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A Natural History of Vacant Lots

About the work:

for percussion quartet and electronics
duration: 9 minutes

Co-commissioned by:

Co-commissioned by Miller Theatre at Columbia University and Third Coast Percussion’s New Works Fund

Premiere:

March 29, 2017 at Miller Theatre by Third Coast Percussion

Score:

This piece is held in exclusivity until Sept 29, 2019.

Listen:

About the work:

Having discarded several more bathetic titles, A Natural History of Vacant Lots struck me as providing a perfect analogy for my new piece, composed for Third Coast Percussion. I took it from the title of a book by Matthew Vessel and Herbert Wong describing the secondary flora and fauna found in abandoned lots. Subtitled “ambient music for percussion quartet and electronics,” the work begins in an unusually stark manner: single notes are struck on two vibraphones (one with motor, one without) against an electronic soundtrack of the same pitch.

Much of the piece grows out of this initial note, first becoming a chorale, then slowly transforming into a dense forest of figuration over a period of about nine minutes. Though the growth of the material is extremely gradual, the things that emerge from the cycle of chords are sometimes surprising and veer quite far from the original material.

Around the time I was composing this piece, I had the pleasure of viewing photographs from the series “Intimate Portraits” by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a beautiful series of black-and-white self-portraits of the artist, nude, and in near darkness. Deeply inspired by the emotional vulnerability of these photographs, I began to imagine a connection to the way my work could be performed. Since the precise alignment of live and electronic components of Natural History would require the musicians to play to click tracks, I also wondered if there was a way to use this technology as more than a simple performance aid – to work in musical events that would instead be intrinsically linked to it. This could allow me to separate the performers as much as physically possible while maintaining perfectly rhythmic ensemble playing, so creating a physical analog to Moutoussamy-Ashe’s barren photographic compositions.