequencies that many of these interrupted signals were broadcast on. Random Pulses represents a method of radio jamming that uses a random pulse noise to override the program broadcast on the target radio frequency.
A Luminous Reflection of Metallic Direction
(2012, 15 minutes, for cello and tape)
World premiere by
Frances-Marie Uitti, MaerzMusik, Berghain, Berlin March 21, 2012
Commissioned by MaerzMusik
and the American Academy in Berlin
This work for cello and electronics was composed during my fellowship at The American Academy in Berlin and premiered at the infamous club Berghain. It was hard to resist making an audio analogy to the questions of East and West in the city, so I used stereo panning and imaging, along with dub effects, big bassy sounds, and throbbing drums to represent the East-West parallels, contrasts, and distortions, and to make the best use of Berghain’s legendary sound system. Frances Marie Uitti premiered the piece on a rare 1920‘s aluminum cello, which inspired me to focus on metal sounds, and revisit the extensive library of samples that I made during a fellowship in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, that was sponsored by the Siemens Arts Program. I also used my archive of live recordings of metal percussion, machine sounds, and samples of Ms. Uitti’s unique cello sounds. Frances-Marie and I worked together closely to develop this new work, and the last section of the piece is written for the unique 2-bow technique that she has developed. it is an honor to collaborate with her to create a piece in which she has freedom to be herself and express her unique vision for the cello.
(2012, 8 minutes, for piano and tape/recorded media)
World premiere by Annie Gosfield at the Moving Sounds Festival, New York City, September 14, 2012
Phantom Shakedown is performed live on piano, accompanied by samples of detuned and prepared piano, a grinding cement mixer, the howl of a malfunctioning shortwave radio, and a mixed din of tube noise and other failing technologies. The piece is an audio snapshot of my odd sonic environment, and juxtaposes the wide mix of piano music that I have absorbed over the years, from John Cage to James Booker, along with some recently recorded off-kilter mechanical sounds.
Phantom Shakedown is part of an ongoing series of compositions for solo acoustic instruments with electronics that I developed in close collaboration with individual musicians. Composed for the Tzadik CD “Almost Truths and Open Deceptions”, this is the first piece in the series that I perform myself. It completes this CD’s unofficial theme of compositions that feature raucous, noisy keyboard playing, from cluster-heavy piano parts to driving machine samples.
Floating Messages and Fading Frequencies
(2011, 30 minutes, for flute, oboe, clarinet, percussion, violin, viola, cello, and bass, with sampler/electronics, drums, and electric guitar) World premiere by Athelas Sinfonietta and Annie Gosfield trio, conducted by Pierre-André Valade, November 23, 2011, Dartington Great Hall, United Kingdom. Commissioned by the DaNY arts initiative to foster collaboration between Denmark and NYC, with support from the CAP Fund. Also performed at the Huddersfield Festival, Liverpool, and Nottingham.
“Floating Messages and Fading Frequencies” is inspired by the clandestine radio transmissions of European resistance groups in World War II. Although the piece is not intended to be a literal interpretation of past events, the rich history of individual resistance fighters finding inventive, unorthodox ways to communicate secret messages against great odds provided a wealth of inspiration. Sounds such as shortwave oscillations, Morse code, and radio static are all interpreted by both acoustic and electronic instruments. The poem codes used by the resistance play a role as well: lyrical, poetic statements were used to indicate an individual radio operator’s coding system, and poems were used as cryptic messages to communicate covert information, such as the time of a weapons drop, a military maneuver, or the location of an act of sabotage. Musical materials make the same transformation, from lyrical, to abstract, to a final concrete action, which could be a violent statement, a musical change of direction, or simply an ephemeral phrase. Figures repeat, cycle, and transform, inspired by the resistance’s ever changing systems of encryption and abstraction of information. Other aspects of the resistance’s communication methods serve as inspiration as well, such as the common five character codes, represented by a repeating five-note figure in the winds or strings. Many messages simply communicated a new frequency on which subsequent messages would be transmitted, which is evoked by the ensemble subtly shifting from one frequency range to another. A great deal of the radio traffic meant nothing, and was broadcast in order to create meaningless chatter that would keep German decoders busy, creating a sea of signals from which critical messages would emerge, the same way that a melody emerges from a tangle of five note figures or a slowly shifting bed of static noise.
Burn Again with a Low Blue Flame
(2011, 20 minutes, for cello and tape) World premiere by Mathis Mayr at the A•Devantgarde Festival, Munich, Germany, June 4, 2011. Commissioned by the A•Devantgarde Festival
Burn Again with a Low Blue Flame is a work that is to be played twice:
once as a simple tape piece, and then again as a piece for cello and
electronics. The recorded element of the piece is almost identical,
but the cellist becomes the focus for the second version, in a fully
notated part that in turn blends, contrasts, and stands out from a
recorded orchestra of strings, winds, and mechanical sounds.
I used recordings that I had made of a string quartet and a wind trio
performing my music, specifically pieces that featured slow, gradual
microtonal glissandi. I made samples of these slowly shifting pitches,
looped the sounds and arranged them across a sampling keyboard so I
could, in essence, play them live. I further refined the piece,
experimenting with density and shifting pitch, and added less
traditionally “musical” sources: recordings of a giant noisy truck
that siphoned water one block from my home on a windy night, and a
quick snippet of an old analog synthesizer. The piece varies from a
one-note drone to dense melodic and harmonic figures, all made up of
these samples. The slow glissandi become varied melodic figures as the
speed of each individual sample is altered, shifted in pitch, and
This commission for the A*devantgarde festival was inspired by home
recording. I wanted to bring my own notated music (in the form of
sampled recordings) back to my home in order to approach it from a
more abstract, textural context. I added mechanical sounds, and gave
all of the musical materials equal importance, treating both
orchestral instruments and street sounds as maleable sources in my
home recording. Extraneous noise is an important element as well:
there are crashes, bangs, and wind sounds in my home recordings that
find their way into the finished work. Having the piece performed a
second time with a cellist brings it back to the realm of notated
music, but set against an abstract background of the sounds of a
composer’s natural environment, a symphony of orchestral instruments,
machines, and street noise.
A Bowler Hat
reimagined for Anthony De Mare’s “Liaisons” project
(2011, 8 minutes, for piano) World Premiere by Anthony DeMare at Symphony Space, NYC, March 9, 2013.
Commissioned by the Liaisons Project
When invited to select a piece to arrange for Anthony DeMare's Sondheim project, I chose “A Bowler Hat” because of its unusual theme both musically and in terms of narrative. It is from "Pacific Overtures", and features a repeated theme is beautifully constructed, very catchy, and a little melancholy. The subject of the musical is the difficult Westernization of Japan, told from the point of view of the Japanese. I was intrigued by this unusual song, and as a former milliner, the reference to the bowler hat made it a perfect match for me
Daughters of the Industrial Revolution
(2011, 45 minutes, for sampler, guitar, drum set, percussion, and cello)
World premiere by Annie Gosfield trio: Roger Kleier (guitar); Annie Gosfield (sampler); Ches Smith (drums); with Felix Fan (cello) and Alex Lipowski (percussion)
at the Kitchen, NYC, March 4-5 2011
“Daughters of the Industrial Revolution”is inspired by my immigrant
grandfather, a junk dealer on the Lower East Side who recycled scrap
metal and other byproducts of the industrial revolution, and my
grandmother, who worked in sweatshops in the Lower East Side when she
was a young girl. I am a third generation daughter of the industrial
revolution, linked to this history, not only genetically and
geographically, but as a composer who often uses raw materials and
transforms them into something new. In this piece, the raw materials
often take the form of factory sounds and machine rhythms played on
acoustic, electric, and electronic instruments, appropriate to a piece
so focused on a time of sweeping technological changes.
I’ve always led parallel musical lives, balancing playing in my own
band with composing notated music for others. This is the first
project in which these two lives are so intertwined. It’s been
fascinating to explore the common ground between such varied musical
languages, and address the challenge of integrating the beauty of
found sounds, electronic sounds, and noise with more traditional
compositional techniques. I wanted to work with my trio (Roger and
Ches) augmented by two excellent champions of new music (Felix and
Alex). I wrote very specifically for this group of musicians, taking
into account the individual strengths and personal experiences of each
player, and came up with a piece that incorporates notated music,
improvisation, and musical collaboration more common to a band, with
influences that touch on rock, contemporary classical music, twangy
guitars, Studio One dub, spaghetti westerns, and pure noise.
Like a machine comprised of many moving parts, “Daughters of the
Industrial Revolution” is made up of several individual sections, and
features solos, duos, and trios as well as parts for the entire group.
Thanks to the luxury of a few days of rehearsal with a great group of
musicians, we had opportunity to develop and sculpt the piece
together. The idea was to experiment in creating one big piece, so I
headed into rehearsal with finished scores, open-ended ideas, and
everything in between. I played with doublings and literal repetition
much more than I normally do, inspired by the repetitive, insistent
nature of machine sounds, and the subtly changing repeats heard in
factories. The contrast of acoustic vs. electric sounds, and notated
vs. improvised ideas mirror the
technological and cultural shifts that were so common in the
industrial revolution, and the jarring
changes and odd juxtapositions that took place in people's lives.
This piece is largely about raw materials and how they are
transformed. My raw materials included rhythmic figures, melodic
ideas, and textures as well as actual factory sounds. A mournful
melody played freely on the guitar is echoed in a notated part for the
cello. Rhythms are volleyed back and forth between a rock drummer and
a classical percussionist in a drum battle that accompanies a cello.
Machine sounds provide fuel for the band, and each musician interprets
the machine differently. Many of the raw materials are electronic.
Armed with a digital keyboard sampler, I am playing a variety of
machine sounds, some of which were recorded during my residency in the
factories of Nuremberg, Germany. Other sounds are part of my local
environment, such as a cement mixer recorded outside my window.
Several samples originate from a train repair factory in Pennsylvania
that still uses antique machinery. In the spirit of re-using
materials, there are also many samples of Felix’s cello, Roger’s
guitar, and Ches and Alex’s percussion. Triggering the samples with a
piano-style keyboard lets me be an active member of the ensemble, and
have fun leading the band. The industrial influence appears in purely
acoustic sections as well, in the form of insistent machine rhythms
and noisy timbres played on cello and percussion.
Whenever I leave my apartment and walk down Second Avenue, I see a
patch of old exposed cobblestones peeking through the pavement, and
think of how my grandparents walked the same streets, so affected by
the changing cultures and technologies of their day. My own
experiences are very different from theirs, but in the end I am truly
a daughter of the industrial revolution, making a life for myself in
New York, and doing my best to use old and new technology to make
something out of nothing.
The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon
(2010, 17 minutes, for string quartet)
World premiere by the Jasper String Quartet at the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts, Katonah, New York, August 5, 2010.
Commissioned by the Caramoor International Music Festival, on behalf of the Jasper String Quartet, for A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century
“The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon” is inspired by the surreal radio broadcasts and codes used by European resistance groups in World War II.
It incorporates musical materials drawn from the mysterious “Messages Personnels” broadcast to the French Resistance, a silken code scarf used by Danish Resistance members, and the transformative processes of encryption.
The figure in the beginning of the piece is based on the rhythm of “Le cheval bleu se promène sur l'horizon” (the blue horse walks on the horizon), which was one of the statements broadcast from the British to the French Resistance in their “messages personnels” radio program. These broadcasts, which transmitted secret messages to resistance forces all over France, consisted of surreal phrases that were read over some very odd music. As the show became very popular, hundreds of these messages were read out every evening, which succeeded in keeping German decoders very busy. I listened to a recording of this compelling, hypnotic broadcast, transcribed the message, and imagined the repeating rhythmic figure as a series of voices in the distance.
Another source of inspiration was a a piece of silk imprinted with codes that was used by the Danish Resistance in the field. I was struck by the beauty of this object that somehow survived the war, and the fleeting nature of the transmission of such critical information. When encrypting a message, resistance members would use one line of code, tear it off, and then burn it. I took a picture of the silken relic and read it like music, assigning individual letters to pitches. Like a message emerging from a random sea of characters, I heard melodic fragments materializing out of a bed of sustained, ethereal harmonics. In my research, I also found many pages of 5-character codes, which I transcribed and used as shifting, repeating figures that represent the ephemeral quality of these coded messages, and their transformation from abstract information, to a decoded message, to a specific action, such as a violent act of sabotage.
This piece was written for the Jasper String Quartet, and their wonderful mix of enthusiasm and highly developed technique. The piece is also dedicated to Bernard Peiffer, who was a great pianist and was a member of the French Resistance in WWII. I had the pleasure of studying piano with Bernard during my most formative years, and he continues to be a source of great inspiration.
Five Characters Walk Into a Bar
(2009, 10 minutes, for piano solo)
Premiere by Sarah Cahill at the Caramoor Festival, New York, March 28, 2010
Five Characters Walk Into a Bar is inspired by the clandestine activities of the Danish Resistance in World War II, and the 5-character codes that the resistance used to transmit secret messages. These five characters (originally letters, represented here by pitches) snake their way through individual bars (measures) in which they repeat, cycle, and transform, inspired by the resistance’s use of encryption, and the transformation and abstraction of information.
Broken Nails and Metal Tails
(2009, 7 minutes, for kalimba and electronics/recorded media)
Premiere by Jennifer Hymer in the Klang!-Container, Hamburg, Germany,
September 12, 2009. Commissioned by the Hamburg Netzwerk Project "Klang!"
Broken Nails and Metal Tails is titled for the metal tails (the tines, or keys) of the kalimba, and the broken thumb nails that I got from plucking the tines as I composed the piece. One of my favorite qualities of the kalimba is the unpredictable tunings that the instrument can have, so instead of using its standard two-octave G-major scale, I created some odd intervals by detuning the F#’s to pitches closer to G. Performed live on the kalimba with a recording of electronic sounds, Broken Nails and Metal Tails uses sounds from factories that I recorded in Nuremberg (as part of the Siemens Corporation’s program to combine art and industry), old analog synthesizer samples, with recordings of extended techniques on cello, piano, and kalimba thrown into the mix. I loved the image of Jennifer playing this portable instrument in a portable container; by adding varied electronic sounds from my own musical history, I could import my own musical world into this very unusual environment. Thank you to Jennifer Hymer for giving me the opportunity to create a new piece and be part of this project.
Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers
(2008, 21 minutes, for piano and sampler)
Premiere by Lisa Moore in Canberra, Australia, May 8, 2008
US premiere at the Bang on a Can Marathon, New York, May 31, 2008
Score available for sale wth samples for the application "Kontakt3"
Commissioned by the Meet the Composer's Commissioning USA
and The Argosy Fund for New Music
Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers was composed for Lisa Moore, who performs the piece on piano and sampler. Instead of using a pre-recorded electronic track, I incorporated electronic sounds using a sampler (essentially a digital recorder controlled by a piano-style keyboard) so that Lisa could use her great piano technique and interpretive skills in both the acoustic and electronic realms. “Lightning Slinger” is an archaic term for a telegraph operator, and an apt simile for a pianist who translates musical ideas into an electric medium - not to mention the fact that Lisa’s virtuosic part shows off her ability to sling plenty of lightning herself. “Dead Ringer”, which means an exact substitute, is a term that was first coined at racetracks when a superior lookalike horse would be substituted to foil the bookies and beat the odds. The dead ringers in this case are samples of piano sounds: the detuned, retuned, pinging, sliding, and rattling sounds are altered piano, prepared piano, and inside the piano techniques, which sometimes resemble guitar, bass, and even synthesizer sounds. Towards the end of the piece the machines step in, incorporating samples drawn from factory environments along with vintage analog Serge and Arp synthesizers. The machine sounds were taken from the vast library of factory environments that I recorded in Nuremberg, Germany during a residency designed to combine art and industry. In the end, the piano part takes its cue from the samples: propelled by driving rhythms and dense tonalities, the piano becomes part of the machine itself. All of the samples were recorded and edited on Native Instrument’s Kontakt3 sampler.
Almost Truths and Open Deceptions
(2007, 24 minutes, cello chamber concerto for cello, percussion, piano, 2 violins, viola, and contrabass)
Premiere by Felix Fan, with David Cossin, Blair McMillen, Nurit Pacht, Jennifer Choi, Max Mandel, and Robert Black, at Merkin Concert Hall, New York, May 3, 2007
Score and parts available for sale
Commissioned by the Musik3 Foundation, the American Composers Forum and Kaufmann Center, with additional funds provided by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Jerome Foundation
Almost Truths and Open Deceptions is titled for the almost-unisons (almost truths) that clash and glissando towards a mass of open D strings (open D-ceptions) played by all of the string players. As I wrote the piece, I assembled an ensemble of frighteningly talented musicians, and kept each player’s personality and individual skills in mind as the work developed. This chamber cello concerto is the culmination of several years of working with cellist Felix Fan, and getting to know this fine musician’s dynamic playing style and unique energy.
The Wanton Brutality of a Tender Touch
(2006, 12 minutes, for piano)
Premiere by Blair McMillen at the Tenri Cultural Institute, New York,
September 8, 2006
Commissioned by Blair Mcmillen
When I composed The Wanton Brutality of a Tender Touch I wanted to make use of Blair McMillen's great technique and enthusiasm. The title was inspired by a recent televised brawl: one baseball player wrapped his arm around another player's waist, and drew him in close in order to deliver a wicked roundhouse punch. In one graceful series of movements, what looked like a fleeting moment of tenderness became an unbridled expression of fury. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a piece that borders on brutal, yet is delivered with Blair's flawless precision and accuracy
(2006, 13 minutes, for bass clarinet, percussion, sampler, guitar, cello, and contrabass)
Premiere by The Bang on a Can All-Stars at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City,
February 22, 2006
Commissioned by the People's Commissioning Fund
Overvoltage Rumble was written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and composed specifically for these six fine musicians. The group's unique instrumentation (which includes amplified acoustic instruments and electric guitar) inspired me to explore a dynamic, shifting balance between the All-Stars' acoustic and electric sounds. I recently unearthed recordings I made of a vintage Serge analog synthesizer and an Arp 2600, which provided the jolt that would further electrify the piece. I sampled the recordings, which were a pack rat's stash of swooping, buzzing, and rattling analog synthesizer sounds, and arranged them across the keyboard of my sampler. This gave me immediate access to a huge variety of sounds, in a set-up that would have been impossible on the original instruments. Lisa Moore plays the synthesizer part live on the sampler: instead of fiddling with pesky patch cords (like we did in the old days) she can use her energy and highly developed piano skills to perform with the ensemble. In acoustic sections of this piece the musicians echo the rich, complex analog layers and drifting oscillators of these bygone analog beasts, and focus on one note while modulating timbre and small fluctuations of pitch. The bass and bass clarinet both duel (or rumble) with the synthesizer in solos that contrast acoustic sounds with the synthesizer's wild electronic flotsam and jetsam. The drums hold down a steady five against seven beat, using a clangorous collection of metal and a low-tuned snare drum. The technical savvy of the All-Stars allowed me to combine electronic sounds with acoustic sounds, and their great musicianship inspired me to push it a little further, incorporating polyrhythms, multiphonics, and many of the extended techniques that the musicians have mastered.
A Sideways Glance from an Electric Eye
(2006, 8 minutes, for a virtual version of Henry Cowell's Rhythmicon)
Released on "The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon" Innova, 2006
Commissioned by Sonic Circuits
Working on the Virtual Rhythmicon was both addictive and challenging. It was only after I finished the piece that I discovered that my Airport card was defective. I wound up writing a piece that developed slowly, because the on-line Rhythmicon could not react quickly to my key commands, which in the end reinforced my fondness for the unpredictable qualities of broken instruments. The piece shifts between pure overtones and detuned sounds generated from sustained sawtooth and triangle waves, inspired in part by a review that compared the original Rhythmicon to a reed organ. I snuck in some recordings of cellist Joan Jeanrenaud's harmonic sweeps, introducing a human element that mingles with the machine. The title, A Sideways Glance from an Electric Eye refers to the photoelectric cell used in the original Rhythmicon. Thanks Joan, Philip, Nick, and Henry.
In This Dream that Dogs Me
Live music for choreographer Karole Armitage
(2005, 55 minutes, for percussion, sampler, guitar, and cello)
Premiere by Danny Tunick, Annie Gosfield, Roger Kleier, and Felix Fan
at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street, New York, November 30, 2005
Commissioned by the American Music Center's Live Music for Dance program
and the Rockefeller Foundation's MAP Fund
The music for "In This Dream that Dogs Me" was composed for this project, with the addition of some existing work. In developing the piece, Karole and I discussed the concepts of calligraphy on the page, representing the writer's hand and the expressive power of each individual character. Much of the music explores this dynamic relationship of the fluid, continuously changing movement of calligraphy in the foreground, supported by sustained, subtly shifting sounds in the background, representing individual calligraphic characters on a page. For example, the cello traces fluid, sinuous figures over a shifting tapestry of interwoven timbres consisting of bowed marimba, sustained guitar, and altered sampled string sounds. Melodic fragments reappear in altered forms, as characters and words do in language. All of the sampled sounds, played live on a keyboard, are altered forms of acoustic instruments, and are drawn from recordings of piano, strings, and percussion. Detuning and digital manipulation translates these sounds into their own musical language, just as calligraphy evolves and mutates over time. Parts are written expressly for each performer, and the ensemble makes use of its varied backgrounds, from classical traditions through free improvisation, rock, and blues. The musical materials in the three movements of this piece vary widely in density and character, ranging from languid dreamlike solos to intense rhythmic explosions for the ensemble. Within this varied context, there is always a focus on the movement of calligraphy and how these fluid, kinetic, characters wind and shift in an ever-changing musical environment.
Uphill Slides and Knockdown Dives
(2005, 12 minutes, for percussion and cello)
Premiere by Felix Fan and David Cossin
at the Muzik3 festival in San Diego, California, April 13, 2005
Commissioned by the Muzik3 Festival
Uphill Slides and Knockdown Dives was written for Felix Fan and David Cossin, two fine musicians who love to play together, The "uphill slides" refer to the many glissandi played on the cello. The "Knockdown Dives" make reference to a strong, loud, percussion part, that shifts from strong and steady to wild and wobbly
(2004, 13 min, for cello, percussion, and piano)
Premiere by Felix Fan, David Cossin, & Andy Russo,
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, December, 2004
Commissioned by the Muzik3 Festival, San Diego
Wild Pitch was written for Felix Fan, David Cossin, and Andrew Russo. Excited about working with this new trio, I wanted to create a piece that would emphasize the group's raw energy while incorporating many of the unusual techniques that each of the musicians has developed. The cello part clashes and slides between conventional tuning and quarter tones, fueled by Felix Fan's unique intensity and dynamic playing. Percussionist David Cossin plays a drum set augmented by his collection of Chinese cymbals, hand bells, a broken gong, and other collected objects, in a part that leaves plenty of room for interpretation and improvisation. Andrew Russo alternates tremolos with inside-the-piano techniques that use a baseball, steel guitar slide, and mallets, in a piano part equally influenced by Fats Domino and George Crumb. The title, Wild Pitch, reflects the piece's unpredictable sliding intervals and quarter tones, as well as the sense of a game gone momentarily out of control. The piece was finished during the 2004 world series, and Wild Pitch also refers to some very odd pitching that contributed to the historic Red Sox victory of the 2004 baseball season. A baseball-related title seemed especially appropriate after we discovered that Andy Russo's father, who was a catcher in the minor leagues, knew my distant cousin, Ruben Amaro, who was a shortstop, scout, and trainer for the Phillies.
Echoes of the Copper Octopus
(Reflective, Malleable, and Very Tenacious)
(2004, 13 min, percussion
Premiere by SO Percussion, Merkin Concert Hall, New York, December,
Commissioned by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust for Performance
at Merkin Hall
When I first met with So Percussion to discuss this piece I was impressed by their ability to blend, a quality more commonly found in a string quartet than in a percussion quartet. Their common experiences and group dedication have resulted in an ensemble that I often considered to be one large instrument - kind of a percussion octopus. In order to emphasize this unity while creating timbral contrast I wrote for four very distinct groups of instruments: two orchestral setups (one pitched, one non-pitched for the most part) and two less traditional setups (one drum set with brake drums, one collection of oddly tuned metal and woodblocks). Echoes of the Copper Octopus is a four-man, eight-handed brew of melodic copper pipes, echoing bass drums, and crashing gongs. Glockenspiel blends and clashes with detuned metal. Marimba tangles with unpitched woodblocks. Timpani are used as resonators to alter the pitch and timbre of tam tams, almglocken, and finger cymbals, and an orchestral bass drum gets a kick in the pants from a kick drum.
(2004, 1 minute, for solo piano)
Commissioned by the "Piano Project" which has commissioned
composers to write short piano pieces for children in celebration
of the 50th anniversary of the Kaufman Center
Knuckleball is a very short solo piano piece for children. It is performed with a baseball on the piano keys, but wise piano teachers have suggested the use of a rubber ball instead, in order to curb a child's destructive tendencies!
The Harmony of the BodyMachine
(2003, 13 min, for cello and
Premiere by Joan Jeanrenaud, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,
San Francisco, October, 2003
Commissioned by the American Composers Forum and the Jerome Foundation
Recorded by Joan Jeanrenaud on Gosfield's
"LOST SIGNALS AND DRIFTING SATELLITES" CLICK TO LISTEN
Joan Jeanrenaud and I met frequently for over a year to develop this piece for cello and electronics, first at the Djerassi Foundation, then at Mills College where I held the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition. I recorded and catalogued many of the extended techniques that she has mastered: her unique control of stratospheric harmonics, almost-unisons and finely tuned noise. Joan's performance is accompanied by the altered recordings of her cello, along with the sounds of sweeping bandsaws, crashing metal presses, percussive pile drivers and other creaking, ticking and scraping machines. The piece was inspired in part by my 1999 Siemens residency in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, where I recorded, observed and researched industrial sound. The title, The Harmony of the Body-Machine comes from a chapter in a 1929 science textbook by H.G. Wells. This piece is dedicated to Joan and is very much inspired by her wealth of knowledge, experience and longtime dedication to new music and new techniques.
Marked by a Hat
8 minutes, for 8 microtonally tuned
sympathetic strings on the "extreme guitar")
Premiere by Marco Cappelli, Associazione Alessandro Scarlatti, Naples,
Commissioned by Marco Cappelli
Recorded by Marco Cappelli on "The Extreme Guitar", Mode, 2006
I wrote Marked by a Hat in the Spring of 2003. I first met with Marco Cappelli In order to record him playing his "extreme guitar", and to catalogue the many techniques that he has developed for this unique instrument. I was intrigued by the extreme guitar's ten sympathetic strings, and created a microtonal tuning for them that centers on E, D, and C, and the quarter tones that surround these pitches. Because Marco had commissioned many guitarists to write pieces for this project, I chose to compose a piece that only used the open strings, thus eliminating the potential for flying fingers on the guitarist's left hand. Marked by a Hat is a "right hand only" piece, played solely on the open sympathetic strings, and demonstrates Marco's great right-hand technique, his unusual tremolos, and picking techniques. The title, "Marked by a Hat", is inspired by the name Marco Cappelli (Marco = marked, Cappelli = hat) and as a former hatmaker, it conjures up a film noir fantasy of a man marked, or identified, by his hatted silhouette.
Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites
(2003, 8 minutes, for violin and electronics)
Premiere by George Kentros, Stockholm, May 2003
Commissioned by George Kentros
Recorded by George Kentros on Gosfield's
"LOST SIGNALS AND DRIFTING SATELLITES" CLICK TO LISTEN
Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites was developed with George Kentros, a violinist in Stockholm who commissioned me to write a piece for "violin and something." While researching the piece, I learned how the the Soviets captivated the world by launching Sputnik, the first satellite, in 1957. People all over the globe watched a tiny smudge drift across the horizon, and set up bulky radio equipment in order to listen with rapt attention to the abstract bleeps, blips, and static that the satellite broadcast. The piece is scored for violin, accompanied by recordings of satellites, shortwaves and radio transmissions, and is inspired by the image of a listener lost in a night sky littered with satellite noise. The static, sputter and concealed melodies of these transmissions are echoed by the violin, which drifts between extended techniques and traditional writing for the instrument. Like a radio that is gradually losing and gaining reception, the music shifts between these two worlds, hovering between notes and noise, and ultimately drifts into faraway static.
Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites, The Harmony of the Body-Machine, and Marked by a Hat are from a set of solo compositions that were developed in close collaboration with individual performers. These pieces emphasize techniques developed by the musicians for whom the pieces were written, and incorporate non-traditional sounds and recording techniques.
Lightheaded and Heavyhearted
(2002, 18 minutes, for string quartet)
Premiere by the Miami String Quartet at the Santa Fe Chamber Music
Festival, July 2002
Commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
by the Flux Quartet on Gosfield's
"LOST SIGNALS AND DRIFTING SATELLITES" CLICK TO LISTEN
I incorporated quarter tones, slow glissandi and shifting sul ponticello harmonics to create Lightheaded and Heavyhearted, which shifts in and out of tune, and combines scratchy aggression with sweet melancholy. Originally composed for the Miami String Quartet during a time that I was suffering from vertigo (and often lightheaded, as indicated in the title) the work was conceived to be at once tranquil and raucous, still and rhythmic, dark and humorous. I adapted the piece for Flux, who melded these characteristics with their own aggressive and energetic approach.
Smoking and Drifting
(2001, 14 minutes, for bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, percussion, piano,
two violins, viola, cello, and contrabass)
Premiere by Present Music at the Milwaukee Art Museum, January 2002
Commissioned by Present Music and the Jacquart Family
On September 11th I watched the World Trade Center towers burn and collapse from my living room window, and in the following weeks I watched the smoke rise and drift. I had recently started composing this new work for Present Music, but like most of my colleagues in downtown New York, I found it very hard to write any music after the attacks. Smoking and Drifting turned out to be a kind of chronological emotional diary of those weeks, often reflecting my state of mind as time passed, beginning with still, almost elegiac music, becoming more active, complex, and agitated, finally ending on an optimistic note. I made use of two melodies, both of which change form and dissolve as unisons diverge and the instrumentation shifts, just as the two towers changed form and vanished behind a veil of smoke. Although it was never my intention to compose a piece based on these tragic events, every new work is influenced by a composer's environment. On a very personal level, bright moments like the simple pleasure of being able to write music again made creating Smoking and Drifting an important experience for me during an Autumn that we will all remember.
Five Will Get You Seven
(2001, 15 minutes, for bass clarinet and 2 percussion)
Premiere by Zeitgeist at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September
Commissioned by Headwaters for Festival Dancing in Your Head
Recorded by Zeitgeist on "If Tigers Were Clouds", Innova, 2003
Five Will Get You Seven was inspired by the rolling polyrhythms of five beats against seven, Pat O'Keefe's remarkable command of bass clarinet multiphonics, and Heather Barringer's reminiscences of beating on discarded pieces of steel that her metalworker father had left in their backyard when she was a child. The 5 against 7 (and occasionally 3 or 4 against 7) sections should give the impression of two rolling wheels. Not two perfect wheels rolling on an even surface: the idea is closer to the sound of a car with one flat, riding half on its tires and half on its rims, with a rhythm that interlocks and cycles as the all of the wheels start each revolution (or measure) together. One wheel could have 5 spokes and one could have 7 spokes, but they are both pushing ahead, driving hard and going in the same direction.
Cranks and Cactus
(2000, 6 minutes, for flute, piano, violin, and cello)
Premiere by The Pearls Before Swine Experience at ISCM World Music Days,
Luxembourg, September 2000
Recorded by The Pearls Before Swine Experience, on "Swine Live!",
Caprice (Sweden), 2003
Cranks and Cactus Needles was inspired by the sound of ancient 78 RPM records, and the pops, scratches, skips, and warps that occur as they deteriorate. As to the title, "Cranks" refers to the crank handles of old record players that had to be wound up before a 78 could be played, and "Cactus Needles" are the sharp cactus spines that were sometimes used as cheap phonograph needles. The musicians are instructed to play the piece "distant and ghostly, like a victrola down the hall", and use uneven vibratos, imperfect repeats, and unpitched scrapes to evoke the decaying
music of this anachronistic technology. The piece was commissioned for a premiere at ISCM World Music Days in Luxembourg by the Swedish ensemble "The Pearls Before Swine Experience", and developed with violinist George Kentros.
Flying Sparks and
(2000, 15 minutes, for string quartet and percussion
Premiere by the Onyx String Quartet and RedDrum Percussion Group at the
Other Minds Festival, San Francisco, March 2000
Commissioned by Other Minds and the American Composers Forum
Recorded by FLUX Quartet and Talujon Percussion on Annie Gosfield's
"FLYING SPARKS AND HEAVY MACHINERY" CLICK TO LISTEN
Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery was inspired by machine and factory sounds: the metallic scrapes, squeaks, and bangs; the ambient buzzes and whines; and the imperfect rhythmic repeats of heavy machinery. During a residency sponsored by the Siemens Corporation in Nuremberg, Germany, I conducted six weeks of research into these utilitarian industrial sounds, visiting factories, observing and listening to all types of machinery, and recording sounds on site. I was particularly fascinated by the sense of gradually changing environments that occur in a large factory as the sounds shift from the ambient hum of fluorescent lights, to the grinding harmonics of buzzsaws, to the rhythmic crashes and bangs of huge metal presses. Machine rhythms go in and out of phase, dynamics vary wildly, and in an environment of ever-changing activity and noise, the frequency spectrum fluctuates from sub-audio rumbles to barely audible high-pitched whines. My interpretation of these shifting environments ranges from the literal (rhythmic transcriptions of the recordings that I made on site) to the fanciful (Russian constructivist inspired evocations of industrial activity). Strings focus on microtonal variations of pitch, replacing equal-temperament with the untuned buzzing, humming, and grinding sounds of machines. Percussion instruments are all of indefinite pitch, and imitate the banging, scraping, and hissing cacophony of the factory.
If all pieces are biographical, this is no exception. When I first started work on Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery, I awoke to a veritable lexicon of machine and work-related sounds: a large crew of jackhammers tearing up my street, men on scaffolds hammering away at the brick facade outside my window, and a symphony of band saws, crowbars, and sledgehammers renovating the apartment upstairs. Trying to work through the constant noise created more moments of desperation than inspiration for me, but the cacophony and hammering always brought me back to the random rhythms and shifting patterns of utilitarian noise.
It Almost Passed
in a Dream
(1999, 8 minutes, for flute, bass marimba, harmonic
canon, adapted guitar, bloboy, and cello)
Premiere by Newband (on the Harry Partch Instruments) at Music at the
Anthology, New York, February 2000
Commissioned by Music at the Anthology and the Greenwall Foundation
Harry Partch wrote the phrase "It almost passed in a dream" referring to the year 1956 in his journal. In writing this piece for Partch instruments coupled with conventional instruments, I used a limited number of melodic and rhythmic combinations that cycle, shift, and recombine, so that the piece develops gradually, as if in a dream. I chose to emphasize the small odd intervals that can be created with Partch's instruments and tunings, as opposed to the pure intervals achieved by just intonation. When I wrote this piece I strived for total Partch immersion: I read his books, visited his instruments in New Jersey, listened to his music, and (thanks to Philip Blackburn of the American Music Center) looked at his original scrapbooks and clippings. Writing a piece for instruments invented by one of my heroes has been both exciting and daunting, and a great experience overall. This, my last work of 1999, was written for instruments that were invented by a man born in 1901, thus spanning the entire century. Soon the twentieth century will be nothing but a series of imperfect memories, and I can truly say that it almost passed in a dream.
Shoot the Player
(1999, 6 minutes, recorded work for video and music)
CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE VIDEO
Premiere at Intermedia Arts, Minneapolis, November 1999
Commissioned by the American Composers Forum for the Sonic Circuits Festival
At the age of 14 my sense of harmony was changed forever after hearing a wildly out of tune calliope on a riverboat in New Orleans blast Basin Street Blues and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. Shoot the Player Piano (The Treasures of San Sylmar) was inspired by this fascination with old mechanical instruments, and the odd, detuned sounds that they produce as they deteriorate. As time takes its toll on these great beasts, the tunings become increasingly random, pipes warp, hammers wear out, and tempos slip and slide as their timing mechanisms fluctuate. Familiar songs take on new life when performed by these contraptions, along with a homegrown microtonality and a uniquely inhuman sense of rhythm.
The function of mechanical instruments was largely utilitarian, designed to attract customers above the din of a carnival fairway, barroom, or riverboat, and to keep the money coming in, the liquor flowing, and people dancing. Timing mechanisms on nickelodeons were adjusted to play faster in order to bring in more nickels per hour. Although many composers' fascination with these instruments lies in their near-impossible precision and speed, my attraction to them lies in the other extremes of their inhuman qualities: the random rhythmic imperfections and strange tunings they attain after a life of service in a smoky barroom or a run-down riverboat.
Shoot the Player Piano is a work for an imaginary orchestra of aged and unusual mechanical instruments. The antique instruments that I videotaped for this project were so well-maintained they sounded as if they could have been manufactured yesterday. Because my original inspiration was the unpredictable quality of deteriorating instruments, I chose to compose the music with sounds drawn from outside sources. Using a combination of old and new recordings of calliopes, nickelodeons, German jahrmarkt organs and their interior bells and percussion, prepared piano, accordion, the violin of LaDonna Smith, the banjo of Eugene Chadbourne, and various machine sounds, I created a large library of samples and then detuned, altered, edited, and arranged these sounds. Almost all of the sounds that you hear did not come from the accompanying instruments on the screen (with the two exceptions: the sound of the paper roll turning, and the banjo tremolo). Video images include the instruments themselves, their inner machinery, and the exterior novelties designed to attract customers. Shoot the Player Piano starts with the quiet hum of these machines (their internal motors, the sound of a nickel dropping) and ends with a raucous collision of accordion, piano, violin, banjo, and calliope, striving to bridge the gap between the purely mechanical sounds of these musical machines, and the music made by these half-ton mechanical wonders. The video was shot at The Nethercutt Collection, a museum of pneumatic instruments and antique cars in Sylmar, California, in a large complex known as "San Sylmar". Byron Matson, my gracious host, is the curator of the musical instruments, and is featured in this video.
(1999, 42 minutes, a site-specific factory-inspired work for keyboards,
electric guitar, and two percussion)
Premiere by The Annie Gosfield Ensemble at the EWA7 Factory, Nuremberg,
Commissioned by the Siemens Corporation
Recorded by The Annie Gosfield Ensemble on
"FLYING SPARKS AND HEAVY MACHINERY" CLICK TO LISTEN
EWA7 was inspired by machine and factory sounds; the scrapes, squeaks, and bangs of metal, the ambient buzzes and whines of electric devices, and the imperfect rhythmic repeats of heavy machinery. Most of the music was developed in 1999 during a six-week residency in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, in a program sponsored by the Siemens Corporation designed to "combine art and industry" My work in Nuremberg included visiting many factories, observing and listening to all types of machinery, and recording sounds on site. I was particularly fascinated by the ever-changing sonic landscapes that occur in each factory as sounds shift, overlap, and echo in the distance. A critical part of the residency was the opportunity to listen: what I initially heard as a mass of cacophonous factory noise gradually revealed itself to be a beautifully complex amalgam of layered textures and timbres. The sound of a buzzsaw's rising harmonic grind would emerge out of the quiet ambient hum of fluorescent lights, for example, only to be obliterated by random arhythmic crashes and bangs from a huge metal press. Machine rhythms went in and out of phase, dynamics varied wildly, and in an environment of constantly shifting activity and noise, the frequency spectrum fluctuated from sub-audio rumbles to barely audible high-pitched whines.
EWA7 was premiered by my ensemble in the EWA7 factory in Nuremberg. It is comprised of many overlapping pieces with varying instrumentation, from short sequential solo sections to larger works for the full ensemble. Much of the musical materials used in this piece are derived from actual machine sounds that I recorded on site in many different factories, and then sampled for use in live performance. Driving machine samples, layers of ambient noise, crashing metal and electronic blips and bleeps all meld and collide, evoking the clamor and din of a journey through a grimy working factory. Each musician's interpretation has been critical in the development of this group of pieces, which ranges from short improvisatory solos to fully composed works. We recorded the basic tracks at a studio in Brooklyn that was conveniently located upstairs from two metal fabricating shops, whose owners generously loaned us huge sheets of metal, welding tanks, lengths of steel tubing, and a variety of discarded bits and pieces, which we incorporated into our ever-growing percussion set-up.
(1999, 4 minutes, for prepared piano)
Premiere by Annie Gosfield at California Institute of the Arts,
Valencia, California, March 1999
Recorded by Annie Gosfield on
"LOST SIGNALS AND DRIFTING SATELLITES" CLICK TO LISTEN
Mentryville is the name of a ghost town just outside of Valencia, California, where I was living when I wrote this piece during a composer's residency at the California Institute of the Arts. The surrounding suburban sprawl had an impact on my work: I spent hours haunting the enormous local hardware stores, picking through a huge variety of metal, wood and rubber construction materials that I purchased to use inside the piano. Sounds are produced by striking bolts placed between the strings of the piano with a rubber mallet, as well as by striking the keys in the traditional manner. Sometimes these two methods are used simultaneously, along with other prepared piano techniques that require coaxing a toolbox full of screws, washers, hooks and rubber insulation between individual piano strings.
10 minutes, for saxophone quartet)
Premiere by ROVA Saxophone Quartet, San Francisco, June 1998
Recorded by ROVA, on Annie Gosfield's
"BURNT IVORY AND LOOSE WIRES" CLICK TO LISTEN
Brawl was composed for Rova with the intention that they would leave their mark on it: using solo sections, cutting contests, and a combination of notated and loosely structured sections. The beginning of the piece is fully notated, and improvisational techniques are incorporated as the piece progresses. Brawl was composed during a residency at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California. According to Forms in Music (J. Humphrey Anger, 1900) a "brawl" is "an old French dance in commom time, of a gay character." This "Brawl" is not exclusively in common time: in reference to Dr. Carl Djerassi's birthplace, it also uses compound Bulgarian rhythms. On June 4, 1998, (a few days after the piece was completed) a much-publicized brawl took place in New York City, in which 40 drunken firemen terrorized a Manhattan bar, fought tooth and nail, exposed themselves, and caused general mayhem.
(1997, 4 minutes, for piano, baseballs, and baseball mitt)
Premiere by Guy Livingston, at Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center,
New York, December 1997
Recorded by Guy Livingston (one minute version) on "Don't Panic:
Sixty Seconds for Piano", Wergo (Germany) and Harmonia Mundi (USA)
When asked to compose a piano piece representing Brooklyn for a concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of the unification of the five boroughs of New York City, I was inspired by the 1941 Dodgers vs. Yankees baseball World Series, thus coining the phrase "World Serial Music". The piece is named for the date of the notorious fourth game of the series. My mother, born in Flatbush (in Brooklyn, New York) was a wildly enthusiastic 12-year old Dodgers fan at the time, and was recently reminiscing about watching this memorable but heartbreaking game at Ebbets Field. At the top of the ninth inning, a hair's breadth away from the end of the game, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey struck out Yankee Tommy Henrich with a pitch that should have ended the game in a 4-3 Dodger victory, which would have tied the series at two games apiece. Instead, the ball rolled under catcher Mickey Owen's glove, getting by him and allowing Henrich to reach first base safely. The Yanks went on to score four more runs to win, 7-4, and turn the series around.
Shaken by their unexpected loss, the Dodgers lost again the next day, and the Yankees won yet another world championship.
Brooklyn, October 5, 1941 is performed with two baseballs and a catcher's mitt, which are used to strike both the piano keys and the strings and soundboard inside the piano. The score gives instructions to have additional baseballs available to the pianist, should he, like Mickey Owen, suffer the mishap of letting the ball get away. Playing the piano with baseballs and a catcher's mitt produces different sounds and tonalities than the traditional method of playing with the fingers: new groups of notes and rapid sequential chords become possible by rocking the balls both side-to-side and back-and-forth on the keyboard, and wider spans are reached with the aid of the mitt. Sounds also differ inside the piano, using the baseballs to mute strings and strike the metal soundboard under the lid. Speed is enhanced, and the technique of rocking the baseballs creates a distinctive machine-like flurry of notes and tremolos. Although I know of no previous works composed for piano and baseballs, this is a tip of the hat to the late Nicolas Slonimsky, who performed Chopin's Black Key Etude by rolling an orange on the piano keys.
Cram Jin Quotient
(1997, 8 minutes, for keyboard sampler)
Premiere by Annie Gosfield at "The Alternative Schubertiade",
American Opera Projects, New York, September 1997
Recorded by Annie Gosfield on "An Alternative Schubertiade"
In the same way the the "Alternative Schubertiade" focused on old versus new ideas, Cram Jin Quotient was inspired by the idea of contrasting antiquated technologies with modern digital manipulation. I was influenced by the sounds of 78 RPM records, and used digital technology to evoke the effects of an old 78: the pops and hisses of surface noise, the warbling of a warped record, the occasional skip, and the gradual degeneration of sound caused by repeated playing. Schubert's Quintet in C Major also provided inspiration, in its harmonic content, melodic fragments, and four-movement structure. Cram Jin Quotient was recorded as it was performed, on a sampling keyboard with no overdubs.
In Rides the Dust
(1997 version, 11 minutes, for chamber orchestra)
Premiere by Bang on a Can's Spit Orchestra, conducted by Brad
Lubman, at the Kitchen, New York, May 1997
In Rides the Dust was originally composed for Prague's Agon Orchestra. In 1997 it was rewritten for Bang on a Can's Spit Orchestra. The title refers to the elusive qualities of dust: the way it appears out of nowhere, dissipates, and settles. Ideas dovetail and overlap; while a new section rides in, a previous idea scatters, dissipates, and, like dust, finally settles. When the same idea reappears, it is in an altered form, as if scattered, swept up, and reordered. Often a melodic or rhythmic pattern is established, and then left to spread out and disintegrate.
The piece combines traditional and non-traditional techniques: contrasting detuned and microtonally tuned instruments with equal-tempered instruments, for example, or combining a notated score with improvisational techniques. The strings all use some form of scordatura; a single string is re-tuned microtonally to a specific pitch on all of the strings except the second violins. Likewise, the woodwind and brass instruments have many
(approximated) quarter-tone bends.
Four Roses (1997,
6 minutes, for cello and detuned piano)
Premiere by Ted Mook and Annie Gosfield, New York, March 1997
Recorded by Ted Mook and Annie Gosfield on
"BURNT IVORY AND LOOSE WIRES"
CLICK TO LISTEN
Three of the cello strings are tuned conventionally, and the "A" string is tuned 80 cents flat (just short of a semitone). This scordatura creates microtonal intervals between the open "A" string and the normally tuned strings. The keyboards use prepared piano and piano samples, tuned to a scale that is 32 notes per octave. "Four Roses" is the name of a rather inexpensive whiskey favored by my parents while they were courting. Although this piece was recorded three years before it was performed live, it has become a favorite that I have played with cellists Felix Fan, Joan Jeanrenaud, Frances-Marie Uitti, Ashley Bathgate, and others.
4 minutes, composed with Roger Kleier For sampler and electric guitar)
Premiere by Annie Gosfield and Roger Kleier at the Audio Art Festival,
Goethe Institute, Cracow, Poland, November 1996
Recorded by Annie Gosfield and Roger Kleier on
"BURNT IVORY AND LOOSE WIRES"
Freud utilizes unconventional approaches to bowing. The keyboard samples are bowed vibraphone sounds. The electric guitar is played using prepared guitar techniques and an
E-Bow (electronic bow), a device that bows the strings of the guitar magnetically.
In Rides the Dust
(1996, 11 minutes, for flute, tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, percussion,
piano, guitar, cello, and contrabass)
Premiere by Agon Orchestra, conducted by Petr Kofron, New Music Marathon,
Prague, November 1996
(See notes above)
(1996, 5 minutes, for sampling keyboard)
Premiere by Annie Gosfield at Festival Solo in Lucerne, Switzerland, May
Recorded by Annie Gosfield on
"BURNT IVORY AND LOOSE WIRES"
Tzadik, 1998 and on "Bring Your Own Walkman" Staalplaat, 1997
I recorded samples of a Serge modular synthesizer and an old Arp 2600 in Michael Murphy's studio in Saint Louis, with Murphy and LaDonna Smith twiddling the knobs along with me. These analog synth sounds were altered, modulated, combined, and sampled, which gave me access to several different sounds at once, and allowed me to create clusters and densities not possible on the original instruments.
(1995, 12 minutes, for chamber orchestra and sampler)
Premiere by the Crosstown Ensemble, conducted by Eric Grunin, New York,
Commissioned by the Minnesota Composers Forum and the Crosstown Ensemble
The piece incorporates detuned strings and piano samples, using scales and tunings composed more by ear from random elements than strict microtonal systems. Generally, if all goes well, the tuning has a life of its own and the instruments' detuning become more pronounced by the end of the piece. Open strings are re-tuned in increments of cents as indicated in the score, and the string parts are primarily open strings or harmonics.
My fascination with detuned sounds started at age 14 on a riverboat in New Orleans; the sheer power of a wildly out of tune calliope blasting out "Basin Street Blues" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" gave those old standards a new life for me. The same can be said for a brass band in Oaxaca's zocalo, and for a guitarist named Wichita picking an out of tune version of "Wildwood Flower" at the Johnny Mack Brown High School, tempering sentimental cliches with a richness only achieved by beating pitches and wild card tunings.
of Tangled Ivory
(1995, 11 minutes, for percussion, sampler, guitar,
Premiere by The Annie Gosfield Ensemble, Festival of Radical New Jewish Culture, New York, September 1994, revised version premiered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, at Great Performers at Lincoln
Center, New York, May 1995
Recorded by the Bang on a Can Allstars on "Cheating, Lying Stealing"
Sony Classical, 1996, and on "Bang on a Can Classic" Cantaloupe
Recorded by The Annie Gosfield Ensemble on Gosfield's
"BURNT IVORY AND LOOSE WIRES" CLICK TO LISTEN
I wrote The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory shortly after moving to New York. I was thinking of my grandmother, who had moved to New York from Poland 70 years earlier, and had worked in sweatshops and factories. As to the title, "The Manufacture" refers to my grandmother's factory days, "Tangled" describes the detuning of the piano sounds and their displacement on the keyboard, and "Ivory" refers to the piano keys themselves. I used a sampler (an instrument similar to a digital tape recorder connected to a piano keyboard) to reproduce piano and prepared piano sounds and to alter their pitch, duration, and timbre. The sampled sounds vary in density and change within the piece from multiple layers of detuned piano sounds, for example, to a single piano harmonic or a lone snap of the sustain pedal. The piece incorporates some elements of improvisation, including solos for the guitar and bass.
Second Avenue Junkman
(1993, 4 minutes, for piano, guitar, and percussion)
Premiere by The Annie Gosfield Ensemble, at the Festival of Radical New
Jewish Culture, New York, September 1993
Recorded by Annie Gosfield, Roger Kleier, and Greg Cohen on "Irving Stone Memorial Concert",
Second Avenue Junkman was written for my band's performance at the first Festival of Radical Jewish Culture, curated by John Zorn, at the Knitting Factory in New York. It's a simple tune in C minor that was inspired by stories of my grandfather, Abraham Starobin, looking for scrap metal on Second Avenue with his donkey cart and his donkey (who was named Nickolai and stabled on Prince street!) He wasn't called a junkman, he was called a scrap metal dealer, but "Second Avenue Scrap Metal Dealer" just doesn't have the same ring. Many decades later, I moved to Second Avenue, and although it's changed drastically, and the Yiddish theaters that he used to frequent have disappeared, I still look out the window and think about him.
(1993, 7 minutes, for sampler, guitar, and percussion)
Premiere by The Annie Gosfield Ensemble, Festival of Radical New Jewish
Culture, New York, September 1993
Recorded by The Annie Gosfield ensemble on
"BURNT IVORY AND LOOSE WIRES"
This work was named for my great-grandfather, who was conscripted into the Czar Nickolai's army at age 11 from the village of Konotop in the Ukraine. At the time it was common for young Jewish boys to be kidnapped and forced into military service. Keyboards use detuned piano sounds, in which scales vary from octave to octave, and different microtonal scales are juxtaposed for each of several layers on the keyboard.