Program notes and credits

A small collection of program notes


Ashes (2002)

Performers: The Providence Singers, Julian Wachner, Conductor [2002]

The profound images resulting from the destruction of the World Trade Towers are the basis of the sound world in Ashes.  One scene that was presented often on different news programs showed individuals running toward a camera on a sunny New York street chased by a cloud of ashes and rubble.  The cloud eventually envelops the street, the sky, and all in its way creating a haunting nuclear winter-like stillness.  Sorrow itself overtakes our being leaving us frozen and still in disbelief. Ashes is, therefore, mostly static.  The images of nomadic, picture-carrying mourners looking for evidence of their loved ones in the days after 9/11 were especially heart wrenching.  These scenes are familiar in many areas of the world, but not in this country.  The violence against innocents on that day connected the US to similar worldwide atrocities.  In an attempt to represent a universal expression of human sorrow, Ashes opens with chant-like material because unaccompanied vocal music is common to all cultures.  The semi-chorus represents the direct inner thoughts of isolation that are amplified by the larger chorus.  Within the drama of this work, the chorus builds a “tall” chord consisting of two notes for each part, symbolically the two towers, and then dissolves them with individual expressions of sorrow.  

I chose verses from Psalm 102 because they present in a very poignant way the loneliness and isolation associated with suffering that is common to all humans.  These verses at the same time combat loneliness by connecting our human emotional experiences with animal and natural imagery.  “Misery loves company” because sorrow is best dissipated when we no longer feel alone.  Ashes was written to work as an empathetic musical response for those who suffered due to 9/11 and all other acts of senseless violence. 


Bleue (1997)

1) Bleue I  2) Bim 3) I.A.E.B.C.

Performers: The Detroit Symphony Kay George Roberts, Guest Conductor [1998]

The Blues is one of the most important gifts that America has given to the world.  Its poetry and music are at the basis of African American expression.  Bleue is a 15-minute celebration of this important musical form and stylistic practice.  The architecture of the piece is based on the Blues poetic structure, (AAB) a stanza consisting of three phrases.  The first two movements, Bleue I, and Bim., reflect on a problem or situation needing resolution similar to the first two phrases of a blues.  The last phrase of a Blues stanza provides an unexpected resolution often utilizing wit in order to solve the problem.  Similar to the 3rd Blues stanza, I.A.E.B.C., an acronym for “I ain’t even be carin’ “, provides a personal resolution to life’s stresses.  This phrase, commonly used in African American vernacular, does not exactly mean, “I don’t care”.  Normally after someone lists all of their seemingly insurmountable personal problems, “I ain’t even be carin’” is voiced as a way to enact immediate relief to one’s stress.  The problems may be unsolved, but one’s personal sanity is maintained.

Work began on Bleue near the end of a two-year stay in Paris.  While living there, I fell in love with three paintings by Joan Miro, Bleu I, II, and III.  The vibrant blue backgrounds used for these works and their interesting textural interplay with minimal foreground material impressed me deeply.  The textures in Bleue are sonic explorations of Miro’s interplay because the background material is actually more active and vibrant than the melodic foreground material it supports.  The complex harmonic structure of metallic percussion instruments, Steel Drum, Vibraphone, Tam Tam, and Cymbals coupled with brass instruments offer a palette of timbres necessary to realize Bleue’s important textures.  Aware that my composition would not be completed until I returned to the United States, I decided on a title that starts with the French word for blue and ends in English (ble(u)e).  The first movement takes its name from this series of paintings, Bleue I.  The second movement, Bim, is an abbreviation of the word Bimshire, an old name for the island of Barbados.  In the summer of 1996, I visited my family in Barbados and witnessed an awe-inspiring scene one night at the beach.  Through a partly cloudy sky, a beam of moonlight illuminated a small spot in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.  The sounds of night insects and birds flying around the beam of light completed this powerful scene depicted in BimI.A.E.B.C., uses a “Blues progression” of my own creation.  The three basic chords in a Blues are the tonic, home chord, and two related chords, subdominant and dominant, and are used to support the AAB poetic form of the Blues.  The chords in this movement are organized into three similar categories and cycle through the piece culminating in a strong rhythmic statement near the end.  The grounded, resolved nature of the last movement completes the abstract representation of the Blues presented in Bleue. 


Bop (third movement of Verve Music) (2004)

Performers: Charleston Chamber Players, Lisa Nickl, flute, James Holland, cello, Mark Gainer, Oboe [2004]

Verve Music was commissioned by the Charleston Chamber Players in 2004 for a performance at Piccolo Spoleto. The work is organized into three movements that address rhythmic movement in different ways. intro begins with motion initiated by percussive gestures in the cello. Most of the music represents the stillness of the late night/early morning hours. The music is an attempt to represent my innermost introverted thoughts with the calm of the quiet night in the background. pulses in contrast to intro, is organized with continuous perceptible pulses that change subtly throughout the piece. This movement is also influenced by memories of love songs in the 1970’s. The harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary contributes to generally genial attitude of this movement. The last movement, bop is an homage to Bebop and the birth of Modern Jazz. Formally, the piece uses a loose “Head Arrangement” like many Bebop works beginning with a melodic idea played by all, solo passages for each instrument, and then the melody is performed by all at the end. The music emphasizes syncopated rhythms, and continual rhythmic energy and motion. bop is most obviously the most enthusiastic movement of the three, but Verve Music as a whole represents youthful enthusiasm.


Eurythmy Variations (2007)

Performer: John McDonald, Piano [2007]

This work started as an exercise in writing a chord progression with basic harmonic structures juxtaposed in different ways to create a meaningful and basic musical statement.  It turned into a short theme and variations work based on the above-mentioned harmonic progression.   Lately, I have been more interested in the connection between music and architecture and wanted to explore this connection in the development of the variations.   After reading some excerpts from the first century Roman architect Vitruvius I was struck by one of his five fundamental principals of architecture; eurythmy. Defined as the “harmony in the proportions of the building,” (OED) this principle also appears to address the aesthetic issues governing the rhythmic ordering of regular elements.  This concept is at the core of the compositional concerns in creating a piece using a succession of variations, especially variations based on harmonies that are variations themselves. Eurythmy Variations is an exploration of Vitruvius’ principal.



Fudo Myoo (2012)

Performers: Amernet String Quartet [2012]

Misha Vitenson, violin – Marcia Littley, violin – Michael Klotz, viola – Jason Calloway, cello

During college, I became fascinated with a statue of a 12th century Japanese statue of the Buddhist deity, Fudo Myoo at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I encountered the statue while fulfilling a requirement for a course in the history of Japanese art. I made frequent subsequent trips to the museum while living in the Boston area to stand in front of this statue. What impressed me about the deity and his depiction was the wrathful, menacing expression on his face, his body surrounded by fire and a sword in his right hand to cut through ignorance with wisdom. “The Immoveable One,” as he is also called, stands on a rock, poised and ready to act. In his left hand hand, Fudo Myoo holds a rope to bind demons, devils, and evildoers. The deity highlights the necessity to attack and subdue evil by slicing through ignorance that created the mendacious acts or thoughts.  Although the symbolic violence represented by this figure does not encourage physical violence, it does liken the work needed to rid the world of evil to an epic battle that starts with severing ignorance with knowledge or wisdom. Indifference is not an option for Fudo Myoo. My string quartet attempts to embody the energy, fire, and wrathful positive energy of Fudo Myoo. “The Immovable One” changes anger into salvation and frightens people to get them to this higher level of existence. My string quartet mollifies the initial energy of the work over time to arrive at a more peaceful place imbued by the opening wrathful music. 


Griot Legacies (2014)

Performers: Boston Landmarks Orchestra, New England Spiritual Ensemble, and One-City Chorus [2014]

Griots are West African performers who preserve and communicate the history of their community through songs. Africans brought to America during the Atlantic Slave trade continued to communicate and share their experiences through song.  Starting in the 19th Century, Spirituals emerged as a uniquely American Musical genre as Africans, converted to Christianity, created songs that commented on their experiences through Christian stories and doctrine.

Griot Legacies celebrates the diversity and power of African American Spirituals.

The First movement emanates from a 1960 recording of an 84 year-old man singing “Run to Jesus for Refuge, ” a piece he undoubtedly learned from people born into slavery. The Second movement, “Lord, How Come Me Here,” is an example of a spiritual that explores the existential questions sometimes found in spirituals. This piece fundamentally asks the question, “Why?” Many spirituals were created to console and support individuals as the Third movement demonstrates. “There is a Balm” imagines a better existence where the problems of the second movement are healed. The last movement celebrates the defiant nature of some spirituals.  The sometimes-humorous verses of “I Got Shoes” flaunt the ownership of robes, shoes, etc., as a demonstration of individual agency during a period when ownership was denied to many African Americans. Triumph over adversity is a common theme in the American Dream and fundamental to aspirational nature of African American Spiritual.


Messages (2008)

Performers: Members of the Charleston Symphony.   Scott Terrell, Conductor [2008]

The creative impetus for Messages is two fold, “Seeking”, a painting by Jonathan Green, and the tradition of Gullah music.  The painting impressively presents an individual seeking spiritual awareness seemingly alone in the woods.  The implied activity of the leafy trees in the dense dark forest is offset by the stillness of the illuminated figure in communication with its soul or the soul of its ancestors.  Messages attempts to create a similar musical journey through decorated activity to place of calm enlightenment.   For years I have been fascinated by recordings of Gullah music, more specifically, Smithsonian Folkways recordings from John’s Island in the 1960’s.  It seemed only appropriate to respond to Jonathan Green’s powerful depiction of a rite of passage event in Gullah culture with music influenced by the same tradition.   Scholars have noted for years the strong elements of African cultural retention in the Lowcountry due to the large number of Africans brought to that area of the United States, and the physical isolation of large number of people of African decent in the area.  What has always impressed me is the high level of creativity and ingenuity produced by the culture.  The excellence demonstrated in Gullah music, art, ironwork, and agricultural engineering is mirrored in the complexity of the culture, which, while heavily steeped in African Culture, also began the new reality of life in the United States.  After attending an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of African sculptures created for initiation rites in 2007, I was once again reminded of the connection between the Lowcountry and Africa and the profound spiritual nature of Jonathan Green’s painting.  Gullah music is a testament to the uniqueness and importance of Gullah culture and Messages pays homage to this culture.  Specifically, Messages is constructed with and emphasis on call and response formal structures heard in Gullah music. Most of the melodic and rhythmic material in Messages is derived from the abovementioned recordings of Gullah music, although they are often presented in an abstract fashion. The songs in these recordings tend to convey specific information in the lyrics to an audience.  The painting “seeking” and the tradition of Gullah music seem imbued with the concept of communication. “Seeking” portrays an individual waiting for a message and Gullah music is filled with messages of African and American culture.  My composition is a response to the messages conveyed in the music and the painting.


The People Could Fly (2004)

Starling Chamber Orchestra - Kurt Sassmannshaus, Conductor, Minerva King, Narrator, Joshua Henderson, Violin  [2004]

In 2004, I was asked by the Starling Chamber Orchestra to compose a piece for solo violin, narrator and string orchestra based on an American folktale for the ensemble’s Fairytales of Freedom series. I choose the popular American folktale, “The People Could Fly” for several reasons. The image of enslaved magical Africans leaving plantations in the US and flying back to Africa is an impressive vision and commentary on groups of people literally transcending oppression. I also learned, while researching the story, that the first documented version of the “People Could Fly” folktale was recorded in the Charleston area, where I was living at the time. There are many different versions of this story, I chose to uses Minerva King’s version, a friend and storyteller in the Lowcountry.

After moving to Charleston, I researched the connection between Charleston and Barbados and I also found a great recording of traditional Gullah choral groups from John’s Island, Been in the Storm So Long.  The intensity of the singing and the rhythmic complexity of the cross rhythms created by foot stomping and hand clapping patterns demonstrated strong retentions of the West African musical ideal. These rhythmic patterns are also similar to Calypso and Reggae music.  Inspired by this sound world, I composed three important commissions based on Gullah music and culture, O Daedalus, Fly Away Home, Messages, and The People Could Fly. The syncopated foot stamping and clapping pattern gives the impression of humans trying to fly. For this reason, I used this pattern in the string orchestra, requiring players to stamp their feet while playing their instruments.