Instrumentation: saxophone quartet (SATB) and wind ensemble (also piano reduction)
Duration: ca. 21:00
Premiere: January 10, 2020 :: U.S. Navy Band Saxophone Quartet, Captain Kenneth C. Collins, conductor :: International Saxophone Symposium :: George Mason Center for the Arts, Fairfax, VA
U.S. Navy Band Saxophone Quartet: Jonathan Yanik, soprano saxophone; Patrick Martin, alto saxophone; David Babich, tenor saxophone; Dana Booher, baritone saxophone
Severance was commissioned by the United States Navy Band. The title for the piece and for the second and third movements come from a linked collection of poetry called Severance by my friend Robert Fanning, who has been the muse for several of my recent works. Robert’s poetry often gives voice to my own emotional world in a way that is deeply important to me. In Severance, the main characters, two marionettes, Professor and Grief, sever their wires and escape the play and the theatre in Winterland in “search for a life untethered and authentic, crossing from day into night, from wood into flesh, from wakefulness into dream, from ice into thaw. Severance sings of a way—through the narrows of time and body—toward healing.” (Severance by Robert Fanning, Salmon Poetry).
In the first movement, Clouds of Remembering, I introduce all of the musical material for the piece, but it is often shrouded and ephemeral, always fleeting, like the distant memory of something or someone lost.
The second movement, Every Way Through Hurts, is dedicated to my friend Jovanni-Rey Verceles de Pedro. Jovanni and I met at the University of Michigan while completing our graduate work. He was a pianist, professor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. After graduation, we both moved to Idaho—Jovanni taught piano at the University of Idaho, and I taught music composition and theory at Boise State University. He recorded my Rhapsody for solo piano on his first studio album, and I had planned to write him a new piece, but Jovanni died suddenly in the summer of 2019 while traveling with the global nonprofit organization he founded. When I heard about his passing it took my breath away. At 36 years old—a young, hopeful, energetic musician, a person with whom I felt a kinship and a related musical path—it just didn’t seem possible that he was gone. The outpouring of grief from his friends and family was extraordinary—he had connected with so many people through music. There is no way around grief—every way through it hurts—but very gradually, the waves of grief become smaller and grow farther apart, and we come to know that we can weather them. This music is for Jovanni, and the piano plays a prominent role, often gently tracing the saxophone solo lines like some strange shadow or echo.
The third movement, Follow the threads: Unstrung, begins with metaphorical darkness. The saxophonists play slow melodic lines—threads—that are passed around the quartet and are eventually passed to the ensemble as the quartet’s music transforms into raindrops and then into a peculiar dance. I imagine the marionettes dancing, awkwardly at first, recently untethered and free from their strings, but becoming assured and ecstatic as they dance through grief, through their scars, through the waves, and toward healing.
Robert Fanning’s Severance is published by Salmon Poetry and you can find out more about his work at www.robertfanning.wordpress.com.
[Performance above: Ava Ordman, trombone; Michigan Philharmonic; Nan Washburn, conductor]
Instrumentation: solo tenor trombone with orchestra (also with wind ensemble or piano reduction)
Duration: ca. 21:00
Orchestra Premiere: November 15, 2018 :: Ava Ordman and the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, Timothy Muffitt, conductor :: Wharton Center, East Lansing, MI
Wind Ensemble Premiere: March 22, 2018 :: Ava Ordman and the Michigan State University Wind Symphony, Kevin Sedatole, conductor :: Wharton Center, East Lansing, MI
I often wonder what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of my children. I have two sons, Declan and Izaak, and, at the time of writing this piece, they were ages two and four, respectively. The title, Their Eyes Are Fireflies, is a metaphor for the magic and joy they bring to my life. The light in their eyes—both the way in which they take in the world with wonder and amazement as well as the way they add light to the world with their innocence and joy—has shaped and changed my perspective in profound ways.
For Declan, at age two, there are so many beginnings, so many firsts, so many discoveries, and so many adventures. The first movement begins with an extended trombone cadenza in time, building from the foundations of the instrument into increasingly accelerating, ascending, and ecstatic waves and surrounded by distant echoes and a halo of dimly twinkling lights. These waves finally burst, revealing a distorted image of the beginning—cascading waves of sound that finally come crashing down like an overgrown tower of toy blocks.
The second movement, This song makes my heart not hurt, is for Izaak. One day he said this exact phrase, and its simplicity and directness stopped me in my tracks. For me, this very unadult-like turn of phrase contained something special—both a recognition and admission of pain but also a turning toward healing. This music is my humble meditation on Izaak’s words.
The third movement is entitled Izaak’s Control Panels. Izaak loves to draw and paint. One of Izaak’s favorite subjects has been ever more fantastical control panels. We have piles of these controls panels in our house, carefully created using pencils, pens, markers, and paint on sheets of paper of varying sizes and colors. These control panels are connected to airplanes, race cars, boats, helicopters, and even strange, imaginary machines that he’s created both in his imagination as well as with Legos. What’s more, the panels often contain gadgets and gauges for unusual and awesome purposes, including to measure the level of mint chocolate ice cream (his favorite flavor), chocolate milk, pasta, as well as typical things like speed, altitude, and fuel. This music comes from looking at the world through the creative and surreal lens of a four year old—motoric, machine-like music for building imaginary worlds is disrupted by the playful smashing, destruction, and recreation of those worlds, culminating in a spectacular and bizarre place where time flows backward, objects fall up rather than down, and airplanes come with milkshake gauges.
Commissioned by Ava Ordman and a consortium of trombonists, conductors, ensembles, and sponsors led by:
Kevin Sedatole and the Michigan State University Wind Symphony
Timothy Muffit and the Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra
Mark Williams and Grand Valley State University
Timothy Higgins, San Francisco Symphony
Jeremy Wilson, Vanderbilt University
Kenneth Tompkins, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Michael Haithcock, David Jackson, and the University of Michigan Symphony Band
Nan Washburn and the Michigan Philharmonic
Robert Carnochan, Timothy Conner, and the University of Miami Wind Ensemble
Mallory Thompson and the Northwestern University Wind Ensemble
Rodney Dorsey, Henry Henniger, and the University of Oregon Wind Ensemble
Robert Lindahl, Central Michigan University
Steven Kandow, University of Saint Francis
Recording: Matthew Vangjel, flugelhorn; Patrick Johnson, piano :: Cook Recital Hall :: Michigan State University College of Music :: February 25, 2019
Instrumentation: flugelhorn and piano
Duration: ca. 6:45
Commissioned by: Matthew Vangjel
Studio Recording(s): available on Still and Quiet Places, Matthew Vangjel, flugelhorn and trumpet
This piece is my attempt to find the places of stillness and quiet inside myself at times when I am feeling anything but still and quiet.
Instrumentation: solo soprano, flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, violoncello, percussion, piano
Duration: ca. 16:30
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.
SHELL AND WING
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: clarinet and piano
Duration: ca. 15:00
Premiere: March 4, 2017 :: David Cook and Emily Grabinski :: Wichita State University School of Music :: Wichita, KS
Synchronicity was commissioned by David Cook and a consortium of clarinetists and sponsors. Synchonicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. Each of the three movements looks at synchronicity through a different lens. The first movement, Brainstorm, was conceived as an improvisation between the clarinet and piano, and, in fact, my compositional process was centered on improvising and then transcribing much of the musical material for this movement. The music feels like a musical conversation between the clarinet and the piano where ideas are stated and then bounced back and forth. There are moments when the conversation coalesces around a single idea, but much of it also feels impromptu, like two people discovering the ways in which their ideas are connected.
The second movement, Quiet, is an homage to Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and is dedicated to my friend Jonathan Ovalle. Berg’s Concerto was dedicated to Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler (once Gustav Mahler’s wife) and Walter Gropius, who died of polio at the age of 18. Berg’s dedication reads: “To the memory of an angel.” Quiet borrows two musical ideas from Berg’s work, namely an ascending fifths pattern and, like Berg, who quotes J.S. Bach’s chorale Es ist genug (It Is Enough), a highly distorted version of the Christian hymn Abide With Me. These small hymn fragments are displaced both horizontally and vertically, as if time has slowly torn apart a fading old memory of the hymn. I do not know Jonathan Ovalle particularly well—he is a professor of percussion at my alma mater—but I am connected to him through social media. I originally conceived of this piece for solo vibraphone as a gift for Jonathan, whose wife, Lisa, was battling cancer at the time I began writing. Jonathan bravely shared many of his thoughts and emotions during her last months, and I was deeply moved by his courage, strength, and willingness to be vulnerable in a time of great sadness. My intention was to write a short and simple piece that he could play to either reflect upon or escape from the world around him—to find silence and stillness through music at a time when his life must have felt anything but quiet; however, as I dug deeper into this material and into my emotional response to Jonathan’s circumstances, I realized that this was not for vibraphone and it was not particularly short and simple either: this music needed to be for piano and some sort of wind or string instrument that could sustain these long melodic lines. I began writing a longer and more intense piece—connected to the Berg Concerto—and, coincidentally, I decided to score it for clarinet just a few days before Jonathan shared that Lisa had actually been a clarinetist. This music is for Jonathan and Lisa.
The third movement began to take shape in the summer of 2016 around the time that the United Kingdom surprisingly voted to leave the European Union in a decision known as Brexit. Muster Point is the British term for a designated place or area where a group of people assemble in case of an emergency in preparation for exiting a space. The Brexit referendum was the result of a growing populist and isolationist movement in Europe, and the vote occurred just a few months before the United States Presidential election in November, when Donald J. Trump was elected. Trump was also seen as a populist and, in some ways, an isolationist, and both votes were largely driven by a populace that, among other things, was feeling discontent, left behind, fearful, and angry. In the wake of these ballot results and continuing from a highly contentious and fraught pre-election/voting cycle, people on both sides felt disillusionment and uncertainty, fear and anger, as well as vindication and jubilation. This music comes from part of my own personal response to these political events and is at times angry and energetic, absurd and wild, and at other times swirling with quiet anxiety and tension.
Instrumentation: solo flute
Duration: ca. 5:00
Together Alone was commissioned by Erika Boysen. Broken into two contrasting movements, Together Alone is a reflection on social media and its psychological affect on me. Although I believe in its power to connect me with other people, particularly with family, friends, and other artists and musicians—which is ultimately why I have yet to try to completely remove it from my life—I have become increasingly disillusioned by the way it sculpts, shapes, and distorts my time and my sense of reality. Movement 1, News Feed, divides time precisely into one-second ticks, using percussive sounds and an incessant, high, pulsing pitch that eventually bends and distorts, as time seems to break apart and slow down. The music is charged with quick rhythmic bursts, like the small, frequent releases of dopamine I feel when scrolling through my Facebook or Twitter Feeds. Stepping back from these addicting streams of information, I am increasingly left with a sense of longing: I have come to realize this this form of connection is not entirely real—not that the way in which it impacts the world isn’t real (it is!), rather, it is simply not the same as interacting in person. Although I am connected to a larger community of people than I could have ever imagined a decade ago, there’s an emptiness in these interactions that fundamentally leaves me feeling alone. I still need to share physical presence with others—I need to look at them, to listen to them, to watch their facial expressions and interpret their body language. I need to interact in real time. I need to try to understand them. And I want them to try to understand me too.
Instrumentation: solo alto saxophone
Duration: ca. 5:00
This version of Detroit Steel for alto saxophone is for Joseph Lulloff. The original version of Detroit Steel for solo flute was commissioned by Ashley Stanley for her Hustle Harder commissioning project. She writes:
The mission of this Hustle Harder is to help give a voice to Michigan culture by featuring the unique perspectives and experiences of six composers, who all have some strong connection to the state. I conceived this project idea because I grew up in Metro Detroit and lived in both Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, I have seen a great deal of diversity, artistic growth, economic fluctuation, beautiful natural landscapes and huge shifts in cultural norms. I understand the rich histories; I have walked across the Mackinaw Bridge, rolled down the Sleeping Bear Dunes, swam in all of the great lakes and been to Grand Rapids’ Art Prize. I grew up watching the University of Michigan football team religiously and sat at the dinner table while my grandparents told stories about growing up in the Italian District of Detroit. There are so many important stories to tell that can serve as an artistic reflection of what is happening here in the state of Michigan and my mission is to help share them.
The idea for this project initially came about during the financial collapse of the automotive industry. As with most political matters, Detroit’s economic affairs became grounds for public discussion. It amazed me at how uniformed people were, and had to sit back and hear the general public say things like “Let Detroit fail, it is a useless city anyways” and talking about how “my tax dollars shouldn’t be spent paying all of the lazy people in Detroit’s unemployment and bailing out these failing automotive institutions.” From the time I was 10 years old until I turned 22, my parents were constantly in and out of work and on unemployment. Institutions were cutting jobs, outsourcing jobs, and forcing people into a retirement they couldn’t afford to take. Every other house on my street was selling for desperate costs or being foreclosed on, every person I knew had a family member who couldn’t find work, and everybody was struggling to make ends meet on a domestic level. I am so proud to be from Detroit and am exited about the massive growth both economically and artistically that is flourishing from the city today. To hear so many people talking negatively about my home city without understanding any of the context was (and still is) upsetting.
Detroit Steel is about the grit, strength, and resolve of the people of Detroit.
Instrumentation: tenor trombone (or euphonium) and piano
Duration: ca. 17:00
Radiant Spheres was commissioned by Timothy Higgins, Principal Trombonist of the San Francisco Symphony. The inspiration for Radiant Spheres centers around the second movement, for me, time moves both more slowly and more quickly, the idea for which came to me while on a flight over Lake Michigan in the Spring of 2014. As I boarded the plane, one passenger in particular caught my eye—a woman sitting directly behind me, looking barely strong enough to make the flight, who I quickly gleaned was with her husband on her way home to Michigan following treatment for cancer. My son Izaak, who was about ten months old at the time, sat on my lap during most of the flight, and he kept his eyes on her almost constantly, smiling and giggling at her as she smiled back at him. As we ascended to 35,000 feet, most of the passengers started to become quiet and sleepy, and I found Izaak smiling at her yet again. This time, I turned to find her smiling back but with tears running down her face. I remember looking into her eyes and thinking that, for her, time must move both so slowly and so quickly, as she felt the poignant juxtaposition of her impending departure from this earth alongside her extraordinary pain. She also seemed strangely at peace, and I remember thinking of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” as we cruised above the earth:
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
On our ascent, I remembered looking out the window at the shadows of the airplane and the clouds, seemingly dancing on the earth as they rushed over the surface of the uneven ground. As we began to descend, I looked again out the window. But this time, from a much higher vantage point, I saw the gentle glow of the earth, this radiant sphere, where the cerulean water meets the dark blue sky, separated by the reddish-orange glow of the evening sun moving behind the earth. And I felt small and I felt grateful.
Instrumentation: soprano saxophone and piano
Duration: ca. 14:00
Purchasing: Murphy Music Press
Premiere: March 21, 2015 :: Connor James Mikula :: Michigan State University :: East Lansing, MI
Walking on the Ceiling was commissioned by the Mikula Family as a college graduation present for Connor James Mikula. I remember approaching graduation myself, and though my family and friends were very supportive, it was the first time I felt like my decisions had important, real-life consequences. I felt pressure to do something great with my life—to get a job, to figure things out, and to apply the things I learned during my education. I remember feeling overwhelmed. I wanted to strike out on my own and to defy everyone’s expectations—to do something with my life that even I wasn’t sure I could do—to defy gravity. I had this image in my mind of doing the impossible, of walking on the ceiling. The three movements are titled heavy, float, and run. The first movement is groovy and funky, a quirky kind of swagger; the second is slow and reflective, a lullaby to my 18-month old son, Izaak, who is doing amazing new things everyday; and the last movement starts slowly but churns and bubbles until it is blazing and vibrant.
Instrumentation: amplified prepared piano and electronics
Duration: ca. 8:20
Premiere: May 20, 2014 :: Jeannette Fang, piano; David Biedenbender, electronics :: University of Michigan, Stamps Auditorium, Ann Arbor, MI
Resonance Modes was inspired by a completely imaginary and impractical preparation of the piano, one that I never actually intended to use, but seemed like an interesting starting point for the piece. I imagined hundreds of small liquid mercury droplets being poured into the piano and dancing on the sounding board and strings in beautiful and interesting ways. Although impossible for several obvious reasons (principally, the health and safety of the performer, the audience, and the piano!), this idea came from mercury’s relatively unique properties, namely the high density and surface tension which cause it to resonate at different frequencies in beautifully different ways. One droplet of mercury can be transformed into thousands of different shapes when vibrating at various frequencies, and certain frequencies take on particularly interesting characteristics because of the resonance modes. Rather than explain resonance modes in detail, you can see mercury’s resonance modes in action here, which I think will illustrate the relationship to the piece more vividly. In the piece, I dwell on a small set of pitches and timbres which are slowly transformed primarily through rhythmic processes as a way of exploring these imaginary resonance modes over time.