between us was written in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been one of the strangest and more difficult times in my life, as I am sure it has been for many others. Collectively, we have shared many of the same challenges, but I also know that each person’s experience of this time has been quite different. Some have struggled with fear, anxiety, loneliness, and loss. Some have had to face the challenges of life and work without access to many important social structures. And some have confronted the pandemic more directly. It has also been a particularly tumultuous time socially and politically. Technology has allowed us to connect with each other in really powerful and positive ways, but it has also siloed us into more homogeneous spaces, allowing us to construct vastly different perceptions of reality. Over time, it has diminished our ability to communicate with empathy and understanding, especially with those who are different from us.
Each movement of between us meditates on a different meaning of this phrase. One of my favorite things about chamber music is the vulnerability and trust that lie at the center of it—it is an imperative—and this is especially true with a duo. It is both a challenge and an opportunity.
The first movement—What is?—poses this question at a time when the fracturing of our social fabric has divided families and severed relationships. In the past year it has felt like there are so many things between us, so many things separating us from each other. The clarinet and saxophone spend much of this movement in an absurd, dissonant hocket, wildly trading back and forth—talking past each other.
Movement two is inspired by the French phrase entre nous, which articulates a more private, intimate connotative meaning of the phrase between us. Much of the music in this movement is soft, searching, close, and melancholic—individual lines weaving in and out of each other with fleeting moments of coming together.
The final movement is entitled Metaxy, which is a Greek word defined as the “in-between” or “middle ground.” Metaxy originates from Plato’s Symposium and plays a central role in the work of the modern political philosopher Eric Voegelin. As an idea, it is rich in meanings and transcends brief description, but it can be thought of as the polar tension or the connector between time and eternity, between the origin of being (Apeiron)—the material realm—and what lies beyond being (epekeina). This music is a dance, bristling with playful, exuberant energy and filled with interplay and echoes—reverberant reflections of time and space.
*Duo Entre Nous and the commissioning consortium retain exclusive performance rights through January 20, 2022.
2020 was a strange and difficult year. The loneliness of time in quarantine was unlike anything I have experienced. Time seemed to travel differently, perhaps more slowly at times and at other times more quickly—its arrow seemed jagged, bent, and off course. Kairos is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment. It is a different kind of time than Chronos, which is our more conscious and common understanding of time, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so forth. In the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy Kairos describes the intersection of the Liturgy with the Infinite—with God. An integral aesthetic principle of cathedrals is an attempt to sonically connect with something massive, something larger than ourselves—the Infinite. Bissera Pentcheva, an art historian at Stanford University, writing about the Hagia Sophia (built in 537 as the largest Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire), translates a 6th-century description of the building by Paul the Silentiary in this way: “human action…brings into presence the divine reaction, the divine voice…in a sense that is the reverberation of the space: After the human voice stops singing, the building continues.”
Many concert halls share a similar sonic aesthetic principle. I missed these spaces. I missed the resonance of concert halls and churches. I missed the energy and excitement when people gather together and can not only hear but also feel the air molecules moving around them, and they can see how and why and by whom these sounds are made. I missed the way in which these spaces activate sound waves, sending them bouncing frenetically from wall to wall, arch to edge, and then gently dissolve—each molecule hitting another, each collision becoming slightly less energized than the last until only a shadow of the sound remains. Then, even the shadow disappears, and profound silence inevitably crawls out of the cracks and crevices of these cavernous spaces and becomes a fast and fizzy flood, a cool, fresh bedsheet of air molecules draped over us. We feel the heaviness of sound in its sudden absence. Its weight in the silence. And then we remember the silence before sound. It was a different silence. It felt different. Or maybe we felt different?
I missed simply sharing these spaces—these experiences—with other people. With friends. With family. With acquaintances. With strangers. There is something very special about sharing sound in a particular time and place. This piece is my humble attempt to weave the threads of these ideas and of our disconnected realities into a single strand—a shared moment—and to sing a space—our time and space—into resonance.
 New York Times, August 6, 2020, “How a Historian Stuffed Hagia Sophia’s Sound Into a Studio”
My sons, Izaak and Declan, have profoundly changed and shaped the way I see the world. I initially set out to write a collection of vignettes about them, about childhood—a way to capture the beautiful, tender, and often silly and hilarious moments of their lives, but, my plans suddenly shifted after yet another all too common incidence of violence against children. In response to this violence, I felt compelled to respond in some way—to respond to my fear of sending my sons out into this violent world. Shell and Wing emerged as a collaboration and a response to these parental impulses with my friend and fellow father, poet Robert Fanning. Robert’s response to our conversation—a poem in two stanzas—gave voice to the ambiguity, the conflict I feel as a parent—this profound longing to protect my children coupled with the knowledge that I must also let them go.
The first poem is in a parent’s voice—my voice—and the second poem is in a child’s voice—that of my sons. Musically, the first movement is a sort of fragmented lullaby interwoven with a distorted memory of Robert Schumann’s Träumerei(Dreaming/Reverie) from Kinderszenen(Scenes from Childhood). Schumann’s harmonies are pulled and stretched until they resemble only a distant echo of the original. The second movement begins with solo piano, distant and aching that transforms into a quiet, dream-like duet for the soprano and vibraphone. The child’s song grows and builds, underpinned by a chaconne—a repeated chord progression—and eventually becomes the same song heard in the first movement, the parent’s song.
SHELL AND WING
I hold you, breath beneath my skin, a nest of flesh. No world can break
you here. Shadows feather the shell. If you fly, you’ll never go far.
I dream my body border and sky, my heart an aviary. In my sleep, you wake.
I hold you. Breathe a nest beneath my skin, flesh no world can break.
Now, the season’s errant and astray; coiled rage hisses to strike. Hate leaks
into vine and branch, river and vein. So, song in me, rise. May death take no air
I hold. You, my breath beneath. My skin a nest of flesh. No world can break
you. Here, shadow. Feather, never go. I’m a shell if you fly. Fly far.
You dream you hold me in your nest of breath. Before they lifted me
from mingled blood, I rose, a song within your feathered sleep
for centuries. Your veined branches mapped my lidded eyes. A tree
you dream you hold. In your nest of breaths before me. They lifted me
from you to veil the sky. I flew through your death in learning to fly.
No world bears us. Though we slip our nets of wing and flesh, may love keep
you, this dream you hold in your nest of breath, before they lift me
from mingled blood. I wrote your song within. My feathered sleep.
© Copyright 2018 by Robert Fanning
International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Synchronicity was commissioned by David Cook and a consortium of clarinetists and sponsors. Synchonicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. Each of the three movements looks at synchronicity through a different lens. The first movement, Brainstorm, was conceived as an improvisation between the clarinet and piano, and, in fact, my compositional process was centered on improvising and then transcribing much of the musical material for this movement. The music feels like a musical conversation between the clarinet and the piano where ideas are stated and then bounced back and forth. There are moments when the conversation coalesces around a single idea, but much of it also feels impromptu, like two people discovering the ways in which their ideas are connected.
The second movement, Quiet, is an homage to Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and is dedicated to my friend Jonathan Ovalle. Berg’s Concerto was dedicated to Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler (once Gustav Mahler’s wife) and Walter Gropius, who died of polio at the age of 18. Berg’s dedication reads: “To the memory of an angel.” Quiet borrows two musical ideas from Berg’s work, namely an ascending fifths pattern and, like Berg, who quotes J.S. Bach’s chorale Es ist genug (It Is Enough), a highly distorted version of the Christian hymn Abide With Me. These small hymn fragments are displaced both horizontally and vertically, as if time has slowly torn apart a fading old memory of the hymn. I do not know Jonathan Ovalle particularly well—he is a professor of percussion at my alma mater—but I am connected to him through social media. I originally conceived of this piece for solo vibraphone as a gift for Jonathan, whose wife, Lisa, was battling cancer at the time I began writing. Jonathan bravely shared many of his thoughts and emotions during her last months, and I was deeply moved by his courage, strength, and willingness to be vulnerable in a time of great sadness. My intention was to write a short and simple piece that he could play to either reflect upon or escape from the world around him—to find silence and stillness through music at a time when his life must have felt anything but quiet; however, as I dug deeper into this material and into my emotional response to Jonathan’s circumstances, I realized that this was not for vibraphone and it was not particularly short and simple either: this music needed to be for piano and some sort of wind or string instrument that could sustain these long melodic lines. I began writing a longer and more intense piece—connected to the Berg Concerto—and, coincidentally, I decided to score it for clarinet just a few days before Jonathan shared that Lisa had actually been a clarinetist. This music is for Jonathan and Lisa.
The third movement began to take shape in the summer of 2016 around the time that the United Kingdom surprisingly voted to leave the European Union in a decision known as Brexit. Muster Point is the British term for a designated place or area where a group of people assemble in case of an emergency in preparation for exiting a space. The Brexit referendum was the result of a growing populist and isolationist movement in Europe, and the vote occurred just a few months before the United States Presidential election in November, when Donald J. Trump was elected. Trump was also seen as a populist and, in some ways, an isolationist, and both votes were largely driven by a populace that, among other things, was feeling discontent, left behind, fearful, and angry. In the wake of these ballot results and continuing from a highly contentious and fraught pre-election/voting cycle, people on both sides felt disillusionment and uncertainty, fear and anger, as well as vindication and jubilation. This music comes from part of my own personal response to these political events and is at times angry and energetic, absurd and wild, and at other times swirling with quiet anxiety and tension.
Commissioned by David Cook (Millikin University)
and a consortium of clarinetists and sponsors:
Mariah Boucher (Indiana University-South Bend)
Kip Franklin (University of South Alabama)
Ellen Breakfield-Glick (Cleveland State University)
Emily Grabinski (Grand Rapids, MI)
Cecilia Kang (Furman University)
Cassie Keogh (North Dakota State University)
Aleksandr Karjaka (New York City)
Christopher Kirkpatrick (University of Montana)
Kimberly Cole Luevano (University of North Texas)
Leslie Moreau (Boise State University)
Ralph Skiano (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Andrew Sprung (Spring Arbor University)
Jana Starling (University of Western Ontario)
Mingzhe Wang (Michigan State University)
Anne Watson (Northeastern State University)
Michael Webster (Rice University)
Kennen White (Central Michigan University)
Refraction was commissioned by the Akropolis Reed Quintet. Refraction is split into three distinct movements, each inspired by different musical sources that have been bent and distorted by time, space, and my imagination, much like light is bent as it enters a medium of different density. The first movement comes from a short, ridiculous, and awesome YouTube video called “Death Metal Chicken,” which features a chicken screaming over a death metal band (of course!). The second movement is called “Kyrie” and is dedicated to Guillaume de Machaut and Arvo Pärt. The third movement is called “Goat Rodeo” and is a strange mash-up of dubstep, funk, and musical pointillism, inspired by a goat rodeo, which is a slang term for a chaotic situation, often one that involves several people, each with a different agenda/vision/perception of what’s going on; a situation that is very difficult, despite energy and efforts, in which to instill any sense or order.
Version 1 (original): Flute & Clarinet
Version 2: Soprano Saxophone & Alto Saxophone
Version 3: Flute & Alto Saxophone
Version 4: Soprano Saxophone & Clarinet
Staying the Night was commissioned by the Crescent Duo and Central Michigan University and is a collaborative project with poet Robert Fanning, whose poem should always precede this piece in performance in recorded form (recording available through the composer). Robert’s beautiful words served as the stimulus for this music, and I am deeply indebted to him for his work, without which this piece could not exist.
STAYING THE NIGHT
I want to touch everything she touched
yesterday: my fingers lingering on her shelves
and counter. I flip through the paperback
left half-read on the nightstand, inhale
the crumpled yellow hand towel near her
bathroom sink, breathe in the dust and dander
of her apartment air. My wife sifts a pile
of unpaid bills, lifts a framed photo, reads
an inscription on a birthday card. This home’s
a sudden museum. From the living room,
I hear our daughter knock a glass thing over
and giggle. I move to save the breakables from wreckage
then remember: nothing can now be ruined.
We’re the guests of someone gone.
From a stack of papers, I pull some brief note
she wrote, marvel at her slight, precise lettering.
On her fridge shelf, a tub of leftover spaghetti,
an unfinished sandwich. In a drawer the perishables
sweat: a new head of lettuce, a few pieces of fresh fruit.
I choose to eat the peach she chose from the grocery’s
produce rows, not knowing it would outlive her.
Later, before going to sleep in her bed, I see
a still life next to the kitchen sink: one white bowl
upside down, one fork, one knife, and beside the faucet
her unwashed drinking glass. Lifting the glass, I hope
to see her lipstick’s usual pink wedge, scour for
a fingerprint, some smudge. I fill it half-full
with water, cover the rim with my lips,
turn it in a circle, slowly. This is how
I kiss my sister goodbye.
For performers: download the audio recording of the poem.
Version 1 – Fl, Cl, A Sax, Electronics/Laptop, Pno, Vibr, Vln, Vc
Version 2 – Cl, Vln, Vc, Pno
Version 3 – Vln, Vla, Vc, Pno
Red Vesper was written for Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble for their tour of the Western United States, including several National Parks. The National Parks are many things to many people, but for me, they have most often been a very special place to find silence inside of myself. A vesper is an evening prayer, a meditation and reflection at the end of the day, and I found the idea of holding vespers in the wilderness to be profound and beautiful. I chose to call it red vesper because of the deep, red glow of the setting sun on the horizon and also because of the beautiful and iconic red rock formations that occupy so many of our great National Parks, particularly Capitol Reef National Park.
The version for clarinet, violin, violoncello, and piano was written for Music from Copland House.
The version for violin, viola, violoncello, and piano was written for the Garth Newel Piano Quartet.