Theoretical Party

Theoretical Party (2009/11) (2′)

for string quartet

May 9, 2011

Leo Brown and Sato Matsui, violins; Noah Fields, viola; Talia Loewen (I) and Alex Lou (II), cello

Here is an early miniature for string quartet.

Counting among several arresting scenes in David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” is one “theoretical party” where the hipsters in attendance can’t bear to be actually dancing. They might be shimmying a little bit, but it’s as if there are these inverted commas hovering around their hips. One of the guests is merely ‘alluding to a cha-cha,’ we learn. This miniature for string quartet begins as if someone told the whole-tone scale (a ‘blankly uniform’ scale that ordinarily refuses to be pinned down) to shut up and dance. And get down it does—in fact, by the end the “party” might just be beginning to shed its scare-quotes.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A Noiseless Patient Spider (2010) (3′)

Katie Yosua, soprano; Akemi Ueda, clarinet; Josh Rim, violin; Adam Lee, cello; Jacob Walls, piano

May 9, 2011


Growing up as a trumpeter, vocal music was always a little foreign to me. Rolling down the windows and singing along to a CD, sure, that’s great, but choral and chamber music involving the voice took some time to explore. I often cringe when I hear people assert that the purpose of playing instruments is to simulate the human voice–doesn’t that seem like a colossal waste of effort?–but other times I hear the point. Louis Andriessen’s De Staat, for all its beautiful hacking and grinding musters the most breathtaking choral entrance I’ve heard, which gives the piece a majestic dimension (not to mention doing the form some favors and justifying the length.) Gregory Bloch observes that Andriessen’s opening vocal sonority is the bottom half of Reich’s Four Organs chord (a large enough half to get the tonic/dominant synthesis, of course), which strikes me, as someone who cranks up Four Organs and sings along while driving down the Mass Pike, as a brilliant idea.

Here’s the source text:

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Leaves of Grass (1867 ed.)
208. A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless, patient spider,

I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;

Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;

Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;

Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

I once heard a young composer begin a conversation about his friend’s vocal piece with the following question and implicit assumption: “So, what poem are you using?” A lot of the vocal music I value is constructed out of the musician’s own text. I think John Adams did a bang-up job with the Holy Sonnet XIV aria in Doctor Atomic (then again, perhaps I am just partial to trumpet solos), but when Eve Beglarian uses her voice, it seems as though that should be the standard model for writing vocal music. Setting someone else’s poem should be the exception, I want to say–an exigency you resort to when you need to make someone see a text in a new way or satisfy a need in a large dramatic work. Or, in my case, when Continuum is coming to campus and you need to learn how to write vocal music, stat. That said, I think I capture here some of the struggle to persist and create that Whitman addresses.

Los Angeles II

“Los Angeles II” from Places by Brad Mehldau

Jacob Walls, trumpet; Peter Gottlieb, horn; Christine Hulsizer, bari sax; Noah Fields, viola; Matt Gold, drums; Tom Bergeron, conductor

May 9, 2011

I’ve always wanted to know how this piece worked, so I transcribed it and arranged it for a quirky group. I stay true to the melody and form but copy a few figurations, lose some others, and invent a few new harmonies. Now I feel the need to embark on a serious viola/bari sax project…