Instrumentation: violin, viola, violoncello, piano

Duration: ca. 24:00

Premiere:  June 30, 2018 :: Garth Newel Piano Quartet :: Warm Springs, VA

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Solstice was written for and commissioned by the Garth Newel Piano Quartet. The commission was made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

Program Note:
Solstice was written for my friends in the Garth Newel Piano Quartet and for the beautiful place they call home, the Garth Newel Music Center in Bath County in the Allegheny Mountains near Warm Springs, Virginia. The piece is divided into four movements, one for each season—Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring—and are ordered as such because I visited Garth Newel in each season beginning in August 2017. The title comes from the solstices, which, along with the equinoxes, divide the seasons. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere(to stand still), because at the solstices, the sun’s declination “stands still”; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) stops at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction. For me, this idea of “standing still” captures the essence of my experiences visiting Garth Newel: it is in this place—among the mountains and among friends, great music, and incredible food—that I have often found stillness, quiet, peace, and happiness—a respite from the everyday.

Summer begins with an homage to the most incredible cicadas and crickets I’ve ever heard. A series of warm chords and sweeping melodies introduces much of the musical material for the entire piece. For me, like summer, this music is bright, warm, and full of possibility and excitement.  

Autumn is twilight, an ending. It’s the end of the summer, the end of the year, the end of warm, sunny days, and the harbinger of winter. This season is my favorite, but it is also filled with bittersweet nostalgia.

Winter is cold, icy, distant, and persistent. The melodic material in this movement is a quotation of and meditation on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

Spring is bright again, beginning with rain and eventually returning to a transformed version of the fast, dancing music from Summer. I have an affinity for bluegrass and for the traditional fiddling that comes from Appalachia and the mountains surrounding Garth Newel, and this spirit, overflowing with energy and joy, also found its way into this movement.

Instrumentation: solo soprano, flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, violoncello, percussion, piano

Duration: ca. 16:30

Premiere:  July 6 & 7, 2018 :: Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with Lindsay Kesselman, soprano and Kevin Noe, conductor :: City Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA

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Program Note:

My sons, Izaak and Declan, have profoundly changed and shaped the way I see the world. I initially set out to write a collection of vignettes about them, about childhood—a way to capture the beautiful, tender, and often silly and hilarious moments of their lives, but, my plans suddenly shifted after yet another all too common incidence of violence against children. In response to this violence, I felt compelled to respond in some way—to respond to my fear of sending my sons out into this violent world. Shell and Wing emerged as a collaboration and a response to these parental impulses with my friend and fellow father, poet Robert Fanning. Robert’s response to our conversation—a poem in two stanzas—gave voice to the ambiguity, the conflict I feel as a parent—this profound longing to protect my children coupled with the knowledge that I must also let them go.

The first poem is in a parent’s voice—my voice—and the second poem is in a child’s voice—that of my sons. Musically, the first movement is a sort of fragmented lullaby interwoven with a distorted memory of Robert Schumann’s Träumerei(Dreaming/Reverie) from Kinderszenen(Scenes from Childhood). Schumann’s harmonies are pulled and stretched until they resemble only a distant echo of the original. The second movement begins with solo piano, distant and aching that transforms into a quiet, dream-like duet for the soprano and vibraphone. The child’s song grows and builds, underpinned by a chaconne—a repeated chord progression—and eventually becomes the same song heard in the first movement, the parent’s song.

Read about Robert Fanning’s experience collaborating on this piece.


by Robert Fanning

I. SHELL                                                             

I hold you, breath beneath my skin, a nest of flesh. No world can break
you here. Shadows feather the shell. If you fly, you’ll never go far.
I dream my body border and sky, my heart an aviary. In my sleep, you wake.
I hold you. Breathe a nest beneath my skin, flesh no world can break.
Now, the season’s errant and astray; coiled rage hisses to strike. Hate leaks
into vine and branch, river and vein. So, song in me, rise. May death take no air
I hold. You, my breath beneath. My skin a nest of flesh. No world can break
you. Here, shadow. Feather, never go. I’m a shell if you fly. Fly far.                                                         


You dream you hold me in your nest of breath. Before they lifted me
from mingled blood, I rose, a song within your feathered sleep
for centuries. Your veined branches mapped my lidded eyes. A tree
you dream you hold. In your nest of breaths before me. They lifted me
from you to veil the sky. I flew through your death in learning to fly.
No world bears us. Though we slip our nets of wing and flesh, may love keep
you, this dream you hold in your nest of breath, before they lift me
from mingled blood. I wrote your song within. My feathered sleep.


© Copyright 2018 by Robert Fanning
International copyright secured. All rights reserved.

Instrumentation: percussion quartet

Duration: ca. 6:30

Premiere: November 9, 2017 :: Michigan State University Percussion Ensemble :: Percussive Arts Society International Convention :: Indiana Convention Center, Indianapolis, IN

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Program Note:

This piece comes from two kinds of music that I love: heavy metal and Indian Carnatic music. I spent a summer in Mysore, India studying Carnatic music—specifically, the mridangam, a hand drum which serves as the primary rhythmic instrument in the Carnatic music ensemble. My favorite metal band is Meshuggah, a Swedish group known for its use of incredibly intricate and virtuosically executed rhythmic material. For me, although vastly different in many ways, Meshuggah and Carnatic music are deeply connected in their use of complex rhythmic cycles. The title for this work, Ferrum, is the latin word for iron—a heavy metal—and also references the ferric oxide (rust) tuning paste used on the drum heads of the mridingam, which gives the instrument its distinct metallic timbre.


Instrumentation: saxophone quartet

Duration: ca. 6:00

Premiere: October 9, 2017 :: Capitol Saxophone Quartet :: Michigan State University College of Music :: Fairchild Theatre :: East Lansing, MI

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Program Note:

Anaphora was commissioned by Novus New Music, Inc. and a consortium of sponsors for the Capitol and h2 Quartets. Anaphora is a Greek word (ἀναφορά), which means “carrying back” or “turning upon,” and, among other uses, describes a linguistic device where the same word or phrase is repeated for emphasis at the beginning of subsequent clauses or sentences. It is related to epistrophe, which is the repetition of words or phrases at the end of clauses or sentences. This piece is built upon the idea of initial repetition and departure, but it also pays homage to the quirky and angular outbursts and dissonances of the great jazz standard Epistrophy by Thelonius Monk and Kenny Clarke from 1941. I think of Anaphora as a highly distorted version of Epistrophy, like a reflection warped by waves in a pool of water or like a strange solo on Monk’s tune gone awry.

Instrumentation: reed quintet (oboe, Bb clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, bass clarinet)

Duration: ca. 10:00

Premiere: February 13, 2016 :: Stamps Auditorium, Ann Arbor, MI :: Akropolis Reed Quintet


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Program Note:

Refraction was commissioned by the Akropolis Reed Quintet. Refraction is split into three distinct movements, each inspired by different musical sources that have been bent and distorted by time, space, and my imagination, much like light is bent as it enters a medium of different density. The first movement comes from a short, ridiculous, and awesome YouTube video called “Death Metal Chicken,” which features a chicken screaming over a death metal band (of course!). The second movement is called “Kyrie” and is dedicated to Guillaume de Machaut and Arvo Pärt. The third movement is called “Goat Rodeo” and is a strange mash-up of dubstep, funk, and musical pointillism, inspired by a goat rodeo, which is a slang term for a chaotic situation, often one that involves several people, each with a different agenda/vision/perception of what’s going on; a situation that is very difficult, despite energy and efforts, in which to instill any sense or order.

Instrumentation: trombone choir

Duration: ca. 6:30

Premiere: March 21, 2015 :: American Trombone Workshop :: David Jackson, conductor


Program Note:

blue dream of sky was commissioned by and written for David Jackson and the University of Michigan Trombone Choir. The title comes from a line in E.E. Cummings’ poem i thank you God for most this amazing day.

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Live Recording: Nicole Molumby, flute and Leslie Moreau, clarinet :: Boise State University

Commercial Recording: Poet as Muse by the Crescent Duo


Version 1 (original): flute and clarinet

Version 2: flute and alto saxophone

Version 3: soprano saxophone and alto saxophone

Duration: ca. 8:30

Premiere of version 1: November 1, 2014 :: Crescent Duo; Joanna Cowan White, flute; Kennen White, clarinet :: 2014 National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors National Conference :: St. Louis, MO

Premiere of version 3: March 9, 2018 :: Taimur Sullivan, soprano saxophone and Zach Shemon, alto saxophone :: 2018 North American Saxophone Alliance Biennial Conference :: College-Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati, OH

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Program Note:

Staying the Night was commissioned by the Crescent Duo and Central Michigan University and is a collaborative project with poet Robert Fanning, whose poem should always precede this piece in performance in recorded form (recording available through the composer). Robert’s beautiful words served as the stimulus for this music, and I am deeply indebted to him for his work, without which this piece could not exist.


By Robert Fanning

I want to touch everything she touched
yesterday: my fingers lingering on her shelves
and counter. I flip through the paperback
left half-read on the nightstand, inhale
the crumpled yellow hand towel near her
bathroom sink, breathe in the dust and dander
of her apartment air. My wife sifts a pile
of unpaid bills, lifts a framed photo, reads
an inscription on a birthday card. This home’s
a sudden museum. From the living room,
I hear our daughter knock a glass thing over
and giggle. I move to save the breakables from wreckage
then remember: nothing can now be ruined.
We’re the guests of someone gone.
From a stack of papers, I pull some brief note
she wrote, marvel at her slight, precise lettering.
On her fridge shelf, a tub of leftover spaghetti,
an unfinished sandwich. In a drawer the perishables
sweat: a new head of lettuce, a few pieces of fresh fruit.
I choose to eat the peach she chose from the grocery’s
produce rows, not knowing it would outlive her.
Later, before going to sleep in her bed, I see
a still life next to the kitchen sink: one white bowl
upside down, one fork, one knife, and beside the faucet
her unwashed drinking glass. Lifting the glass, I hope
to see her lipstick’s usual pink wedge, scour for
a fingerprint, some smudge. I fill it half-full
with water, cover the rim with my lips,
turn it in a circle, slowly. This is how
I kiss my sister goodbye.

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Instrumentation: saxophone quartet

Duration: 12:30

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Premiere: Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet :: North American Saxophone Alliance National Biennial Conference :: University of Illinois, Champaign, IL

Program Note:

Cerulean was written for and commissioned by the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet.

Cerulean was inspired by my son Izaak. From the moment he was born, he was extraordinarily curious and inquisitive. He often looked around the room, searching for interesting objects, enthusiastically turning his head, and opening his big, beautiful blue eyes wide to get a better view of the world around him. He also loved (and still loves) to find and follow interesting sounds, including the sirens of passing fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. In the first movement, Sirens, I imagined waves of sound approaching and then departing in slow motion, like some strange police siren heard through a baby’s distorted sense of time. The second movement is a simple lullaby. Rather than sing the same lullaby for him each night, I often found myself humming long, repetitive, improvised phrases that eventually, over the course of rocking him to sleep, coalesced into a more coherent melody. The movement begins with soft, hushed waves—different waves than the first movement. These waves eventually transform into something more ecstatic, as I imagine him making the transition from consciousness to the exciting, magical place of a baby’s dreams. Finally, I find the tune for which I was searching, played by the soprano saxophone and accompanied by a hymn-like chorale played by the rest of the quartet that has been slightly distorted, as if the sound has been refracted through the flickering flame of a candle that is warmly illuminating Izaak’s room as he sleeps. The final movement, Goof Groove, is inspired by this goofy dance he liked to do in our living room. As a baby, he would sit and awkwardly bob his torso back and forth in a peculiar meter while singing his own crazy, lilting tune; however, as he got older and learned to walk, he began to run and spin in circles, dancing and singing silly songs. I imagined the goofy bobbing of his infancy transforming into the spinning circular dancing he now does at four years old, eventually spinning out of control, finally arriving in a tired, happy, dizzy heap on the floor.

Instrumentation:  Version 1 – flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, electronics/laptop, piano, vibraphone, violin, violoncello

Version 2 – clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano

Version 3 – violin, viola, violoncello, piano

Recording: Live performance (6/22/14) by Music from Copland House at CULTIVATE 2014

Duration: ca. 7:30

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Premiere: Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble :: Detroit Institute of Arts :: Detroit, MI

Program Note:

Red Vesper was written for Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble for their tour of the Western United States, including several National Parks. The National Parks are many things to many people, but for me, they have most often been a very special place to find silence inside of myself. A vesper is an evening prayer, a meditation and reflection at the end of the day, and I found the idea of holding vespers in the wilderness to be profound and beautiful. I chose to call it red vesper because of the deep, red glow of the setting sun on the horizon and also because of the beautiful and iconic red rock formations that occupy so many of our great National Parks, particularly Capitol Reef National Park.

The version for clarinet, violin, violoncello, and piano was written for Music from Copland House.

The version for violin, viola, violoncello, and piano was written for the Garth Newel Piano Quartet.

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Instrumentation: Flute, Clarinet, Piano, Percussion, Violin, Viola, Violoncello

Duration: 7:00

Premiere: Aspen Contemporary Ensemble :: Aspen Music Festival :: Aspen, CO

Program Note:

Grit is lovingly dedicated to my sister-in-law Julia, who was undergoing treatment for a rare form of sarcoma (cancer) while I was writing this piece. In writing the piece, I wanted to capture her tenacity and energy, while also expressing my own frustration in watching her struggle with this horrible disease.

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