wistful, harrowing optimism

So I’ve been making the electronic portions more and more dense and heterogenous over the past few months, mostly by adding variant after variant of the sounds I began the project with. I’ve mostly done this to paper over similarities between sounds, or to obscure the source material and/or methods behind them. (And not simply because sine tones can sound like robots…see my previous post!) The result has been textures that become harrowingly dense, even when the electronics are not particularly loud. This certainly is part of my intention: after all, this project is about overloads of electrical activity in the brain.

The question I’ve asked myself, however, is whether it gets too harrowing. Portions of the electronic track are uncomfortably loud, overwhelming, and even violent. (This is all done within reason, of course – there are no truly dangerous volume levels, and certainly no representations of actual seizures.) But part of my motivation for this project has always been to communicate aspects of my own experience with the condition, as it has been quite harrowing at certain points in my life. So instead of mediating the experience of the electronics, I’ve set up the quartet as a foil, particularly in the latter portion of the 21-minute piece. 

Here’s part of an extended solo for the electronics:

Not long after this, the electronics reach their loudest, most explosive point, and the quartet reenters following nearly 5 minutes of silence, struggling against the overwhelming electronics. The quartet continues to push back, in fits and starts, as the electronics subside. Their jagged polyrhythms slowly become more regular, and they eventually achieve a much more peaceful space, one that I think realistically counterbalances the violence of the electronics.

I presented my opera Killing the Goat to a group of people a few years ago, and I received some extremely vocal criticism for the ending, which resolves to a pure, gentle F major chord. Aesthetic legitimacy of this move aside (I reference two 19th-century operatic finales in this last scene, one of which resolves in precisely this way), it was a conscious decision on my part to resolve the opera’s harrowing story in this manner. I think I’ve taken a similar approach here: for instance, I recently made some incremental adjustments to the harmonic language of the ending. It was darkly lyrical to begin with, and there’s no real tonality, let alone an F major resolution – very far from it, since the quartet’s final harmony is the justly tuned odd partials of Bb (5/7/9/11/13):

But there’s a slightly brighter consonance in general:

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 8.28.17 AM

…one that bolsters the quartet’s role as a relieving counterweight to the harrowing electronics, and that may even provide an affirmative message in the end.

Excerpts from the score are here!

R2D2 or BB8?

I recently updated my New Music USA Project page with the latest on Neurosonics 2:

You know that thing where people tell you what they really think of contemporary music? A few weeks ago, someone close to me asked if I was “going for R2D2 or BB8” in the excerpts I previously posted.

Star Wars robots in a piece about 3D brain space?? Obviously this is a problem! She was half-kidding and certainly wasn’t trying to be negative, but I found her honest opinion of the sounds I had created refreshing and very helpful. It drove me to make some detailed changes to the throughout the entire electronic track, and to create some new, more distorted sonic materials with my existing methods.

I still consider the sine tones, and many other sounds in the piece, to be crucial material for the concept behind it, but I figured there must be a way to improve the impression they make. Once I had settled on sounds that felt less recognizable, I folded them into the preexisting texture, with the hope that the increased complexity makes it sound less like a cute robot happens to be in the mix.

Here are some updated clips with all of these modifications. Hope you enjoy

“Apocalypse done right”: thoughts on “Snowpiercer”


In the 2013 post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer – based on Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel from 1982 – a train barrels nonstop around the world, carrying the remnants of humanity through a world rendered uninhabitable by a human-caused ice age. These last people maintain order with a brutal totalitarian social structure, and both film and graphic novel follow one man as he leads a revolution against it. The trailer makes the film out to be a bit more action-blockbuster than it actually is, but it’s still worth watching:

I noticed some connections between Snowpiercer and the rigid, hyper-mechanized, exaggerated grandiosity of the trains and mills of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, which was the subject matter of my 2010 orchestral work The Concerto of Deliverance. I tried to capture all of these qualities – positive and negative – in this older piece.

But my new wind ensemble work Atlas Fractures breaks this material apart and turns it on its head. I see Snowpiercer as a dystopian sequel to Atlas Shrugged, and the fragmentation of this older piece is meant to reflect this. The first part, “The Fifth Concerto”, takes its title from a sub-narrative in Atlas Shrugged: the story of composer Richard Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Halley – much like other male characters in the novel – is an elusive, blatantly exalted hero, and his fifth concerto is similarly shrouded in contrived mystery. Halley is the quintessential artist-narcissist, who self-righteously withholds his alleged greatness from society. The music here evokes an exaggerated heroism, confined by serial rhythmic structures, whose final burst of energy cuts to indifferent mechanical percussion. “imagining the Engine, from 1001 cars away” is a morass of uncoordinated sound, out of which emerges a truncated passage from my original work. Here’s one relevant image from that portion of the graphic novel:


The final part, “The Proloff Revolution”, refers to the protagonist of Le Transperceneige (renamed “Curtis” in the film) and the fight he leads against the train’s totalitarian social structure. He and the destitute inhabitants of the rear car fight their way to the front, only to learn that their revolution has been futile.

What drew me to Snowpiercer was the complex politics in both the film and graphic novel. Does it model a Communist totalitarian state, or a capitalist oligarchy? Is the Engine’s keeper John Galt or Mao Zedong? Both film and graphic novel actually offer conflicting answers to these questions, and double-takes between “right” and “left” abound. In the film, the man behind the Engine is the industrial oligarch Wilford (Ed Harris), who quietly but arrogantly basks in his material excess as he informs Curtis (Chris Evans) that he himself permitted the revolution to happen, because a hopeful proletariat is easier to control.


But the earlier classroom scene, where a teacher exhorts young children to chant in praise of Wilford, is unmistakably Maoist, as is the brutal food rationing for the lower class, who live in enforced squalor in the rear car of the train.


And in a further twist, the woman enforcing this social order, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), is an absurd caricature of several right-wing and fascist leaders who also bears a deliberate and unmistakeable resemblance to Ayn Rand:


The graphic novel offers even more complications: the man in charge of Olga (the Engine) is Alec Forrester – a sickly man who hardly resembles an image of wealth and power. And the message of futility is pure nihilism: Proloff has inadvertently spread a plague through the train, and he is the only man left alive.

For me, Atlas Fractures is a brief reflection on the complex politics of totalitarianism, whose evils have always arisen from both sides of the left-right binary. The score is here. I’m so incredibly grateful for Chris David Westover’s generous support of the piece! He’ll be conducting the first performance with the Bethel College Wind Ensemble on Friday 4/29.

Special thanks to the other consortium members as well:

Bixby (OK) High School Wind Ensemble, Jeremy Parker, music director
Meadows Wind Ensemble, Jack Delaney, music director
University of South Florida Wind Ensemble, John C. Carmichael, music director 

“Strobe” release!

Strobe is now available on Google Play! It’s featured on an album of performances from the NY Phil’s Biennial last year, and I’m so thrilled to be included on it. Also included are my Earshot colleagues Max Grafe and Julia Adolphe, as well as Matthias Pintscher, Michael Hersch, Oscar Bettison and others. Press release with more info is here.

Update #1: Now available on Spotify as well! Web version here, or search “ny phil biennial” in the Spotify app.

Update #2: And now on Amazon too!

Recording of “The Rarer Action”

Here’s the recording for The Rarer Action, which I wrote for my teacher Augusta Read Thomas’ new composition class at the U of C. Performed by:

Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano
Constance Volk, flutes
Austin Wulliman, violin
Alison Attar, harp
Greg Beyer, vibraphone
Amy Briggs, piano


Program Notes:

Shakespeare’s The Tempest finds Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan and a learned magician, stranded on a remote island. Twelve years prior his own brother, Antonio, had conspired with his rival Alonso, King of Naples, to depose him. When Prospero divines that Antonio and others are on a ship passing close to the island, he conjures a tempest that wrecks the ship, bringing those who have wronged him ashore. Prospero then uses his powers and those of his servant, the spirit Ariel, to torment Antonio, Alonso and the others. But Prospero cannot sustain his quest for vengeance indefinitely. In this scene from the play’s last act, Ariel reports to Prospero on the suffering of his enemies, saying that “if [he] now beheld them, [his] affections would become tender…Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero responds:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
  Yet with nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
  Do I take part. The rarer action is
  In virtue than in vengeance.”

Believing them penitent, Prospero prepares to cast a a powerful spell to restore his enemies, end their punishment and, most importantly, exorcize his own demons. The Rarer Action traces the fantastic invocations of Prospero’s final spell and his (arguably) tragic resignation from magic. It concludes with a representation of Prospero’s enemies immobilized in the circle he had traced on the stage. The ending – the distant glow of a major triad in the piano and feeble, flickering harp harmonics – invokes the ambiguous tone of the play’s end, best summarized by Prospero’s final monologue:

“And my ending is despair,
 Unless I be relieved by prayer, 
 Which pierces so that it assaults
 Mercy itself and frees all faults. 
 As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
 Let your indulgence set me free.”


Text and Stage Directions:

Act V, Scene 1, lines 33-57:

[PROSPERO makes a circle on the stage.]

PROSPERO:   Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,

And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him

When he comes back; you demi-puppets that

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,

Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime

Is to make midnight-mushrooms, that rejoice

To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid
(Weak masters though ye be) I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory

Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up

The pine and cedar. Graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art. But this rough magic

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music (which even now I do)

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.

[Solemn music. Here enters ARIEL before, then ALONSO with a frantic gesture, attended by Gonzalo; SEBASTIAN and ANTONIO in like manner attended by ADRIAN and FRANCISCO. They all enter the circle which PROSPERO had made, and there stand charmed…]