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:

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…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

neuron grains, spatial vibrations, inharmonic sine tones – and also a string quartet!

The following is a project update I published on my NewMusicUSA project page:

There is so much wonderful instrument(s)+electronics repertoire in which acoustic and electronic sounds are continuously interwoven, each part of one set of musical ideas. I wanted to take a different approach in this piece, however, for the sake of representing both commentary and conflict. The quartet and the electronic playback are resolutely independent musical worlds, each overlapping with the other for only portions of the piece.

In the electronic part, I’m trying to create a 3D depiction of an occasionally overloaded neurological space, with odd, highly active sounds surrounding the listener. It’s largely a soundscape, however, where precise alignments are less important. The SoundCloud link contains several stereo-reduced excerpts from this sound world. (Some of these underlay the quartet, but most are for electronics alone.)

Here’s a general description of some of the sounds you’ll hear:

  • direct sonification of the neuron pulses (white noise)
  • filtered, drastically slowed down neuron pulses
  • neuron data manipulating the pitch of justly tuned odd partials of Bb
  • granulation, with neuron data controlling speed
  • fragments of various string samples from various sources
  • frequency and/or amplitude convolution of all of these sounds

The quartet is meant to provide commentary on this crazy neurological space. There are a few bridges between acoustic and electronic; these include the transcribed rhythm of neuron pulses that appears in the quartet part (page 3, bar 36, vla and elsewhere) and ephemeral string samples in the electronics. But the quartet – particularly towards the end – becomes a refuge external to the electronics as it flirts with consonance and tonality.

Some quartet score excerpts are here. I’d love to hear what you think!


“…seeming to clutch a secret.”

I’m very excited for Access Contemporary Music‘s performance of the has-been to beachey at the Ear Taxi Festival this Saturday!

A good portion of Carl Sandburg’s work is characterized by deep reflection on rough, visceral urban images. He’s almost always an observer – even a passer by – standing in either awe of or disbelief at what he’s seeing. What’s most striking to me, however, is the indifference of these crude realities to Sandburg’s moments of introspection. the has-been to beachey tries to capture this with a tapestry of images from two of his more mysterious poems: “The Has-Been” and “To Beachey, 1912”. These two poems don’t actually include these rough images from urban Chicago, but I still designed the piece around this concept. There’s still some clear musical documentation of images: a frantic horse ride, a strange shadow.


But the violin and cello quickly veer into indifference: the voice grandiosely professes a “love of the big blue beyond”, but the strings respond with quiet, mechanical plucking sounds, and then with highly distorted, faraway swing cabaret rhythms that unravel and disappear.

The voice does passionately reasserts itself (“only a man…”), and the strings join in, emphatically romanticizing Sandburg’s experience, then continuing with some lyrical introspection.


But the ending reprises this emotional disconnect, as the voice recites:

“The boy laughs and goes whistling: ee-ee-ee ee-ee-ee.
  The stone face stands silent, seeming to clutch a secret.”


Chaos, Fire and Nostalgia

Alarm Will Sound has released their performance of “embers” from last summer! https://soundcloud.com/alarm-will-sound/embers-fused-to-ash

Andrew McManus

At the end of Die Walküre, Wagner represents the fire surrounding a sleeping Brünnhilde with a beautiful flurry of orchestral activity: a sea of sweeping, impossibly fast violins under pointed woodwind and harp gestures. It’s called the “Feuerzauber” or “Magic Fire Music”, and here’s a small part of it:

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My new piece for the Mizzou International Composers Festival and Alarm Will Soundembers, fused to ash, alludes to this in strange and twisted ways, like these:

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There are other representations of fire, like the sustained, uncomfortably high brilliance of the opening, and the generally unpredictable fits and starts that pervade the piece. But this chaotic, noisy energy slowly extinguishes over time. It relaxes into a bluesy lyricism, then further fades into a cold but tender chorale, with simple melodic lines hovering over low sustained strings. The ending hovers on the edge of silence: wispy strings struggle to rise from the…

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“Killing the Goat” at Fort Worth Opera

I’m so thrilled to announce that Killing the Goat, my opera based on Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Fiesta del Chivo, has been selected for Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Program in May of this year! A press release is available here.

Here’s the premiere, from May 2014, featuring Julia Bentley, Chad Sloan, Ricardo Rivera, eighth blackbird, the Pacifica Quartet, Jesse Langen and Cliff Colnot:


“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!