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A Wagner Matinee

I recently received a video of a collaborative dance-theatre piece by choreographer Laura Diffenderfer that I wrote the music and did sound design for. It is an abstract retelling of Willa Cather's short story "A Wagner Matinee" and was premiered at the Red Cloud Opera House in Red Cloud, Nebraska (population 1020), Cather's hometown. The performance in the video is from the New York premiere at the Merce Cunningham Studio in 2010. This excerpt comes from the extended middle section of the work in which Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde stirs up memories in the aunt of the story's narrator. Musically, I juxtaposed a processed recording of the Prelude with wind recordings evoking the harshness of the Nebraskan landscape. From this emerges a solo piano piece that is essentially a long minimalist deconstruction of the iconic chords of the Prelude. The piano solo starts sparsely at 2:34 and builds up eventually from there.

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Early Works for Film

I recently was listening back through some of my older music, and was still remarkably happy with how my film scores sound. So, I decided to make a little collection of my favorites that haven't seen the light of day in awhile- kind of an EP- and put them online. These are largely written during my senior year in college and the year after (10 years ago!) and are for a variety of student projects and independent short films. They are scored for everything from solo vibraphone to synths to full orchestra. All that need a conductor were conducted by me. There's 7 tracks totaling 12 minutes. Give them a listen...

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Handoff for DZ4

Back in early October while recovering from the Carlsbad Fest, I wrote a quick piece for the wind quartet DZ4. They had several (24 to be exact) friends to write a 2-3 minute piece in each of the major and minor key a la The Well Tempered Clavier. I got C minor, and chose to treat it very strictly: no accidentals and a C drone throughout. I also thought about the ensemble and how different the sounds of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn are from each other (while all being in the same orchestral family) compared to say, the instruments of a string quartet. So, I decided to write a simple piece with two main elements (a melody and a rhythmic accompaniment) but that become interesting in their constantly changing colors as they are passed around the four instruments. The melody is seamlessly passed from instrument to instrument depending on which is most appropriate for the range and the character of each part of the melody. The rhythmic pattern on middle C stays the same throughout and alternates every other note between the instruments not playing the melody at the time. Through both of these ideas this piece puts a spotlight on an old technique of good chamber music playing: handing off a musical idea from one musician to the next. Hence the title: Handoff.

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Mondavi Center Commission Announced

A few weeks ago I finished writing 4 Pieces for Violin and Piano for the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. This commission is for their young artists competition and had one of the more specific set of parameters I've worked with: write a piece consisting of 3-5 short movements each of which is appropriate for a different level of teenage violinist. On January 8, each of the competition's violinists will choose one of the movements to play as part of their competition performance and I will be one of the judges. The following weekend, last year's competition winners Alexi Kenney and Hilda Huang will premiere the piece in its entirety. This project is the brainchild of the excellent pianist Lara Downes, and I think it is a really fantastic experience for these teenage musicians to have the opportunity to premiere a new piece.

In writing the piece, I thought about what I would have wanted to play when I was their age and how I could write something that would work for this project that I might also want to play myself in the future. So, two of the movements are explorations of ideas I have played with in Build pieces, one is a new rhythmic direction for me and one is a kind dirge. I have to say, it was a bit of a challenge to write a piece for different ability levels that still works as a whole, but I'm pretty happy about the outcome.

I'll post a recording (either of the premiere or of me playing it) here when one is available.

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Chatham Baroque Composers Competition Winner

I am very pleased to announce that I was selected as one of the three winners of Chatham Baroque's Composers Competition along with Moon Young Ha and Lansing McLoskey. We'll all be writing a piece for this trio of baroque violin, viola da gamba, and theorbo/baroque guitar to be premiered in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2012. For those of you who don't know what a theorbo is, check out this video of the group and also notice what a badass violinist Andrew Fouts is. Baroque counterpoint (especially Bach's) is one of the major foundations of my work (including the Build music). So, I'm very excited to take that aspect of my composition back to its roots and figure out how to write for these instruments that are new to me. Also, I'm really looking forward to visiting Pittsburgh, where I've never been.

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Recordings added

I added a few live recordings of pieces to the works page today and will be adding more soon. For now it is 2003's Plus Minus (live recording by Eric Huebner in 2010), 2005's Ghost in the Machine (live recording by the Calder Quartet in 2005) and 2009's Anchor (studio recording by Build and live video by the California EAR Unit in 2009). Enjoy! Also if Plus Minus strikes your fancy, Vicky Chow will be performing it in July and August at MassMOCA at the Vancouver MusicFest. More info on the calendar page.

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Thoughts on new Build album

Build’s second album, Place is a nine-track, hour-long LP. It has an expanded musical range from our 2008 self-titled debut that includes not just pieces for our standard set-up of violin, cello, piano, bass and drums, but also a 3-part trio for cello, piano and drums (Swelter); and a quintet (Anchor) that uses extensive arco (bowed) bass, and vibraphone and concert bass drum instead of a drum set. Where Build recorded on a $1000 budget with just over two days total for tracking and mixing, Place was recorded with five days each for tracking and mixing allowing for a richer, more sophisticated production and an expanded sonic palate. Also, the band’s sound has matured considerably since Build. Where Build was recorded within the first year of our being a band, by the recording of Place, we had been playing together for about 3½ years and have a more developed and cohesive sound. I thought of the first album as having a quite a big range of styles, but this one goes even further. While many of the tracks are wildly different from one another they all connected to each other. I hope that after multiple listens the interrelation of the tracks and an overall journey/narrative/arc of the album will emerge for listeners.

I think of this album as being in three chapters of three tracks each: Behavior Patterns, Dissolve and Ride; Swelter (in three movements over three tracks); and Cleave, Anchor and Maintain. All three chapters relate in some way to the album title, Place. Here are my notes on the individual tracks on the album:

The album opens with Behavior Patterns for the standard Build set-up, but with all the strings playing pizz (plucking). This creates a transparent texture in which grooving patterns are layered to create counterpoint and composite melodies between the different instruments (in the first and last parts of the piece the violin and cello each play 1½ melodies with the two halves combining together to create a third).  The drum pattern for Behavior Patterns has constant eight notes in the drums that mimic and mesh with the pizzicato string and propel the piece forward. The hi-hat is locked in unison rhythm with the piano chords throughout the entire piece.

The title for Dissolve is to be taken literally. The piece moves from alternating repeated dissonant chords and rock sections to pulsing, expansive chords that sound almost orchestral. This is a piece that my high school self would love: some of the licks in the rock sections are straight out of my years spent in the all-ages punk scene in San Diego and the ending pulsing section is reminiscent of the John Adams music I started listening to and fell in love with around the same time. This piece is a fun, fast trip to take with the band, changing energy dramatically over its four minutes. The end result is kind of in the tradition of Sonic Youth (and more recently, No Age) moving over the course of a song from punkish energy to expansive noise.

Ride is also to be taken literally. In the winter of 2009-10, I was doing a (fantastic) residency at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA, working on writing music for this album. In the middle of January, I came back to Brooklyn for a weekend of remarkably mild weather. On the last day my girlfriend (at the time) and I went for a bike ride into Manhattan. When I got back to Montalvo the next day, I sat down at my piano and drum set and more or less wrote the piece in one sitting.

The second chapter of the album is the three tracks of Swelter.

Swelter is a 3-movement trio for cello, piano and drums. I wrote this piece during my first summer in New York. Growing up in Southern California and living there for all of my adult life up to that point, I had never experienced living in the oppressive heat and (especially) humidity of East Coast summers. In my tiny air condition-less 5th floor walk-up on Lower East Side, I was overwhelmed by the heat while trying to write this piece. The first movement is in a burning, claustrophobic 7/8 meter with phrases that expand and contract giving the feeling of tightening space.

The second movement is a dreamy 4/4 that is a giving in- no more fighting the weather just submitting to the heat. I have grown to like how the heat and humidity during a heat wave I can never quite sleep through a night and my days have a dreaminess. Also, I think of the second movement as being related to Claude Debussy’s piano prelude, “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air” (Book 1, #4) and to 90’s Portishead. The relationship to the Debussy is in the piano part: the low bass notes followed by melodic high chords that occur several in Swelter 2 are similar to the opening of the Debussy, and the planing middle-range chords in Swelter 2 are also related to similar chords in the Debussy. The relationship to Portishead is kind of a feel and sound-world thing. I always loved the sensuousness of sound in PH records, and I was going for that effect they create by processing via acoustic means (which are enhanced by the recording technique). Also the beat (when it comes in) is vaguely “trip-hop”-y although it comes and goes in a way it wouldn’t do in PH.

The third movement is an arid 5/4. It was written when I was back in San Diego and to me it is the feeling of flying into San Diego and seeing the Anza-Borrego desert then the arid mountains then the brown chaparral-covered hillsides passing underneath before landing. Swelter 3 is also related to Drivin’ off the first Build album, which was written as an homage to Steve Reich. Both Swelter 1 and 3 use process-based compositional techniques and additive rhythmic, melodic and harmonic devices that are inspired by Reich. I like that the cello part at the beginning of 1 sounds a bit metal- not really very Reich.

For the recording of the three movements of Swelter, Adam made substantial changes to his drum set (swapping out cymbals and snares, etc) that help each movement have it’s own specific sound. I feel like in the colors of each movement you can feel their relative humidity levels. Also, I love the muted, tactile sound of Swelter 2 that comes from the drums and the micing of the piano. The close mics on the piano felts bring them alive as another percussion element.

The third chapter of the album (Cleave, Anchor and Maintain) is related to changes in my personal life that happened while I was writing music for this record.

Cleave has four distinct layers. In order of appearance, they are: string glissandos, piano chords, an additive drum pattern and a piano melody (with bass accompaniment). The form of the piece largely just follows the drum part as it builds up a one-measure-long drum pattern one note at a time to its final 43-note pattern followed by a piano melody at the end. One of the early inspirations for this piece was Radiohead’s Videotape where the drum pattern does an almost additive thing that reminded me of Steve Reich’s Drumming for a minute. When I heard it, I wished they had gone all the way and gone strictly additive. For the recording, we double-tracked the string glissandos and I love the huge sound and then its devastating release before the piano melody towards the end.

Anchor is one in a series of pieces of mine with a certain approach to form and musical materials that includes Imagining Winter (off the first Build album), and Swelter 2 amongst others. What these pieces have in common is a kind of dream-like treatment of the materials where they fade in and out of the listeners’ consciousness, are recalled in manipulated forms at different parts of the piece like a memory, are made vaguely surreal through different types of layering, and are arranged in an overall form that lacks a strong sense of directionality or clear narrative. Lots of the sonic ideas I’ve had for these pieces have come from my odd interpretations of record production techniques. From hearing an evocative use of a filter or manipulation of a sample, I thought of ways to create a similar effect with acoustic instruments in live performance through unusual techniques, voicings, or combinations of instruments. For the recording we heightened the acoustic effects slightly to make them work better on record, but not to the point where they sound artificial.

Although it is hard to describe exactly what a piece is about as there is not really a one-to-one correlation to words, Anchor is in lots of ways a response to major unsettling changes in my life in the year before I wrote it. I thought of the title as corresponding to the special role of the bass drum.

Maintain finishes the album with what I think of as a cross between a meditation, a warm embrace and an ecstatic release. Power chords are a lot harder to play on violin and cello than guitar.

Build: Place by Build

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New website

After a year of my previous website being inactive, I have moved to a Wordpress-based site and updated the content. It's still a work-in-progress, but feel free to poke around and come back often for frequent updates.