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.

“The Faraway Nearby” premiere and recording session

** UPDATE: The Faraway Nearby is now available for viewing online!! Please visit **

The live performance at Tuesday Night New Music
The premiere at Tuesday Night New Music

The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape has just received a very successful premiere screening with musical performance at New England Conservatory on the Tuesday Night New Music on a Wednesday concert on November 10. The piece was performed by a group of NEC students: Lisa Husseini (flute), Christopher Mothersole (clarinet), Wesley Chu (piano), Samantha Bennett (violin), and Marza Wilks (cello).

The ensemble performed  in front of a video projection, listening to a click track on headphones. I programmed the click to match the tempo of the mock-up MIDI track which the video was edited to, so the music in the performance was timed precisely to every cut in the video.

Although we’d rehearsed the music extensively beforehand, this was actually the first time that I’d heard/seen a performance of the music together with the video.

The ensemble with Nell after the performance
Nell with the ensemble

I was excited to discover that being to able to hear and see the musicians really lent a live energy to the video. This gave it the feeling of a true multimedia performance, not just a film screening. I hope to be able to organize repeat performances of this piece with live performers.

Today we went into the studio to record the score that will appear on the online version of the video and future screenings at venues that aren’t able to accomodate a live ensemble. The group knows the piece very well by now, so there was little need for rehearsal or fine-tuning in the studio, and things went very smoothly.

Now it’s left to choose the best take, to mix and master the score, and to adjust the video as needed so that the music and imagery is perfectly in synch.

In the studio
In the studio

Over the coming months I will be approaching galleries and museums, film festivals, and music ensembles with the aim of securing further screenings and performances outside of NEC. If you know of a venue, festival or ensemble that might be interested in this piece (10 minutes duration), either as a video with recorded music or with a live ensemble, please contact me at

** UPDATE: The Faraway Nearby is now available for viewing online!! Please visit **

Premiere of “The Faraway Nearby” with live music!

The premiere screening of The Faraway Nearby will take place on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010, as part of the Tuesday Night New Music concert series at New England Conservatory. The performance will take place at 8:00pm in Brown Hall (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115). Admission is free and open to the public.

The video will be projected and accompanied by a live ensemble of excellent NEC performers (flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello). The ensemble will be going into the studio the following weekend to record the score. The video will be available for viewing online no later than January 2010.