1975 . . . piano (12 minutes)
This musical sketch is titled with a translated line (“Où les atomes d’ambre au feu se miroitant”) of a French poem by de Latour that may have inspired Erik Satie — the poem ends with the word “gymnopaedia.” In keeping with Satie’s radically sparse, (one could even say) minimalist style in his Trois Gymnopédies for piano (1888), this homage generates entirely from one modern harmonic constellation, arpeggiated repeatedly in a gentle, almost imperceptible meter, then growing colorful “amber” sustained highlight sounds. Eventually the arpeggios begin to spin and swirl in a layered, kaleidoscopic texture that is “minimalist” in the 20th-century usage as the description for repetitive ostinato music.
Go to Lab 1: Genesis of a Gymnopédie in Mapping the Music Universe for a complete step-by-step explanation of the process of composing Amber Atoms in the Fire Gleaming.
Since this is modeled on a piano piece, Gymnopédie, here is a playable piano version:
2022 . . . sound environment . . . (8:30)
Quoting Debussy as homage to the first of his beautiful Nocturnes, musical patterns float, repeat, morph, disappear. Many of my earlier compositions are titled under the category of “Animated Landscapes,” referencing a musical analog to landscape painting, sketching musical textures of moving, evolving pitch constellations and colors. Perhaps that makes Nuages a “skyscape.”
Much of the musical material is shared with the third movement of my string orchestra work, Three States of Water.
2022 . . . digital sound sculpture (7 minutes)
Composed after reading Ed Viesturs’ book, No Shortcuts to the Top, his first-person account of the successful quest to climb to the summits of the 14 tallest mountains in the world, all taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) above sea level. My most vivid personal and photographic experience with glacier-topped mountain ridges includes several visits to Rocky Mountain National Park, where the Continental Divide rises to a spectacular ridge of 12,000-ft. peaks beside 14,259-ft. Long’s Peak. My son Owen and I once hiked to the summit of 12,234-ft. Flattop Mountain — less than half the elevation of Viesturs’ 8,000 meters. As its name suggests, Flattop’s summit is not dramatic but connects with the string of ridges between spectacular Hallett Peak (center of photo) and Otis Peak (left of Hallett).
Musical patterns are all based on constellation streams of four complex 8-pitch interval arrays, as explained in Mapping the Music Universe. The chords are first presented as tall monolithic blocks separated by silence in the style of Morton Feldman:
Then they become rhythmically steady arpeggios, constantly repeating in the style of John Adams. Out of this continuous ridge of arpeggios emerge the individual pitches of the four sonorities, rising to sonic summits.
Other majestic mountain ridges I’ve admired include the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on the southwestern horizon of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, as seen from the Macroplaza. Then there is the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, where we once lived just an hour from the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. Neither as high as the Rockies, both these sloping ridges change their deep blue hues with clouds and the sun’s progress through a day. Finally, though the Texas Hill Country is not really mountains at all, we live on its eastern edge on a road named Summit Ridge Drive.
2022 . . . collection of more advanced etudes for Piano
Mapping the Music Universe produced several small etudes to illustrate the compositional potential of musical patterns explained in the ebook. The inspiration to collect them into a series came from many years of fascination with Bartók’s wonderful Mikrokosmos series of 153 piano pieces in modern styles. Book I contains 7 short etudes, each titled with an astronomical entity named for a mythological character and ranging in difficulty for the pianist.
Book II presents more extended compositional explorations, each suitable as a stand-alone recital piece. Beyond Mikrokosmos, Book II pays homage to Debussy’s revered books of Preludes. The pieces in Book II embrace the Impressionist approach to texture and form, while evolving beyond Debussy’s tonal language.
2022 . . . Sound environment (18 minutes)
My compositional fascination with musical canons began in the early 1970s with study (at the University of Michigan) of Ockeghem’s 15th-century polyphony, the 10 canons in Bach’s 18th-century The Musical Offering, and Webern’s 20th-century Symphonie Op.21. As a young professor in the 1980s teaching 16th-century counterpoint at what was then North Texas State University (now UNT), I used canon as a challenging contrapuntal writing assignment. In 1985, a wind ensemble piece, Parallel Horizons (Homage to Schoenberg), was my first formal composition constructed by canon. In Dark Matter, other contrapuntal writing surrounds an extended canon. Now canon pervades much of my 21st-century writing, a challenging yet stimulating and gratifying approach to texture and continuity of material.
Book of Canons collects 14 excerpts from these works, showing each canon’s subject, points and pitch levels of answer, and sounding each excerpt scored as a string trio. Forest Paths stitches them together in an ambling journey along a path through a metaphorical sound environment of sunlight, shadows, and leaf-fluttering breezes.
2022 . . . string orchestra (19 min.)
In a lighthearted cabaret style, each dance adopts tunes from the iconic symphonies of master composers Mozart and Beethoven. Each is set in different key signatures from the quoted theme, as appropriate for these venerated dance forms.
Mazurka (imagine Warsaw) explores the graceful rising and falling of the melodic theme in the sometimes-neglected beautiful second movement of Beethoven‘s masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67.
An ancestor of Jarabe tapatío, the national dance of Mexico, Zambra is an old Spanish flamenco dance still performed in Andalusia. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is famous partly for its majestic slow second movement, a dark dirge in A Minor that builds relentlessly through a theme and variation process. In Zambra (imagine Granada) the harmony is darkened while the persistent rhythmic repetition is lightened by a fast flamenco tempo.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” is one of his greatest masterpieces. His No. 40 “Great G Minor” and No. 38 “Prague” are also magnificent. It makes one wonder if he had lived longer, what other stunning music would have poured forth.
Tango (imagine Buenos Aires) is built from the main themes in the opening of the No. 40 in G Minor as a languid blues tune. The keys flow like dancers, the musicians feeling their way through the shadows.
Waltz (imagine Vienna) draws on the main theme of the No. 41 Jupiter’s finale, a curving melody of rhythmic vitality and fascinating turning shapes.
2022 . . . digital sound sculptures . . . (9:30)
Modern physics understands that all matter is built up from just five fundamental “particles”: electrons, up quarks and down quarks with electrical charge; and gluons and photons with no electrical charge. They are not exactly particles, though, but infinitesimal points of spin in space/time. That’s where this sound composition experiment began. Two 4-pitch segments of the octatonic scale appear (“quarks”), then spin at their own speeds, while smaller 3-pitch sets (“electrons”) spin above and below them. At times, the sound mass explodes with a shower of electron sparks, then reforms.
While quarks are hard to imagine and impossible to visualize, we love to watch puffy white cumulus clouds. Their kinetic energy becomes more visible when they grow into dark, precipitation-bearing cumulonimbus storm clouds, bringing rain and crackling electricity.
A tree limb branching out from a trunk, then smaller limbs branching from it, again and again to smaller and smaller branches — a classic example of a recursive process. Sometimes lightning shows this same recursive branching process. While the tree branches take years to fill out, lightning is a sudden explosion of electricity over a split second. Thunder, as sound travels much slower than light, is heard later than the lightning flash is seen — unless, of course, it is very close by!
The middle movement, “Tango,” of my 2021 piece for chamber orchestra, Sinfonia, turned out to be easily transcribed for a number of different quartets. Here’s how it sounded in a version for four saxophones premiered April 15, 2022, at Texas State University:
Corvus Quartet performers Nolan Hopkins (soprano sax), Garrett Iler (alto), Ryan Halbert (tenor), and Jack Woodruff (baritone sax) studied with saxophone professor Dr. Todd Oxford.
Tango is for me uncharacteristically set in actual keys, appropriate for this venerated dance form. The keys flow like dancers, the musicians feeling their way through them while never seeing an actual key signature.
Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41 is one of his greatest masterpieces. His No. 40 in G Minor and No. 38 “Prague” are also magnificent. It makes one wonder if he had lived longer, what other stunning music would have poured forth. Back to No. 41 Jupiter, the first theme is a curving melody of such rhythmic vitality and fascinating turning shape that I used it as an example of both in my ebook, Mapping the Music Universe. Mozart makes the theme into a fugato, and I have adopted it in my obsessive study of canons.
Tango first sets the two main themes from the opening of the G Minor No. 40 as a languid tango tune. Following is a trio in slow waltz meter whose tune is the “Jupiter” motive from Symphony No. 41. A da capo takes us back one more time to the haunting No. 40 G Minor tango tune.
I have long admired and been influenced by the music of early 20th-century Austrian composer Anton Webern. Known historically as a member of the Second Viennese School with Alban Berg and mentor Arnold Schoenberg, the three were pioneers of so-called atonal music and 12-tone-row serial harmonic organization. I find the term “atonal” misleading and negative, as their 12-tone processes achieved new “12-tone tonalities” — not simply a rejection of traditional tonal harmony but also striving to create new and more complex tonalities.
What I admire most about Webern’s mostly-quiet instrumental miniatures (his Symphonie has only two sparsely-scored movements) is the delicate, crystalline quality of his pitch constellations; and their gently lyric, precious setting into transparent textures, pearl-strings of delicate sound colors ( called Klangfarbenmelodie). Here is a transcription for chamber orchestra with sound color much like Webern’s Symphonie Op. 21:
Webern’s mentor, Schoenberg, as a Jew was compelled to emigrate to the U.S. in 1933 before it was too late. Webern, not Jewish, stayed in Vienna and survived World War II, only to be fatally shot by a U.S. Army soldier during the Allied occupation of Austria.