David M. Gordon, Composer - Program Notes
Apocryphal Dances (2010)

For nearly twenty years prior to the completion of this piece, I had wanted to write a collection of eccentric—and wholly fictitious—dances. Unfortunately, every time that I would set out to do so, my musical material would push me in another direction, forcing me to return the original dance suite concept to my compositional back burner. In the early stages of my work on Apocryphal Dances, I feared that this would happen once again, but as the central idea of the first movement began to take shape in my mind, I excitedly realized that it was, in fact, well-suited to the demands of dance music (or, at the very least, the demands of dance music as I conceive of it). Thus, this set represents the long-overdue realization of a concept that has been gestating in my brain for nearly two decades.

The dances themselves are—in accordance with my initial plan—completely spurious (or apocryphal, in the more general sense of the term) and deliberately quirky. As such, they may appear to be somewhat at odds with traditional notions of dance music. The two main features that each of these dances share in common with more conventional (that is to say, legitimate) styles of dance music are: 1) a tangible rhythmic drive, and 2) a heavy reliance upon repetition. Of course, whether or not these pieces actually could be, or even should be, danced to is quite another matter. I must confess that I had absolutely no choreography in mind when I composed them, and any putative sequence of steps would need to be highly complex, as all four dances are metrically irregular and rhythmically unpredictable. In a certain sense, then, these pieces are only dances in name, although I suppose that some brave soul could conceivably fashion bodily movements to suit them.

Like the dances themselves, the titles of the individual pieces are simply the products of my imagination. They were chosen solely based on their sound and visual appeal, and, with the exception of the Sesquilinear Tango (which is, in fact, based on the characteristic rhythms of the tango), have no connection to actual persons, places, or events. Nevertheless, experience has taught me that listeners have a far easier time dealing with strange and unfamiliar music when it is linked to some specific visual or conceptual element, and so I have concocted the following (purely bogus) historical and technical explanations of the dances in order to help you navigate their assorted idiosyncrasies:

Yxoi Eth Drazhim is an austere and highly-formalized ritual dance for three unmarried women that is believed to have originated in 13th-century Borneo. Its name, which is a uniquely rendered combination of Hindi and Old East Slavic terms, has no direct equivalent in English, but can be roughly translated as "the inner-force of the iron spike causes the steam to swirl in flower-like patterns." The dance itself is relatively slow-moving and requires each of the women to traverse a separate rhombus in a cyclic 31-step pattern. Although all three women follow the same sequence of steps, one of them, referred to as the oorta, always moves at two-thirds the speed of the others.

The Parakeet Coil is a rustic celebratory dance popularized by a small, far-eastern tribe of the ancient Jutes known as the Vuctae. Its evocative title refers to the fact that it was normally performed by a large group of adult male warriors in a spiral-like shape with their arms locked, and that it was only presented on rare occasions when a meal of parakeet meat (which was considered a highly valuable delicacy by the Jutes) was served. The music itself is notable for its inclusion of brash feena calls (a feena is a kind of primitive hunting horn made from elephant tusks and caribou antlers), Viking war zithers, and Peranthian reed pipes.

The extraordinary Sesquilinear Tango was originally thought to have been discovered on a copper tablet by German mathematician and amateur archeologist Rudolf Menling during a 1928 expedition to Uruguay. In 1931, however, Swiss philosopher Ens Gobet revealed that Menling was, in truth, a fictional character that had been constructed and employed as a literary alter-ego by French mathematician Anatole Sordoin, who had stumbled upon the tango while vacationing in Buenos Aires. Sordoin referred to the dance as "sesquilinear" because he was convinced that its internal structure, when rendered as a complex vector space, closely resembled an antisymmetric sesquilinear form (or so-called skew-Hermitian form). From a listening standpoint, the most distinctive feature of Sesquilinear Tango is the fact that each iteration of its characteristic tango ostinato is anywhere from one-third of a beat to one-and-two-thirds of a beat too long, creating a repeated and highly-prominent "hitch" in the step sequence.

Churghin Taqma (the title of which has no known translation) was introduced to the Ottoman Empire by Japanese Muslims traveling through the Balkans in the early 15th century. It is a highly aggressive and physical hunting dance that includes a repeating 27-beat sequence of irregularly-spaced steps. Near the end of the dance, the kima-oi-nithaq (a large ceremonial drum) is used to work the dancers into a frenzy, after which they are expected to fall to the ground in feigned (or perhaps real) exhaustion.

Apocryphal Dances was composed for—and is dedicated to—Kathleen Kastner and the Wheaton College Percussion Ensemble.

Circumflexus (2001)

Circumflexus, for solo alto saxophone, derives its title from an ancient Latin term meaning "bending around" or "a rounded form." True to its namesake, the work conveys a sense of circularity through a gradual expansion and subsequent contraction of its pitch space, which ranges in size from as small as three quarters of a tone to roughly two octaves. The majority of musical materials used within Circumflexus are derived from a small number of motivic gestures that recur regularly through the piece, further reinforcing the notion that its structure is rounded and non-teleological. The original version of Circumflexus, bearing the title Circulatio, was written in early 2001 for flutist Molly Alicia Barth, and the current version was adapted for saxophonist Joren Cain later that same year. As with all my works, Circumflexus was conceived as an abstract psalm of praise to God, the one to whom I owe everything I am and have, and thus bears the inscription “In Jesus’ Name.” 

Diclavis Enorma (2007)

Diclavis Enorma, for keyboard player and CD, was composed in 2007 for the senior piano recital of Timothy Smile, one of my former students. The work's title is an invented combination of two obscure Medieval Latin terms: “diclavis,” which refers (at least as far as scholars can tell) to a keyboard instrument that has a full complement of chromatic pitches, and “clavis enorma,” which designates a special quarter-tone key on a keyboard instrument (sometimes also called a “clavis enharmoniaca”). This phrase was chosen—or created, as it were—because it evokes certain ideas that are directly relevant to my conception of the work as a whole. To begin with, the title looks to me as though it should mean something along the lines of “enormous double keyboard” or “two giant keyboards.” Though both of these translations are incorrect, they are nonetheless relevant to the structure of the piece, since I conceive of it as a kind of abstract discourse between two extended “super keyboards.” The first of these “keyboards,” which is played by the live performer, is made up of a standard piano, a pair of chromatic toy pianos, and a set of eleven microtonally tuned call bells (the kind that you would find next to a “ring bell for service” sign). The second “keyboard,” which is heard on the CD part, is even more expansive, featuring a piano with 24 pitches to the octave, multiple toy pianos, and a full set of call bells. It is to this particular part that the title alludes when it references a “clavis enorma” (i.e., quarter-tone key). The fact that the CD part features a 24-tone piano also gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “a full complement of chromatic pitches.”

Diclavis Enorma is comprised of three continuous movements, each of which explores a different set of timbral, rhythmic, textural, and harmonic interactions between the two keyboard parts. The first movement, Motus Perpetuus (Perpetual Motion), is a machine-like, though rhythmically irregular, toccata that highlights the jangling tone colors and characteristically imprecise tunings of the toy pianos. Though rigorously synchronized, the two keyboard parts often move at different speeds throughout this movement. Musica Ornata (Florid Music) features elaborately ornamented melodic lines interweaving in a dense harmonic tapestry. It is during this section that the quarter-tone piano makes its first appearance, transforming the exotic, modal flourishes of the movement's opening into a tightly-packed, chromatic web. At a number of points in Musica Ornata, the two parts move independently of each other, creating a free, non-metrical rhythmic counterpoint. The third movement, Passacaglia, is a set of highly chromatic (actually, microchromatic) variations over a repeating harmonic pattern. As the section progresses, material from the preceding movements begins to reappear, gradually transforming the passacaglia into a large-scale recapitulation. Synchronization between the two parts is especially precise in this movement, involving as it does various interlocking patterns and unison rhythms.

Special thanks to John Snyder and Corey Abraira for their help in preparing the CD part.

The Dowry Negotiation (2007)

As a child, the Hungarian composer György Ligeti dreamed up a fictitious country called Kylwiria. He mapped out the land's major geographical features, wrote about its utopian social system, and even went so far as to devise a language for its pretend inhabitants. Although I—like Ligeti—had an overactive imagination as a child, I never managed to concoct so detailed a world. Nevertheless, I did develop an enduring interest in invented languages and synthetic folk music—that is to say, music designed to sound as though it is the product of a nonexistent culture. The Dowry Negotiation (Kylwirian Folksong No. 1) is a direct outgrowth of these two interests. Like Ligeti's Kylwiria, The Dowry Negotiation makes use of its own artificial "language," though its "words" do not actually have any specific meanings. Instead, they are constructed to sound maximally foreign and to produce an array of unusual vocal colors. To this end, the piece abounds with obscure consonant clusters (e.g., kthi, shchoo, gzhoo, gznee, kta, bzheekh) and phonetic sounds that rarely occur within the same language. When combined with the choir's non-vibrato singing and the sounds of Thai button gongs, water glasses, and a microtonally-tuned mandolin, these unusual phonetic combinations give The Dowry Negotiation a distinctly non-Western flavor. 

While the title may suggest that the work is intended to convey a specific story, that is not actually the case. Instead, listeners are invited to fill in their own dramatic details as the work unfolds. Are dowry negotiations handled solely by women in this imaginary culture? And is the dowry paid to the family of the groom, or is it transferred to the family of the bride? Why are there multiple women involved in this discussion? Are they extended relatives? Friends? Bystanders? And why does the music grow increasingly intense? Is an argument occurring, or is this the usual dynamic for a negotiation of this kind? Is an agreement ever reached, and, if so, are all parties satisfied with it? 

The Dowry Negotiation
was composed for the Wheaton College Women's Chorale in 2007 and is appreciatively dedicated to its director, Dr. Mary Hopper.

Fader, stilla våra andar (2002)

Fader, stilla våra andar was written in memory of my grandfather, Gilbert Earnest (1911-2001), and is loosely based on a hymn written by my great-grandfather, Frank Earnest. Although the text of the hymn was originally composed in English, I chose to set it in Swedish, the language used in Frank Earnest's few other remaining vocal works. The opening melody and harmonic progression of the hymn served as points of departure for Fader, stilla våra andar, which fragments and restructures these basic building blocks in a variety of ways. The text itself had particular relevance at the time of this piece’s writing, since I was still grieving the death of my grandfather. As a prayer, it elegantly expressed my need for God's comfort in a time of loss. In even deeper terms, however, it also served as a reminder that both my grandfather and his father were (and still are) tangibly experiencing the divine peace and contentment that can only be found in the glorious presence of Christ.

Friction Systems (2002, revised 2005)

Friction Systems is a revised version of a work called Dramamine that I composed in 2002 for the sextet eighth blackbird. Although it is not programmatic in the traditional sense, the piece explores notions of discord, imbalance, tension, and disorientation in the context of a relentless and extremely fast moto perpetuo. The overarching impression of instability in Friction Systems is expressed through a variety of musical devices, the most notable of which are the superimposition of conflicting rhythmic patterns and the melodic pairing of instruments a quarter-tone apart. While these associations are significant in the overall concept of the work, Friction Systems more generally centers around the development of various musical techniques that are of long-standing interest to me. The use of complex, machine-like rhythmic patterns, microtonal intervals, and exotic timbres can be seen as deriving more from a broad compositional viewpoint than from specific extra-musical connotations. Timbral manipulation, in particular, has occupied a focal point in my creative investigations, and Friction Systems is no exception to this. The work features an extensively prepared piano - 26 of the strings have machine screws placed between them, supplying a wide range of unique tone colors and microtonally-inflected pitches - and incorporates an array of exotic percussion instruments. Many of the sonorities highlighted in the work are, in fact, loosely inspired by the sound of Central Javanese Gamelan, a type of music that I performed actively during my six years at Northern Illinois University. Along with the timbral connections mentioned above, this influence can be tangibly identified in my use of low, bell-like octaves in the piano as markers of important formal divisions (an allusion to the low gong which marks cyclical repetitions in gamelan music). Lastly, and most importantly, I would like to note that Friction Systems is conceived as an abstract psalm of praise to God, the one to whom I owe everything I am and have, and thus bears the inscription "In Jesus' Name." 

Gratias agimus tibi (for HW) (2012)

Gratias agimus tibi (for HW) was composed in 2012 as a token of admiration for my colleague and friend, Dr. Howard (Howie) Whitaker, on the occasion of his retirement from Wheaton College. The work itself is a brief meditation on the first theme from the "Gratias agimus tibi" movement of Bach's legendary Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. I chose the theme for both its musical qualities (it is a simple diatonic melody that is readily adapted to a variety of different settings) and its textual associations (the Latin text that accompanies the melody translates as “We give you thanks”). As it so happens, the "Gratias agimus tibi" movement is also one of my all-time favorite musical excerpts. Though I would not describe Gratias agimus tibi (for HW) as a conventional theme and variations, it is, in fact, comprised primarily of short, interconnected transformations of Bach's theme. These transformations range in character from solemn to exotic and feature an array of unusual colors, including a "choir" of flex-a-tones, a piano with plastic screws and paper placed against its strings, two "de-tuned" harps with strips of paper woven between their strings, abnormally low horns, and abnormally high strings. The clarinet section, which contains two bass clarinets, plays an especially prominent role throughout the work, since Howie himself is an accomplished clarinetist. Gratias agimus tibi (for HW) was written specifically for the Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra, and is gratefully dedicated to Howie Whitaker, Daniel Sommerville, and the orchestra's players.

Hollow Psalm (1998, revised 2009)

Hollow Psalm, for Javanese gamelan and orchestra, was composed in 1998 for the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Northern Illinois University Gamelan Ensemble. Since that time, I have revised the work extensively, producing what is essentially a brand-new (and hopefully much improved) composition. Integrating Javanese gamelan—an indigenous Indonesian percussion orchestra comprised of various metallophones, tuned gongs, and drums—with a Western symphony orchestra poses formidable challenges. The main difficulty lies in the fact that Gamelan instruments are tuned very differently from Western orchestral instruments. Indeed, many of the pitches and interval sizes found within the gamelan ensemble fall directly in between those of equal temperament. 

Perhaps the simplest solution to this difficulty would be to avoid using the two ensembles at the same time and instead alternate between them in the manner of a Baroque concerto grosso. Unfortunately, this approach precludes a wide array of unique colors that are only available when the orchestra and the gamelan are combined. This seemed wholly unsatisfactory to me and thus left me no choice but to embrace various tuning discrepancies and allow them to play an integral role in the structure of the piece. Given that I have a long-standing interest in alternate tuning systems, this task ultimately proved to be both manageable and rewarding.

Throughout Hollow Psalm, the orchestra and the gamelan interact in a number of different ways. At certain times they seem to be at odds with (or, at the very least, indifferent to) each other, while at other times they appear to form an uneasy truce, fusing together into a gigantic "super ensemble." At some points the orchestra and gamelan flaunt their tuning differences, while at other points they manage to find common ground. 

Although Hollow Psalm is not programmatic in the traditional sense of the term, it is loosely inspired by two passages from the New Testament—Luke 19:36-41 and Mark 15:6-15. The first of these sections describes a crowd joyfully praising Christ as he enters Jerusalem, while the second depicts an angry mob demanding his execution only a few days later. Though I have no way of knowing this for certain, I've always imagined that these two crowds contained some of the same people. The volatile, rapidly-shifting allegiances of these imagined onlookers are represented musically through the ever-changing relationships between the orchestra and gamelan, and their shallow, disingenuous praises are symbolized by a recurring—and constantly varying—chant-like theme.

In the Dragon's Court (1993)

In the Dragon's Court, for 10 percussionists, holds a special place in my compositional output, since it is the very first work that I completed for concert performance. It was written while I was a junior in high school and, as such, exhibits some of the roughness that I associate with the music of inexperienced composers. Nevertheless, I remain fond of this particular piece, and I find it interesting that many of its most prominent musical features—especially its use of exotic scales, dissonant harmonies, rhythmic conflicts, and novel color combinations—can still be found in my compositions to this day (albeit in a somewhat more sophisticated form).

Despite what its title might suggest, In the Dragon's Court is not actually a programmatic work. At the time of its composition, I had a strong interest in fantasy role-playing games and was looking for an ominous-sounding title, and so the mention of a dragon seemed like a logical choice. Formally, the piece is comprised of four continuous sections. During the first of these, the main theme is presented by the chimes and crotales over repeating motivic patterns. A different, more ornate theme is then introduced by the vibraphone and orchestra bells in the work's second section. The third part, which begins with vibraphone and marimba cadenzas, develops the original theme in a somewhat more mysterious environment, while the final portion of the piece juxtaposes all of its main ideas in a climactic bombast.

In the Dragon’s Court was written for—and premiered by—the Carl Sandburg High School Percussion Ensemble.

Jigsaw Zither (2012)

Jigsaw Zither, for solo berimbau player with five live or pre-recorded accompanying berimbau parts, is among the most unusual compositional projects that I have ever taken on. It was written at the request of Gregory Beyer, who is perhaps the world’s only "classical" (in the sense of Euro-American classical) berimbau virtuoso, for performance with the Northern Illinois University Bau-House, a student berimbau ensemble of his founding. The berimbau is a Brazilian musical bow with a single metal wire, a fixed bridge made of rope or string, and a hollow resonating gourd. The wire is played with a thin wooden stick, and the player alters the pitch of the wire by pressing a small stone or coin against it. The player may also achieve a vibrato-like effect by rapidly moving the resonating gourd closer and further away from his or her body. Although the string bridge is tied securely in place during performance, it can be moved when the instrument is not in use, thus altering the tuning of the wire. 

In Jigsaw Zither, each berimbau is tuned differently, with the result being an exotic twelve-note scale that is rich in microtonal intervals unavailable in the familiar equal-tempered tuning of Western art music. The work itself is a passacaglia with a thirty-two-note melodic ostinato divided between the five accompanying parts. Above the ostinato, the soloist performs an array of intricate variations that eventually culminate in a frenetic, improvised cadenza. Although the melodic ostinato is present throughout most of the work, there are a number of extended "interruptions" in which the accompanying parts introduce new—though closely-related—melodic and rhythmic material. 

The title of the work is derived from both the berimbau’s organological classification and its specialized use in my piece.  "Zither" refers to Hornbostel and Sachs’s categorization of the berimbau as a kind of "bar zither," while "Jigsaw" alludes to the fact that the notes of the main melodic ostinato are distributed in a puzzle-like fashion among five different players. The work is dedicated, with much gratitude, to Gregory Beyer and the hard-working students who have helped bring it to life.       

Just As I Am, Without One Plea (2012)

Just As I Am, Without One Plea was written in 2012 for the Chicago New Arts Trio, who had asked several local composers to re-imagine classic hymns in honor of the Reverend Billy Graham. My setting of Just As I Am leaves the melody more or less intact, but changes its surroundings rather dramatically. While the mood of the work remains meditative throughout, and the harmonic language is consistently modal, each verse is set to different music in the manner of a theme and variation set.

Labyrinthus Musicus (2012)

Labyrinthus Musicus is a large, continuous set of eleven variations on a snaking quarter-tone theme. Like many of the musical "labyrinths" that have been composed over the past several hundred years (such as Friedrich Suppig's Labyrinthus musicus, J.S. Bach's [?] Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth, Marin Marais's Le Labyrinthe, and Johann Fischer's Ariadne musica), it is highly chromatic and traverses a number of different pitch centers. In this case, however, the pitch centers are not associated with conventional major or minor keys. Instead, they serve as points of emphasis within an otherwise freely chromatic (or micro-chromatic, as the case may be) pitch space. 

One of my main goals in composing Labyrinthus Musicus was to provide its dedicatee—Joren Cain—with a work that is both virtuosic and distinct from the myriad other high-level pieces that have been composed for saxophone over the past fifty years. The result is a composition that makes extensive use of microtones (and thus a "labyrinth" of unconventional fingerings), requires the saxophonist to play two instruments simultaneously, emphasizes circular breathing, and features a number of complex rhythmic interactions between the saxophone(s) and piano. Labyrinthus Musicus is also one of the only pieces in the saxophone repertoire that includes a prepared piano—an ordinary grand piano with foreign objects placed between its strings. Fifty-five of the piano's strings have metal or vinyl machine screws between them, thus supplying a wide range of exotic tone colors and microtonally-inflected pitches. The following is a brief synopsis of the piece's form:

Theme: A serpentine microtonal melody played by the alto saxophone and piano in rhythmic unison. The saxophone plays in quarter-tones while the piano plays in half-steps at the bottom of its range.

Variation 1 — A close canon between the alto saxophone and piano. 

Variation 2 — A high, chant-like melody played by the alto saxophone over a swirling piano pattern.

Variation 3 (Double) — An alternation between two different registers and pitch centers, each bridged by an ostinato in the pianist's right hand.

Variation 4 — The alto saxophone plays an augmented version of the melody in a high altissimo register over repeated, bell-like tones in the piano.

Variation 5 — An ornate, rhythmically free variation in which the alto saxophone and piano move in separate tempos. The pianist's left hand reiterates an open fifth, creating an austere drone.

Variations 6 — For the first time, the piano plays the melody while the saxophone either accompanies or rests.

Variation 7 — The saxophonist plays soprano and alto saxophones simultaneously in slow, modal counterpoint.

Variation 8 — The saxophonist continues playing soprano and alto simultaneously, but now moves into a higher register. The pianist doubles the saxophonist's melodic pitches while simultaneously creating a drone on a chromatic pitch pipe.

Variation 9 (Double) — A high, florid melody played by the soprano saxophone over rapid piano scales. The pianist's left hand alternates between fast patterns and slow, deep presentations of the theme.

Variation 10 — An aggressive variation with flutter-tonguing on the soprano saxophone and hammered pitch repetitions on the piano.

Variation 11 — A final, quiet statement of the theme by the piano over a drone in the soprano saxophone.

Mysteria Incarnationis (2015)

One of Christianity’s most distinctive claims is that God, the creator and sustainer of all things, became a human being and lived on earth for over thirty years. This divine man, Jesus Christ, was not simply human in appearance, but took on all the essential qualities—the very nature—of human kind. As the author of Hebrews states, Christ "had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." The gospels attest to the fact that Jesus faced all of the limitations and difficulties that we associate with humanity. He experienced exhaustion, hunger, thirst, sorrow, frustration, uncertainty, anxiety, and temptation to sin. Although he was often privy to insights unavailable to other humans, he had finite knowledge and thus needed to acquire information through questioning and discovery. Moreover, Christ did not enter the world as an adult, with fanfare, riches, or authority, but as a fragile infant who needed, like all children, to grow "in wisdom and in stature." He was born to a young girl in unsanitary conditions and raised in poverty by normal human parents, all in a time and place where life expectancy was low, living conditions were poor, and technology was relatively primitive.

Yet despite the seeming ordinariness of his human characteristics and historical circumstances, Christ retained all the attributes of deity. According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus "is the image of the invisible God.... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." The letter to the Hebrews further asserts that Christ "is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." While on earth, Jesus revealed himself to be far more than a typical human being by performing supernatural healings, casting out evil spirits, exercising control over the forces of nature, forgiving sins, claiming to be the source of eternal salvation, and referring to himself as "I am," a designation reserved for God alone. Indeed, his resurrection from the dead, which is often cited as the definitive evidence of his divinity, served merely as a confirmation of the unique status that he had already divulged through his words and miracles.

For the reasons cited above, Christian orthodoxy has consistently maintained that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. In the more technical language of the Chalcedonian Creed, Christ is "perfect in deity and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father according to his deity, consubstantial with us according to his humanity, like us in all respects, apart from sin... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion or change, without division or separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ." Even though this doctrine is considered a cornerstone of the Christian faith, its logical implications have served as a source of perplexity and contention for nearly two millennia. As it stands, the doctrine of the incarnation seems to entail a rather substantial contradiction, since—by most definitions—the concepts of divinity and humanity are logically incompatible. God is traditionally described as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal, and sinless, whereas human beings are known to be limited in power and knowledge, confined to specific spatial locations, clothed in physical bodies, and prone to sin. The authors of the Chalcedonian Creed may not have felt the need to speculate about how such extreme qualitative differences could be reconciled within a single person, but the same cannot be said of many other Christians. Professional and lay theologians have made numerous attempts to provide a rational explanation for Christ’s dual nature, with varying degrees of success. In the end, most have been forced to concede that this doctrine entails an element of mystery that transcends human comprehension. Regardless of how sophisticated or compelling any given explanation may be, a certain amount of paradox always remains. And then there are the more concrete—but no less intriguing—questions raised by the biblical portrait of Jesus as God-man. Was he fully cognizant of his divinity from birth, or was it revealed to him gradually? Was Jesus actually capable of sinning? How well did his parents understand his unique makeup, and how did their understanding impact their ability to relate to him? Were Jesus’ supernatural abilities and knowledge fully—or even partially—at his disposal while he lived on earth, or was access to them granted by his Father only under special circumstances?

For much of my life, my position on the incarnation was fairly unreflective. I was content to accept the bare facts expressed by the Chalcedonian Formulation without further pondering their ramifications. Speaking about the council that penned that historic statement, Irish theologian Alister McGrath explains that "it merely restated a crucially important insight—it didn’t explain it, or lay down some specific way of making sense of it.... So long as Jesus was recognized as being both God and man, all was well." I had taken a similar view of the incarnation, aware that the doctrine involved an apparent contradiction, yet undaunted. It is only very recently that I have begun to give this critical truth more careful thought. Although I am still comfortable with the notion that human intelligence is insufficient to unravel the incarnation’s mysteries and hence do not feel the need to resolutely adopt a theological response to its philosophical challenges, I have found that contemplating its puzzling intricacies provides fresh perspectives on God’s divine qualities and deeds.

Mysteria Incarnationis (Mysteries of the Incarnation)
, for soprano, violin, and prepared piano, is designed to stimulate both personal and corporate contemplation of the issues outlined above. My goal is to provide a space in which listeners and performers must confront their own beliefs about the meaning and relevance of orthodox teachings on the incarnation. The work’s theological musings assume a broadly Chalcedonian framework, but do not impose any particular interpretation upon it. Put somewhat differently, Mysteria Incarnationis is mainly concerned with questions about the incarnation, not answers. It revels in the ostensible paradoxes of Christ’s dual nature, especially as they are displayed within the nativity narrative, and uses them as a catalyst for worship. The ancient Latin term Mysteria is thus used here in the ecclesiastical sense of "a religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; especially a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving." By directly engaging with these complex doctrines, audience members and performers will hopefully be led to a fuller appreciation of God’s immense power, wisdom, humility, and sacrificial love. 

I also aim to defamiliarize the incarnation by clothing the nativity story in unfamiliar poetic and musical garb. As I have discovered firsthand, the strong associations between Christmas—especially in its more sentimental manifestations—and the incarnation can easily deaden the latter’s intellectual and emotional impact. Rather than calling to mind God’s boundless grace, unfathomable wisdom, and passionate, self-abasing commitment to the human race, it often conjures images of a handsome baby boy peacefully slumbering in a quaint manger as his parents look on adoringly. These impressions are not wholly inappropriate, of course, since they find their origins in the Bible’s own account of Christ’s birth, but they often draw one’s attention away from the fact that the incarnation was an unprecedented act of divine sacrifice. God, the source of all reality, became a helpless infant, unable to see clearly, control his limbs, regulate his bodily functions, or even lift his head. The Perfect, Eternal, All-Knowing, All-Powerful One needed to be cared for and instructed by his own wayward creations, all so that those creations could be redeemed from their transgressions and restored to a right relationship with their maker. This is a picture of a rather different sort—one which elicits a profound sense of gratitude, awe, and even sorrow. It is this alternate vision of the incarnation that I hope to evoke.

Mysteria Incarnationis is a cycle of six interconnected songs using texts by fourth-century poet, composer, and theologian Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306–73). The texts are taken from Ephrem’s Hymns on the Nativity, a series of extended poetic meditations on the wonders and enigmas of Christ’s incarnation. Many of these hymns—which Ephrem himself referred to as lullabies—were likely composed for liturgical use on the feast of Christ’s birth and manifestation to the world. Although they were originally set to music, and perhaps even sung by female choirs, their melodies have long since been lost. Ephrem often employed paradox as a literary device in his poems, and that is nowhere more apparent than in his Hymns on the Nativity, which repeatedly highlight the paradoxes inherent in Christ’s dual nature and relationship to mankind. These are profoundly beautiful and thought-provoking works, emphasizing the incarnation’s assorted mysteries through a rich array of biblical allusions, religious symbols, metaphors, and aporias. Accordingly, one of my top priorities in setting them to music was to let them speak for themselves. Though my music is meant to heighten the hymns’ emotional thrust and amplify their theological assertions, it is in no way intended to serve a hermeneutic function.

Like all of Ephrem’s writings, his Hymns on the Nativity were composed in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language that Jesus himself spoke. Syriac is rarely used in Western art music and is quite far removed—both in its sound system and grammar—from the Romance and Germanic languages in which Western classical singers are normally trained. Nevertheless, I resolved to set Ephrem’s poetry in its original language so as to preserve its distinctive sounds, rhythms, and historical associations. The unfamiliarity of Syriac, at least to most listeners, also helps to place the subject matter in a foreign context. Since I lack formal training in Syriac, I needed to rely upon the expertise of others as I navigated Ephrem’s texts. Gabriel Aydin, founder and director of the Syriac Music Institute, vocalized and transliterated the texts for me, while Dr. Michael Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, provided me with literal English translations of the words.

The first song in Mysteria Incarnationis—“Shbih hakimo”—sets a single stanza from Hymn No. 8. In that short excerpt, Ephrem praises God for the wisdom he displayed in uniting human and divine natures within the person of Jesus Christ. He vividly compares God to a painter who mixes pigments in order to bring about a new color. Given that this text describes the incarnation abstractly, divorced from the concrete historical narrative of Jesus’ life, I thought it best to set it as a chant, albeit of a rather rarefied sort. I ordinarily associate chant with the proclamation of divine truths, since it has served as a medium for sacred teachings and devotions for over 2,000 years, and so it seemed a natural complement to these particular lines. The melody makes extensive use of quarter-tones, however, which lend it a strangely alien quality that is meant to suggest the "otherness" of God’s ways. In Isaiah 55:9, the Lord says, "as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." The exotic, micro-chromatic chant is accompanied by an ethereal drone, played by the pianist on a tuned water glass, which symbolizes the eternity of both God and his plan to redeem mankind through Christ, the God-man. This musical metaphor is drawn from the music of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which often employs long, sustained tones known as isons to accompany melodic lines. Christ’s dual nature is represented throughout this song—as well as in subsequent portions of the cycle—by a commonplace musical device known as doubling. At a number of critical junctures, the voice and violin perform in unison, creating a hybrid timbre. Unlike mixed visual colors, which generally lose their individual characteristics as they are combined, aural "colors" are able to retain their distinctive qualities while simultaneously fusing into a new sound. In other words, separate timbres join "without confusion or change... the difference of the natures being by no means removed by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.” In this case, listeners hear a voice/violin amalgam, and yet are also able to perceive its component timbres as discrete sonic entities. It would appear that this is one analogy to which music is especially well suited.

"Man hi tamrah," the second song in the cycle, begins by underscoring the internal conflicts that Mary undoubtedly faced as the mother of Christ. How was she to treat him? As God or a human child? Who had authority over whom? Should she rely upon him or provide for him? Guide him or be guided by him? All Christians face questions of this kind, though typically in a far less acute form, since scripture describes Christ as our God, savior, bridegroom, teacher, high priest, shepherd, king, friend, and brother. We relate to Jesus on multiple levels, and this inevitably generates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. My setting of the first stanza thus projects tension and uncertainty, combining music of child-like simplicity with intimations of grandeur and ritual austerity. Distantly-related keys are superimposed, creating discordant clashes, and concurrent melodic lines move at opposing speeds. All the while, quarter-tones continue to permeate the texture, imbuing the music with an unearthly aura. After reaching an agitated climax, the music becomes increasingly diatonic and spare, signifying a turn from indecision to an acceptance of the truths recounted in the second and third stanzas. Even if their implications are not fully understood, the scriptural portrayals of Jesus as creator, son of God, redeemer, high priest, king, and descendent of Abraham can be internalized by faith. The chant-like ambiance of the first song eventually returns, though now shorn of melodic quarter-tones and hence more "earthly" in tone, as the transcendent reality of Christ’s nature is filtered through limited human intellects.
 
Ephrem’s designation of his Hymns on the Nativity as lullabies is fitting, since many of them feature Mary singing directly to her infant son. "Manu yab lo (Lullaby 1)" sets two such passages: a lengthy excerpt from Hymn No. 5 and a single stanza from Hymn No. 16. Here, Mary meditates on the deep mysteries of the incarnation in theological and philosophical terms. She does so, however, using the language of paradox, since the concepts that she is pondering defy human reasoning and language. Jesus was confined to a tiny, frail, human body, and yet simultaneously present in the entire universe. Here was "an aged babe" who gazed "entirely everywhere... as the Director of all creation above and below." Though he could not yet speak, he was able to communicate directly with God. Though he could not yet command his own muscles, he served as "Commander of the universe." How could Mary hope to provide nourishment to the source of all sustenance? How could she clothe in rags "the One arrayed in streams of light"? How could she have given birth to the one who birthed her? These ruminations are, in fact, set in the manner of a lullaby, but the rhythmic and timbral complexity of the music suggest that these strains are addressed to a truly unusual child. Melody and accompaniment often move at different tempos. Out-of-tune children’s instruments, such as toy piano and harmonica, freely intermingle with more conventional ones. The singer and pianist are called upon to play multiple instruments at the same time. On a large scale, "Manu yab lo" is organized similarly to a theme and variation set. A simple, modal melody is presented in several different guises, as though Mary is attempting to disentangle the complexities of the incarnation by viewing them from alternate vantage points. The music also builds in intensity as Mary considers her elevated position in Christ, reaching an emotional apex in stanza 21. Following that point, the song becomes progressively more eccentric, as Mary sinks deeper and deeper into the intractable paradoxes of the incarnation. Finally, in a forlorn, exposed passage, Mary questions what she should even call her newborn child, who is "a stranger to us." Should she call him Son? Brother? Husband? Lord?

The fourth, and second shortest, of Mysteria Incarnationis’s songs—"Manu mse dnimar"—is also its most unusual. The opening stanza sets the tone, posing the rhetorical question "Who is able to speak about the hidden Son Who came down and put on a body in the womb?" The assumed answer is no one but God himself. This is a mystery too great for the minds and speech of humankind. Following this bold assertion are two homely, yet striking, images: Christ feeding at his mother’s breast and crawling among other infants. As the father of two young children, I found these seemingly mundane pictures to be thoroughly disorienting. My young son, Miles, is a delight, but he is also obstinate, messy, temperamental, clumsy, mischievous, and prone to destroying valuable objects. He leaves a trail of half-eaten food behind him wherever he goes, and he is continually injuring himself as he attempts treacherous physical feats. For an ordinary human child, these behaviors are unremarkable, but for God, who is "majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds," they border on the absurd. And yet this is the very portrait of Christ that Ephrem presents to us—the "Son of the Ruler of All" breastfeeding and crawling alongside other children. No doubt Jesus displayed many of the same tendencies as my own son, since he was fully human, but I am yet to fully internalize such an outlandish notion. As a result, my musical setting of these two brief stanzas is mostly inscrutable in its emotional content. The prepared piano has a sheet of paper placed over its strings, producing a raspy, buzzing sound, and even excepting this special alteration, its pitches are cold, metallic, and non-tempered. Meanwhile, the violin speaks with guttural scratches and groans as the voice intones a snaking, chromatic melody.

"Lo aten ber," the second of Mysteria Incarnationis’s two lullabies, merges a tender affect with an otherworldly atmosphere. The text, which is taken from Hymn No. 16, is both deeply intimate and profoundly mystical. Mary now contemplates Christ’s love and care for all people, paradoxically affirming his physical presence with her and his spiritual presence with the entire human race. Not only is Jesus her beloved son, whom she is cradling in her arms, but he is also God, Lord, and Brother to all mankind. Although he exited her womb at birth, his "hidden power" remains within her. He is both within her and outside of her, acting at once as her savior and child. She further contrasts Christ’s outward, human form with his "hidden," divine form, which is united with God the Father. Like "Manu yab lo (Lullaby 1)," "Lo aten ber (Lullaby 2)" features music of child-like innocence, but with a distinctively alien flavor. The pianist plucks the instrument’s strings while the violinist performs on a retuned autoharp, suggesting the sound of a large, exotic zither. Quarter-tones once again enter the sonic landscape, calling to mind the mysterious workings of God’s mind, as well as the incomprehensible riches of his grace. Though the music is gentle and introspective, it is also somewhat discomfiting, as it traverses strangely distorted harmonic and melodic terrain. During the third stanza, the crystalline drone from the first song reemerges, once again asserting God’s unchanging perfection and wisdom.

The final song in the cycle—"Brikh hu dlo sokh destayakh"—is a regal expression of worship, joyously exclaiming God’s grace, majesty, and sacrifice. As the music progresses, it becomes increasingly emphatic, working itself into a controlled celebratory ecstasy. Despite its late occurrence in the work, this is the first section in which the pianist plays full chords, which evoke the resonant chiming of large church bells. The voice and violin declaim the text in octaves as a concluding symbol of Christ’s dual nature, and the melody soars ever higher in celebration of Christ’s redemptive incarnation. Despite—or perhaps even because of—its profound mysteries, the coming of the God-man is cause for exultation. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
              
Mysteria Incarnationis was written for, and is gratefully dedicated to, my dear friends Kayleen and Paul Sánchez.        

Nocturne (2005)

In 2005, eleven different composers from the University of Chicago were asked to participate in Murmurations, a jointly-written set of variations on the classic Beatles tune Blackbird. This unique project promoted close interaction between the participating composers and the performer, with each contributor sharing an equal stake in the final outcome. Pianist Lisa Kaplan selected the theme, title (a "murmuration" is a group, or flock, of blackbirds), and ordering of the variations, while each of the composers supplied a short transformation of the song. My contribution to the set, entitled Nocturne, turned out to be its most conventional variation.

Blackbird was originally released on the Beatles’ "White" album in 1968, and the lyrics read as follows:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly;
All your life
you were only waiting for this moment to arise.


Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see;
All your life
you were only waiting for this moment to be free.


Blackbird, fly,
Blackbird, fly into the light of a dark, black night.


Although my first impulse in taking on this project was to radically distort and disfigure the theme, transforming it into something morbid and grotesque, I eventually found myself gravitating toward a more traditional approach. Certain features of the original song, most notably its rhythmically free, recitation-like melody, irregular meter, and static, droning bass, brought to mind a kid of solemn—albeit grooving—chant. The resulting variation is a heavily ornamented and significantly slower version of the theme over a chain of hazy, arpeggiated harmonies and ostinati. Though it preserves the basic harmonic structure, melodic contour, and three-part form (verses, choruses, verse) of the original tune, Nocturne features an array of rhythmic transformations, melodic embellishments, and modal inflections designed to suggest an elaborate, though purely synthetic, form of chant.  The title of my piece was inspired both by the nocturnal imagery of the song’s lyrics and the nebulous texture of the variation.

On Love (2011)

On Love was written for the 2011 wedding of two former students: Nick Cherone and Shannon Smith. The text—an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s poem "Song"—was chosen by the bride and groom, and given the circumstances of the work’s premiere, I felt compelled to set it in a relatively straightforward fashion. On Love is thus entirely modal, featuring only a single chromatic alteration near the end. The text has an obsessive quality to it that I have tried to project by means of a repeating, though increasingly embellished, trochaic rhythm in the piano. On top of this simple ostinato, the soprano intones the text in a fluid, non-metrical rhythm that is vaguely reminiscent of Medieval plainchant.

Quasi Sinfonia (2008)

Over the past 100 years or so, the claim has occasionally been made by both composers and music commentators that the symphony is an obsolete—or dead, to put it in even starker terms—genre. This point of view perplexed me during my early college years, since at that time I conceived of a symphony as nothing more than a multi-movement composition for a large instrumental ensemble, and works of that kind are obviously alive and well in the modern repertory. Eventually I became aware of the additional structural and semantic baggage that the symphony carried with it (such as its customary four-movement organization, fast-slow-fast-fast tempo scheme, reliance on sonata form, tonal conflict, thematic development, and so forth), and  I began to understand why it might be ill-suited for modern forms of musical expression. Though my confusion over the issue was temporarily abated, I still found myself wondering if my earlier, more general notion of the symphony was entirely inappropriate. After all, more than a few twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers have written so-called symphonies that seem to observe very few, if any, of the conventions mentioned above. As I also discovered, the term "symphony" is derived from an ancient Greek word that simply means "sounding together," and during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Latin and Italian forms of that term ("symphonia" and "sinfonia," respectively) were applied to a wide variety of composition types, including motets, sonatas, concertos, and operatic overtures. If the accepted musical meaning of the term (insofar as such a thing existed) could change during earlier periods, I thought, why couldn't it continue to change in more recent times? Must the early nineteenth-century conception of the symphony remain its only valid characterization? 

My own first attempt at a symphony, Quasi Sinfonia, draws upon a number of different approaches to the genre. Although I retained the four-movement format and tempo scheme of the Classical symphony, the proportions of the movements are the exact opposite of what one would expect to find in such a work. The first and last movements, which are generally the most substantial, are here made to be the shortest and least thematically-oriented (in fact, the first movement has no melody at all), and the third movement, which is often the shortest and least profound of the sections in a Classical symphony, is now transformed into a large theme and variations set. My chosen instrumentation for Quasi Sinfonia departs even further from the symphonic norm. While three out of the four sections of a typical symphony orchestra (woodwinds, percussion, and strings) are represented within the 16-player ensemble, the relative sizes and internal compositions of those groups are somewhat idiosyncratic. The woodwind section is made up of a flutist (who only plays alto flute and piccolo), an oboist (doubling on English horn), a clarinetist (doubling on bass clarinet), a saxophonist (who plays soprano and baritone saxophones), and a contrabassoonist, all of whom double on various "non-traditional" instruments, such as melodica (a blown, free-reed instrument that is operated by means of a keyboard), chromatic pitch pipe, kazoo, slide whistle, and tin whistle. The three percussionists play an array of unusual instruments, including assorted hunting calls, harmonicas, a slide whistle, Thai button gongs, tuned wine glasses and glass bowls, a toy piano, bowed flex-a-tones, and a microtonally-tuned mandolin. Also included in the ensemble are a partially-prepared piano (41 sets of its strings have vinyl machine screws placed between them), an out-of-tune autoharp (played by the second violist), and four sets of large metal wind chimes (played by the upper strings).

From a thematic standpoint, Quasi Sinfonia is relatively straightforward. It features two central melodies, both of which are modal and stylistically indebted to plainchant. The first of these—a sinuous line that oscillates between the Aeolian and Phrygian modes—is first heard at the opening of the second movement. The other theme, which initially appears midway through the second movement and serves as the subject for the variations in the third movement, is an old shape-note hymn entitled King of Peace. This short tune was originally published in the 1835 Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, a collection of shape-note hymns and anthems compiled by William Walker. My decision to use King of Peace as one of my primary themes hinged on a number of different factors. I was originally attracted to the austere, medieval quality of shape-note hymns, with their hollow fifths and octaves (not to mention the peculiar, non-tempered tuning in which they are typically sung), and I was intrigued by the fact that such ancient-sounding music had been produced in the United States by Protestant Christians, a group with whom I personally identify. Using this hymn allowed me to reference both my cultural background (as an American composer) and spiritual affiliation (as an evangelical Christian) while exploring a melodic and harmonic style that was of interest to me. I also chose this theme because of its rhythmic organization. The galloping, trochaic rhythm of the hymn is heard throughout Quasi Sinfonia in various guises, often pitted against itself at different speeds, and its triple meter feel provides a subtle allusion to the traditional 3/4 patterning of a Classical symphony’s third movement.

Provided below is a brief synopsis of Quasi Sinfonia's four continuous movements:

I. Allarmi — The work's aggressive and ominous opening is intended to evoke the sounds of warning signals. Three successive groups of alarms are presented, each one considerably lower in register than the last, simulating a highly-exaggerated Doppler effect. The central portion of the movement is made up of elaborate interlocking rhythmic patterns in the pitch pipe, harmonica, and prepared piano parts, suggesting the inner-workings of a giant machine. Eventually, the warning signals return, though now seemingly in the distance.

II. Ritual — The slow, meditative second movement introduces the symphony's two main themes in a mysterious, ethereal soundscape replete with drones and repeating motivic patterns. Many of the ensemble's "standard" instruments, such as the alto flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, and English horn, are heard for the first time in this movement, producing colors reminiscent of a traditional orchestra.

III. Tema con variazioni — King of Peace is used as the basis for a set of eight large variations. Though the character of these transformations ranges from the exotic to the propulsive to the grotesque, all of them maintain a relatively fast pace. During the final four variations, the main theme from the second movement begins to resurface and gradually merge together with the shape-note hymn, forging a new, more elaborate melodic contour. The final variation is comprised of several shorter transformations and draws upon many of the ideas heard earlier in the work.

IV. Allarmi e campane — The symphony's shortest movement serves simultaneously as a coda, a ninth variation on King of Peace, and a return of the opening material. The alarms, though still somewhat foreboding, now give way to the exuberant ringing of church bells, as though the listener has finally emerged into the light of day.          

The Serpentine Harp (2007)

The Serpentine Harp, for solo harpsichord, was written in 2007 for Daniel Paul Horn, chair of the keyboard department at Wheaton College. I originally envisioned the work as a kind of peculiar folk music from an imaginary (and rather exotic) non-Western culture, played on an elaborately contorted, harp-like instrument. While harpsichord is about as Western a musical artifact as one could imagine and is decidedly un-harp-like in its playing technique, the fact that its strings are plucked (and easily retuned—see below) suggested that it would make a suitable substitute for my fictional instrument.

At the very center of my concept for this piece was a desire to compose in a tuning system far removed from the familiar equal temperament of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western art music. The system that I adopted for The Serpentine Harp, called 1/2-comma meantone temperament, resembles equal temperament only insofar as it divides each octave into twelve half steps. In 1/2-comma meantone, however, these half steps are nowhere near equal in their spacing. Instead, seven out of the twelve half steps are expanded to almost one and a half times the size of equal-tempered semitones, and the remaining five are reduced to less than one half the size of equal-tempered semitones. The results of these changes are both radical and immediately striking: the chromatic scale is so grossly uneven that it is barely recognizable as such; familiar diatonic scales such as major and minor are severely distorted, giving them a curiously alien quality; and many of the intervals in the tuning fall directly in between the sizes of those found in standard equal temperament. All of this combines to lend a strange, foreign quality to the work, allowing me to circumvent many of the age-old scalar and harmonic structures of Western music.

The Serpentine Harp unfolds gradually and freely, in the manner of an extended improvisation, and features subtly graded changes in both range and rhythmic intensity as it steadily approaches and retreats from its two wildly-active climaxes. The bulk of the melodic material is derived from a small number of short, recurring motives (the most important of which is heard at the work's opening), and the sinuous, twisting nature of the work's melodic lines is part of the inspiration behind its title. Harmonically, the most distinctive feature of The Serpentine Harp is its use of chords that include one or more of the tuning’s small half steps, which creates an audible "beating" (a vibrato-like shimmer) between the notes.

A Song of Ascents (1999)

A Song of Ascents is an extended meditation on Psalm 121, a testimony of God's faithfulness to his people. The character of the vocal writing is informed by the work of Hildegard von Bingen, a composer by whom I have been profoundly influenced, and is intended to evoke an ancient, ritualistic atmosphere. The inclusion of a partially prepared piano (19 pitches are prepared with machine screws) further reinforces the archaic nature of the intended soundscape and reflects my continuing interest in both timbral exploration and non-systematic microtonal tunings. Harmonically, A Song of Ascents is both static and modal, making use of relatively small pitch collections for extended periods. Although development of the basic material does play a role in the work's unfolding, changes take place only very gradually over long spans of time. A Song of Ascents was written for my wife, Valerie, and serves as a token of gratitude and worship to God, the one to whom I owe everything that I have and am.

Speaking in Tongues (2004)

Speaking in Tongues was conceived as a kind of exotic and mysterious ritual—a prayer of worship to Christ that is at times beautiful and austere, and at other times puzzling or even unnerving. The original inspiration was taken from the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in which he writes:

Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit . . . If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified . . . So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?

The idea that an angelic or divine language, capable of expressing ideas and emotions far beyond human words, could be heard by ordinary listeners as senseless gibberish, or, even worse, the rantings of a lunatic, fascinated me, and I set out to create a work in which thematic coherence and beauty needed to continuously struggle for dominance in the midst of various distortions and diversions. Throughout Speaking in Tongues, unity and coherence are embodied in two recurring themes: a modal, chant-like melody and an ascending or descending quarter-tone scale. Although these gestures are nearly always present throughout the work, they are often contorted and made to sound defective in some way. Frequently, these distortions stem from the use of either complex rhythmic configurations or microtonal pitch alterations. (In order to facilitate the latter, each of the string instruments has one or two strings tuned a quarter-tone higher or lower than normal.) Likewise, the inclusion of the waterphone, an instrument renowned for its other-worldly sound quality, often masks the clarity of the thematic material and infuses the work with an unnatural (or perhaps supernatural) character. Though the work as a whole is intended to be a gradually transforming sound stream, Speaking in Tongues does feature a relatively traditional formal structure. Beginning with a section of largely slow-moving material, the piece then travels through a more active and aggressive middle section, eventually returning to the opening material in a final recapitulatory gesture—a kind of varied reiteration that is fundamental to any form of spoken communication.

Studies on the Pythagorean Gong (2013)

Studies on the Pythagorean Gong, for solo soprano steelpan, was composed in 2013 for steelpan virtuoso Liam Teague. The four movements constitute "studies" insofar as they are all designed to explore the steelpan’s musical and technical idiosyncrasies. My curious description of the instrument as a "gong" is a direct reference to its classification by Hornbostel and Sachs as a type of gong with a "divided surface sounding different pitches." Given that the steelpan is one of the only instruments in existence that has its pitches arranged according to the circle of fifths, it also seemed appropriate to evoke the name of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek polymath who is credited—rightly or wrongly—with discovering the circle of fifths.

The first study, Symphony of Limbs, partly derives its name from Radiohead’s intriguingly-titled 2011 album The King of Limbs. In this case, however, the reference to limbs is literal, since the movement emphasizes hand and foot independence. Throughout the study, the player is required to execute separate, irregularly-metered rhythmic patterns with three of his or her extremities. While the two hands strike an array of metallic surfaces—including the pan’s rim, skirt, and stand—the performer’s foot operates a pedal-activated cowbell. The resulting counterpoint is rhythmically propulsive, but with a decidedly off-kilter feel.         

Dyadic Lullabythe work’s slow movement—is comprised entirely of two-note chords (i.e., dyads). Although the music is primarily in F minor, most of the harmonies are dissonant, suffusing the movement with a vaguely anxious quality. The rhythms, meanwhile, have a gently free-floating, improvisatory character that is more consistent with the notion of a lullaby.

In Clockwork Labyrinth, the player is pitted against the obstinate ticking and chiming of an old-fashioned pendulum metronome in a six-beat pattern. The steelpan music, which is intentionally reminiscent of a folk melody, features numerous abrupt changes of speed and thus interacts with the metronome in a variety of interesting ways. At times, it feels as though the metronome itself has fallen behind the beat or is ticking at the wrong speed, which is—of course—an aural illusion. Throughout much of the study, the performer contributes an additional, differently-paced metronomic layer via a reiterated D#, and about halfway through the movement, yet another conflicting pulse is added by the pedal-activated cowbell. The outcome is a maze-like tapestry of beats, most of which chafe against the movement’s simple, yet erratic, melody.

The work’s final movement, Perpetuum Mobile, is a fiendishly rapid series of uninterrupted sixteenth notes. Nested within this wild flurry of activity are various short, chromatic patterns that loop and change unpredictably. The resulting music serves not only as the climax of the multi-movement cycle, but also as a test of the player’s speed, stamina, concentration, and precision.           

The Wheel (1996)

The Wheel, for marimba, metronomes, and Balinese gongs, was written in 1996 for Mark Marzocco, a fellow undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. Mark was an extremely talented and confident marimbist, and it seemed at the time that no piece of music was too difficult for him. Motivated by either curiosity or envy (or perhaps both), I became determined to prove that his natural talent had its limits, and so I created The Wheel for his junior recital. Looking back now, I realize that my goals in composing this work were somewhat perverse, if not outright sadistic. Nevertheless, Mark clearly relished the challenge, and in the end he proved himself more than capable of surmounting the obstacles that I had posed for him. The basic idea behind The Wheel is fairly simple: the marimbist plays a continuous series of expanding and contracting melodic patterns against a ticking metronome and a repeating cycle of gong punctuations. The resulting soundscape is both mesmeric and vaguely exotic, with the relentless drive of a moto perpetuo etude. What makes the work so difficult is the fact that the marimba patterns are fast, constantly changing, and only rarely aligned with the metronome and gongs. In order to stay properly synchronized with the other players, the marimbist must maintain an extremely high level of concentration. Even a single erroneously added or subtracted note could result in a fatal misalignment between the parts, causing them to end the piece at slightly different times. To make matters even worse, a second, slightly faster metronome is started about midway through the work. It is at this point that the composition takes an unusually intense turn, as the marimbist must compete with the interference of a second pulse at the "wrong" tempo. Although this may seem needlessly sinister, the addition of a second metronome was motivated just as much by purely musical concerns as it was by a desire to burden the soloist. As I hoped listeners would (and still will) discover, the complex rhythmic polyphony generated by the two metronomes going in and out of phase with each other, when placed alongside the ever-shifting accentuation of the marimba part, creates an exceptionally rich rhythmic tapestry.