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”
Severance was commissioned by the United States Navy Band. The title for the piece and for the second and third movements come from a linked collection of poetry called Severance by my friend Robert Fanning, who has been the muse for several of my recent works. Robert’s poetry often gives voice to my own emotional world in a way that is deeply important to me. In Severance, the main characters, two marionettes, Professor and Grief, sever their wires and escape the play and the theatre in Winterland in “search for a life untethered and authentic, crossing from day into night, from wood into flesh, from wakefulness into dream, from ice into thaw. Severance sings of a way—through the narrows of time and body—toward healing.” (Severance by Robert Fanning, Salmon Poetry).
In the first movement, Clouds of Remembering, I introduce all of the musical material for the piece, but it is often shrouded and ephemeral, always fleeting, like the distant memory of something or someone lost.
The second movement, Every Way Through Hurts, is dedicated to my friend Jovanni-Rey Verceles de Pedro. Jovanni and I met at the University of Michigan while completing our graduate work. He was a pianist, professor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. After graduation, we both moved to Idaho—Jovanni taught piano at the University of Idaho, and I taught music composition and theory at Boise State University. He recorded my Rhapsody for solo piano on his first studio album, and I had planned to write him a new piece, but Jovanni died suddenly in the summer of 2019 while traveling with the global nonprofit organization he founded. When I heard about his passing it took my breath away. At 36 years old—a young, hopeful, energetic musician, a person with whom I felt a kinship and a related musical path—it just didn’t seem possible that he was gone. The outpouring of grief from his friends and family was extraordinary—he had connected with so many people through music. There is no way around grief—every way through it hurts—but very gradually, the waves of grief become smaller and grow farther apart, and we come to know that we can weather them. This music is for Jovanni, and the piano plays a prominent role, often gently tracing the saxophone solo lines like some strange shadow or echo.
The third movement, Follow the threads: Unstrung, begins with metaphorical darkness. The saxophonists play slow melodic lines—threads—that are passed around the quartet and are eventually passed to the ensemble as the quartet’s music transforms into raindrops and then into a peculiar dance. I imagine the marionettes dancing, awkwardly at first, recently untethered and free from their strings, but becoming assured and ecstatic as they dance through grief, through their scars, through the waves, and toward healing.
Robert Fanning’s Severance is published by Salmon Poetry and you can find out more about his work at www.robertfanning.wordpress.com.
Anaphora was commissioned by Novus New Music, Inc. and a consortium of sponsors for the Capitol and h2 Quartets. Anaphora is a Greek word (ἀναφορά), which means “carrying back” or “turning upon,” and, among other uses, describes a linguistic device where the same word or phrase is repeated for emphasis at the beginning of subsequent clauses or sentences. It is related to epistrophe, which is the repetition of words or phrases at the end of clauses or sentences. This piece is built upon the idea of initial repetition and departure, but it also pays homage to the quirky and angular outbursts and dissonances of the great jazz standard Epistrophy by Thelonius Monk and Kenny Clarke from 1941. I think of Anaphora as a highly distorted version of Epistrophy, like a reflection warped by waves in a pool of water or like a strange solo on Monk’s tune gone awry.
Program Note:The idea for Feed came to me after reading a book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The Shallows is an examination of the intellectual and cultural impact of the Internet, ranging from broad cultural critique to scientific analysis of its effects on our daily interactions and cognitive abilities. Carr makes use of many anecdotes and quotations to illustrate his ideas, and I found several of them to be quite apt. In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot delves into the chaos and fragmented experience of the modern world, and his line “distracted from distraction by distraction” became the catalyst for my creative process in this piece. As an artist, my life is centered around creating. For me, the Internet, despite its incredible power as a tool for collaboration, connection, and creation, is first and foremost an infinite source of distraction. It is an information feeding trough, and, as such, through its extraordinary potential to crowd out the thoughts in my head, it is often antithetical to my life as a creator and to my attempt to live in the moment. I think of Feed like a very short opera with one character played by two people. The high soprano is the main character, while the low soprano sings and speaks the thoughts inside her head.
1. “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” –T.S. Eliot from Four Quartets
The text for this movement was taken entirely from my Facebook News Feed. I have removed all personal identifiers from the text for two reasons: to protect the identity of my online friends, but also, more importantly, to amplify that our interactions through this medium often become anonymous and superficial. I increasingly find it rare for my life on social media to feel real. There is a numbness that develops as I scroll, supposedly viewing or sharing some aspect of my life with thousands of people, some of whom are good friends and others that are merely virtual acquaintances. Furthermore, I have realized that my News Feed has become an eternal source of distraction. I rarely find myself bored anymore, forfeiting the opportunity to be in the moment—to be present, to observe, to listen, to daydream—at every turn—on the bus, at meals, in waiting rooms—for quick hits of screen-induced dopamine. The feeling can be numbing and depressing as I feel increasingly disconnected from things that are real; of course, it can also be jarring, disturbing, and completely overwhelming.
2. “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” –Seneca, 1st-century Roman philosopher, from Letters from a Stoic
The Internet offers me a window into a plethora of times, places, and spaces, and yet I am not actually in any of those places. Although Seneca was referring to life in a very different time and place, I find his idea to be perhaps truer than it has ever been: “to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Despite the strange disconnect between life online and reality, there many ways in which what happens in the online world is very real or can have very real consequences. This disconnect also changes my own perception of time—I think about how the many times that I have allowed hours to pass while mindlessly exploring cyberspace and only occasionally checking in with the present.
4. Fall: Rewind: Still.
I find it paradoxical that the Internet has transformed my life in such profound and positive ways—I can connect with people, ideas, cultures, music, and art from around the world; I have instant access to an unprecedented amount of information; and, as a species, we can share and disseminate important, interesting, even live-saving, information, research, and technology instantly—and yet my interaction with this technology often leaves me feeling empty. The feeling is disorienting, even maddening, and I often wonder what I forfeit for this “progress.” One of my most pressing daily challenges has become finding silence and peace amidst this noise—to listen and to be still. The piece ends with the only intentionally coherent text in the piece, a setting of a short poem I wrote in response to one particularly poignant line in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “The still point of the turning world.”
time moves slowly and quickly.
an eddy at river’s edge
nestled under shade of white alder
cloud strata swirling above open fields
as wind turns leaves upside down
stars move away as light moves toward
through this forward facing telescope of time
and here. here. the still point of the turning world.
This version of Detroit Steel for alto saxophone is for Joseph Lulloff. The original version of Detroit Steel for solo flute was commissioned by Ashley Stanley for her Hustle Harder commissioning project. She writes:
The mission of this Hustle Harder is to help give a voice to Michigan culture by featuring the unique perspectives and experiences of six composers, who all have some strong connection to the state. I conceived this project idea because I grew up in Metro Detroit and lived in both Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, I have seen a great deal of diversity, artistic growth, economic fluctuation, beautiful natural landscapes and huge shifts in cultural norms. I understand the rich histories; I have walked across the Mackinaw Bridge, rolled down the Sleeping Bear Dunes, swam in all of the great lakes and been to Grand Rapids’ Art Prize. I grew up watching the University of Michigan football team religiously and sat at the dinner table while my grandparents told stories about growing up in the Italian District of Detroit. There are so many important stories to tell that can serve as an artistic reflection of what is happening here in the state of Michigan and my mission is to help share them.
The idea for this project initially came about during the financial collapse of the automotive industry. As with most political matters, Detroit’s economic affairs became grounds for public discussion. It amazed me at how uniformed people were, and had to sit back and hear the general public say things like “Let Detroit fail, it is a useless city anyways” and talking about how “my tax dollars shouldn’t be spent paying all of the lazy people in Detroit’s unemployment and bailing out these failing automotive institutions.” From the time I was 10 years old until I turned 22, my parents were constantly in and out of work and on unemployment. Institutions were cutting jobs, outsourcing jobs, and forcing people into a retirement they couldn’t afford to take. Every other house on my street was selling for desperate costs or being foreclosed on, every person I knew had a family member who couldn’t find work, and everybody was struggling to make ends meet on a domestic level. I am so proud to be from Detroit and am exited about the massive growth both economically and artistically that is flourishing from the city today. To hear so many people talking negatively about my home city without understanding any of the context was (and still is) upsetting.
Detroit Steel is about the grit, strength, and resolve of the people of Detroit.