All we are given we cannot hold was commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University and is dedicated to and written for my friends in the Haven Trio––Lindsay Kesselman, Midori Koga, and Kimberly Luevano. The songs are settings of poetry by my friend Robert Fanning, selected from three of his incredible collections of work: Our Sudden Museum, The Seed Thieves, and the forthcoming All we are given we cannot hold. All of the poems connect in some way to the idea of the fleeting––the ephemeral––often capturing some small, seemingly ordinary moment, and finding a profundity and beauty within it. These poems remind me of advice once given to me by a friend. We were talking about how my children often snuggle up and cuddle with me, and she was reflecting on how her grown child no longer does that when she said, “cherish those moments. They are so special and beautiful, because you won’t realize until later that it was the last time that they did that seemingly small thing.” There are so many moments in life like this, and my hope with this piece is to reflect on their poignant beauty in an attempt to live in them more fully.
In 2021 I was appointed guest composer at Fermilab, a United States Department of Energy national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics. I was also asked to be composer-in-residence for the Chamber Music Society of Wichita’s inaugural season and to write a piece for the incredible piano duo Zofo. As part of the Fermilab residency, my plan had been to write several pieces to be performed in the Fermilab concert hall, but as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched into its second year it became clear that we would not be able to hold any live performances during my tenure. I pivoted and decided that I would write a work inspired by physics for Zofo, and we would capture video of the performance to share virtually with the Fermilab audience.
In physics, symmetry breaking is a phenomenon in which infinitesimally small fluctuations acting on a system crossing a critical point decide the system’s fate by determining which branch of a bifurcation is taken. To an outside observer unaware of the fluctuations or “noise”, the choice will appear arbitrary. This process is called symmetry “breaking”, because such transitions usually bring the system from a symmetric but disorderly state into one or more definite states. Broken Symmetry is also the name of the metal sculpture that welcomes visitors to Fermilab’s campus, created by Robert Wilson, Fermilab’s first director.
This piece explores the idea of symmetry breaking in many ways, including through musical material that is played in literal symmetry across an imaginary center axis of the keyboard, which also causes the pianists’ physical motion to be mirror images of each other. This symmetrical material is broken and reassembled many ways, and I imagined a kind of delicate dance created by the pianists coming together and then splitting apart. The subatomic world is very strange compared to our intuitive understanding of the visible, everyday world, so I also tried to capture some of the strangeness of phenomena like quantum entanglement and superposition as well as spin.
While writing the piece though I could not help but see broken symmetry as a larger metaphor reflected in the world around me. In February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a war that did not need to be fought and in which many people have died. One morning shortly after the invasion began I received a text from my sister: “I woke up to a panicked message from a mom in our parent Facebook group. She’s at the border of Poland and desperate to keep her child safe. She can’t get out and is terrified.”
Humans are capable of such amazing things as well as such horrific atrocities. In 2021 the Fermilab Muon g-2 experiment revealed the potential existence of a new particle which would challenge our current understanding of the subatomic world, “The Standard Model.” 200 scientists from 35 institutions in seven countries worked together on this extraordinary experiment. Meanwhile, a single lost life is worth infinitely more than all the hollow justifications spewed for a meaningless war. I cannot imagine what it’s like to be driven from my home by war—to be that afraid or to be brave enough to stay and fight—but in some small way this piece is also a meditation more generally on the symmetry we share with other humans, a space to empathize with a woman, a mother—just like my sister—who lives on the other side of the world and who cares deeply for her child but somehow through some unfortunate series of events—some seemingly arbitrary brokenness—is running from her home scared and afraid—a symmetry now broken. My hope and prayer is that we strive to fill this world with more beauty, more empathy, and more curiosity—a curiosity that leads us not only to discover new insights in the infinitely small subatomic world but also to see and value our shared symmetry across humanity.
in a field of stars grew out of conversations with my friend and poet Robert Fanning. Robert and I had been talking about the extraordinary emotional affect of poetry even (or maybe especially) when its “meaning” is ambiguous or unclear, and drawing connections to music, where communication and meaning is often similarly slippery yet no less powerful—where meaning exists in a space beyond words. His poem Infinity Room leans into this expressive space and serves as the text for this piece. It was inspired by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “infinity rooms” and Radiohead’s music video Daydreaming. Kusama’s incredible, immersive installations use mirrors and repeating patterns to create spaces that seem like an alternate, infinite reality. In Daydreaming, Thom Yorke traverses an almost endless series of doors, each one leading to a seemingly disparate space, a sequence of rooms connected only by his memory. Similarly, Robert weaves a small lyrical fragment of Daydreaming into a poetic structure that can be read horizontally or vertically—or even as meditative, self-contained mantras—creating seemingly infinite loops and interpretations.
in a field of stars, like all my work, is a snapshot of who I am and what I am thinking and feeling at a particular moment in time, but the context for this piece seems especially strange. A pandemic and enormous social and political anxiety and unrest have framed my recent experiences in ways that have deeply changed me. This strange and difficult time has reminded me that it takes time to process feelings, and, in the context of something this immense, I will be discovering the ways it has changed me and the world around me for a very long time. I think this piece is a part of that process.
Physical spaces help mark events in our memory—the smell, the feel, the look of a place is as integral to our memory as the thing we are trying to remember. It has been so peculiar to occupy the same physical spaces for such long periods of time—working, cooking, cleaning, playing, sleeping, creating in the same few rooms for months. As a result, in some ways, I feel like my memory of this time is jumbled, an endless series of experiences in self-similar rooms, and I cannot quite grasp its architecture.
The piece is divided into seven movements, each ruminating on a few lines from the poem that have been rearranged to explore different possible meanings. There are numerous connections between the movements—both lyrical and musical—and, like Robert’s poem, my hope is that the piece creates its own strange, infinite world, bending a linear perception of time into the more mysterious space of memories and feeling. Feeling requires vulnerability, so I want to share a few small pieces of my own web of meanings for this piece, although I hope that ultimately it leads you to explore your own world of meaning.
Did that happen last year or two years ago? What has happened in the past month? When was the last time? Have I done this before? Have I been here before?
There are so many. So many.
I tore my ACL. My sons said that I had “snapped the rubber band in my knee.” For months I had nightmares where the injury would occur over and over again.
In this room I got lost in the infinity of my mind.
The song Never Meant by the band American Football reminds me of college.
Multiverse—an infinite realm of being or potential of being of which the universe is regarded as a part or instance.
I cannot understand how they feel. I cannot see how they experience the world. But I want to try. I want to listen.
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)
Radiant Spheres was commissioned by Timothy Higgins, Principal Trombonist of the San Francisco Symphony. The inspiration for Radiant Spheres centers around the second movement, for me, time moves both more slowly and more quickly, the idea for which came to me while on a flight over Lake Michigan in the Spring of 2014. As I boarded the plane, one passenger in particular caught my eye—a woman sitting directly behind me, looking barely strong enough to make the flight, who I quickly gleaned was with her husband on her way home to Michigan following treatment for cancer. My son Izaak, who was about ten months old at the time, sat on my lap during most of the flight, and he kept his eyes on her almost constantly, smiling and giggling at her as she smiled back at him. As we ascended to 35,000 feet, most of the passengers started to become quiet and sleepy, and I found Izaak smiling at her yet again. This time, I turned to find her smiling back but with tears running down her face. I remember looking into her eyes and thinking that, for her, time must move both so slowly and so quickly, as she felt the poignant juxtaposition of her impending departure from this earth alongside her extraordinary pain. She also seemed strangely at peace, and I remember thinking of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” as we cruised above the earth:
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
On our ascent, I remembered looking out the window at the shadows of the airplane and the clouds, seemingly dancing on the earth as they rushed over the surface of the uneven ground. As we began to descend, I looked again out the window. But this time, from a much higher vantage point, I saw the gentle glow of the earth, this radiant sphere, where the cerulean water meets the dark blue sky, separated by the reddish-orange glow of the evening sun moving behind the earth. And I felt small and I felt grateful.
Walking on the Ceiling was commissioned by the Mikula Family as a college graduation present for Connor James Mikula. I remember approaching graduation myself, and though my family and friends were very supportive, it was the first time I felt like my decisions had important, real-life consequences. I felt pressure to do something great with my life—to get a job, to figure things out, and to apply the things I learned during my education. I remember feeling overwhelmed. I wanted to strike out on my own and to defy everyone’s expectations—to do something with my life that even I wasn’t sure I could do—to defy gravity. I had this image in my mind of doing the impossible, of walking on the ceiling. The three movements are titled heavy, float, and run. The first movement is groovy and funky, a quirky kind of swagger; the second is slow and reflective, a lullaby to my 18-month old son, Izaak, who is doing amazing new things everyday; and the last movement starts slowly but churns and bubbles until it is blazing and vibrant.
Resonance Modes comes with a Max/MSP patch for triggering the electronics. It can be played by the pianist alone using a bluetooth foot pedal or by an additional performer. You will need a copy of Max/MSP on a laptop, which is available for free (You can run and edit Max patches. Saving is disabled.).
Resonance Modes was inspired by a completely imaginary and impractical preparation of the piano, one that I never actually intended to use, but seemed like an interesting starting point for the piece. I imagined hundreds of small liquid mercury droplets being poured into the piano and dancing on the sounding board and strings in beautiful and interesting ways. Although impossible for several obvious reasons (principally, the health and safety of the performer, the audience, and the piano!), this idea came from mercury’s relatively unique properties, namely the high density and surface tension which cause it to resonate at different frequencies in beautifully different ways. One droplet of mercury can be transformed into thousands of different shapes when vibrating at various frequencies, and certain frequencies take on particularly interesting characteristics because of the resonance modes. Rather than explain resonance modes in detail, you can see mercury’s resonance modes in action here, which I think will illustrate the relationship to the piece more vividly. In the piece, I dwell on a small set of pitches and timbres which are slowly transformed primarily through rhythmic processes as a way of exploring these imaginary resonance modes over time.