classical

Head and Heart

For Cello Quartet
November, 2018
Duration: ~9 minutes

Commissioned by the Detroit Composer’s Project.
Premiered at the Third Place Concert Series in Ann Arbor, MI on December 16, 2018.

Premiered by the Hole in the Floor Quartet:

Kellen Degnan -- cello
Wesley Hornpetrie -- cello
Ben Rodgers -- cello
Hanna Rumora -- cello

In early September of this year, I discovered a cassette tape that I made, dated July 7, 2016 -- my birthday. I immediately put it in my tape player. Upon listening, I was struck by the recording. The recording, which was me improvising solo piano with electronics, lacked many things: high fidelity, musical structure, a sense of articulation. But the recording more than made up for that lacking in one crucial area: heart. I heard an arresting vitality; the potent and powerful electricity which we musicians constantly grasp for.

In the pursuit of more abstract and advanced musical concepts, it's easy to let this unquantifiable realm of musicianship -- musical heart -- go unattended. Head and Heart works to locate that sensibility at the center of its universe. This piece honors the part of myself that is my least articulate self, the self that I don't have words to describe, the self that I can't justify or defend or reason with, the self that I've run away from or tried to grow out of. In creating Head and Heart, I transcribed one section of that cassette tape recording and used those musical materials as a basis for the whole piece. That material finds a literal statement in the opening theme of the piece, and recurs throughout.

But I also applied analytical processes to extend that material -- using my head to extend the reach of my heart. After all, the initial recording that inspired this piece doesn’t exactly hold up; it’s messy, wild, and formless. Head and Heart uses that exciting kernel of energy as a starting point, but moves that energy into distant and far flung directions completely beyond the reach of the original material. The result is a synthesis of the two approaches; where the heart fails the head picks up, and where the head sputters the heart interjects.

I hope that this piece inspires a sense of true vulnerability; a graceful acceptance of those moments when our hearts can lead us to our authentic, inarticulate, honest selves. Additionally, I hope that it models a measured and thoughtful approach to living; an approach where we buttress our emotional cores with contentiousness and care. In this sense, head and heart can be are complimentary, interdependent, and mutually supportive.

Emerge

For String Quartet
September, 2018
Duration: ~8 minutes

Commissioned by the Detroit Composer’s Project.
Premiered at the Detroit Institute of Arts on September 9, 2018.
The performers were:
Eliot Heaton, Yuri Popowycz - violins
Jasper Zientek - viola
Kellen Degnan - cello


I published an extensive blog post about the construction of this piece. You can find that on my blog, Audio Ephemera.

“Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth.”- Rebecca Solnit

Coda

for piano and cello
May 2018
Duration: ~5 minutes

I wrote this piece in a hurry, in the two weeks after I finished my master's program and its premiere. Although that's an uncharacteristically fast turnaround for me, the expedience of the project was actually incredibly rewarding. Even more rewarding was having it premiered by a world class cellist, Wei Yu.

I named this piece "Coda" because it seemed to be something of a post-script on my graduate school experience; a reflection on things I had learned, ways in which I had grown, mistakes I had made, and victories I had won.

Premiered on May 18, 2018 at Hunt Street Station (Detroit).

Numerology

For multi-reedist, multi-percussionist, pianist, and live electronics
Duration: ~35 minutes
May 2018

Numerology was premiered on May 4, 2018, at Shaver Recital Hall, on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit MI. The concert was presented by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. The performers were:

Rafael Statin: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, bass flute
Nicole Patrick: percussion, glockenspiel, vibraphone
Michael Malis: piano, toy piano

The recording from the premiere performance is not yet available, but will be made available as soon as possible.


Numbers are used mostly for quantitative purposes — as a way for people to measure their world. As objective signifiers, numbers can invoke a sense of stability or provide a guide for how to shape one’s environment. I’m not questioning that basic assumption. But as a composer, I’m less interested in quantitative properties and more interested in qualitative properties. How then, could a number — something so seemingly straightforward and objective — be measured qualitatively? Or more plainly, how does a number feel?

While making that determination might seem like a hopelessly subjective endeavor, this question is a relatable one for any musician. When musicians talk about the difference between time signatures, they often speak in terms of embodied pulse. We say that 4/4 “feels” one way, whereas 3/4 “feels” like something completely different. Any dancer knows these differences even more viscerally than any musician — imagine trying to waltz in 4/4. Indeed, it seems that the further away from our brains we get, the easier it is to feel that the difference between 4 and 3 is so much greater than 1 — in truth, they’re an entire universe apart from each other. This understanding is but one example of a qualitative measure of numbers. Within this realm, mathematics (the quantitative measure of numbers) ends and numerology (the qualitative measure of numbers) begins. Of course, numerological considerations can be highly subjective. And while that might make numerology shaky ground for scientific study, its inherent subjectivity makes it a fertile starting point for musical composition.

Each of the three movements of my piece, Numerology, takes some number as its conceptual starting point. These numbers, which I call “cardinal numbers,” are derived from an experimental approach to using playing cards as generative compositional material. This approach is purely speculative and fluid, changing and evolving as the music changes and evolves. Cards, and the numbers derived from those cards, are used as a starting point for the construction of musical parameters. At various points in the three movements, parameters directly influenced by playing cards include rhythm, pitch sets, form, improvisational structures, and electro-acoustic elements. Derived numbers are spun out horizontally into melodies, or stacked vertically into harmonies, creating a matrix of numerology that works to paint a sonic picture of the qualitative aspects of each cardinal number.

The first movement, “Excess,” is a portrait of the cardinal number eleven. Eleven can often symbolize an over-exertion of energy, going one step further than the complete cycle of ten. As such, it either represents a new beginning or a definitive ending.1 “Excess” relies primarily on melodic invention, toying with a four-note motive that expands and contracts throughout the introductory section. The piano’s entrance marks the first statement of the full motive. As the piece develops, the texture becomes denser, almost excessively so. The piece culminates with an improvised saxophone solo in which the percussionist loops a groove that re-appropriates the horizontal rhythms of the introductory motive into a layered vertical structure. The movement ends with an extreme drop in energy, almost as if all the energy spent earlier was a false high, destined to run out.

The next movement, “Counterpoise,” is an exploration of the number six. Being made up of two equal parts of three, six is an exceptionally well-balanced number. It is a balance that can be tipped in either direction, toward either five or seven, both of which are indivisible. As such, six’s balance carries with it a sense of ambivalence.2 “Counterpoise,” then, is on the whole peaceful, but it is a tenuous peace that could be upset at any time. The slow opening is articulated primarily through delicate extended techniques, including vocalizations on the flute, plucking strings on the inside of the piano, and bowing the vibraphone and cymbals. It is enhanced by a bubbling electro-acoustic texture that ebbs and flows with the music. The texture is interrupted by a brief collective improvisation, in which the performers draw on playing cards as source material for their improvisational language. From there, a new texture emerges — much more stable, if still dissonant. Previous gestures that were articulated in unison are varied and re-articulated in canon. Another brief improvisation ensues, and a return to the opening texture ends the movement.

The final movement, “Totality in Motion,” deals with the number ten. Ten is often taken to mean the ending of a cycle — it is a return to oneness after the first nine digits, and also the sum of the first four digits (1+2+3+4). As it symbolizes both completion and a new beginning, it can be seen as a symbol of universal creation — totality in motion.3 “Totality in Motion” begins with a group improvisation, ecstatic and celebratory in character, anchored by a pulsating bass clarinet drone. As that draws to a close, a polyphonic texture emerges, with each instrument playing an equal part. That texture grows into an exploration of simple chordal harmonies, eventually evolving into a fast counterpoint between the piano’s right hand and the bass clarinet, which is doubled by the piano’s left hand. After a piano improvisation, the instruments come together for a climatic ending.

I see Numerology as “chamber music with a jazz attitude.” It is a difficult piece to perform, mostly because it requires performers to be equally adept in interpreting both notated and improvised music. While these approaches are by no means mutually exclusive, they have a vastly different feel —a qualitative difference. Both approaches are valid, and both can coexist. Numerology presents an opportunity to bridge the gap between these two seemingly disparate approaches.

 

1 Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 348-349.

2 Ibid., 884-886.

3 Ibid., 981-982.

 

Double Double

For piano four hands
November 2017
Duration: ~5 minutes

Another one of my "playing card pieces"; pieces whose pitch, rhythmic, and structural materials are generated from spreads of playing cards. This piece was written at the behest of my great friend, Ling-Ju Lai, who has been pestering me to write a piece for her for years.

We premiered this in a collaborative concert that we did at The Baroque Room in St. Paul, Minnesota. We each played solo, played (and improvised on) a Bach Allemande four-hands, then came together at the end and played this piece. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope we get a chance to do it again soon.

Resound

for solo piano
November 2017
Duration: ~8 minutes

This is the first of my "playing card pieces;" pieces in which pitch, rhythmic, and form structures were derived from playing cards. All of these pieces were testing grounds for what would eventually become "Numerology."

I really love this piece, and I hope it has a life. It has yet to be performed, although a fantastic pianist has agreed to play it. Hopefully it will happen soon. If you're interested in playing it or presenting it, please contact me!

Nourishment

For Soprano and Two Pianos
Text by Carmen Malis King
May 2017
Duration: ~7 minutes

Carmen is one of my favorite poets in the world, and also happens to be my wife. I'm grateful to her for lending me these three pre-existing fragments for the sake of this piece. I wrote this piece while we were engaged, and I believe it brought me closer to her and we prepared for marriage.

This piece deals with cycles, and particularly deals with cycles that are two slow to perceive but are nonetheless present, embedding cycles on a structural level.

Recording performed by Caroline Quick (soprano), Wataru Niimori (piano), and Zi Ang Han (piano) in Milna, Croatia, July 2017.

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Just putting this out there: I would LOVE if someone commissioned me to arrange this for one piano and voice. Or maybe for piano, voice, and percussion? Perhaps as part of a larger song-cycle utilizing Carmen's poetry, or dealing directly or tangentially with these themes? Just putting that out into the universe so that maybe one day it will actually come true.

Etude No. 1

For improvising pianist and interactive score
February 2017
Duration: ~10 minutes

Etude No. 1 is a concert etude for an improvising pianist. By definition, an etude focuses on specific technical challenges. This etude keeps with that tradition by focusing on challenges related to improvisational technique. It takes as a starting point a relatively limited scope of material, and presents the pianist with several points of entry into that material. This particular etude uses a single pitch collection as its starting point, deriving all of its material from that one collection.

The score for this piece is triggered using Max. The score is split up into seven “scenes”. In all but one scene, the performer is required to manually advance from one scene to the next. One scene moves automatically to the next scene.

The score in the PDF reader below is a PDF version of the Max patch. If you'd like to purchase the Max patch or the PDF version of the score, contact me directly.