Program notes

    A shaynem dank dir im pupik
    • The Yiddish curse is a unique species of verbal assault that can be either profligately baroque in execution ("May you inherit a hotel with one hundred rooms and be found dead in every one!") or delivered with lethal economy ("Get killed!"). According to its rules of engagement, it never suffices to simply state the obvious: Aunt Rose doesn't merely look sick, but more tellingly, Shaynera menchen haut me gelicht in drerd (“They've buried nicer looking people than that”). Part of the genre's charm is to be found in the warmth of the language, in the soulfulness of Yiddish that simultaneously sharpens the insult's bite while mitigating it with a subtext of familial connection. Being the lingua franca of pre-WWII European Jews, Yiddish was a brickbat wielded mainly at one's own kind. Whom else could one abuse so fearlessly?

    brood ii
    • Whether one reads the life cycle of Magicicada septendecim (commonly known as the Pharaoh cicada or the seventeen-year locust) as tragedy or comedy depends upon how one interprets the existential predicament of Homo sapiens struggling to survive as a species in a hostile environment, mostly at the expense of hapless individuals, with no discernable goal or meaningful resolution. Harness your empathy and loathing accordingly.

    Concordia formae
    • Concordia formae is an orchestration of a work originally scored for brass quintet that was composed as accompaniment for modern dance choreography. Its episodic structure, with brief, stylistically diverse movements framed by a recurring fanfare-like interlude, is modeled on Stravinsky's ballet Agon. Even in its orchestral incarnation, it retains the conversational interplay of chamber music, with melodic gestures exchanged and developed between members of the ensemble. As the title, which translates from Latin as "harmonious forms," suggests, the work is an expression of formalist abstraction, a sonic analog to dancers' bodies moving through space and arranging themselves in ever-changing geometric configurations.

    Crazytown
    • Crazytown is an imaginary sonification and visualization of neural activity in Donald Trump's cerebral cortex as he types up a Tweet-storm while sitting upon the executive throne in the Oval Office lavatory. Preliminary tracks were generated on ARP 2500 and Buchla modular analog synthesizers, with digital post-processing performed with Steinberg Cubase software on the Macintosh.

  • The diagnostic and statistical manual of musical disorders, or, It's not what you eat, it's the way you eat it
    • The diagnostic and statistical manual of musical disorders examines the intellectual and emotional trauma that accompanied the demise of modernism in classical music during the late 20th century. Composers and theorists whose rhetoric had elevated compositional technique to the status of triumphalist ideology eventually found themselves adrift in an environment that was indifferent to their mythology of progress, prompting some of them to resist and denounce the inversion of their social and artistic status from avant-garde to garde-en-arrière, and others to abandon cultish doctrine altogether and embrace a more fluid and humane cultural landscape.

  • Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus
    • Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus (An anatomical study of the movement of heart and blood in animals) takes its title from William Harvey's 1628 treatise on the physiology and function of the circulatory system, an apt association for a beat-themed electronic music festival. The work unfolds against an ostinato of sampled human breathing and cardiac-inspired bass drum thumping, with dense and dissonant washes of sampled clarinet multiphonics and synthetic sounds suggesting a soundtrack to a cerebrovascular insult ("Get that human train wreck to the ICU, stat!")

  • Freud In Konzert
    • It is a little-known fact that Sigmund Freud began his career in show business playing small clubs and Würsthauser along the Tyrolean "Schnitzel Belt" circuit. He would typically bring his most seriously disturbed patients on tour with him, putting their neuroses on display while lecturing the audience in his trademark totepfanne (deadpan) style. Although decried as exploitive and barbaric, he defended this practice as an exercise in radical therapy. It was during these gruelling tours that Freud honed his deadly adroitness with hecklers, often reducing them to a condition of crippling emotional dependency with a single whithering exchange (a great boon to his private practice).

  • Guernica
    • Guernica was composed in 1978 at the request of Keith Brion, conductor of the Yale University Band. The work commemorates the barbarous attack on the town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 by the German Air Force, acting under the orders of Francisco Franco. The bombing of Guernica, the ancient center of Basque culture and a municipality without defenses or military importance, was one of the most wanton acts of the Spanish Civil War, an exercise in murderous cruelty that resonates all too clearly in our age of terror.

      The work divides into three sections: the first, an abstract depiction of the violence of the attack; the second, an elegiac hymn in memory of its victims; and the third, a life-affirming chant of defiance, and a call to justice.

      The score is dedicated to the memory of all victims of hate, and is inscribed with the following passage from the Book of Psalms (9:13): "The avenger of bloodshed remembers them; he does not forget the cry of the humble."

  • Hasana Tanz
    • In bygone days, it was customary to hire a badkhen to entertain at any reasonably large Jewish wedding. This singer-actor-poet-philosopher-MC could move his audience to sentimental tears one moment and raucous laughter the next, all in fulfillment of his religious duty to make the bride and groom merry. Hasana Tanz (wedding dance) is a virtuoso depiction of the jester's tart tongue and fancy footwork which succeeds at impressing the hell out of everybody, at least until the schnapps gets the better of him.

  • The hieland clinch
    • HIELAND: adj. Of, belonging to or characteristic of the Highlands of Scotland or their people.
    • CLINCH: n. A limp.
    •          — Scottish National Dictionary

  • Holiday in Manhattan
      On September 3, 2015, the following invitation was posted on The Composer's Site:

      "The Après-Garde invites all composers to submit contemporary classical holiday music to be performed in December. Pieces should include any degree of improvisation and alternative notation (including graphic and/or prose elements), and they should be inspired by the holiday/winter season (which isn't to say necessarily Christmas). Submissions should be for open instrumentation, meaning any combination of 2-6 instruments. Pieces may also include parts for competent but not professional voice (baritone)."

      In an attempt to meet the requirements of this performance opportunity while exerting the least possible creative energy, I decided to appropriate the chord progression of The Christmas Song by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé (secure in the knowledge that chord progressions are not protected by copyright), superimpose a melody of my feeble invention, and steal every word of the lyrics, but rearrange their order. The result is an insult to the American Songbook, a travesty which, in spite of its elemental lack of originality, is original. How's that for your late-capitalist postmodern paradox?

  • The Mozart Effect
      Sorry to burst your bubble, all you helicopter parents-to-be: cranking up classical muzak on the intravaginal speakers will NOT make you or your baby smarter. No techno-cultural snake oil can transform a slobbering poop machine into an Einstein (...and that applies to your baby, too).

  • My pickled heart (Moja Marynowana Serce)
      “Chopin, who died in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39, dreaded being buried alive, and asked that his body be cut open before burial and his heart sent to Warsaw. Accordingly, his heart was cut out, sealed in a crystal jar and smuggled past the Russian authorities into what is now Poland... During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the occupying German forces, anxious about Chopin's status as Polish national icon, suppressed performances of his music. His heart was removed from the church [the Bazylika Świętego Krzyża in Warsaw] and kept at the headquarters of the SS commander Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. After the war, it was returned to the church and interred in a pillar inscribed with a verse from Matthew: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

      --Annalisa Quinn, The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2017

    • On November 7, 2017, spirit medium Rosemary Isabel Brown (1916-2001), to whom Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Grieg, Liszt, and Mozart dictated posthumous compositions during the mid-20th century, emailed from the hereafter to alert me to the fact that Frédéric Chopin was “deeply offended” (wkurwiony is the Polish word he used) at the glib tone of recent reportage about his physical and mental health. He was particularly incensed at the New York Times article's headline, “Chopin's Heart, Pickled in a Jar, Offers Clues to His Death,” given that Chopin detested the classic Polish dish Marynowane serce cielęcia z kiełbasą i kapustą, which he was forced to eat as a child. In a fit of pique, he improvised the composition presented here, which Ms. Brown dutifully transcribed on her Commodore 64 computer. Being dead, however, she could not locate a new ribbon for her dot matrix printer, and thus she reached out to me to assist her in transmitting this important musical statement to the realm of the living. The solution we ultimately hit upon was for her to export notation data from her computer as a MIDI file, and send it to me in an email attachment, which I then saved and converted to audio.

      About the music:
      In a striking stylistic departure, Chopin abandons the lithe melodiousness that characterizes his pre-mortem work, and gives vent to a primal, even brutish, mode of expression, an astonishing transformation in a composer who has been dead for 168 years. Although the work's rhythmic energy is akin in spirit (pardon the pun) to that of his Tarantelle in A-flat major, op. 43, the harmonic language is radically more complex. The late Ms. Brown put forth an uncharitable assessment of the composer's newfound harmonic vocabulary, suggesting that, in her words, "Fred is really starting to lose it after so many years as a stiff." Nevertheless, it is heartening to observe that at this stage of his career, Chopin continues to grow as an artist, long after his bloated, pericarditis-ravaged heart was torn from his lifeless chest and consigned to bob in a fetid pool of preservative for centuries to come, and his tuberculosis-blighted corpse rotted into oozing filth. Ars longa, mors in sempiternum.

  • Nice girls don't
      Nice Girls Don't was composed in an unsuccessful attempt to ingratiate myself with a certain all-female chamber music ensemble that was engaged in a crossover marketing campaign aimed at consumers of popular music. I should have realized from the start that we were working at cross-purposes: my tastes have always pulled me towards the transgressive end of the pop culture spectrum, while their branding strategy was all about fashionable hipness (I know that sounds snarky, but the observation is not intended as criticism; I am humbled in the presence of any musician who actually knows how to make money). Even though my impulse towards irony was my undoing, the work still captures an essential truth about who they are and what they do as artists. As the novelist Katherine Dunn put it with T-shirt slogan succinctness, women who pay their own rent don't have to be nice.

  • A night in Jakarta
    • A night in Jakarta is a transcription of a work originally composed for violin, oboe, and ten percussion players. The violin part has been broadened in scope and virtuosity to concerto-like proportions, and the accompanying ensemble has been rendered synthetically for digital audio playback. Although the work takes inspiration from musical traditions of Indonesia, it is in no way representative of authentic gamelan. Its melodic and harmonic language is based on the octatonic scale, a pattern of alternating whole- and half-steps whose intervallic symmetry engenders a fascinating tonal ambiguity. Rhythmic interest is enhanced by blurring metric divisions of the bar, sometimes superimposing patterns of 2 and 3 upon each other. On the whole, the work is a multicultural stew, borrowing indiscriminately from techniques as diverse as Hindustani tihai and European medieval isorhythm. You can deride the effort as cultural appropriation if you wish, but you can also kiss my ass.

  • Notes from underground
    • Notes from underground is an evocation of things subterranean: the subway, the sepulcher, and imaginary realms beyond. The audio comprises sounds of natural and synthetic origin juxtaposed in what might be described as an expressionist soundtrack of "sub-urban" (in the vertical sense) infrastructure. The urbs thus sonically depicted is in part a living metropolis, vital and violent, creative and chaotic, and also a mythic necropolis of decay littered with the layered detritus of defunct civilization, a monument to impermanence.

  • On Clearwater Mountain
    • There is pungent irony in the fact that I was paired with Chris Gekker as a dormitory roommate at the Eastman School of Music in 1972. Chris was by far the most gifted of freshman trumpet players, and I the least so, but being a composition major I was spared the unfavorable comparison. Even better, I was handed an opportunity to establish a collaborative friendship with a remarkable artist, a performer who, even at that point in his career, was in possession of profound interpretive instincts, fiery technical prowess, and a gorgeous sound. As symbiotic relationships go, I think I got the better deal. Ever the champion of new music, Chris performed several of my chamber works in concert over the years, and I, having received a generous fellowship grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in the mid-1980s, decided to compose a large-scale piece that would feature him as soloist. The original version of On Clearwater Mountain, premiered by Chris with The Composers Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Robert Levy, was written for an ensemble consisting of two antiphonal string groups supplemented by harp and timpani, in addition to solo trumpet. The version heard on this recording is a slightly scaled-down arrangement designed to accommodate the instrumental forces of the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.

      The work belongs to a peculiar sub-genre of 20th century American chamber orchestra composition (including Aaron Copland's Quiet city and Charles Ives's The unanswered question) in which solo trumpet gives voice to a quintessential solitary human Self adrift in an unknowable cosmos. There are qualities inherent in the instrument, characteristics that defy simple description (unsentimental pathos? self- conscious bravado?), that suit it to that role and its attendant evocations of loneliness, terror and awe. Like the above-mentioned works, On Clearwater Mountain is a tone poem without an explicit program, a narrative-less meditation. It charts a psychological journey towards some elevated locus in the geography of the soul where mystery is embraced, and where the limits of understanding are confronted and humbly, even ecstatically, acknowledged.

  • Sacre bleu!
    • When the music department at Lewis University posted an open call to composers soliciting fixed media audio compositions on the theme of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, I interpreted that invitation as less a collegial overture than a taunt and a provocation. In the wake of a century's worth of criticism, analysis, and legend, what more was there to say about Le Sacre du Printemps? How could any musical meta-work not suffer by comparison to that breathtakingly original modernist masterpiece? Paralyzed with fear, confusion, and self-loathing, I turned to the words of Henri Quittard, music critic for Le Figaro who attended the May 31, 1913 premiere, for inspiration. Sizing up Stravinsky's ballet as une barbarie laborieuse et puérile ("a laborious and puerile barbarity"), M. Quittard observed that history often proves the judgments of critics wrong, but in this particular case it probably wouldn't. Bingo!

      If M. Quittard were alive to today, I'd show him what "laborious and puerile" really means: Sacre bleu! is a note-for-note MIDI transcription of the final section of the score, the Danse sacrale (L'Élue), with each pitch mapped to a socially inappropriate but legal public domain audio sample. While not exactly a sacrificial dance of the chosen virgin, the work manages to capture the gentle, wistful, and romantic charm of Mother Russia.

  • Set sail for the heliosphere!
    • The solar wind is a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun's corona, flowing past the planets into interstellar space. The collision between solar wind and the interstellar medium (i.e. gas and dust ejected by nearby stars millions of years ago) produces a pressure boundary called the heliopause. The Voyager 1 spacecraft crossed that threshold, 11 billion miles from the sun, in 2012, 35 years after the vessel's launch date. Unmanned spacecraft currently in development will skim through space propelled by a breath of solar protons, achieving sufficient acceleration to make the journey in one-third of the time and relay data back to earth for analysis. In astronomical terms, the heliopause defines the limits of the sun's magnetic field and flow of solar wind; in poetic terms, it demarcates the border between our cosmic neighborhood and mystery beyond.

  • Specular rebound: five anesthetized objects
    • The spectral images and logic-defying narratives of the Edison movie shorts that comprise this video feel less like vaudevillian entertainment than morbid hallucination: people and objects dematerialize, clowns sow chaos, and imperious magicians work their machinations on inexplicably passive female subjects. The jittery pace and sickly, flickering grey-scale coloration shrouds the nightmare in dread, and drains all comedy from the putative slapstick, rendering its once fresh invention witless and decrepit. Like ruins of ancient monuments, these artifacts from the threshold of the Information Age are a rebuke to hubris, memento mori: the actors are dust, and all that remain are shadows.

  • Studies for two Disklaviers
    • The three Studies for two Disklaviers are bastard children of a wayward Muse, the issue of an unholy tryst between wet and dry computation. Each movement bears the scars of its particular process of gestation. The first study, Onde sulla spiaggia, was entirely computer-generated from software I devised based on a fractal algorithm. The second study, Raging libido, began life as a conventional compositional exercise encoded as standard music notation pencil scratching on manuscript paper (and accompanied by the standard head-scratching mental effort that such endeavor requires); the resulting sequence of graphite glyphs was subsequently transcribed into digital form as a MIDI sequence, no machine or meat-based transformation applied. The third study, Defrag, resulted from applying computer-mediated random note-weeding on an otherwise conventional ragtime composition.

  • Sumptuous Sinews
      Sumptuous sinews is a speculative fiction free-verse poetry cycle with music, told from the perspective of an autonomous artificial intelligence entity that was programmed at a university computer lab. Intellectually weaned on random bits of culture vacuumed up from the Internet, the bot discovers that self-awareness, with its attendant need for emotional connection and authenticity, is more of a curse than a gift.

  • Vex americana: self-mutilating variations on a nationalist theme
      Vex americana is a musical mashup inspired by two avant-garde keyboard compositions of the 1890s: Erik Satie's Vexations for piano, and Charles Ives's Variations on America for organ. Like the Satie piece, which can last up to 24 hours in performance, Vex americana is a work of marathon duration, running 15 hours, 28 minutes, and 21 seconds. Unlike the Satie, which requires 840 static repetitions of an enigmatic and notoriously difficult to memorize musical phrase, Vex americana comprises 240 variations on an utterly conventional earworm of a tune. That tune, a sabre-rattling march for piano titled America first , composed in 1916 by Milwaukee dentist Dr. Uno Nyman, is akin in spirit to the jingoistic theme of the Ives variations, but is subject to a method of musical permutation in which pitch, rhythm, and dynamics are modified by incremental and recursive changes, so that by the end of the work, the theme has been rendered nearly unrecognizable. The 240 variations represent the number of years between the estabishment of the American republic in 1776 and the end of our experiment in democracy in 2016 with the election of the country's first crypto-fascist president.

    • It has been reported that the experience of listening to Satie's Vexations over the course of a complete performance follows a psychological sequence: initial fascination, followed by agitation, then agony, and finally, profound tranquility. It is not known whether Satie intended his score, which was discovered among his papers after his death, as a joke or an earnest exercise, but whatever his motivation, John Cage ran with the work's arcane instructions Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparar au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses (“In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities”), and organized the first public performance in 1963. Other performances have been staged since, to varying reaction: some listeners succumb to meditative reverie, others experience emotional disturbance. The cumulative effect of listening to Vex americana over the course of 15 hours has not yet been ascertained, but nirvana is definitely off the menu. Let me know how it goes for you.

  • The velvet gentleman
    • The velvet gentleman, a hideous consequence of a reckless and impulsive ménage à trois between Satie, Duchamp, and Nancarrow, is a 20-minute ballet scored for two Disklaviers. The Disklavier is the ideal medium for the realization of such monstrosity, as it possesses attributes of both acoustic and electronic instruments with none of their respective virtues.

  • Wake me when we get there
    • British historian Paul Rennie has noted that a train journey offers an experience similar to that of cinema: a distanced, voyeuristic platform for observation of the world, and a systemic organization of time and motion. Rennie notes that this experience of being "on track" is both comforting and disconcerting to the passenger, who abandons the autonomies of modernist identity in favor of being driven, provoking a powerful, terrifying sense of the train being unstoppable.

  • Winter
    • Winter was composed in 1998 at the request of trumpeter Chris Gekker, a friend and colleague with whom my association goes back 40 years to our undergraduate days at the Eastman School of Music. I used the opportunity to fashion a musical memorial to pianist Wendy Maraniss, a gifted and sensitive musician I had the privilege of knowing during my studies at the Yale School of Music, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1997. The title reflects the elegiac mood of the work, denoting as it does the period of the year during which life rests in a state of quiescence before the season of rebirth and renewal that follows. In its formal structure, Winter comes as close to a classical sonata as any work I ever composed, while its melodic and harmonic vocabulary pays homage to popular and neo-classical traditions of mid-20th century American music.

  • Wittgenstein revisited
    • In his monumental Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein attempted to arrive at a comprehensive definition of knowledge based upon an analysis of language. Wittgenstein's application of logical methodologies to this task proved influential in the development of modern theories of linguistics, computation, and machine intelligence. Given that science, philosophy, and art evolve in parallel, it is surely no coincidence that the rigorous formalism of Wittgenstein's thought found a counterpart in the development of contemporary music theory. As one noted academic succinctly observed, "The ubiquitous preoccupation with polyphony (i.e. with fundamental voices contributing ordered subsets to form larger, more comprehensive sets which may themselves be subject to transformation as intrinsic voices in a musical dimension) should be viewed as an attempt to achieve profound levels of integration in the hierarchy of structures generated by the partition of fundamental lines relative to appropriate criteria of relatedness vis-a-vis the total set of structures."

      NOT.

  • Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg
    • Hirsh Glik penned the words to the famous partisan song Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg in May of 1943 as reports of the Warsaw ghetto uprising spread throughout Europe. Despite their desperate situation, news of the revolt heartened the fighters of the Jewish resistance, and the defiant hymn became their de facto anthem. Yet the liquidation of the ghetto was never in doubt, and the song was literally one of "people trapped between crumbling walls / who sang it with guns in their hands." In the aftermath of the twentieth century, these words echo the damnable failure of civilization and humanity. They indict us all.

  • Zweite Meinung aus den sieben Tagen
    • Zweite Meinung aus den sieben Tagen derives its title and its raison d'être from the musical work Aus den sieben Tagen ("From the seven days"), composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen in May 1968 in reaction to the collapse of his marriage to artist Mary Bauermeister. The emotionally stricken composer had cloistered himself at home in Kürten, Germany, and in the quaintly clichéd counterculture tradition of the broken-hearted, immersed himself in the study of east Indian mysticism, the alleged effect of which was to trigger a spiritual epiphany. Stockhausen's aesthetic response to that revelation was to create radical new work in which textual instruction, mostly of an extra-musical and poetically suggestive nature, substituted for conventional musical notation. With exhortations to "live completely alone for four days / without food / in complete silence, without much movement," Stockhausen was attempting to recast rituals of making and listening to music as meditative exercises that could be existentially transformative. This personal and apolitical brand of revolution was the cultural flip side of the distinctly non-quietist revolutionary activity taking place in the streets and universities of Paris at the time. Contrasting as they were in theory and practice, both revolts were incited by the suffocating aridity (if not outright fascism) of existing political and social structures, and motivated by a quest for an authentic mode of living founded upon human connectedness. From our post-millennial vantage point, it's grimly obvious that such giddy fantasies were never destined to fly, either in Paris, Kürten, or any corner of the Western Bloc, Eastern Bloc, or Third World. And thus I offer to you this dry-eyed tribute to, and post-mortem for, Utopia.