Skye & Glass (2017)
for fiddle and string quartet - 20'
Commissioned by the Ciompi Quartet
I have been writing concert music inspired by traditional or ‘folk’ music for many years, but until Skye & Glass I have not had the opportunity to write for a combination of a traditional musician with a classical ensemble. When I began I knew I did not want to ask the fiddler to play in classical music idioms, nor did I want to ask the classical ensemble to play traditional styles. This work is about the tension and space between those two approaches to making music and about combining to ideas, referenced in the title, which served as inspiration: ‘Skye’ and ‘Glass.’
‘Skye’ refers to The Skye Collection, a book of over 400 Scottish fiddle tunes published in 1887. I find the style and practice in Scottish fiddling and diasporic styles in the United States and Canada to be rich and compelling music, so I keep returning to them for inspiration and guidance. The second idea from the title, ‘Glass,’ refers to the glass of a telescope. While I was sketching the piece and looking for another underlying theme to compliment the fiddle tunes I came across a research group called “Space, Science and Spirituality” which “brings together a research team of scientists, philosophers, and scholars in the humanities to investigate, both theoretically and empirically, the effects of outer space travel on the inner space of experience.” The research analyzes astronaut responses in interviews about their emotional reactions to their experience of viewing earth from space. The researchers came up with four categories of experience: (1) awe, or “ones direct and initial feeling when faced with something incomprehensible or sublime”; (2) wonder, or “a reflective feeling one has when unable to put things back into a familiar conceptual framework”; (3) curiosity, or “wanting to know, see, experience, and/or understand more”; and (4) humility, or “a sense one has about one’s relation to one’s surroundings or of one’s significance” (http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/spaceandspirituality/index.php).
In Skye & Glass I attempt to reflect these (quite huge and intimidating) themes in the music. The piece is structured like a traditional Scottish fiddle medley beginning slowly before accelerating to energetic reels and back again: Slow March, Strathspey, Jigs, Reels, and an Air. I incorporate the “Space, Science and Spirituality” themes throughout the work, with the Slow March corresponding to “Awe,” the Strathspey, Jigs and Reels as both “wonder” and “curiosity,” and the final Air as “humility.” There are ten tunes from The Skye Collection used throughout the piece in the fiddle part, and also a Beethoven quote in the string quartet during the jigs section (see if you can spot it!).
The ‘Awe and Wonder’ themes are represented in the shifting relationship between the fiddle and string quartet. There is an energy cross-fade over the entire piece. At the beginning the quartet is energetic, fast, and bubbling while the fiddle is slow and stately. By the end of the work the roles have switched. The fiddle is dancing energetically while the quartet is slow and singing. Skye & Glass ends with a humble presentation of the Air “Bothan Airigh am Braigh Raithneach” (or “The Sheiling on the Braes of Rannoch"). The title evokes an image of an old, single hut on a vast hillside in the Highlands of Scotland.
Soprano Sax Concerto (2014)
with wind ensemble - 22'
Generously commissioned by the Duke Wind Symphony with Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant; The Ridgewood Concert Band with Dr. Chris Wilhjelm, Director; Joseph Missal, Director of Bands at Oklahoma State University; Kennesaw State University Wind Ensemble; California State University, Los Angeles Wind Ensemble with Emily A. Moss, Conductor; Raul G. Barnes and Elon University; University of Wisconsin-River Falls with Dr. Kristin Tjornehoj; and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with Jeffrey Fuchs, Evan Feldman, and Matt McClure. Thank you to the Duke University Wind Symphony with Susan Fancher as soloist for giving the work a fabulous premiere on April 17, 2014 in Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University! Please check out the recording of the Kennesaw State University wind ensemble directed by David Kehler with soloist Sam Skelton below. Please contact me for inquiries about renting the piece.
Notes: As in many of my compositions, the Soprano Sax Concerto draws on traditional music as a starting point for a tapestry of quotation and experimentation. The musical building blocks for this concerto are taken from bagpipe traditions from around the world: Irish Uilleann piping, Scottish Highland piping and a curious form of bagpiping from Rajasthan, India. During the British occupation of India the instrument of the British army, the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipes, was spread across the country and eventually was absorbed into traditional Rajasthani music, essentially performing traditional songs and dances on the Scottish instrument! In addition to these fundamental influences, references to other musical genres, styles, and traditions also pop up throughout the piece.
The first movement revolves around an Irish Uilleann pipe performance of a jig titled Condon’s Frolics. The movement starts and ends with material that obliquely references the tune by passing the melody around the ensemble. After the opening, a clear version of the tune emerges and repeats while the ensemble builds around the soloist, eventually overshadowing the sax. In the second movement the soloist performs a slowly unfolding languid melody that nods to traditional music from Rajasthan. The final movement draws on a Scottish Piobaireachd (pronounced PEE-brock) titled Patrick Og MacCrimmon’s Lament as the musical material. The tune is heard throughout the movement in various forms sometimes clear and often transformed, with the most “bagpipe-like” version heard in the slower middle section of the movement. In the final minutes of the concerto the tune is pushed into new territory and, after a cadenza interruption, ends joyously.
Lament for the imagined (2011)
for string quartet - 25'
Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet
"There are three Scotlands: (1) the never-never land of Brigadoon, where kilted Rockettes dance in the moonlight on heather hills, and men,
having greeted the dawn with a quaich of Scotch, sally forth to shoot a deer or two for breakfast; (2) the Scottish Homeland, an area of just
over thirty thousand square miles inhabited by five or six million people on the northern part of the island we call Britain; and (3) the Scottish Diaspora, consisting of the vast millions of people of Scottish birth or ancestry dispersed throughout the world... who look to the Homeland
with that deep affection and occasional exasperation that people never bestow on anyone but their mother." Geddes MacGregor, Scotland:
An Intimate Portrait, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980
Lament for the Imagined is a musical reflection on the Scottish Diaspora as I know it—through the traditional music of the American South and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Having only been to these two places of significant Scottish immigration, my understanding of Scotland depends entirely on an assemblage of the “never-never land” and of the Diaspora MacGregor mentions above. Working from this vantage point, I draw on traditional tunes to connect Scotland and the Scottish Diaspora existing in Appalachia and Cape Breton. Music, I believe, can connect these three Scotlands in a fundamental way where words, people, and geography fail.
i ain't broke (but i'm badly bent) (2009)
for string quartet - 17'
In 2005, I inhereted a banjo. Since then I have been absorbed in learning about music associated with the banjo --New Orlenas jazz, old-time, bluegrass, and Celtic to name a few. Most of the tunes I encountered while learning to play bluegrass banjo were fiddle tunes either American or Celtic in origin. More recently I have been studying fiddle tunes and techniques and travelled to Cape Breton to learn about the fiddle tradition of the island. This piece is a result of my initial interests in the fiddle. The piece is broken up into thirteen separate fiddle tunes taken from many fiddling traditions. I try to honor the traditions while experimenting with contrasting textures and techniques. For example, in the opening measures the quartet plays dissonant, atonal chords in traditional tune-opening fiddling bow patterns. In The Day Dawn and Chinquapin Hunting the fiddle tune becomes textural instead of melodic. In Red Haired Boy the tune is broken up between each of the four instruments. In addition, a few of the tunes borrow elements from related traditional instruments. In the Isle of Mull the cello plays a bagpipe tune and in Shady Grove the quartet imitates a clawhammer banjo. In my work, I seek to borrow and comment on elements of folk music while preserving its heart and soul.