Charles Burchfield and “Watercolors” for wind quintet

Autumnal Fantasy (1916-44)
Autumnal Fantasy, 1916-44. Private collection.

I am fascinated by the works of American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), and was inspired by his visual world to compose a wind quintet and an orchestral tone poem (The Sphinx and the Milky Way). The premiere of my wind quintet Watercolors, the winner of NEC’s 2010-2011 Honors Ensemble Composition Competition, will be performed on Thursday, May 12th at 8:00pm in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115) by Andra Winds, who were selected this year as an NEC Honors Ensemble. I’m very honored to have my work performed by this talented group in beautiful Jordan Hall.

Charles Burchfield, An April Mood (1946-55)
An April Mood, 1946-55. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

Watercolors references four watercolor paintings completed during Burchfield’s late period (the mid-1940s-60s). Although the paintings were not created as a set, I selected them for their complementary contrasts and connections.

Burchfield’s dynamic style and almost psychedelic imagery are arrestingly unique. His haunting paintings speak of a spiritual world of transcendence, redemption, decay and renewal, and he depicted the wonders of nature (the patterns on a sphinx moth’s wing; moonlight filtering through the petals of a sunflower) in an artistic voice that is as distinctive as it is beautiful.

Charles Burchfield, Glory of Spring (1950)
Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring), 1950. Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY.

Each movement of Watercolors reflects my impression of an individual painting. The paintings depict natural environments in different seasons or moods, from the barren rainstorm landscape seen in An April Mood to the luminous forest of Glory of Spring. At times, musical references to the visuals are direct (the bird or insect-like motifs in Autumnal Fantasy, for example), but more often than not, my music is an interpretation of the paintings’ overall atmospheres.

It is interesting to note that Burchfield himself was a passionate music fan (which helps to explain why his paintings are so suggestive of music). His copious journals reveal that he favored Beethoven, Wagner, and Sibelius, and created artworks inspired by his listening. Burchfield was sensitive to sound, especially the sounds of nature, and some of his paintings contain abstract patterns that directly represent sounds (see Autumnal FantasyThe Insect Chorus [1917] or Song of the Telegraph Poles [1917-1952]). These images pulsate with energy, and imply a world of sensory experience.

Selections from “Nine Muses” to be presented in masterclass with John Heiss

Elizabeth Erenberg
Elizabeth Erenberg

Flutist Elizabeth Erenberg will be participating in a masterclass with the renowned flutist, composer, and conductor John Heiss this Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 6:00pm at New England Conservatory (in Jordan Hall room 118), presenting three solo pieces from my Nine Muses, a set of works inspired by the muses of Greek mythology (the other six “muses” were composed for harp and violin; listen here).

Elizabeth will be performing Nine Muses on a recital program centered on music relating to Greek mythology, which she will presenting in Los Angeles this summer, and Boston in the fall. Her recital program will be funded by an Entrepreneurial Grant from NEC (learn more about her project).

“Triptych” for guitar

My newest piece, a work for solo classical guitar, Triptych, will receive its premiere on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 at 8:00pm in Williams Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115).

A 13th c. triptych from France
A French 13th c. triptych

Triptych (pronounced “trip-tik”) is a term from visual art describing an artwork divided into three sections that are displayed as a group. Triptych structures have appeared in a variety of genres of art, including Japanese woodblock prints, and they were especially popular in European Medieval and early Renaissance religious art. European triptychs were usually painted or carved wood or ivory panels connected by hinges for standing or folding, and would have two narrow panels flanking a larger, contrasting middle panel.

My three-movement piece for solo guitar reflects this structural model. The first movement parallels the third in overall tempo, density, tonality, and duration, and contains similar musical devices (e.g., the ongoing use of droning upper strings). The middle movement is somewhat longer, slower, sparser, and more lyrical.

Devin Ulibarri
Devin Ulibarri

As a former rock guitarist with some (minimal) experience with classical guitar performance, I chose to compose most of this piece on the instrument in order to achieve an idiomatic, “guitaristic” effect that would take advantage of the resonance of the open strings and explore the full register of the instrument.

Triptych was composed for guitarist Devin Ulibarri (visit his blog, or listen to his music here). We collaborated throughout the creation of the piece, and Devin has encouraged and guided me since well before I had written a note. Thanks to our teachers, composer/guitarists Michael Gandolfi and John Mallia and guitarist Eliot Fisk, who are working with us on the development of this performance.

“I Dream’d in a Dream” performed by the New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble

The New England Conservatory New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble, a group of young singers dedicated to performing works written by composers at NEC, gave a gorgeous premiere performance on April 6 of selections from my three-movement Walt Whitman setting I Dream’d in a Dream for SATB. This was the first performance by the sixteen-piece ensemble, and hopefully not the last time that we will collaborate!

Click the titles of the movements to hear mp3s of this performance:

I. Dream’d in a Dream
II. Think of the Soul (not performed)
III. Among the Multitude

Read the texts while you listen, and check out my previous post about setting the poetry of Whitman to music.

The NEC New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble
The NEC New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble (click to enlarge)

Setting the poetry of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Newly completed three-movement cycle for SATB choir or vocal ensemble, I Dream’d in a Dream, is a setting of selections from Walt Whitman’s poetic masterpiece Leaves of Grass (1855). The first and third movements of the set will be premiered this Wednesday at New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. This will also be the first performance by an ensemble of young singers dedicated to the realization of newly-composed music: the NEC New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble.

I am far from the first composer to set Whitman to music, and for good reason. His works have a directness and a universality that refuse to show their age, and speak to the reader (or listener) with a kind of emotional clarity and honesty that is, in my opinion, irresistibly appealing. The gentle wit and undying idealism that shine through the verses of Leaves of Grass allow the bold, declamatory quality of Whitman’s voice to ring true.

Although I previously set a poem from Leaves as an art song for baritone and piano (Laws for Creations), I’ve been wanting to write a choral piece with texts from Whitman for years, and until now had never quite managed to realize my vision of what this poetry should sound and feel like in a choral setting. It seems this creative impulse had, like many, a necessary gestation period. When I sat down to compose music last February for these particular poems, it clicked. The piece (about 11 minutes in duration) was begun and completed in less than two weeks.

I chose to set three poems on distinct but complementary topics: the title piece, I Dream’d in a Dream, is a vision of peace (“I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth; / I dream’d that was the new City of Friends; / Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love“); Think of the Soul, a list of incitations to contemplation that cover the gamut of earthly and spiritual experience (“Think of the soul… think of loving and being loved… think of the time when you were not yet born…“) and resolve with a humanist affirmation (“The creation is womanhood… / Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?“); and Among the Multitude, a love song to the “one” who finds a kindred spirit amongst the crowds of people (“Some are baffled–but that one is not–that one knows me.”)

These poems possess a unique combination of qualities–reflective, declamatory, muscular–which I attempted to reflect in my setting. However, this poetry is broad enough for each reader to understand in an entirely personal way. And although my piece comes from my own subjective interpretation, I also hope that listeners of my music will be able to see themselves and their own experience reflected in it.

If you’re in town, come check out the premiere of the first and third movements of I Dream’d in a Dream performed by the New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble on Wednesday, April 6th, at 8:00pm in Brown Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115). The piece will be featured on a brief program of works by composers studying at NEC, including pieces for soprano and piano, jazz ensemble, and euphonium quartet. The concert is free and open to the public.

“Duet” with the Boston Composers Collective

Boston Composers Collective
Boston Composers Collective, L-R, back: Joseph Colombo, Andrew Watts, Marco Scorsolini, Craig Davis Pinson, Karien de Waal, front: Katherine Balch, Nell, Julie Hill

The inaugural concert by the Boston Composers Collective (March 1, 2011) was a lovely evening of music by talented emerging composers and performers. The concert brought together students from local schools (New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and Berklee) in a collaborative context beyond the conservatory.

The concert was held at Anderson Auditorium and Grossman Gallery at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which was hosting an exhibit of work by SMFA students. This was an effective space for the program of intimate chamber music ranging from duets to sextet.

Lisa Husseini and Andrew Thompson performing "Duet"
Lisa Husseini and Andrew Thompson performing "Duet"

Lisa Husseini, flute, and Andrew Thompson, bassoon, both graduate students at NEC, did a great job with my piece Duet. (Mp3s of this performance coming soon – in the meantime you can listen to a past performance here.)

Special thanks to Boston Composers Collective founders Julie Hill and Katherine Balch for their organizational efforts, and for selecting my piece for inclusion.

Check out my last post for more on BCC and Duet.

Nell with Andrew Thompson and Lisa Husseini
Nell with Andrew Thompson and Lisa Husseini

Upcoming performance of “Duet” at SMFA presented by the Boston Composers Collective

This Tuesday, March 1, 2011, my work for flute and bassoon, Duet, will be performed at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts on the first concert given by the Boston Composers Collective. My piece was selected for inclusion by student composers from Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, and New England Conservatory. The BCC is a “society of young composers, whose aim is to expose the public to new music in innovative ways, presenting music in conjunction with other artistic media, fostering collaboration and performance opportunities between student composers and other young artists in the Boston area.” The performance will accompany an exhibition of visual art by SMFA students.

The concert is free and open to the public. It takes place March 1, 6:00pm, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Auditorium, 230 The Fenway, Boston, MA, 02115.

Duet (listen here) is all about counterpoint, syncopated rhythms, and economy of material. I sought to weave a texture between these two opposing yet complementary voices that is conversational and playful, and to create dynamic and virtuosic roles for both instruments. It was performed last year at New England Conservatory on Tuesday Night New Music, and will be performed on Tuesday by Linda Husseini, flute, and Andrew Thompson, bassoon.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Favorite Music

I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for the second time in 2010, while I was in New Mexico shooting footage for a multimedia video piece relating to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings. While filming the locations that formed the basis for many of her paintings, I sought to gain some insight into the sources of her inspiration. O’Keeffe paintings are somehow very musical in character, and I’ve wondered how, if at all, music had influenced her (even if indirectly). I knew that she had some personal interest in music, as is obvious from the titles of paintings such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, or Blue and Green Music. O’Keeffe herself had played the violin at an earlier point in life, and she considered singing to be “the most perfect means of expression”.

While in Santa Fe I met with museum curator and prominent O’Keeffe scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was kind enough to point me towards some leads for research. I described the video project to her, and how my work is propelled by a musical response to O’Keeffe’s paintings ”“ the musical texture, timbre, and harmony that I imagine as the musical environment in which her visual world would exist.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)
Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)

Ms. Lynes directed me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, where I read an essay on O’Keeffe and music by a former curator for the museum, Heather Hole, which was written for a program by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The library also had a complete log of the LPs that were found in O’Keeffe’s possession after she passed away in 1986. This essay, the list of musical recordings, and my later tour of O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, helped to illuminate the role that music played in her life.

Ms. Lynes explained that O’Keeffe was influenced by the concept of synesthesia ”“ the experience of “crossed senses”, i.e. hearing images or seeing sounds ”“ as it had been explored by European modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in color and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation.

According to Heather Hole, O’Keeffe had been influenced by one of her teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, Alon Bement, who had played music in his classroom and directed the students to “draw what they hear”. From early in her career, O’Keeffe appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, and freed from the superficial details of representational art.

O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home

Once she had permanently settled in New Mexico in the late ’40s, O’Keeffe had a high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lay in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention. She supported the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival early on in its existence (during the latter decade or so of her life), and invited musicians to perform for her in her home, where she would listen to them, often with eyes closed. In Hole’s article, one of the musicians related how she would listen with a striking intensity of focus.

Her large library of LPs included primarily classical music. Interestingly, O’Keeffe didn’t seem to listen to very much music by then-contemporary composers. Perusing the catalog, I spotted just one or two records each of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, and Ives, as well as an Edith Piaf album and some odds and ends.

Although she was friends with Aaron Copland, and owned a record that he conducted, she didn’t seem to be a fan of his music ”“ despite the fact that today’s listener would likely consider her landscape paintings “Coplandesque” in their evocation of American pastoral sensibility, or a classically American earthiness and simplicity of language.

Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries ”“ Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) ”“ which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening ”“ as well as Verdi and Wagner operas.

Although O’Keeffe is associated with the Modernist and Abstract movements in visual art, it seems natural that her musical tastes reflected the lush, lyrical, conventionally emotive quality of earlier music, rather than the harmonic and rhythmic explorations of the early-mid 20th century. The shapes in her paintings are rounded and flowing, the colors rich, and her paintings are often strikingly passionate and direct in their emotive quality ”“ yet always balanced, elegant, and poignant in simplicity, like a Classical sonata or Romantic Lied.

Seeing Music in O’Keeffe

I’ve been aware of Georgia O’Keeffe for as long as I can remember thanks to my parents, who hung a poster of Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 in my childhood home. But her artwork first grabbed me in 2004, when I saw an exhibit of her paintings at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I was captivated by the elegant undulating forms in her paintings, and was especially intrigued by her surreal images of magnified animal bones and flowers looming over skies and distant landscapes.

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway Nearby (1938)
Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby (1938)

A few years later I found myself mining visual art as a source of inspiration in my music, and exploring the idea of creating musical works that acted as an equivalent or a translation of visual experiences. I began imagining a musical language or aesthetic that would relate to O’Keeffe’s visual world.

My first O’Keeffe-inspired piece was an orchestral tone poem, written in 2009. Since this initial work, I’ve composed two more pieces in the search to create a musical equivalent to my experience of her artwork (To Create One’s Own World and Into nowhere), the latest of which developed into a video project fusing my musical and visual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings.

I’ve taken a cue in my works from O’Keeffe’s idea of “The Faraway Nearby” (from the title of a painting, above). I feel that this phrase refers to a certain quality, which is captured in her juxtapositions of delicate, emotionally evocative objects (flower blossoms, animal skulls and bones, twisting tree branches) with landscapes of monumental, seemingly infinite, scope.

For me, the idea of “The Faraway Nearby” is the feeling that an object, place, artwork, or experience that is vast (epic?) can also be deeply intimate, and understood in a personal way that transcends explanation. Master symphonists have been noted for their ability to evoke an epic-yet-personal quality (Beethoven and Mahler come to mind).

I feel that this quality relates to the virtually universal human response to nature or landscape as spiritual, powerful, and mysteriously significant. O’Keeffe clearly experienced this response more poignantly than most. She wrote that she wanted to explore through her art “the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding ”“ to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”