Making Sense of It

Making Sense of It is a chamber piece in three movements for six instruments and pre-recorded sound. It was commissioned and premiered by the New York New Music Ensemble in 1987, and performed extensively by other groups for a few years, but is only now in 2024 available in a newly engraved edition.

The piece was inspired by James Merrill’s amazing book-length poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. When I originally read the book in the mid-80s, I felt it was sort of a 20th century answer to Dante, and absolutely loved it. Re-reading it recently is like re-visiting a lost world, one that had far-reaching impact on my life. It’s deeply queer, and simultaneously optimistic and desolate – a domestic love story used to express an immensely imaginative and ambitious cosmology. Simultaneously camp and utterly heartfelt, there’s a core of loneliness to the vision that all these years later kind of breaks my heart: the God of this universe is Biology, who is directly experienced only through Morse-code-like signals indicating that it does indeed survive, and is looking for confirmation that it is not alone.

Those signals are embedded in the pre-recorded track of last movement of the piece. This is what they say:

IVE BROTHERS HEAR ME BROTHERS SIGNAL ME

ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS DO YOU WELL

I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK BROTHERS I AND

MINE SURVIVE BROTHERS HEAR ME SIGNAL ME

DO YOU WELL I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK I

ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS I AND MINE

SURVIVE BROTHERS DO YOU WELL I ALONE

IN MY NIGHT I HOLD IT BACK I AND MINE

SURVIVE BROTHERS SIGNAL ME IN MY NIGHT

I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK AND WE SURVIVE

In addition to the transliterated God B quotation, I chose epigraphs for each movement of the piece. They were originally meant to stand in lieu of conventional program notes, which in the 80s used to be deeply insufferable.

Perhaps these epigraphs tell you something about the music: see what you think.

I. Every modification or tremor enters its own little sensory adequate to itself, and it enters the point adequate to it; thus since all the little sensories are various, all the various things enter. 

Wherefore now in every sensation there are infinite things which concord. 

Emmanuel Swedenborg

II. When they say that heat is merely the movement of certain globules and light the centrifugal force that we feel, we are amazed. What! Is pleasure nothing but a ballet of spirits? We had such a different conception of it, and these feelings seem so far removed from those with which we are comparing them. The feeling of fire, the warmth which affects us in quite a different way from touch, the reception of sound and light, all seem mysterious to us. And yet it is as straightforward as throwing a stone. It is true that the smallness of the spirits entering the pores touches other nerves, but they are still nerves.

Blaise Pascal

III. A- Yes, one could fit in in that way. It’s finally a matter, perhaps, of fit. Appropriateness. Fit in a stately or sometimes hectic dance with nonfit. What we have to worry about.

Q- It seems to me that we have a great deal to worry about. Does the radish worry about itself in this way? Yet the radish is a living thing. Until it’s cooked.

A- Grete is mad for radishes, can’t get enough. I like frozen Mexican dinners, Patio, I have them for breakfast, the freezer is stacked with them–

Q- Transcendence is possible.

A- Yes.

Q- Is it possible?

A- Not out of the question.

Q- Is it really possible?

A- Yes. Believe me.

Donald Barthelme

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The three movements of Making Sense of It are part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days, and recordings can be heard by visiting January 4th, April 2nd, and September 22nd.

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The instrumentation of Making Sense of It is flute/piccolo, Bb clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (1 player on vibraphone, xylophone, and mallet percussion controller) along with a pre-recorded track.

Here is the score.

There are three synth sounds needed to perform the piece, which were originally made for the Yamaha DX7. The patches have been ported to Dexed, a free open source multi-platform software synth you can download here.

The patches are the first three in this SysEx file.

For performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $50, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Not My Home

In 2020, when I was initially commissioned by Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble to write a piece inspired by Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, it was unclear how or when I would be able to visit the park to gather inspiration during COVID, but the cave spirits were smiling: in early May 2021 they routed me past Bill Monroe’s home place in rural Kentucky on the way to the cave, and past the most amazing cemetery in full bloom on the way from the cave. I found an early (1936) Monroe Brothers recording of the gospel standard “This World Is Not My Home”  and I made a ghostly abstraction of that piece combined with a piece that showed up in my playlist on the road trip: Monteverdi’s “Il ballo delle ingrate” — described as a dance of women who are in the underworld having rejected love — which is deeply strange subject matter for the 1608 wedding celebration at which it was originally performed. Perhaps more appropriately, I began writing Not My Home while staying at the famously celibate Shaker village, Pleasant Hill, a couple of hours east of Mammoth Cave NP. I think the Monteverdi blends in an uncanny way with the high lonesome feeling of Bill Monroe and his brother, which captures something of the feeling of the cave and its effect on the landscape above and below ground for many miles around. Not My Home, which alternatively could have been called The Chimeric Habitation, is dedicated with love to David Cholcher.

To the musicians:

Please be sure to listen to the 1936 Monroe Brothers recording of This World Is Not My Home and the 2007 René Jacobs recording of the Ballo delle ingrate. You want to channel the peculiar combination of stability and strangeness found in both these recordings — the rubato and the pitchiness — at a super slowed down and therefore heightened pace and depth. You can be relaxed in your relationship to the pre-recorded track: the click is just a rough guide, much less important than feeling your own way behind and ahead of the beat. Similarly, you can be flexible in your alignment with the other players: it’s always a conversation. The boundary between land and underland in central Kentucky is always in flux.

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Not My Home is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear a demo with Matt Petty’s video by visiting 4 June.

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For a performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $35, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Ay mi!

Ay mi! (Machaut in the Machine Age IV) is one of a number of pieces I’ve been making since the 1980s responding to the delightful secular music of the 14th century French composer Guillaume de Machaut.

This one was made for a 1960s era Magnus electric chord organ given to me by the composer Art Jarvinen. The instrument is about the size of a toy piano and has a two octave range. I made a piece for twisted tutu, my duo at the time with Kathleen Supové, where she played the chord organ’s keyboard while I played the percussion part on the plastic case of the organ. We attached contact mics to the instrument and doubled the pitch down a fifth, as well as applying a delay at the beginning and the end of the piece.

TO THE PERFORMERS

If you have access to a chord organ, that’s the ideal instrument for performing the piece. But of course, you can play the chord organ part on a synthesizer, which you should set up with an organ patch and a pitch shifter that gives you both the notated pitch and the fifth below (i.e. transpose by -7 semitones).

In addition, you want to set up a delay that captures both the percussion and the keyboard. Set the delay to repeat at the interval of one bar of 6/8 in whatever tempo you’re playing the piece. It will be 2000 ms if you’re playing the piece at the tempo I’ve specified. The feedback/regen should give you between seven and eight reps before it fades to zero. The score indicates where to turn on and off the delay; you’ll want to put it on a switch you can activate or bypass easily.

If you don’t have a chord organ, but you happen to have a harmonium, an accordion or another suitable instrument available, please feel free to perform it on your instrument, I’d love that!

And of course the percussion part can be done by clapping or patting your own body if tapping the keyboard player’s instrument isn’t the right thing. And if you have other ideas for the percussion part, I’m very flexible about it!

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Ay mi! (Machaut in the Machine Age IV) is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear my synth version by visiting 17 July.

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For a performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $12, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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I Have to See You

Since the 1980s I’ve been periodically making pieces for a varied range of ensembles and instrumentation responding to the marvelous secular songs of Guillaume de Machaut. I call the project Machaut in the Machine Age, and I Have to See You is the eighth in the series. I Have to See You takes as its starting point Machaut’s Ballade #33: Ne qu’on porroit les estoiles nombrer. The line that ends all three verses is “Le grant desir que j’ay de vous veoir”, which translates to something like: “the great desire I have of seeing you,” a great desire that many of us experienced in a particularly striking way during the pandemic. Machaut knows the feeling since he spent the year 1349 in confinement due to the Black Death.

TO THE PERFORMERS

There should be a drone based on C and G; I used my own voice to make one version of the piece, singing C2 G2 C3 G3 (with C3 = middle C), but you could use something else. The yellow marks in the score indicate places where the drone should re-articulate.

Nothing in the piece should be in strict rhythmic unison: the two melodic lines can be ahead of or behind the drone attacks, and the feeling should be of everyone trying really hard to be together in a world with no guideposts. Even though the score gives you a rhythmic transcription of the medieval notation, you should basically run completely roughshod over that. I have marked notes that should be extended in green. You both want to do those extensions, but you will not succeed at being authentically in rhythmic unison and that’s how it needs to be.

I strongly recommend that you listen to my recording of the piece with Lukas Papenfusscline. I invite you to do lots of things differently, but that recording will give you a sense of the intensity I am looking for.

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I Have to See You is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can watch and listen to the video Lukas and I made during lockdown by visiting 17 April.

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For a performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $12, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Peggy in the Twilight

Peggy in the Twilight is one of a set of songs I’ve been making with James Moore, Andie Tanning, and Jim Fletcher, based on the poetry of James Tate. This one is for speaking violinist and guitar. We’re calling the project What are the Chances?, which is the last line James Tate wrote. I don’t think we know yet whether that’s the name of the band as well.

Here’s the text of Peggy in the Twilight.

Peggy spent half of each day trying to wake up, and the other half preparing for sleep. Around five, she would mix herself something preposterous and ’40s-ish like a Grasshopper or a Brass Monkey, adding a note of gaiety to her defeat. This shadowlife became her. She always had a glow on; that is, she carried an aura of innocence as well as death with her.

I first met her at a party almost thirty years ago. Even then it was too late for tragic women, tragic anything. Still, when she was curled up and fell asleep in the corner, I was overwhelmed with feelings of love. Petite black and gold angels sat on her slumped shoulders and sang lullabies to her.

I walked into another room and asked our host for a blanket for Peggy.

“Peggy?” he said. “There’s no one here by that name.” And so my lovelife began.

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Peggy in the Twilight is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear a demo recording of the piece by visiting 25 October.

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For a performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $12, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Wet Psalm

Wet Psalm is a setting of a poem by Linda Norton, which is based on a page from a rain-soaked bible she found in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana in April 2008. The page has parts of Psalms 70 and 71, which become the text for the piece, inflected by Linda’s alterations.

The pre-recorded electronics are created from a recording Eleonor Sandresky made of me improvising on a broken Vietnamese dan tranh, an instrument given to me in 1997 by the performer Nguyen Thu Thuy.

Wet Psalm was originally written for spoken word, violin, and trombone quartet, but the violin part can alternatively be played by clarinet, soprano sax, and other instruments.

The piece was commissioned by The ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund. The world premiere by BRIM and the Guidonian Hand was on 1 June 2012 on the Tribeca New Music Festival at Roulette.

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Wet Psalm is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can watch Matt Petty’s video made for our recording by visiting 11 November.

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For a performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $20, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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only your dolls

only your dolls is a song for voice and piano, setting a poem by Anne Sexton called Sixth Psalm.

The piece is part of a song cycle called finish what I haven’t started, about mid-century middle class female unhappiness. Other songs in the cycle set poems by June Jordan, Jane Bowles, and Lucille Clifton. finish what I haven’t started was commissioned by the Brooklyn Art Song Society, and premiered by Devony Smith and Danny Zelibor in April 2022.

The photograph is one of a series of images made by a family friend, Jo Ann Krivin. They have haunted me since childhood.

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For America is a lady rocking on a porch in an unpainted house on an unused road but Anne does not see it.

For America is a librarian in Wichita coughing dust and sharing sourballs with the postman.

For America is Dr. Abraham passing out penicillin and sugar pills to the town of Woolrich, Pennsylvania.

For America is an old man washing his feet in Albion, Michigan. Drying them carefully and then applying Dr. Scholl’s foot powder. But Anne does not see it. Anne is locked in.

For America is a reformed burglar turned locksmith who pulls up the shades of his shop at nine A.M. daily (except Sunday when he leaves his phone number on the shop door).

For America is a fat woman dusting a grand piano in English Creek, New Jersey.

For America is a suede glove manufacturer sitting in his large swivel chair feeling the goods and assessing his assets and debits.

For America is a bus driver in Embarrass, Minnesota, clocking the miles and watching the little cardboard suitcases file by.

For America is a land of Commies and Prohibitionists but Anne does not see it. Anne is locked in. The Trotskyites don’t see her. The Republicans have never tweaked her chin for she is not there. Anne hides inside folding and unfolding rose after rose. She has no one. She has Christopher. They sit in their room pinching the dolls’ noses, poking the doll’s eyes. One time they gave a doll a ride in a fuzzy slipper but that was too far, too far wasn’t it. Anne did not dare. She put the slipper with the doll inside it as in a car right into the closet and pushed the door shut.

For America is the headlight man at the Ford plant in Detroit, Michigan, he of the wires, he of the white globe, all day, all day, all year, all his year’s headlights, seventy a day, improved by automation but Anne does not.

For America is a miner in Ohio, slipping into the dark hole and bringing forth cat’s eyes each night.

For America is only this room… there is no useful activity.

For America only your dolls are cheerful.

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only your dolls is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear my original demo of the piece by visiting 4 October.

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For a performing score, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $12, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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CALLING ON ALL SILENT MINORITIES

CALLING ON ALL SILENT MINORITIES is a song for voice and piano, setting a poem by June Jordan.

HEY

C’MON
COME OUT

WHEREVER YOU ARE

WE NEED TO HAVE THIS MEETING
AT THIS TREE

AIN’ EVEN BEEN
PLANTED
YET

CALLING ON ALL SILENT MINORITIES was written as the closing song in a cycle called finish what I haven’t started, about mid-century middle class female unhappiness. Other songs in the cycle set poems by Anne Sexton, Jane Bowles, and Lucille Clifton. finish what I haven’t started was commissioned by the Brooklyn Art Song Society with partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and premiered by Devony Smith and Danny Zelibor in April 2022.

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CALLING ON ALL SILENT MINORITIES is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days, and you can hear my recording of the piece by visiting 7 March.

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For a performing score, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $12, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Plunge

Plunge is a song for voice and piano, setting a poem by Bill Knott. It will soon be part of a cycle based on his poetry, commissioned by Frederick Peters and Music from the Copland House for Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Michael Boriskin. Another song in the cycle is Peace (Pascal).

at night one drop of rain
falls from each star
as if it were being lowered
on a string

and yet that storm of plummets
is never enough
to wet any of the planets
that pass through it

only the blackness the space
between us is washed
away by these singular
lettings-down of water

distance is washed away
all the worlds merge
for a liquid moment
our island eyes

and suddenly we understand
why umbrellas love
to dive
into clouds

Plunge was written in July 2022, when the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were being shared. Written for AddieRose Brown and Edward Forstman, it is dedicated to them with great affection.

Plunge is 12 July in my ongoing project A Book of Days, and you can hear Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Michael Boriskin’s recording of the piece there.

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To the performers:

If the vocalist wants to play the piano part while singing, it’s fine to leave off the right hand piano doubling of the vocal line. In fact, the accompanying pianist is welcome to play only the left hand part or to improvise a right hand part to accompany the singer: see what works best for you!

For a performing score, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $5, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Peace (Pascal)

Peace (Pascal) is a song for voice and piano, setting a poem by Bill Knott.

There is a valley
Is the oldest story.

Its temperate qualities
Make us descend the trees
To settle down beside
Fruits and fields.

By its river content
To sit quietly in a small tent
To fashion fishing spears
From fallen limbs.

No need to climb its hills
No need to go up there
To look to see
Another valley.

Note:
“Most of our problems proceed from our inability to sit quietly in a small room.” –Pascal

The piece was written in slightly belated honor of Fred Peters on his 70th birthday, and is dedicated to him with vast affection. Despite Fred’s boundless energy and love of ALL the valleys, he is also quite able to sit quietly in a small room, which might be the best combination of personal qualities there is!

Peace (Pascal) was premiered on September 15, 2022 at The Century Club, New York City, by Music from Copland House (Lucy Fitz Gibbon, soprano and Michael Boriskin, pianist) at the celebration honoring Fred’s many years of service to NMUSA.

Peace (Pascal) is 28 December in my ongoing project A Book of Days, and you can hear my own recording of the piece there.

To the performers:

If the vocalist wants to play the piano part while singing, it’s fine to leave out the left hand piano doubling of the vocal line. In fact, the (separate) pianist is welcome to play only the right hand part or to play the left hand melody in any octave that pleases you both.

If you like, you can precede a performance of the song by reading the Pascal quotation: “Most of our problems proceed from our inability to sit quietly in a small room.”

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For a performing score, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $5, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Be Like Water

Be Like Water is the ninth piece is a series called Machaut in the Machine Age that I’ve been working on since the 1980s responding to the music and poetry of 14th century composer/poet, Guillaume de Machaut. The piece was commissioned by duoJalal and was originally imagined for viola and hand percussion.

My piece is a response to section four of Le lai de la fonteinne, which having compared the beloved to Mary, and Mary somehow to the Trinity, is now talking about water, which being a fountain, a stream, and a source while remaining water is, like the trinity, three things in one. The descending three note motif in a three-part canon at the unison is text-painting of such simultaneous simplicity and cunning that I had to explore it in this trio between viola, percussion, and pre-recorded track, setting up the piece so that those three become one in yet another way:

There are 21 tracks (3 times 7), each of which can be assigned flexibly to either of the two live players (played acoustically or as triggered samples) or as pre-recorded tracks, so that without seeing a live performance, you can’t tell which of the three is doing what.

The piece can also easily be presented as a multiply overdubbed piece, which may be particularly appropriate during pandemic times, as was the case when Machaut wrote the Lai (during the Black Death), and when I wrote this piece (during COVID-19).

It’s all water. 

Be like water.

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The original version of the piece is for viola, hand percussion, and backing track, which can be a pre-recorded track, or an Ableton session.

You can visit February 16th in my ongoing project A Book of Days to hear a demo of the piece, which might give you some ideas about how you’d like to adapt it for yourselves.

For performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $33, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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All Good is Luck

All Good Is Luck is a piece inspired by something a guy named Kenny Quentin said to me out of the blue one night in December 2009 at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, Louisiana: “Not all luck is good, but all good is luck.”

I had just finished up a human-powered trip down the Mississippi River, and was very aware of my amazing luck in having done it without major mishaps. But even so, luck (good or bad) is one of those ideas I don’t really know what to do with. 

It was pure random luck that I happened to meet Kenny that night, but I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I’m grateful to Kenny for his gnomic statement, and I’ve come to translate it for myself as:  “Not everything that happens in the world is good, but everything we call “good” is something that happens in the world.”

A further bit of luck is that I was doing a stint teaching beginning electronic music at Middlebury College in January 2014, when a student named Ian Ackerman came up with a very cool lick that inspired this curious new piece for me. Thanks, Ian, for letting me steal your lick! And thanks, too, to Mary Rowell for working with me to develop the violin solo.

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The original version of the piece is for violin and electric guitar. The current revised version is a two-violin version I adapted for Miolina, which requires live processing on both instruments, but guitar-hero-style processing on only one 😉 . I’ve set up an Ableton session with stock plugins to get you started, but you will certainly want to adjust from there.

You can visit December 23rd in my ongoing project, A Book of Days to hear a pre-release version of the recording Miolina will be putting out on their next album.

For performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $30, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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Fresh Air

Fresh Air is for saxophone quartet, the then-new TR-808, and the Sequential Circuits Pro-One. I made it before the MIDI spec was formalized, so the track had to be spliced together small chunk by small chunk, limited by the twenty-event memory of the Pro-One’s sequencer, which was triggered by CV coming from the 808.

I think this might be the earliest piece I’ve posted here, but I still have a warm space for it in my heart, and would be delighted for some current sax quartets to take it on.

A recording by Relâche is in A Book of Days alongside a pretty great poem by Kenneth Koch that beautifully captures how I was feeling when I made the piece. You can listen and read by visiting March 15th.

I have a copy of the pre-recorded track, and a hand copied score. If you want to play the piece, I’ll arrange to get parts copied for you if playing from score seems too wonky.

Please write to me if you’re up for it, and we’ll figure out how to proceed.

 

 

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Unfavored House

Unfavored House is a piece I wrote while struggling to give back a house I inherited in Los Angeles in the midst of the economic downturn, a gift that came with more debt than the house itself was worth at the time. The combination of grief and bad advice led me to a dark place where randomized Bach was my only comfort.

I think randomized Bach an excellent comfort for whatever ails you, actually.

And this psalm also does a very good job of capturing my sense of futility at managing legal documents and paperwork.

Unless the Lord builds the house,

   those who build it labour in vain.

Unless the Lord guards the city,

   the guard keeps watch in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early

   and go late to rest,

eating the bread of anxious toil;

   for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Psalm 127

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You can hear a recording of Unfavored House by visiting 24 February in A Book of Days.

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Unfavored House was written to be performed in conjunction with a live Ableton session that gradually doubles the live performers’ pitches with different successively constrained random pitches each time you play the piece. (If Ableton isn’t a possibility, I can supply a pre-recorded track for a duet version of the piece, with the clav part pre-recorded, and the mandolin and guitar players live.)

If the clav part is live, the live clav and the random clav should use the same patch. The clav part doesn’t look much like what you will hear, and it will sound a little different every time you play it. The live players’ mandolin and guitar sounds should match the random doubles as closely as possible. Feel free to use different sounds in Ableton that match the mandolin and guitar more closely, or even better, sample your own instruments so that Ableton is randomizing you!

Normally, I would charge $50 for the performance materials; in these pandemic days, I welcome you to pay what seems right to you, with thanks for support of this low-key method of publishing:

 

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She Gets to Decide

She Gets to Decide began as a meditation on the controversial Balthus painting Thérèse Dreaming. While the painting seems unquestionably pervy to me, I am also struck by the power and self-sufficiency Thérèse radiates.

As I was working on the piece in the spring of 2018, the Bradley Garner/Wildacres Flute Camp story was all over my Facebook feed. That’s the saga where a well-regarded flute pedagogue was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with several young women, stripped of all his teaching jobs and product endorsements, except by the head of the Wildacres Flute Camp, Anna Thibeault, who in defense of Garner, characterized young women as “nymphos” and “Lolitas” (She still has her job, by the way, but Garner no longer teaches at Wildacres Flute Camp.)

A collage from the newspaper account of this story, excerpts from the Poulenc Flute Sonata, and the MET audioguide for Thérèse Dreaming opens the piece. It ends with a setting of Judge Aquilina’s words to the young women who testified during the trial of gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser. The central section uses as its text an excerpt of hebephile pornography (by Alphonse Momas, published in 1900, and recorded by Florent Ghys,) the text of which is treated both as the locus of abuse, and as a possible mechanism for healing from that abuse.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a letter to Balthus’ mother, Baladine Klossowska, who was Rilke’s lover at the time: “a barely arching bridge connects the terrible to the tender.”

Sometimes the way out is through.

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You can hear and see Lucy Dhegrae’s premiere performance of the piece by visiting 20 November in A Book of Days. You can also watch a long conversation Lucy and I had around and about the piece in February 2021.

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Here is a performing score for She Gets to Decide. The original version moves from pre-recorded to live piano, and adds a live violin part at the end of the piece. However, it is possible to perform the piece with everything except the voice pre-recorded. You can download the performance track by clicking the paypal button below and paying whatever amount you think reasonable, with my thanks for supporting this informal way of publishing:

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Everything

Everything is a song for female voice and bass flute. It is part of a song cycle called The Story of B, the lyrics of which are adapted from the poetry of Pierre Louÿs, a fin-de-siècle French poet who claimed to be translating ancient Greek lesbian poetry, but in fact he made it all up himself.

The original French text that I used to make my adaptation goes like this:

Tout, et ma vie, et le monde, et les hommes, tout ce qui n’est pas elle n’est rien. Tout ce qui n’est pas elle, je te le donne, passant.

Sait-elle que de travaux j’accomplis pour être belle à ses yeux, par ma coiffure et par mes fards, par mes robes et mes parfums?

Aussi longtemps je tournerais la meule, je ferais plonger la rame ou je bêcherais la terre, s’il fallait à ce prix la retenir ici.

Mais faites qu’elle ne l’apprenne jamais, Déesses qui veillez sur nous! Le jour où elle saura que je l’aime elle cherchera une autre femme.

Here’s my version:

Everything: my life,
the world, the men,
everything that is not her
is nothing.

Does she know how hard I work
to be beautiful to her?

I would row to China,
I would build a pyramid,
I would plow the dark earth
with my bare hands.

Goddesses, don’t let her know.
The day she learns I love her
she will look for another.

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You can hear my recording of the piece with my longtime collaborator Margaret Lancaster on bass flute by visiting 10 October in A Book of Days.

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And you can download the performing score by clicking the paypal button below and paying whatever amount you think reasonable, with my thanks for supporting this informal way of publishing:

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De toutes flours (Machaut in the Machine Age II)

Machaut in the Machine Age II is one of a series of pieces responding to the art of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377.) This one is working with a few samples from an old LP recording of the ballade De toutes flours.

I made the piece for the duo Basso Bongo {Robert Black, contrabass & Amy Knoles, MIDI percussion} at the height of the AIDS crisis. The poet and translator William Mullen came up with this version of the medieval French:

Of all my garden’s many fruits and flowers
none is left me but a single rose.
Not one, of all the rest that once were ours,
weathered Fortune’s blasting: Fortune who knows
how to undo her bloom,
blast her hue and her perfume.
If by your wicked tricks my rose should fall,
desire another love I never shall.

The piece can be performed by a solo bass player with a pre-recorded track as well as by a duo where the electronics are performed live.

Machaut in the Machine Age II is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. Please visit January 17th to hear Ryan McMasters’ 2022 recording of the piece.

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We will send you all materials necessary for performing the bass solo version, unless you ask specifically for the materials that will allow you to play the piece with live electronics (and an additional player on some kind of MIDI controller.) The fee for the materials was originally $35, but I have set it to pay-as-you-like, with my thanks for supporting this way of publishing:

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In Huts and on Journeys

In Huts and on Journeys is a piece for spoken voice and as many mobile phones as available. Everyone within sound range of the spoken voice performer can participate. Please play the sound file that corresponds to the month of your birth. If there is a playback system in the space, you can seed the space with an additional optional stereo mix I will provide. The sound files don’t need to be strictly coordinated: one person – perhaps the spoken word performer – starts, then the others can press play whenever they feel the urge to join in. The spoken word performer can play their birth month sound file, or if there is no playback system, they can play the stereo mix file.

In Huts and on Journeys is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. Please visit May 19th to hear a recording I made in thanks to Lainie and Herb Alpert on the occasion of receiving the Alpert Award in the Arts in 2017.

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When you purchase the materials, we will send you a link to a page with the twelve sound files and the optional additional stereo mix, as well as a copy of the text for the spoken word performer, along with many thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing.

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Enough

Enough was written for an evening of political songs organized and performed by Dora Ohrenstein, Kathleen Supové, and Robert Black. It is a setting of one of William Blake’s Proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:  “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”  As you will notice, the piece devolves into the Bach chorale Es ist genug (it is enough) at the end.

A larger ensemble version of the piece is the final section of my piece The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The piece is May 23rd in A Book of Days.

You can download a score of the piece here. When you click the Paypal button, you’ll get complete performance materials for the piece.

 

And thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing!

 

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Where Your Treasure Is: Mistake

Mistake is one of a series of pieces called Where Your Treasure Is, about the slow disintegration of a painting I inherited. The painting is of an Irish dolmen, a burial mound, and I have placed it on a glacial erratic on my land in Vermont, where I am documenting its gradual decay into the landscape.

The text that inspires the piece is from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.

The piece is also part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. Please visit March 21st to listen to the piece, with a video by Emma Courtney.

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Here is a score of the piece, which requires four keyboard players on three pianos (or electronic keyboards.) In addition, there is a drumset part, which can be improvised by a live player, or done as a pre-recorded track.

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Thank you for supporting this low-key way of publishing.

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Wolf Chaser

Wolf Chaser: for amplified and processed violin, wolf chaser, optional percussion, electronics, and optional video

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In the early summer of 1995, the violinist Robin Lorentz gave me a wolf chaser – a tool made of whale baleen for scaring wolves in the Arctic. It had been a gift, in turn, from the man who made it, James Nageak. I sampled the wolf chaser and made a recording that slowed the sound down so far that you can hear the sampling rate as a rhythm (sort of the audio analog to the jaggies you see when displaying curves at low resolution on a computer.) That recording is the bed for this piece for acoustic wolf chaser, amplified and processed scordatura violin, and optional metallic percussion. In 2008, Vittoria Chierici (with editor Phil Hartley) made a video to accompany live performances of the piece.

Here’s the video with Robin Lorentz’s recording of the piece:

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Click here for the score of the piece, which includes all the information you need to know about playing it.

If you would like to play the piece, please order the materials below and let me know the following information:

  • whether you want to do the percussion part live (I haven’t yet implemented the percussion processing in Ableton’s Live, but can do it easily with a bit of notice.)
  • in which format you want the video (DVD or embedded in Ableton)
  • proposed dates of your performance(s), so we can figure out logistics for lending you the wolf chaser.

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Waiting for Billy Floyd

Waiting for Billy Floyd was written in response to Eudora Welty’s short story, At the Landing, which takes place in a town called Rodney, Mississippi, that I visited during a trip down the Mississippi River in November 2009 with Mary Rowell and again over Easter weekend 2010 with H. C. Porter. The river pilot and poet David Greer was my guide and compass, both practically and conceptually, through this part of Mississippi, and it was he who selected which Welty stories I needed to re-read and which towns I had to be sure not to miss. I am grateful to these three traveling companions, and to Despina Sarafeidou, who helped me when I got stuck.

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Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.

“She’s waiting for Billy Floyd,” they said.

The original smile now crossed Jenny’s face, and hung there no matter what was done to her, like a bit of color that kindles in the sky after the light has gone.
from At the Landing

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Waiting for Billy Floyd is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can visit 3 April to hear and see Newspeak’s live performance of Waiting for Billy Floyd.

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Here are scores for two different versions of Waiting for Billy Floyd.
original sextet version [fl, cl, vln, vc, pf, perc]
octet version [Newspeak version: as above, plus guitar and trombone]

When you order the performance materials by clicking the button below, please let me know the instrumentation you need. There is some flexibility, so talk to me if you have specific needs for your ensemble.

A set of images of Rodney, Mississippi can be projected as part of the performance of the piece. Please let me know if you would like those materials as well.

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Well-Spent

Well-Spent (2011) was written in response to a line in one of Leonardo’s notebooks that I came across soon after traveling down the Mississippi River by kayak and bicycle in 2009.

L’acqua che tochi de fiumi, è l’ultima di quella che andò, e la prima di quelle che viene; così il tempo presente. La vita bene spesa lunga è.
Leonardo: Notebook 1174

The water you touch in a river
is the last that has passed
and the first that is coming;
so with the present moment.

The well-spent life is long.
(evb translation)

The pre-recorded track of Well-Spent is made from Mary Rowell’s recording of the Muddy Waters 1942 tune You Got to Take Sick and Die Some of These Days. Well-Spent was commissioned by Ron Blessinger and the Third Angle Ensemble in memory of Donna Drummond. Many thanks to the Montalvo Arts Center, where I made the piece.

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To hear a live performance by Mary Rowell please visit April 19  in my ongoing project A Book of Days.

It’s also possible to perform Well-Spent with two live violins along with the pre-recorded track. You can hear the duo version performed by Ron Blessinger and Mary Rowell on this recording.

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Here is a score of the piece in pdf format.

The charge for the performance materials is normally $50, but it is now pay-as-you-like until public performances are possible again. After you click the button below, you’ll get a link to download the pre-recorded track. If you’d like an Ableton Live session for easy click playback, just let me know.

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The Flood

The Flood is a setting of a poem Robert Frost wrote in 1928, in response to the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River that destroyed a million homes, drove hundreds of thousands of people – mostly poor and African-American – north, and transformed America.

Blood has been harder to dam back than water.
Just when we think we have it impounded safe
Behind new barrier walls (and let it chafe!),
It breaks away in some new kind of slaughter.
We choose to say it is let loose by the devil;
But power of blood itself releases blood.
It goes by might of being such a flood
Held high at so unnatural a level.
It will have outlet, brave and not so brave.
Weapons of war and implements of peace
Are but the points at which it finds release.
And now it is once more the tidal wave
That when it has swept by leaves summits stained.
Oh, blood will out. It cannot be contained.

My land in Vermont is just a few miles from where Frost lived for many years, and I felt what I imagine to be a parallel rage and impotence in response to Katrina.

The Flood is one piece in a projected evening-length project about floods and transformation, which will also respond to the ongoing tragedy of Katrina, the Biblical flood, and the Mississippi River and its place in American culture.

The Flood is October 22nd in my ongoing project A Book of Days. The premiere recording of the piece is on Songs from the River Project, Volume 1.

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Here is a score of the piece in pdf format. I’m open to you arranging it for your ensemble; let me know what you have in mind. I can supply you with a backing track for your specific needs.

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

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Making Hey

Making Hey, for spoken voice, piano four-hands, bass, and as many percussionists as you’d like, was written for a festschrift published by Open Space Magazine celebrating my composition teacher, JK Randall.

The text for Making Hey is a gratuitously excellent piece of anonymous work that arrived in an email offering to increase my penis size or refinance my mortgage. I no longer remember which, since I lack both. (This method for confusing spam filters is called Bayesian poisoning, and there’s some pretty cool math involved, I recommend checking it out.)

I have set the text (unchanged except for punctuation) to an adaptation of a two-piano piece called Making Hay, which I wrote in 1980 and dedicated to Jim at that time. This new piece starts out with the same student piece, but gradually clarifies and simplifies it in response to the bass and percussion line I have added all these years later.

The bass and percussion are an adaptation of a Gnawa performance I’ve totally fallen in love with. You can listen to it at this Youtube link:

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Making Hey is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to a recording of the piece by visiting June 16th.

You can download a score of the piece here. The percussionist(s) should come up with their own interpretation of Gnawa rhythm when performing the piece. You can purchase performance materials for the other instruments by clicking the link below.

And thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing!

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