On my new violin concerto, “Breaks and Breaks” for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony:
Throughout the year, I read and re-read Angels in America by Tony Kushner, one of my favorite works of art. Its epigraph, from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing Tree”, became a kind of mantra for me, and I often found myself repeating it as I walked the streets of Brooklyn:
“In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking. “
In the new year, as I began writing my violin concerto, that mantra—particularly the phrase “breaks and breaks”—still stuck in my mind. It seems an apt descriptor of this new work that, though divided into seven short movements and therefore often “breaking” character, is played without pause and therefore has no actual “breaks.”
“Breaks and Breaks” is both palindromic and cyclic in form. In the opening—“How many other things have wings that I didn’t know had wings?”— a lithe, light violin line soars above the orchestra. It is cut off abruptly as the second movement breaks into a violent and rhythmic dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
A brief reminiscence of the opening melody in the third movement leads into the fourth, “I see it feelingly,” which is the emotional core of the work. In this movement, the violin plays a slow and plaintive melody, filled with buzzing microtones and punctuated by the bass drum. As the violin gradually soars upward, the orchestra builds to an explosive climax, while the violin plays a series of increasingly elaborate ornaments against loosely aligned metallic figuration in the piano, harp, percussion and strings. After a brief interlude, eight tolling bells lead to yet another climax, this time longer, more intense, and more sustained.
The fifth movement, “It dissolves now,” a kind of cadenza, emerges from the embers of the fourth’s decay. Violin arpeggios are refracted through sustained orchestral strings played very close to the bridge (sul ponticello), creating a sea of unstable and fluctuating overtones. The figuration gradually reveals the original folk-like melody, breaks into the sixth movement, a recapitulation of the second, but now lower and punctuated by low, highly resonant chords.
The work closes with a brief coda, “It would not decay.” For the first time in the work, the violinist puts down her bow and plays pizzicato. As she plays the opening melody, the orchestra sustains her plucked notes, so that they cannot decay, instead creating of fog of sonorities. The soloist plays a final and stratospherically high iteration of the melody that closes the work suddenly, finally breaking.
About the work:
duration: 11 minutes
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.
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 Highway, a 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,
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 Happiness, and 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!
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!
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:
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.
Doesn’t get much better than that! Check it out! And here’s the view from the 4th floor terrace at the American Academy.
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:
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.
There are available for weddings and Bar Mitzahs.