Music by Frances White; text by James Pritchett
James Pritchett says this about the piece:
Frances and I have made a number of works together that combine music and storytelling: The Old Rose Reader, From a fairy tale, and The third night, among others. And so the heavens turned is another of these, although this time it is about both the story and the storyteller.
The story in this case is from the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), the eleventh-century Persian epic written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. The story we have chosen for the piece is the courtship of Zal and Rudabeh, the lovers who would go on to become the parents of Rostam, the great warrior hero of the epic. The title of the piece is a phrase found in the Shahnameh to note the passage of time from one scene to another: “And so the heavens turned . . . .”
We dedicate this piece to the memory of Mohammad Habibian, who introduced me to the Shahnameh and other works of Persian literature.
Music by Frances White; video and sculpture by Jim Toia
Between here and not here explores the inevitable experience of loss: the passage between the states of presence and absence, above and below, life and death. Over the course of the piece, the music’s expressive nature is gradually erased into silence—a reminder of those larger processes that gradually dissolve the self. The video consists of images of water, visual meditations on its different stages of calm and agitation. The images are projected onto ephemeral materials which fade away as video and music dissolve. The two media inform and transform each other: sound disappearing into silence, form into abstraction, longing into emptiness.
This work was commissioned by The New York Viola Society with funding provided by The American Music Center’s Commissioning Music USA grant (formerly Meet the Composer).
Performance by The RAM Players: Karen Kim, violin; Robert Meyer, viola; Kate Dillingham, cello; Amir Khosrowpour, piano
In my recent music I have become interested in storytelling in various forms. This piece tells a story—but I do not know what that story is. It is told by a character whom I understand, but who is unknown to me.
While composing this work, I was listening to traditional music of the hurdy-gurdy, an ancient instrument which is also known as the vielle a roue (wheel fiddle), or simply vielle. This music, with its melismas floating over a persistent drone, touched me deeply and permeated my writing. It seemed, somehow, to belong in the mysterious story I was trying to touch.
The title of the piece is a line from a poem by the tragic Roma poet Papusza. It captures something of the essence of both this unknown narrator and her story.
Music by Frances White; text and video by James Pritchett
The third night is another of our works based on the story “The princess in the chest”, taken from Andrew Lang’s Pink fairy book. In this “fairy tale” series, we will present isolated glimpses of the story, spread out over a number of pieces. The overall effect will be like discovering some ancient fragmentary text: a scene here, a bit of dialog there, with the gaps left open to speculation and imagination.
The third night was commissioned by The Crossing Chamber Choir of Philadelphia, with funds provided by the Knight Foundation. The music was crafted for the reverberant space in which the premiere took place: The Icebox at the Crane Arts Center in Philadelphia. This dark, echo-filled chamber lent itself well to our fairy tale world, since the principal action of “The princess in the chest” takes place in an empty chapel at night. The third night draws upon the part of the story where the hero spends his third night in the chapel alone with the ghost of the Princess. The text is mostly in the form of questions that reverberate in the space and in the mind.
Performance by Parthenia with narrator Valeria Vasilevski
I have always loved fairy tales, and believe that they reach truths hidden deep inside of us, truths that music also reaches. James Pritchett and I have collaborated on several works that explore story telling and fairy tales. We hope someday to create a piece based on a tale from one of Andrew Lang’s collections: “The Princess in the Chest”. From a fairy tale is a brief glimpse into the world of this story.
The original version of this piece was written for the viol consort Parthenia. Soon after, I made a version for full orchestra.
Performance by Elizabeth Brown, shakuhachi
In 2010, the wonderful shakuhachi player Riley Lee was in residence in Princeton, and I had the opportunity to study with him. We worked on repertoire from the Chikuho school, a style which was unfamiliar to me (I am a student of the Kinko school). Among the pieces that we worked on was So Koku. Riley explained that this is a “secret” piece – an idea that I found mysterious and charming.
I was invited to compose a short shakuhachi solo for the 2013 European Shakuhachi Society festival in Barcelona. As I started to work on the piece, I found myself haunted by a recurring major third motive from So Koku, so I decided to honor it by having the major third be an important part of my piece. The title is actually an homage to the secrecy of So Koku: the term “sub rosa” was used in medieval times to indicate a secret meeting – and in fact, the rose has been a symbol of secrecy (among many, many other things) since ancient times. As a fanatic lover of roses myself (I grow over 200 roses in my own garden), I also liked the idea of connecting the sweet magic of the major third to that of standing under the rose, inhaling its beauty, mystery, and fragrance.
As night falls is the third in a series of works for strings with texts written by James Pritchett. In all three pieces, the texts are about roses: sometimes lists of rose names, sometimes fanciful, poetic stories about roses. The original piece, The Old Rose Reader, was framed by a narrative that described a man reading about roses to his wife; the second piece, The book of roses and memory, acts as a kind of reflection on and remembrance of the first piece.
In As night falls, we wanted to do something different. We had always imagined the stories being told by the man, and began to wonder what it would be like to create a piece from the woman’s perspective. The text that resulted from this plan exists in two layers, background and foreground. The background appears in the electronic part, read by a male voice: it consists of fragmentary, somewhat abstract poems derived from the rose stories of the previous two pieces. The foreground is read by the live female narrator, and is much more realistic and emotional, consisting of the woman’s memories and reflections on a long marriage that is now coming to its end with her approaching death. As she moves in and out of various stages of awareness, sometimes hearing her husband’s voice as he reads to her, her thoughts wander, sometimes alluding to events that are only suggested, sometimes clearly describing emotions or memories.
The other two works of the series share some musical materials. In As night falls I refrained from alluding to these materials – instead, I tried to create music that is in the same sonic world as the other pieces, but has a completely different feeling and texture. Because this is a duet, I inevitably found myself thinking of the violin and viola representing, in some sense, the couple in the story: but they also create a kind of commentary on the text, that magnifies and empathizes with the human condition of the characters.
As night falls was written for Michael Jinsoo Lim and Melia Watras, with funding from The New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
I have always been drawn to fragmentary texts. It sometimes seems to me that selected phrases or words, taken out of their original context, can have a special kind of resonance, significance, and poignance. In far, still, I drew fragments from three different poems by A. E. Houseman, Percy Shelley, and Sara Teasdale. What these poems have in common is that each refers to the moon, conjuring a sense of its loneliness and distance.
Musically, I tried to find a way to reflect the feeling of each of these different fragments. So the voices move through different sonic and emotional spaces: lyrical, contrapuntal, dissonant, plangent; finally coming to rest with an image of dying light.
far, still …
White in the moon the long road lies that leads me from my love.
far, still …
wandering companionless among the stars that have a different birth
far, still …
light into light, and still giving light, dying …
A trace can be a drawing, usually an outline of an existing image. It can also be a mark or a line left by something that has passed. An archaic meaning of the word trace is a course or path that one follows.
Tracing was commissioned by the MAP Fund, and is dedicated to Monique Buzzarté.
Maurice remembered is an opera-in-progress based on E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, written for my good friend Thomas Otten. The baritone also plays the piano—or perhaps it is the pianist who also sings. We have completed one act of the projected three.
Although we had been roommates and close friends as undergraduates, Tommy Otten and I had not been in touch for many years. We reconnected in 2008, and Tommy had the idea to commission me to write a piece for him that would showcase his unique talents as both pianist and baritone. This work, Maurice Remembered, is a large theatrical composition that will ultimately consist of three sections, each on text derived from Maurice by E.M. Forster. Musically, each section of the work draws on masterpieces by Maurice Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit and the Piano concerto for the left hand.
The first section, written in 2009/10 and premiered in 2010 at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, consists of the overture to the piece, followed by an initial act. This act explores Maurice’s dawning realization of his sexuality, which first appears to him in dreams. It ends with the ocean of feeling that overwhelms him as he discovers his first love, Clive. Musically, Act I is influenced by Ondine, the first piece from Ravel’s Gaspard. The first line sung by the baritone is the epigram to the Aloysius Bertrand poem on which Ravel’s work is based (“I believed that I heard a vague harmony that enchanted my sleep …”), and quotations from Ravel’s music appear throughout this act. The sound of water, which is Ondine’s element, is ever-present, representing as it does a source of power, beauty,and sensuality; of danger, seduction, and healing.
Tommy and I collaborated to create the libretto. Our intent is not to create a linear re-telling of the story of Maurice, but rather to explore the journey that he takes – a journey that leads him, after much suffering, to self-knowledge, freedom, and love. Similarly, in the music, I have tried to create a sonic world that reflects the emotional landscape of the novel. Thus the first act, which highlights the dawning of Maurice’s love, is unabashedly romantic, culminating in a dream-like love duet. But while this work certainly draws its inspiration from Forster’s novel and Ravel’s composition, it also was written very specifically for Tommy. He is the source and impetus for Maurice Remembered, and his multi-faceted musical persona is everywhere in the piece (Tommy performed all of the singing, playing, and speaking that appear in the electronic part).
Maurice Remembered was commissioned by Thomas Otten, with funds supplied by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The text from E.M. Forster’s Maurice is used with permission.
An ongoing concern of mine is the application of classical and ancient compositional techniques to the creation of music for instruments with electronic sound. I have always been particularly interested in the technique of cantus firmus, where a pre-existing melody is used as the basis of a polyphonic composition.
My original plan for this work was to use the beautiful chant Alleluia, O virga mediatrix by Hildegarde von Bingen as a cantus over which I would compose the music. But as I worked, the piece evolved in a somewhat different direction. Although there are passages where the chant is indeed treated as a cantus, they alternate with freer, more fantasy-like reflections on and excursions from the melody. But the entire piece is haunted by the phrygian twilight of the original chant, and by Hildegarde’s ecstatic upward leaping fifths.
The electronic sound acts in two ways. First, I transformed recorded viol sounds to create a kind of enlargement of the viols. Second, I used the sound of recorded wind to make an aeolian harp texture that emerges and recedes from the music – a sonic space that suggests the mysterious “farther side of death” referred to in Hildegarde’s text for the chant.
By working in this way, I felt I was able to listen deeply and profoundly to this beautiful Alleluia, and that it transformed me and the sounds that I created. It is my hope that the finished composition will communicate this experience of transformation to the performers and listeners.
A flower on the farther side was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and is dedicated to the viol consort Parthenia.
Several years ago, I had a dream in which I found myself in a vast, labyrinthine library that was slowly and spectacularly disintegrating around me. I was searching desperately for the manuscript of a troubadour canso. This piece was said to be the most beautiful love song ever written, but no living person had ever seen or heard it. It was one of those dreams where you know you are dreaming even while you are asleep, and I was painfully aware that if I were to wake up before finding the manuscript, it would be lost forever. Of course, I did wake up without finding it, and I have never forgotten the sense of loss and anguish that I felt that morning.
This dream underlies In the library of dreams in ways that I’m not sure I can completely articulate. But something about the mysterious resonance of the viola d’amore made it the perfect instrument with which to explore this story. In the library of dreams was written for and is dedicated to David Cerutti.
The book of roses and memory is the second in a series of three pieces written to texts by James Pritchett that feature the names of old roses.
The book of roses and memory is a kind of “sequel” to my earlier piece, The Old Rose Reader. It came about because violist Liuh-Wen Ting told me that she longed to play The Old Rose Reader. Neither of us felt right about having me merely make an arrangement, however. Following the example of composers such as Berlioz or Feldman, I decided to make a new composition that would use themes from the original piece, but would also include new ideas, including a live narrator to read the text. I was particularly excited because there were many beautiful stories in James Pritchett’s text that I was not able to use in the first piece.
The book of roses and memory acts as a reflection on The Old Rose Reader. It is as if the viola of the second piece is somehow remembering the violin of the first. The sense of the violin, irretrievably lost, haunts The book of roses and memory. Meanwhile, the narrator tells new stories that themselves reflect themes of memory and loss, while the violist alternately mourns for what is lost and contemplates what is discovered. The book of roses and memory was written for, and is dedicated to, Liuh-Wen Ting and Thomas Buckner. The book that Mr. Buckner reads from was designed by Marshall Wilson.
An excerpt of The ocean inside, performed by eighth blackbird
The ocean inside was written for the ensemble eighth blackbird and was commissioned by the Third Practice Festival at the University of Richmond. It is based on the piece “Choshi” from the honkyoku repertory for shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute).
I have always been interested in the technique of cantus firmus, where a pre-existing melody is used as the basis of a polyphonic composition. In early western music, this melody was traditionally a chant, and the other voices were composed in counterpoint to this melody. For the listener the cantus itself may not be clearly perceived, and yet it permeates the entire piece. I see cantus firmus as a way for a composer to engage a melody in an especially deep way.
I am a student of the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and particularly love honkyoku, the traditional meditative music for this instrument. Honkyoku are quite similar in intent to Gregorian chant: like chant, they exist not so much as “pieces of music” but rather for the purpose of devotion. When I was commissioned by The Third Practice Festival to write a piece that somehow engaged a non-western music, I knew that I wanted to try to use a honkyoku as a cantus firmus. I turned to a piece called Choshi. It is said to refer to the essential harmony of the universe, or a state of mind where heaven, earth, and human are perceived as one. Choshi is a very simple piece, but very profound, and is used to settle the mind for spiritual practice.
In The ocean inside, Choshi is the cantus firmus around which all of the other parts were written. While it is perceived for the most part only obliquely, it is the hidden melodic heart out of which the entire piece grows – “the ocean inside.”
The ocean inside, download score, parts, and audio: $20
The root of the wind was written for shakuhachi master Riley Lee and the Australian taiko drum ensemble TaikOz. It combines these instruments with electronic sound, and is my attempt to produce a work that uses taiko in a different, quieter way than is usual. This work was written as part of my Guggenheim Fellowship year.
Writing for taiko was a new experience for me, and my first goal was to find a common ground between the drums and the shakuhachi. In my opinion, the most important thing that these instruments share is a kind of elemental power. While they manifest this power very differently, I believe that it comes from the same source. For me the title, from a poem by Emily Dickinson, evokes this source.
I thought of the shakuhachi part as a kind of incantation that conjures the world of the piece. The drums answer the shakuhachi and draw from a diverse group of musical and natural influences, in particular a tientos flamenco rhythm and the drumming of woodpeckers (North American birds who pound on resonant trees to define their territories). The electronic part, which features the sounds of wind and water and a deep vocal drone, acts as a kind of sonic space within which the music unfolds.
The root of the wind was written for TaikOz, and funded in part by a fellowship from The Guggenheim Foundation.
She lost her voice that’s how we knew is a chamber opera for soprano and electronic sound. It was created as a collaboration with the soprano Kristin Norderval and the librettist Valeria Vasilevski, and was commissioned with funds provided by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.
More information about the piece can be found here.
Site for She lost her voice that’s how we knew at the AMC Online Library (includes an audio excerpt).
She lost her voice that’s how we knew is a true collaboration. Personal conversations between Kristin Norderval (the performer), Valeria Vasilevski (the librettist), and myself created the basis for the libretto, the sonic landscape, and the staging. The main issue addressed in these conversations was the loss of one’s voice. Small fragments from many different stories made their way into the libretto, and though the details were different, they all followed a similar trajectory of silencing each new voice though telling a new story was also telling the same story, each one taking up where the last left off. The result is a work that is very personal, but, we hope, also open to the larger and more universal issues that are implied by the idea of this loss. While there is no explicit, linear narrative, the piece does form an interior drama, from which a definite persona emerges. This persona has multiple voices: an inner voice, and the voice of memory; the public voice vs. private voice; a spoken voice, a singing voice, and a silenced voice, among others. There is also the sense of multiple listeners, hearing these various voices.
The music is composed very specifically from Kristin. Much of the electronic material is derived from recordings of her singing and speaking, and I used various computer tools to analyze her voice so that the vocal writing follows her sonic “fingerprint”. The music takes a very direct emotional approach to the text. In music, words, and movement, we strive to make a piece that is passionately, deeply personal, but still leaves room for the audience to find their own meanings within it.
The old rose reader was written for violinist Mari Kimura and includes both electronic sound and video animation. It is a romantic work based on a text by my husband, James Pritchett. The text inclues the names of hundreds of roses, along with stories about them.
Site for The old rose reader at the AMC Online Library (includes audio excerpt)
The Old Rose Reader was inspired by my love of old garden roses. “Old roses” are either species roses that have been grown for many hundreds of years, or else hybrids that were developed mostly before 1900. Many of them are famous for having been grown in Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison. I love them not only for their exceptional beauty and fragrance, but also for their wonderful, romantic names. All of the names that appear in the text of The Old Rose Reader belong to actual roses, some of which I grow in my own garden.
The Old Rose Reader was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, Mari Kimura. The text of The Old Rose Reader was written by James Pritchett, who also created the video part. The text was read by Hervé Brönnimann. This work was funded in part by the Composer Assistance Program of the American Music Center. A large part of The Old Rose Reader was completed while in residence at The Djerassi Resident Artists program.
The seasons and the constellations is another of my “bulb” series of pieces (others include Winter aconites and Lesser celandines). It is for chorus (SATB) and electronic sound and was commissioned by The Dale Warland Singers in 2003.
The seasons and the constellations is one of a series of works in which I used the consonant portions of human speech to shape the timing of the chords in the electronic part. This creates rhythms that are natural sounding, but unpredictable: to me, they are reminiscent of the patterns formed by wildflowers in a field, or stars scattered in the sky. The chorus is wordless, singing sustained vowels that hold the chords of the tape part together, like beads on a string. The title is a line from T. S. Eliot, that invokes not only the star-like patterns in the tape part, but also the progression of the music through time, which seemed to me to echo the progression of the seasons of the year.
The seasons and the constellations was commissioned by The Dale Warland Singers. It was written mostly while in residence at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in the winter of 2003.
Singing bridge is an orchestra-only version of my composition Centre bridge (dark river), prepared in 2002.
Of all of the bridges that cross the Delaware river, my favorite is Centre Bridge, in Stockton NJ and Solebury Township PA. Its surface is a metal grating, and as cars move across it, they generate singing tones that rise and fall. This phenomenon has fascinated me for years, and I have written several pieces inspired by it.
For me, the experience of this bridge is about transformation. It changes the sound of traffic into a kind of music: into something beautiful and almost sentient. After you leave the bridge, you find that your hearing is changed: you discover a little of the singing of the bridge hidden within the ordinary sounds of cars passing on the street.
Singing bridge began with recordings I made of the cars on Centre Bridge. Initially, I simply created a kind of a sonic trace of these recordings, using what I heard to shape the pitches and timing of the music. As the piece progressed, of course, it began to take on a character of its own. But I always found myself returning to the sonic image of the bridge, and allowing it to guide me, and transform my musical imagination.
The Three small pieces for flute duet and electronic sound were written in 2002. They were originally intended to be played by two baroque flutes, but can also be performed on modern flutes. The titles of the three pieces are
“The sound of the bell as it leaves the bell”, “Interlude”, and “Rose pogonia”.
I. The sound of the bell as it leaves the bell
The title of this piece comes from a poem by Buson. The bell used in the electronic part is a meditation bell, and the music concerns itself primarily with sustained breath and with tuning.
This piece does not have an electronic part. It is short and simple, at times almost like a memory of a folk-song.
III. Rose pogonia
The Rose pogonia is a beautiful and rather rare rose pink orchid native to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I saw one once in the Lebanon State Forest on a hot day in July in a very remote area. The place was so isolated that it seemed likely that no other human being had been by that day. Every summer, I now think about the Rose pogonia blooming by the stream, unseen by human eyes.
Three small pieces, 2 copies of print score and CD: $40
Composed in 2001, this piece was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, violist Liuh-Wen Ting. It was premiered in New York in April of 2001, at Merkin Hall.
Ms. Ting commissioned A veil barely seen to be one of five pieces that would each represent one of the five Chinese elements (earth, air, fire, water, and wood). A veil barely seen represents water. Its electronic part consists primarily of the recorded sound of water, which is sometimes colored by filtering, and from which lingering tones arise and decay. In the viola part, single notes and melodic fragments emerge from the tape sounds, with many subtle variations in tone color, vibrato or lack thereof, and dynamics.
Site for A veil barely seen at the AMC Online Library (includes audio and an excerpt of the score)
Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching is about the Valley Spirit, an eternal female element associated with water. In a poetic translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, this entity is compared to “a veil barely seen.”
I recorded the sound of water for this piece in the winter and early spring of 2000. Listening to the different streams, I felt myself pulled in by the sound. The water flows between, around, and through the rocks, and as it does, it produces different pitches and rhythms. They change in subtle ways, depending on where you stand. The longer I listened, the more I began to hear. But sometimes, I could not tell whether the pitches that I heard were really there, or were only sounding in my imagination. Finally, I felt myself disappearing into the water.
An excerpt from Centre Bridge (dark river)
Centre bridge (dark river) was commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for a concert of chamber music by women composers in March, 2001. The tape part is dominated by the recorded sounds of the Delaware River, while the strings play sustained tones.
Paul M. Somers, in his review of the orchestral version of the piece, described it as “gently spiritual. The effect is that of an American Arvo Pärt: angelic string sounds, repetitions with direction, ‘bells’ in the air, and the evocation of a mystical landscape.”
Mode Records has posted Centre bridge (dark river) on YouTube as a promo for the CD.
Site for Centre bridge (dark river) at the AMC Online Library (includes an audio excerpt and and excerpt of the score)
Centre Bridge is one of several bridges that cross the Delaware river, connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Its ends are located in Stockton, NJ, and Solebury Township, PA. The surface of the bridge is a metal grating, and as cars move across it, they generate singing tones that rise and fall.
Centre Bridge (dark river) is the second piece that I’ve written about this bridge. In both pieces, I made recordings of the traffic on it, and then used what I heard to shape the pitches and timing of the music. In Centre Bridge (dark river), I particularly wanted to address the transforming power of the bridge. When you’re walking across it, you really are transported to a different world: not on land, or in the air, on in the water, but a place suspended between all of these different realities. The bridge transforms the sound of traffic into a kind of music: into something beautiful and almost sentient. And when you are back on land, your hearing is changed: when cars pass by on the street, you still hear in their sounds the singing of the cars on the bridge.
The “dark river” of the title is, of course, the Delaware. When I went to make the recordings for this piece, it was just after a series of heavy rains. The river was very high and forceful, and this made it seem dark and even frightening. Still, to me, there is something in its presence that is always deeply comforting.
Centre Bridge (dark river) was commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
Centre bridge (dark river) was commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for a concert of chamber music by women composers in March, 2001. That composition was for string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass). This is a version of the piece for string orchestra, prepared in 2002.
Like the lily is for viola, bass, and electronic sound. The sounds in the electronic part makes this part of my “bulb” series (started with Winter aconites), but the instrument parts are different from the other “bulb” pieces, and include references to Gregorian chant.
There is also a version of this piece for viola and cello. I also made a version of the piece for members of the viol consort Parthenia.
Site for Like the lily at the AMC Online Library (includes an excerpt of the score).
Like the lily was inspired by the chant Alleluia: Justus germinabit, which appears in the Liber Usualis for the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19. The text for the chant, (dervied from the Book of Hosea) is:
Justus germinabit sicut lilium: et florebit in aeternum ante Dominum. Alleluia.
(The just shall spring like the lily: and shall flourish forever before the Lord. Alleluia)
I was brought up Catholic. According to the Catholic church, these chants (such as Justus germinabit) were dictated by God to St. Gregory the Great.
Centre bridge is a work for two shakuhachi and electronic sound, which was inspired by the sounds of traffic crossing a bridge across the Delaware River. After this, I wrote another, different, work inspired by the same bridge: i>Centre bridge (dark river).
Centre Bridge is one of several bridges that cross the Delaware River, connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On the New Jersey side, it is located in the Borough of Stockton, and on the Pennsylvania side in Solebury Township. The surface of the bridge is a metal grating, and as cars move across it, they generate singing tones. The tones rise and fall in pitch depending on the speed of the cars. I love walking across this bridge, stopping in the middle to listen to the sound of the river flowing underneath while the cars go back and forth. I find the experience to be engrossing, and when I’m there I feel as if I am outside the normal world.
I realized that the experience was distinctly musical — the counterpoint of the cars, their pitches, glissandi, and rhythms all perfect in themselves. The sounds of the cars reminded me of the sound of shakuhachi music, and thus I had the idea for this piece. I made several recordings of traffic going back and forth across the bridge, which I then transcribed, transposed, and embellished to create the two shakuhachi parts. I used the computer to process the sound of one of these recordings to create a more continuous electronic sound that could fill the role of the river.
The result is a piece that conveys something about my personal experience of the bridge. There is, for me, a certain sadness about it. Standing at the center of the bridge you’re aware of so many dualities — the two banks of the river, the two lanes of traffic going in opposite directions, the river and the bridge suspended above it. These all communicate by means of the bridge, but can never actually meet. The call out to each other, but must always remain separate.
This piece was written in 1997-98 at the request of Josef Fung for his ensemble The Chinese Virtuosi. This Beijing-based group performs new music on traditional Chinese instruments and was featured at the 1996 International Computer Music Conference in Hong Kong.
The piece is scored for erhu, dizi, zheng, and pipa. Unlike most of my recent works, this piece does not include a tape part. The title is taken from James Pritchett’s poem, which was written simultaneously with the piece.
While listening to the waves (at Island Beach)
1 (looking down)
All that exists now is a strip of sand which the sea occasionally touches, then releases with a transient shimmer (wet sand, dry sand; wet sand–dry sand).
The middle way; neither of the land nor of the sea; balanced and invisible.
2 (looking up)
Two orange kites suspended in the blank blue sky; motionless.
3 (looking back)
A line of wooden posts, each with a gull stationed on top.
Behind that, the snow fence.
Behind that, the dunes–the curving line of sand meeting sky–crossed with strokes of grass.
Behind that, the chimney from the fisherman’s house.
Behind that, a line of birds flying away.
Composed in 1996, this piece was commissioned by the International Computer Music Association for the 1996 International Computer Music Conference in Hong Kong. The tape part was made at the Winham Laboratories, Princeton University.
The piece is for shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and tape. It reflects my love of the instrument and especially the traditional honkyoku repertoire. I began studying shakuhachi in 1996 in preparation for composing Birdwing and continue to play the instrument. The piece is dedicated to my friend and teacher Tomie Hahn.
Site for Birdwing at the AMC Online Library (includes an excerpt of the score)
Birdwing (for Frances)
I am lucky to be at the lake so early, while everything is frozen and unmoving: I can see the three little marks a sparrow’s wing left in the snow.
In a moment the wind will blow over them and they will be gone.
We know of a place where woodcocks live. They are secretive and mysterious birds. Every spring we go to witness their nocturnal flight.
To do this requires standing in an open field at dusk and waiting: waiting for the daytme birds to go to sleep, waiting for stillness, waiting for the sun and the moon. Only when it is too dark to see will they appear. You can’t see them, but you can hear the songs their wings make as they fly, spiralling up and then dropping down.
One year we stood and waited, but they were not there. Neither seen nor heard, the birds flew only in our memories, their wings whistling.
Lesser celandines is a longer composition written in the style of my previous Winter aconites. The instrument parts move flexibly within the musical space created by the tape part. The piano here is something of a soloist; the piece is like a tiny, quiet concerto.
Lesser celandines are flowers that bloom in early spring. Growing from bulbs, they like ground that is very wet. Near to where I live there is a stream whose banks are covered with these flowers; I visit them every year. They appear as shiny yellow stars against the dark green carpet of their leaves.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Francis and Marion Josephine White. The tape was made at the Winham Laboratory of Princeton University.
Winter aconites is the first of my “little bulb” pieces for instruments and tape. The instrument parts in these works are largely sustained tones; the tape parts are soft, chiming sounds with irregular attacks that create a space within which the instrumentalists perform.
Site for Winter aconites at the AMC Online Library (includes audio and an excerpt of the score)
The winter aconite is a species of flowering bulb (Eranthis hyemalis). Its small, yellow, buttercup-like flowers are among the very first to appear each year; in the northeast it can bloom as early as February, while there is still snow on the ground. Like so many of the little early bulbs, winter aconites will naturalize — they will propagate themselves and form large colonies.
This piece, Winter Aconites, was commissioned by The ASCAP Foundation and the Bang On A Can Festival in memory of John Cage. Shortly after I began work on it (and before it had a title), I had a dream in which I brought a pot of winter aconite flowers to Cage. He was delighted — he loved flowers and plants — and later during my visit, we made sandwiches with some of the blooms (I have no idea whether the blooms of winter aconites are actually edible or not). Like the flowers in my dream, this piece is a gift for John Cage.
Winter Aconites was composed in 1993; the tape part was made at the Winham Laboratory of Princeton University.
This is an arrangement of Winter aconites for a slightly different ensemble: alto flute, bass clarinet, vibraphone, electric guitar, piano, cello, and tape. It was made for the group Ensemble Nord.
Trees is a work in three movements. It consists almost entirely of very long, quiet sustained tones in the strings and processed recorded piano sounds in the tape.
My initial idea for this piece was to make a composition for tape and string instruments in which the strings would extend the decay portions of the tape sounds. It was only after I had worked on the piece for some time that I found myself thinking about it as being “tree-like”, and the more I worked on it, the more compelling the analogy became. I thought about the sound the wind makes in trees, and about the way they exist in time: we tend to think of trees in terms of space more than time, simply because their tempo, as it were, is so slow. I was also impressed by the beautiful way in which trees, when left to their own devices, arrange themselves.
Trees (for two violins, viola, and tape) is in three movements, each with a duration of around nine minutes. The tape part was created at the Winham Lab at Princeton University.
The Walks through Resonant Landscape are simply recordings of my installation Resonant landscape. In some of the Walks, the installation was being explored by a person; in others, it was running in “demo mode”, taking itself for a random walk around the map.
The Walks through Resonant Landscape are pieces derived from my interactive sound installation, Resonant Landscape (1990). In that piece, I was inspired by my walks in the woods around Princeton to make a piece in which listeners could explore an imaginary sonic space. By moving around on a map projected onto a computer screen, a visitor to the installation would encounter different sounds and different mixtures of sounds.
The various Walks through Resonant Landscape are recordings I made at different times of the installation in operation. Lacking the interactive quality of the installation, these tape pieces present a different experience: where Resonant Landscape was concerned with space and exploration, the Walks through Resonant Landscape emphasize time and memory. They can be thought of as a kind of journal–a record of observations made, together with interpretations and fantasies based on those observations.
The Walk through Resonant Landscape No. 2 is dedicated to Edwin E. Pritchett. It appeared as part of the soundtrack for Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant.
Resonant landscape was an interactive computer music installation that used a NeXT workstation, a MIDI-controlled mixing console, two DAT tape players, and a sound system. It was installed at Princeton University and at the Kelvingrove Art Galleries in Glasgow, Scotland. Listeners came to the computer and used the mouse to move around on a displayed map of an imaginary place. The sounds played by the computer, their volumes, and their placement in the stereo space were determined by the current location on the map. Motion was slow and sounds changed relatively gradually.
It is now impossible to get the equipment to set up the installation. However, I recorded several sessions of it in operation, and have released these as tape pieces called Walks through “Resonant Landscape”.
The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as turns of the mind, and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable. The mind, full of curiosity and analysis, disassembles a landscape and then reassembles the pieces–the nod of a flower, the color of the night sky, the murmur of an animal–trying to fathom its geography. At the same time the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement. (Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams)
Resonant Landscape began with my desire to make a piece using animal voices and other sounds of nature. While feeling a strong connection to these sounds, I felt it important that whatever I did would still allow them to retain their “ability to transcend whatever I would make of them.” I have tried to do this by making a piece that is not a traditional work for magnetic tape, but which is an interactive, living experience.
The piece exists as a landscape in which the various sounds can be encountered. The different sounds–recorded natural sounds (streams, wind, birds), computer-processed natural sounds, and purely synthetic sounds–inhabit particular places within this space. The landscape is represented by a map displayed on the computer, and the listener explores the space of the piece by tracing paths on the map. As one moves around, the computer responds by playing the sounds characteristic of one’s current location. Although I was inspired by my walks in the woods around Princeton, the intent of the piece is not to imitate any real experience or particular place, but rather to communicate to the listener my sense of the natural landscape: my memory and imagination of it.
All computer processing and synthesis of sounds was done on a NeXT workstation using Cmix and Csound software. The map-making and performance software was made especially for this piece by James Pritchett.
In this work the live piano plays within the space created by a computer-altered version of itself. The tape part is made from recorded piano sounds that have been expanded enormously in time.
Site for Still life with piano at the AMC Online Library (includes audio)
Still Life with Piano began with the composition of a short piece for piano. The tape part was made by computer-processing the sounds of this piece, while the solo piano part draws upon and extends these materials.
I attempted to create a relationship between the two parts in which aspects of the same musical entity evolve in different dimensions. The computer acts as a kind of microscope, capable of vast distortions and expansions of time and spectrum, while the real piano persistently articulates these explorations and puts them in the perspective of its own personality.
Still Life with Piano was written for James Pritchett. The tape part was realized at the Winham Laboratory of Princeton University.
Valdrada was the first of a series of electronic works that I had planned to compose that were inspired by stories in Italo Calvino’s book Invisible cities.
Valdrada, composed at the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music, is based on an excerpt from Le cittá invisibili by Italo Calvino. Calvino’s book is a collection of prose poems, connected by the scenario of Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan stories of the fantastic cities which he has visited. The piece is based on Marco’s description of Valdrada, a city built upon the shore of a lake. Marco tells of how an arriving traveler sees not one but two cities: the “real” one above and its reflection in the water below; he then explains the peculiar awareness which the inhabitants of Valdrada have of their reflections in the lake. So great is their obsession with these mirrors of themselves that it becomes not so much their own actions and passions which are of importance to them, but those of their images in the water. Finally, Marco tells of the relationship between the city and its mirror: “the two cities live for one another, their eyes locked together; but there is no love between them.”
In composing Valdrada, I wanted to draw upon the imagery, atmosphere, and poetry of the text without creating an explicit “setting” of it. In particular, the images of mirrors and water were uppermost in my mind while composing. My treatment of the spoken text proceeded in a similar fashion: although the speech is never clearly recognizable, it shapes the rhythms, timbres, and overall gestures of the music. In the opening, for example, the rhythmic texture is the result of filtering only the consonants in the speech. The middle section then focuses on the timbres of the vowels, while the final section brings these together, with the filtered consonants accompanying the song-like vowel sounds.
The Orca sculpture at Bomarzo
Ogni pensiero vola was my first composition for electronic sound made using a computer. It was inspired by my visit to the Pier Francesco Orsini’s monstrous sculpture garden in Bomarzo, Italy.
My first ideas for Ogni pensiero vola occurred during a visit to the “Park of the Monsters”, a sculpture garden near Viterbo, Italy, which was created in the sixteenth century by Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo. The title and text of the piece come from an inscription on one of the sculptures, a giant monter’s head with a gaping mouth, which is called “L’Orco”. The inscription (roughly translated as “every thought flies”) seemed resonant in a mysterious inexplicable way, and the work may be considered as a musical manifestation of this resonance.
Compositionally, Ogni pensiero vola deals with the evolution of speech-like sounds. At the beginning, the sounds used are purely synthetic, but are designed to create a voice-like effect. Gradually, the words of the title begin to emerge: first in whispers and single syllables, and finally as chorus-like “song.” Many of the sounds of the opening recur, but now influenced by the speech so that they articulate the text. As the piece draws to a close, the words become more and more intelligible, until finally they are whispered by the voice, unprocessed except for reverberation.
Ogni pensiero vola was composed in the winter and spring of 1984-1985 at the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music.
Frances posing with Orca on a recent trip to Bomarzo