Martler (Étude #14, 1995-96) Beff and I were both at VCCA and I finished the piece I had gone there to write earlier than expected. So I had a few extra days to start something else, and I chose to write a piano étude. We had been listening to fragments of Martin Butler's Jazz Machines during lunches we had together, so I decided to try and emulate that piece's opening texture. I placed my hands in the low register of the piano and improvised some fast dyads and wrote them down, all the while not knowing what the piece was about. After a short while I started crossing my left hand over the right, and after I had done that a few times, I knew the piece was a crossing hands piece. Martler was our nickname for Martin then, as it is now.
Narcissitude (étude #79, 2007) I was between pieces and felt like writing an étude. I did my usual thing of asking various pianists to suggest ideas for études, and Michael Kirkendoll suggested mirror études, in which the hands mirror each other. I wrote a slow one (Upon Reflection, #78), with both hands moving slowly and mirroring each other together, but I wanted to let it rip with a fast one with an additional premise: the hands mirror each other but they are not synchronized. Indeed, in most of the piece the left hand lags behind the right by just one (fast!) note. Technically speaking, then, this is a mirror canon, and what it is, too. Check out the silly cross-hand ending.
Fists of Fury (étude #25, 2000) Marilyn Nonken had given a great recital at Miller Theater which included my first two études, and the presenter decided to give the concert the silly title Fists of Fury. In the concert, Marilyn used her fist only once, at the end of my E-Machines, and was a little depressed about her concert's name. Indeed, the NYTimes reviewer liked the concert but said it had a dumb name. So to cheer Marilyn up, I wrote her a piece with that title that actually calls for the use of fists. In it, the beginning theme of Beethoven's 9th symphony is quoted in finger-pedaled notes in the last section of the piece, and in the middle, the rise from the extreme low register of the piano quotes one my études she had played on the concert. Note this piece doesn't use the nose.
Quietude (étude #97, 2010). This is the third étude whose constraint is that it uses only one kind of chord — the dominant seventh chord (the other two use half-diminished seventh chords and major triads). I unfold them mostly in falling arpeggios, à la Schumann, but I use block chords as well, and occasionally you hear two of them at once (a polychord). I dedicated the étude to Augusta Read Thomas, a very close friend, and who had dedicated one of her études to me.
Absofunkinlutely (étude #68, 2005) One of the strands in the études is so-called vernacular styles, which began when Amy Briggs asked for a stride étude. Eventually I included bop, rock and roll, tango, prog rock, and polka as étude premises as well. This one was precipitated by yet another trip to the well of great étude ideas by Rick Moody — he suggested funk licks, and behold, this one is based on two fairly generic funk licks. It is also a slightly wild celebration of no longer being chair of my department.
Violin Concerto #2 (2016-17). As composer-in-residence for the New England Philharmonic, I was asked to write a violin concerto for Danielle Maddon, the concertmaster. I always try to find screwy compositional problems to solve when I write for the orchestra, and one such problem occurred to me: how about a concerto movement where the soloist and string sections play only pizzicato? Whee! That means only the winds (and percussion) can sustain notes. So that first movement is in four basic sections: 1. establish the premise with rising pizzicato figures 2. forest of pizzicati in the sections 3. reestablish rising figures with a 3-part texture (a) long-line melody in winds b) soloist and violin sections combine into a superviolin c) violas, cellos and basses create rising lines that move from section to section, and the time between those lines gets closer and closer) 3a. transition 4. alla chitarra (like a guitar) for soloist and first violins over a pedal E. The second movement is a creamy little thing emanating from an oscillating figure in clarinets designed to be unoctatonic. The finale is a traditional barn burner in compound time that ends by bringing back the beginning of the first movement, and then leaving the soloist hanging as if it were Wile E. Coyote after the ledge he was standing on crumbles away.
Natura Morta (2015) is a piano quartet commissioned by Network for New Music for a Milton Babbitt at 100 celebratory concert. It's in three sections with the incipit upbeat gesture turned into something thematic in the middle section. Before I started writing this piece, I listened to a lot of piano quartets by 19th and 20th century composers, and was struck that so many of them were romantic, heart-on-sleeve hyperexpressive pieces, without very much lighter music at all. Since I was writing a celebratory piece, I was interested in writing something different from that, and I used that dichotomy to shape the first section of the piece: there is a light, coloristic, rhythmic music that begins the piece, but the strings, one by one, leave that music for romantic, slow, expressive music. That leaves the piano as the only one doing the lighter music. Eventually they trade gestures and at the other end, they agree on a more vernacular music. After a recapitulation of sorts, it gets loud and fast — mostly because it was written by me. For those playing along at home, natura morta means "still life".
Entre Nous (2016) is a rather substantial piece for oboe and string quartet. This is the final movement, a scherzo. All the materials come from the opening tutti, and the two-note bouncing figure that is everywhere comes out of the slow movement of Beethoven's piano trio Op. 70 #2.
Zephyrs (2013) is the first movement of Dance Episodes, my fifth symphony. At the time I was interested in trying to write music for dance — or even a full-length ballet — and this was the first thing I wrote as a way of demonstrating what I could do. An interesting thing formally in the piece is an early detail that gets exploded into its own section — that of a single note expanding into a chord via glissandi. Tristesse is the third movement, a slow, sad one, in which I imagined a solo dancer gradually joined by a second, third, and fourth dancer.
Piano Concerto #2 (2011) Rob Amory approached me to commission a piece -- my wildest dream, whatever I wanted. I chose a piano concerto for Amy Briggs, with whom I'd been working for nearly a decade. I asked Amy for a list of things she would want in her concerto, and it would be my job to make them all fit together. Her list included the opening texture of Martler, beginning in medias res, ritornello structures, textures like the Bach keyboard concertos, and jazz, among other things. I was to write the whole piece at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. The day before I left, I dreamed a late 19th century piece with chorus and orchestra with a chromatic turn on the words, "the postcards are traveling home," and since I always use music I dream in a piece if I can remember it, the chromatic turn has a big role in the piece. Thus the first movement starts with and returns to the Martler texture. The second movement is an elegy in memoriam Milton Babbitt, with the Bach stuff in the middle. The finale is the jazz movement, and has a substantial cadenza.
I wrote three piano préludes (yes, préludes and not études) for Sarah Bob. Below are early edits of a recording to come out one of these days.
Mind the Gap (prélude #18, 2012) came about because Sarah was hired to be the pianist in a recording of my Stolen Moments with BMOP, and there are a few monster solos in it. After the recording session, she said she wanted to play the first solo as a solo piece, and I said it was middle music -- it didn't have a beginning or an ending. So she said WRITE THEM THEN. I did. Ghepardo (prélude #48, 2015) has a name Sarah chose: Book V titles are Italian names for animals or insects: she choose cheetah, which is her son's favorite animal. I remembered Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom's episode on the cheetah, where the family of cheetahs mostly lounges around the water hole, only twice doing the really fast cheetah thing in action shots -- so my piece is structured thus. Wayo (#51, 2015) is a nonsense word that was spoken by Sarah's daughter (the titles of book VI are nonsense words), and is a slow passacaglia based on a 3-bar theme. The conceit here is imagining what Sarah's daughter would see and hear in her bassinette.
Etruscan March (2007) (also first movement of Cantina, for wind ensemble). This is a march movement for band.
Dream Symphony (2003) When I am asked if I ever write slow music (since I tend to play fast music for people because it has a lot of notes), I play the last four minutes of my third symphony, written for string orchestra.
Ecco eco (Étude #77, 2007) was a response to a suggestion of an "echo" étude made by Corey Hamm. Corey may have been thinking echo phrases like in Baroque pieces, but I took it literally. In the piece, chords echo, the rate of echo changes, they overlap, and sometimes there are Doppler shifts. This is a really, really hard piece.
Not (Étude #74, 2006) This is a speaking pianist étude using a minimalist text by Rick Moody. Adam Marks, a former theory student of mine, who was writing a dissertation on speaking pianist pieces (there are quite a few of them now), asked if I'd write one for him. I did. Rick's text slowly assembles the text Not happy with it, not lying down for it, written as a screed against the (W) Bush administration.