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Dec 06, 2017: Can’t and Won’t

About the work:

for string quartet

duration: 12 minutes

Co-commissioned by:

The LA Philharmonic, with generous support from Helen and Justus Schlicting, and the Calder Quartet


December 7, 2017 at Walt Disney Concert Hall


This work is held in exclusivity until December 2018.

About the work:

Can’t and Won’t began its life as a song cycle based on texts by one of my favorite authors, Lydia Davis. The idea for the project would be that I would set a few of her very short pieces into songs that keep using a recurring melody. In between these short songs, I would compose a long and intense setting of Davis’s story called—appropriately—“Story”, broken into three parts. But try as I might, I could never quite make the piece I wanted to out of her words. It didn’t help that so many composers I admire had already made fantastic settings of her work. Perhaps her work is just complete in it of itself. But rather than throw aside these musical ideas, I decided to make a new string quartet out of them, a series of little “songs without words” interspersed with one long violent and dramatic movement.

The quartet begins with the faintest of sounds: the violinist gently tapping on their fingerboard to elicit a quiet ringing of open strings. Little by little, the quartet bow their strings, revealing a delicate texture of swirling harmonics. A long, stretched-out melody emerges from the cello. Suddenly, as the song begins to form, it is cut off sharply, and a violent round of D’s is fired like bullets from the entire quartet. These two elements form the main drama, the “can’t” and “won’t”, of the form. As the work progresses, the songs without words move higher and higher, forming into a proper melody, while the violent and rhythmic music descends to the lowest range of the instruments.

As I was writing this quartet, it became clear that something else was occupying my subconscious. A lot of this past year has been about trying to find some sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time, amid constant and often terrifying distractions. Can’t and Won’t seems to both acknowledge this sense of disturbance, yet also optimistically point towards the hope for a place of composure, even if it’s a temporary one.

Sep 20, 2017: The Season Ahead

Dear Friends,

Hope all is well! I’m really excited to share what’s coming up this year.

Last season was really fun and wild—it featured the premiere of Liminal Highwaya sprawling work for flute and electronics at Miller Theatre; Goldbeater’s Skin for percussion quartet and mezzo-soprano at Notre Dame; and Will There Be Singing (called “a stunning new piece by the LA Times) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It also heard the first workshops of In a Grove, a new opera in progress heard at the Mahogany Opera Group’s Various Stages Festival in London. And last but not least, I was also honored with a portrait concert with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (and received a glowing review in the Post-Gazette)—where 7 of my works were performed for two nights.

This season promises to be equally busy: it features premieres with the Calder Quartet in a concert hosted by the LA Phil in December; a portrait concert at Miller Theatre with Third Coast Percussion in March (featuring a new piece for the quartet); a brand new violin concerto for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony in May; as well as concerts in Poland, Spain, Italy, at the Kennedy Center, and more.

This coming weekend, I head to Michigan where I’ll be splitting time between Michigan State (where I will be coaching students on a full concert of my work) and hopping to Detroit, where Latitude 49 and Vicky Chow will be playing my works at the Strange Beautiful Music X Festival, hosted by New Music Detroit.

There’s lots more happening this year, and I invite you to check out the rest of my season.

Thanks for reading and see you soon,

Jan 30, 2017: New Year 2017

Strange times, huh? Hope everyone is staying safe and sane. We’re taking real-time lessons in redoubling our role in participatory democracy (and I’m doubling my donations to the ACLU).

However, music as always goes on, and I’m very excited to head to the University of Notre Dame University to premiere Goldbeater’s Skin with Third Coast Percussion and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway on February 4 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. They are all such fantastic and generous musicians; I can’t wait to bring this new 22-minute work into the world.

I’m equally excited to be able to announce that next year, I’ll be writing a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. The concert will be webcast, so the whole world can see it shortly after the premiere. You can read more about the DSO’s premiere-packed new season here and here. My shows are May 25-27, 2018.

And finally, I’m headed to London in a few weeks to hear workshop of a new opera, In a Grove, with the Mahogany Opera Group as part of their 2017 Various Stages Festival. You can read a little bit about this nascent new work here.

This past fall was packed with concerts and new releases. Tim Munro premiered Liminal Highway, a 20 minute piece for flute and electronics which you can learn about here. I curated a really fun concert with the New York Festival of Song (review here). And then there are new recordings! Vicky Chow released a recording of Hoyt-Schermerhorn (which garnered my first Pitchfork shoutout), The Living Earth show released Double Happinessand Ian Rosenbaum released Memory Palace. You can find all of these at the above links.

The coming months ahead features premieres with the Calder Quartet and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and performances with Phoenix Symphony and at Caramoor. Oh, and I wrote some snazzy new arrangements of Thievery Corporation songs for the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony. All of that can be read about here.

Hope to see you soon!

Sep 26, 2016: Recent pieces!

Hi, it’s been too long since I’ve updated this page! So here’s some recent works as the year ahead irons itself out!

Dec 11, 2015: The Latest

Hi! Just got back from Milwaukee, and was overwhelmed by the amazing response to my new work The Branch Will Not Break for chorus and 10 players.

The Shepherd Express wrote a really touching review of the work, but more importantly, take a listen if you have a second!

Nov 05, 2015: The Branch Will Not Break

Hi! I’m headed back to the states in a week or so for the premiere of a brand spanking new, 20 minute work for 8 voices and chamber orchestra. It’s called The Branch Will Not Break and it set six poems by the amazing late poet James Arlington Wright.

Present Music was kind enough to commission the piece, and here is a link. I’m looking forward to my first visit to Milwaukee. Here’s all the info.

And the program note:

The Branch Will Not Break

…Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torse of Apollo

When I was asked by the Milwaukee-based Present Music to create a new work for their annual Thanksgiving concert I have to admit I was initially without ideas. I was raised on the East Coast of the US, and while I have celebrated Thanksgiving most of my life, the holiday always carries a melancholic air. I associate Thanksgiving with returning home—and in doing so, returning to a place that has somehow lost the lustre and joy of my childhood. None of this initially seemed appropriate for a celebratory Thanksgiving concert.

Around that time, I discovered the poetry of James Arlington Wright, and in particular his book from 1963, The Branch Will Not Break. The poems frequently cite Wright’s explorations of his native midwest, and I began to connect my own visits home on Thanksgiving with Wright’s trips to South Dakota, Ohio, and Minnesota.

In my own composition, I began culling a story out of Wright’s poems. The piece begins with unadorned, even pulses—unhurried music conjured by the wistful “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Soon two men sing a plaintive melody, building to the poem’s devastating conclusion.

As I was composing, a secondary, more optimistic narrative emerged, about an individual’s communion with nature. I have been lucky enough to visit the midwest in recent years—particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota—and have been awed by their vast beauty. Wright, too, drew inspiration from these landscapes. “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard” is optimistic, joyous, if also a bit sad, with the very sentiment “Too soon, too soon” repeated ad infinitum in my setting.

So the narrative of the piece became one of alternation, lurching from the dejected “Two Hangovers” and “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960” to the quiescent joy of “From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower” and finally “A Blessing.” Here, I tried to imagine Wright moving away from his despair and towards a more optimistic perspective. It’s been suggested that “Lying in a Hammock” was inspired by Rilke’s famous adage: “You must change your life.” Similarly, I hope the piece traces an attempt of both the author and the composer to do just that.

Sep 29, 2015: Early Autumn Update

Hello from Rome!

What a few months it’s been. After returning to New York for a few convulsive weeks, I headed out to the American Academy in Rome which is just an amazing and beautiful space. My colleagues are brilliant artists and scholars, and Rome is, well, my favorite place on the planet.

And the food. That’s a whole other story.

I’m planning to post a big season update in the coming days. I can’t wait to share with you performances by groups including eighth blackbird, the Sharoun Ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic, a Yellow Barn tour of Memory Palace, violinist Tim Fain, the return of the ACO Sonic Festival, a portrait concert in Baltimore, and more! Everything will be posted by October 14!

But as you can imagine with all the moving to Europe I’m a bit slow on the uptake. In the meanwhile, I wanted to share the release of Barbary Coast, an album of new music performed by Red Light New Music, a group that I co-founded in 2007 that features my piece The Night Mare. You can buy a hard copy from the New Focus site, order on iTunes, or stream below on Spotify.

The cellist Joshua Roman wrote a beautiful note on the piece here as part of Second Inversion radio, where my piece was a staff pick. And the site Textura wrote a particularly flattering review of of it here.

The album material is impeccably performed by the musicians, and the works themselves are a consistently engaging bunch. Some, however, are more memorable than others, The Night Mare arguably the most memorable of all. For this nine-minute setting, Cerrone drew inspiration from a Jorge Louis Borges lecture, specifically its characterization of nightmares as chaotic series of images that are fashioned into coherent narrative forms upon waking. Cerrone incorporates into the work’s design electronic effects derived from a field recording of a train and bolsters its haunting quality by exploiting the instrumental resources of the group to sculpt a powerfully atmospheric sound design. Droning, slightly dissonant tones gradually morph into short melodic statements that retain the unsettling tone established at the outset, and Cerrone exercises admirable restraint in the way the subtle modulations in mood are effected from beginning to end. In fact, so strong is the composition, one longs to hear an album-length presentation of Cerrone’s work rather than a single setting only.

Doesn’t get much better than that! Check it out! And here’s the view from the 4th floor terrace at the American Academy.

Jul 23, 2015: Whoa, it’s July. Almost August

Hi! So I’m currently up at the beautiful MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever experienced. There’s chickens, there’s amazing lunches. Aaron Copland wrote The Red Pony score in my studio. In short: It’s great. I’m working on a new piece for Present Music in Milwaukee here. I am setting six poems by the amazing James Wright. More soon, but the premiere is in November.

This past May saw a LOT of premieres. The big news was the premiere of The Pieces that Fall to Earth, commissioned by the LA Phil and text by Kay Ryan. It was premiered by John Adams, Hila Plitmann and the LA Phil New Music group. Here’s us:

A photo posted by Sarah Goldfeather (@auplume) on

Here’s some great reviews from the LA Times, and Musical America.

In other news, May and June also saw the premiere of two big Sleeping Giant Projects. In May, Sleeping Giant presented a collaboration with the amazing Theo Bleckmann and the Albany Symphony. My contribution was a piece called “Four Naomi Songs,” a setting of poetry by Bill Knott. The results will be posted online soon! Here’s a review for the whole show.

In June, eighth blackbird premiered “Hand Eye,” our collaborative work for at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. My piece “South Catalina” is my contribution. Here’s a review. And Memory Palace received a really great review in the Free Press as well in a stellar performance by Chris Sies.

Finally, my partner in life and crime Sarah Goldfeather has formed a new ensemble called Exceptet. They just played the hell out of my piece Recovering. He’s a vid:

There are available for weddings and Bar Mitzahs.

Apr 17, 2015: Can you find me?

Apr 16, 2015: Violin Sonata Video

And here’s a video of David and Rachel’s beautiful performance of my Violin Sonata