In the process of writing Solar Spiral, my first for string quartet and piano, I was helped by imposing formal constraints on myself. In the peace and quiet of the MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat in New Hampshire where I wrote this material through the summer of 2016, I found that committing to a formal structure, whatever it may be, ignited my creativity. In the first movement, Solar Spiral, a recurring harmonic progression keeps moving upwards, expressed through ever-expanding meter and intervals. In the second, Tahiti, the idea of a continuously rising spiral is taken to its most rigid logical conclusion in the strings, while the piano reacts improvisationally. The rhythm played throughout by the strings comes from Tahiti. In the third, Big Bertha, I applied the logic from one of the algorithms that I've developed for my Natural Machines project, in essence a descending canon at the 9th, searching for music and drama within its strict confines. Commissioned by the Negaunee Foundation and premiered August 31st, 2016, at the Ravinia Festival by Dan Tepfer and the Avalon String Quartet.
This 3-movement work explores contrasting approaches to the use of algorithms in musical composition, a subject I've been increasingly fascinated by in recent years. The first movement, Improvisation, is a transcription for orchestra of music I improvised at the piano with my computer as improvisational partner. As I played, it responded in real time in music, following an algorithm I devised; it responded to me, and I to it. The second, Pen & Paper, I wrote in the traditional way, by hand, using a set of simple algorithmic rules that I worked out mentally as I went. It is the low tech movement. The last movement, Fractal Tree, is a strict rendering in music of one of the most beautiful of mathematical objects, a fractal tree. I wrote a computer program that generated note content from the evolving fractal, then orchestrated it by hand. The piece was commissioned by the American Spring Festival in Prague and premiered April 22nd 2015 in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle by the Prague Castle Guard orchestra, Vaclav Blahunek, conductor.
In writing this piece, my first for piano and orchestra, I attempted to find common ground between my identity as an improviser and the classical 3-movement concerto form. The orchestral part is through-composed, but there is much improvisation in the piano part, which I wrote for myself to perform; because of this, every performance of the piece is unique. Orohena is the highest mountain in Tahiti. Much of the rhythmic structure of the Concerto, in particular that of the first movement, is derived from a particular canonic rhythm that finds its origins there. The second movement takes this rhythmic idea and transposes it to the harmonic realm. The third movement transforms the orchestra into a giant drum set. Throughout, the piano responds ecstatically to the sounds around it. This work was premiered May 4th 2010 in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle by the Prague Castle Guard orchestra, Vaclav Blahunek, conductor.
Solo Blues for Violin and Piano was commissioned by Liz Bacher and premiered at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in January 2007. It is a solo piece, as the title indicates, for violin and piano, both instruments being played by a single performer. My idea in writing the piece was to imagine an inquisitive soul, equally adept at the piano and violin, sitting down to explore the possibilities offered by the combination of both instruments. As I child, after I had been playing the piano and improvising for a number of years, I was given a clarinet by my father and I have a clear memory of going through this exploration myself. I loved how two separate problems, one physical, the other musical, came together and grew off of each other. Hence, there is a sense of narrative to the piece, as the musician, a little tentative at first, gradually gains confidence and sees her enthusiasm grow as she discovers new ways to combine the two instruments. While the music is meant to stand on its own, a live performance of the piece is ultimately as much choreography as it is music. The Blues of the title refers to the harmonic framework used in the composition, which is articulated around the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the key of D, in the order of the traditional blues form: I - IV - I - V - IV - I. This makes two things possible: on the one hand, using the backdrop of the blues connects this classical composition with my background in jazz and gives a cultural and historic framework to the plaintive quality of the initial melody; on the other, it allows me to use the violin's open strings (G, D, A and E) to play the fundamental and fifth of each of the three harmonic centers of the piece. Seen this way, it's as if the violin had been made to play the blues.