Michael’s Spoon

The inspiration for Michael’s Spoon was this text from the end of J.M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K.

And if the old man climbed out of the cart and stretched himself (things were gathering pace now) and looked at where the pump had been that the soldiers had blown up so that nothing should be left standing, and complained, saying, ‘What are we going to do about water?,’ he, Michael K, would produce a teaspoon from his pocket, a teaspoon and a long roll of string. He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the the shaft, he would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.
J. M. Coetzee: Life and Times of Michael K

Michael’s Spoon was originally written as an all-electronic piece which is the second movement of the five-movement piece The Garden of Cyrus. That piece was released on my 1998 CD, Overstepping.

Michael’s Spoon is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to the electronic version and watch Mechele Manno’s video by visiting February 9th.

The chamber ensemble version of Michael’s Spoon was originally made in 2004 for performances by the Robin Cox Ensemble. You can download a score of that version here. You are welcome to substitute instruments as desired for your ensemble. Alternatively, the piece can be performed by a solo player on the cello part (or shared by low brass), with all the other parts pre-recorded. Here’s a performing score of the two-trombone version. When you order the performance materials by clicking the button below, let me know what instrumental alterations you need. Thanks for your interest in Michael’s Spoon!

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Wonder Counselor

Wonder Counselor gets its title from the Jerusalem Bible translation of Isaiah 9:6, which is more familiarly translated as “…his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” I am delighted by the idea of a higher power serving as my wonder counselor, maybe dressed as a scout leader, taking me around to point out the marvels of the world. While I was initially thinking about the piece, I did a concordance search for the word “wonderful” in the Bible and found the following proverb:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
Proverbs 30:18-19

The piece embeds these four wonderful sounds into an electronically transformed recording of a single organ sonority. The live organist then plays a loose set of variations on the sequence “Res est admirabilis” (“It is a wondrous thing”) from the thirteenth century Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany. The sequence is aptly-named: it has some of the strangest counterpoint I have ever heard. I was introduced to it by Marcel Peres’ excellent recording.

Wonder Counselor was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists to celebrate their 100th Anniversary and premiered at their National Convention by Kyler Brown at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York in July 1996. I want to thank Kyler Brown and Reverend Edgar F. Wells for their advice and insight while I was making this piece.

Wonder Counselor is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to a recording by visiting February 4th, or by purchasing a recording of Tell the Birds.

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To play the complete piece single-handedly requires a four-manual organ, and is very difficult! Please contact me if you would like that solo version. In the meantime, I have made a duo version which can be performed by two live players, or with KBD2 pre-recorded (or MIDI-controlled) and KBD1 played live by a single player. If you wish to play the piece on a single synth rather than a two-manual organ, you can map the swell notes (marked p in the score) to trigger as they sound in the score, but played two octaves below where they are written, and then map the bomb notes (marked f in the score) to go from middle C up, just as they appear in the score. Please get in touch if you would like clarification of any of this!

Thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing!

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I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long is a piece for violin and electronics that starts from a recording I made of leaky pipes in a bathroom at the Beijing Conservatory and incorporates melodic material from a traditional Armenian song called Tsirani Tsar (Apricot Tree.) The title comes from a line in Down the Dirt Road Blues by Charley Patton. The piece was written for Mary Rowell and is dedicated to her with vast affection.

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long is September 6th in A Book of Days.

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• here is the score

• here is the solo violin part

If you are interested in performing the piece, please order the necessary performing materials below. You are welcome to arrange the piece for other instruments, and for additional live performers on the other lines. Let me know what you need, and we can make it work.

And you are warmly invited to support this very low-key way of publishing:

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the bus driver didn’t change his mind

02.11.02

Hi Bus Driver Visitors:

One of many emotions that has come up for me post 9/11 is an intense form of feminist rage, something I feel quite uncomfortable about, if I can be honest, having always thought myself quite beyond all that. But when I got this Bang on a Can commission, the first thing I thought of was this poem by the Bangladeshi troublemaker Taslima Nasrin. (She had a fatwa issued against her in the mid-90’s and seems to have pretty much disappeared from public life.) Originally I was going to set it in the piece, but I decided not to. Here’s how it goes:

Character

You’re a girl
and you’d better not forget
that when you step over the threshold of your house
men will look askance at you.
When you keep on walking down the lane
men will follow you and whistle.
When you cross the lane and step onto the main road
men will revile you and call you a loose woman.

If you’ve got no character
you’ll turn back,
and if not
you’ll keep on going,
as you’re going now.

The harmonic language is mostly built of diminished seventh chords, in reference to that cool climax in the first movement of Mahler’s Second, which I was listening to because I’d been hanging out with Berio’s Sinfonia because of the “keep going” connection between the Beckett/Berio and the Nasrin text.

The pre-recorded material is constructed solely from samples of the pipa, a Chinese instrument that is conventionally played by cultivated young ladies performing elevated music for the delectation of the upper classes.

The title of the piece comes from something I read yesterday in a profile of the American troublemaker Al Sharpton in this week’s (2/18-25/02) New Yorker:

“The bus driver didn’t change his mind, Rosa Parks changed hers.”

The piece is dedicated to the memory of Samia al-Rumn.

Eve Beglarian

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the bus driver didn’t change his mind is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can hear the Bang on a Can All-Stars premiere performance by visiting August 22nd.

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Here is a score of the piece in pdf format, and here’s a set of parts. I’m open to you reorchestrating it for your ensemble; let me know what you have in mind.

As part of your process in learning the piece, I urge you to listen to my sketch of the piece, where I sing the Nasrin text that later became the clarinet part. It will tell you many things that can’t be embedded in the score.

In order to play the piece, please order a copy of the backing track by following the paypal link, and thank you for your interest in the bus driver didn’t change his mind.

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All U Got 2 Do

All U Got 2 Do was inspired by a sermonette by Reverend Milton Brunson which appears on a 1990 release called Black Gospel Explosion.

all you got to do is
stand still
study yourself
be real

and god’ll give you the power
won’t he do it?
somebody know what I’m talking about?
won’t he give you
power?

power to live right
power to think right
power to speak right
power to do right

god’ll give you
power
Reverend Milton Brunson

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Along with the Brunson text, the piece uses a transformed recording of the introduction to the Benedictus of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The live player tries to follow the Reverend’s advice by playing as few notes with as much attention as possible. The piece was originally written for Hammond organ, but it has been played on violin and on clarinet. Other instruments might work as well, I’m open to you trying it. The score is minimally notated: you will want to shape the expression of the piece in your own way. The best performances will create a fragile balance between immobility and hope.

All U Got 2 Do is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear David Steele’s clarinet version at 3 August, along with the video by Matt Petty, which is part of our multimedia show, Lighten Up.

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Here is a performing score in pdf format.

After you click the donation button below, you’ll get all the necessary materials to perform the piece.

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Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast was commissioned by Mary Sharp Cronson for an evening celebrating the poet Stanley Kunitz. I chose his poem of the same name, which I think is a small, brutal masterpiece. I asked my mother, who I was caring for at the time, to draw me a picture of a robin. The drawing above is what she made for me.

It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.
In the house marked For Sale,
where nobody made a sound
in the room where I lived
with an empty page, I had heard
the squawking of the jays
under the wild persimmons
tormenting him.
So I scooped him up
after they knocked him down,
in league with that ounce of heart
pounding in my palm
that dumb beak gaping.
Poor thing! Poor foolish life!
without sense enough to stop
running in desperate circles,
needing my lucky help
to toss him back into his element.
But when I held him high,
fear clutched my hand,
for through the hole in his head,
cut whistle-clean . . .
through the old dried wound
between his eyes
where the hunter’s brand
had tunneled out his wit . . .
I caught the cold flash of the blue
unappeasable sky.

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The piece has been recorded by Corey Dargel and Margaret Lancaster and is available on my CD Tell the Birds.

Robin Redbreast is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear a recording of the piece by Margaret Lancaster and me by visiting March 27th.
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Here is a score of the piece in pdf format. To purchase the pre-recorded track for live performance of the piece, please click on the paypal button below:

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Osculati Fourniture

The title Osculati Fourniture comes from a mysterious query in a journal entry written by my mother, Joyce Heeney Beglarian, on 22 May 1981, while en route to Florence from Pisa. I cannot know why these two words came into her mind while riding along the autostrada, or what connection the phrase might have with shutters or Lucca, but it seems likely that the whole business has some obscure significance.

The music is a response to the gushe Zirkesh-e Salmak in the dastgah of Shur, part of the repertoire of Persian classical music. Its relation to all this is perhaps osculate in some sense.

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Osculati Fourniture is January 24th in my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear my performance of the piece by going to that day. In addition, there is a cool video of a performance featuring Kevork Mourad’s live drawings. The piece is dedicated with love to Yvan Greenberg, who I imagine might enjoy this little cabinet of oddities.

[and by the way, my shutter photo was taken in Pescia, not Lucca — but you get the idea…]

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Here are some performing scores:

score in C (pdf)
alto flute transposition (pdf)

When you click the paypal button below, we will send you the pre-recorded tracks needed to perform the piece. We can also supply you with a performing score in any transposition or clef you’d like.

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The Island of the Sirens

The Island of the Sirens (2011) is a piece about defective transcription and the failures of translation.

I started with a recording of a warning siren I heard in Plaquemine, Louisiana, while I was traveling down the Mississippi River in the autumn of 2009. I sliced the warning siren into eight layers of partials and then asked the computer to transcribe those eight recordings into musical notation. Because the computer’s transcription algorithm was confused by the sounds, the resulting scores were quite strange. I recorded eight women singing these transcriptions, and mixed them in quasi-unison against the eight layers of electronically transformed siren. I then made three separate submixes of the electronics, which are fed into three sets of headphones for the backup performers, who can be instrumentalists or singers. The backup chorus is asked to perform in real time what they are hearing in their headphones, a task at which they will invariably fail to fulfill entirely successfully, creating yet more quasi-unison layers that deviate from the actual sound of the transformed siren.

The lead vocal, a setting of Rilke’s poem about the impossibility of describing an experience to those who haven’t shared it, is the only notated music in the piece. It also incorporates elements I heard in the siren recording, filtered through my own biases and limitations.

When his hosts would ask him late in the evening
to tell of his voyages and the perils they brought,
the words came easily enough,
but he never knew

just how to convey the fear and with what startling
language to let them perceive, as he had,
that distant island turn to gold
across the blue and sudden stillness of the sea.

The sight of it announces a menace
different from the storm and fury
which had always signaled danger.
Silently it casts its spell upon the sailors.

They know that on that golden island
there is sometimes a singing–
and they lean on their oars, like blind men,
as though imprisoned

by the stillness. That quiet contains
all that is. It enters the ear
as if it were the other side
of the singing that no one resists.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from New Poems
Joanna Macy, Anita Barrow, translators

The Island of the Sirens was written for the New York ensemble loadbang, and is dedicated to the band with vast affection. The piece is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can hear a live performance from the New Music on the Point festival on December 10th in A Book of Days. loadbang’s premiere studio recording of the piece is available here.

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In order to perform The Island of the Sirens, you need a lead singer who sings this score, along with three instrumentalists or singers, who listen to individual headphone tracks and imitate what they’re hearing as well as they can. The piece is set up already in Ableton Live, and after you click the donation button below, I’ll send you all the materials you need to perform the piece using Ableton or the DAW of your choice.

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Pump Music

Pump Music is inspired by a series of hand pumps I encountered in campsites while traveling down the Mississippi River in 2009. I recorded this pump at a campsite called Wanagan’s Landing, which was the place we stayed after the very first day of paddling, on 1 August 2009. It’s maybe ten miles down from the headwaters of the Mississippi River, in northern Minnesota.

I was struck not only by the raucous noise of the pump, but also by the unearthly melody of the afterglow as the water recedes back into the earth when you stop pumping. The melody is not a simple overtone series as you might expect, but some curious phenomenon emerging from the length and diameter of the pipe that I don’t have enough physics to understand.

Pump Music was commissioned for the Guidonian Hand and Mary Rowell by Meet the Composer/Commissioning Music USA, and is dedicated to them with vast affection.

Pump Music is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. To hear the premiere performance (at Roulette on 1 June 2012), please visit August 1st.

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Here is a score of the complete piece in pdf format.

After you click the donation button below, you’ll get all the necessary materials to perform the piece.

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You can also read this blog post about 1 August 2009 of The River Project.

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Brownie Feet

Brownie Feet is a messed up mashup with several sources: Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, a NOLA standard by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the first movement of the Bach G minor Violin Sonata are the two necessary ones. If you like, you can perform the piece alongside my recording of a progressively more and more messed up James Brown Funky Drummer sample and George W. Bush’s 2 September 2005 press conference, but I’d prefer for you to work with a live drummer and/or sampler/laptop/turntable player so you can mess things up your own way.

The original version of this piece is called Cattle Feet, and it combines Feet Can’t Fail Me Now with a Phil Collins lick, and is performed on multiple trombones as a half-time number for David Neumann’s dance piece, Feed Forward. Bach and George Bush got enveloped into it for Peggy Gould’s From Within and Outside a Bright Room Called Day, where we did it as a vocal piece with live drums. And now here’s the score arranged for string quartet. You can welcome to perform The Flood as a companion piece to Brownie Feet or not, as you desire.

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Brownie Feet is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can watch Tom Emerson’s video for the piece along with a performance of the vocal quartet version by visiting September 3.

A studio recording of the BRIM + Guidonian Hand octet version of the piece is available on Songs from the River Project, Vol. 2.

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Here is a score of the string quartet version of the piece in pdf format. I’m open to you reorchestrating it for your ensemble; let me know what you have in mind.

And you are warmly invited to support this very low-key way of publishing:

The Continuous Life

The Continuous Life (2000) was commissioned as part of a project called Continental Harmony to celebrate the turn of the millennium. Written for the Houston-based Orchestra X, the piece was supposed to celebrate Houston and incorporate electronics and interactivity.

I chose to set a poem by Mark Strand that is about the opposite of celebrating a particular moment in time:

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? Oh parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

The original orchestration is spoken word, full orchestra, and a sound mix of recordings of daily life in Houston. At the end, multiple live acoustic guitar players are invited to join in, playing from their places in the audience.

The piece can also be done by sixteen electric guitars plus pre-recorded sound. That version can be heard at September 2nd in my ongoing project, A Book of Days.

A year ago, the New York ensemble Contemporaneous performed a new version of the piece for eight players and pre-recorded sound. If you are interested in performing the piece with an ensemble of at least eight people, please get in touch with me and we’ll figure out how to make that happen.

In the meantime, you can visit the very first webpages I ever made, (with lots of help from Cory Arcangel), where I put lots of stories and examples about how I made the piece. I’ve left the pages pretty much how they appeared in 2000, so you can revel in the millennial flavor ;-).

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What Justice Looks Like

What Justice Looks Like was written for Payton MacDonald to perform at South Pass City as part of his Sonic Divide project. Esther Hobart Morris (1814-1902) served as Justice of the Peace there in 1870, during the Gold Rush, right after women were given the vote in Wyoming Territory. After her term was over, she had her husband arrested for assault and battery. She eventually left both him and South Pass City, becoming an activist for women’s rights nationally.

What Justice Looks Like is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to my recording by visiting Valentine’s Day, which is the day when Esther was sworn in as Justice of the Peace.

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Here’s the vocal score at the transposition that works best for me. I am happy to supply you with a different transposition, just let me know what you need when you click the donation button below.

I think you want to think of this piece as an intimate invocation to Esther. You’ll want to find the transposition that lets both the lowest and the highest notes of the (rangy) vocal line be vulnerable and loving. You are welcome to do the piece slower (or faster) than the marked tempo if you like, and you don’t need to stick too precisely to the notated rhythms as long as the phrases stay coherent.

You can do it as a solo vocal piece, or you can invent a rhythmic accompaniment that helps you express the piece, adding extra bars of rest between verses for improvisational flourishes as you prefer. If you like a drone, feel free to use one. For the demo, I used Henry Lowengard’s excellent iPhone app, Srutibox, in just intonation mode. And I added a couple of totally optional samples from “Suffragette City”, which I’ll send you if you want them.

And thank you for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Creating the World

I wrote this note for the premiere of Creating the World in 1996:

I had cut Milosz’s poem “Creating the World” out of The New Yorker when it was printed there several years ago, and when Paul Dresher called to ask me for a piece for his ensemble, I knew the time had come for me to take it on. Because the instrumentation of Paul’s ensemble allows for the possibility of live performance and control of A LOT of pre-recorded samples, it seemed the perfect opportunity to create a world of hedgehogs and sopranos and urban intersections and Mozart.

At first, everything was big fun: I had a great time recording the text with the wonderful actor Roger Rees; I spent weeks collecting recordings of virtually every sound mentioned in the poem (including something like forty different settings of the word “gloria”); I got obsessed with Tosca (which became the soprano sample) and saw about four different performances of it (both live and on video: NYC is a great place for creating the world(!)); studied the complete works of Joni Mitchell from the point of view of guitar tuning (which ended up not being incorporated into the piece at all)…

And then the abyss hit me.

I realized I could not knit all these wonderful samples into a piece until I had a way of making sense of the central contradiction of the poem: that all the creation in the world does not necessarily make meaning. And it really threw me.

I went back and read Milosz again, not only the poems, but also The Captive Mind, his analysis of the totalitarian mind-set, and  A Year of the Hunter, his journal from 1987 (around the time he wrote “Creating the World”), and things got even worse: all the horrors of the twentieth century came crashing down on me. The abyss of meaninglessness became the abyss of actual evil. The image of the Soviet soldiers standing outside the city watching the Germans destroy Warsaw for them became real for me, became my history.

Gradually I went back to the poem itself, to its feeble invocation of feasts of love as protection against the abyss, and I remembered a lullaby that my Bangladeshi friend Babu (M. Faslur Rahman) had sung for me this summer, a very private form of love feast. And I started thinking about the Dionysian feasts of love that pervade every human culture, and I figured that the brittle present-directed pleasure of house music is the current American embodiment of that protection. And so you will hear these feasts of love, and I hope they will protect you as they protect me.

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Creating the World is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear the Paul Dresher Ensemble’s recording by visiting December 31st.

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For the original version of Creating the World the drummer played the spoken word samples on drum set, and lots of other samples were performed on both MIDI keyboard and MIDI mallet controllers. I am happy to make versions for whatever controllers you have available, and some things can certainly be sequenced for practicality. The main live instruments you need are violin, bassoon (or bass clarinet), guitar, and probably two keyboards, although one might work.

Here is a score of the piece, and when you click the purchase button below, I will work with you to make a cool live version of the piece for your band! It’s more expensive than my other pieces, because I have to rejigger the samples and all that. If you think of it as a consulting fee rather than as a publishing fee, I hope it will feel reasonable. If you really want to play the piece, and you don’t have the money, get in touch and we’ll work something out.