Frayed Tethers (2018)

for tenor saxophone and fixed media (10')

Program note

This piece supposes that there is a way to unravel a sound that reveals its knotted components. The sounds of Matthew Levy’s saxophone are here teased apart and dealt with individually, like the intrusion of overtones upon a soft subtone note in the instrument’s lowest register, or the noisy breath artifacts that become harmonized by the instrument's air column. Saxophone sounds and synthetic sounds are layered against copies of themselves at extremely short intervals to amplify the “imperfections” in a sound that actually constitute their essences. These imperfections might give rise to shivering, quick pulses, or distortions that ring like two ceramic pots being rubbed together. Something that I imagine to be responsible for tethering the saxophone’s sound together is fraying and showing itself to you.

Performance history

06.05.2020 Drew Hosler, online recital 03.14.2020 Matt Evans, 2020 SEAMUS Conference (cancelled--COVID-19) 12.12.2018 Matthew Levy, University of Pennsylvania

Forthcoming on XAS Records


Breath I (Lyric–Levitate–Exhale–Dissipate) (2017)

for string quartet (6')

Program note

Flickers of melody and color compete for attention, overtake each other, shatter into pieces, and eventually reassemble over a pedal D in the cello: perhaps like a few breaths or exhalations over that single note. An occupation with the point at which timbral transformation becomes melody—where crossfading sonorities and slowly climbing harmonics create their own kind of counterpoint—animates the gestures and harmonic motion through to the very last moment.

Performance history

01.23.2018 Daedalus Quartet, Philadelphia
11.02.2017 Daedalus Quartet, University of Pennsylvania


Tachygenesis (2016)

for saxophone quartet (9')

Program note

A still convergence is followed by an animated divergence. The two-part gesture repeats in like fashion, only with the convergence adopting the animation of the divergence and the divergence adopting further textural and timbral features. Tachygenesis is a phenomenon in developmental biology whereby already-established features (such as an organ) suddenly appear much earlier during maturation, often crowding out or abbreviating the development that used to take place there, thus creating room for new traits to appear in the newly-vacated developmental space. Even on a first hearing, I would hope that with each iteration of the two-part gesture, there is an audible sense of the convergence acquiring features of the divergence, in this way opening up ever more developmental space.

Performance history

03.18.2016 PRISM Quartet, University of Pennsylvania


Lurking Beyond Thought (2016)

for soprano voice, flute, violin, bass clarinet, and percussion (7')

Program note

This piece employs an excerpt from Água Viva, an evocative novel written entirely in the first person by the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. Throughout, the voice reports on her inner state, the world, her memory, and the process of writing. (She even reports at one point that her writing is more like gesture than voice.) Much of it is written in an extremely intimate present tense. Some observations read like simple description, others like philosophy, most like a blend of the two. Continuous, enveloping paragraphs alternate with brutally short declarative sentences. Many times, in the course of developing an idea she will pursue it to its most grotesque intensification before then seeking refuge in a simple observation. In this work for TAK Ensemble I am interested in reproducing musically these qualities of the text, a text consisting more of gesture than voice.

Performance history

01.13.2017 TAK Ensemble, i/o New Music Festival (Williams College)


bad flickers (2016)

for flute/alto flute, horn, viola, cello, and bass (4')

Performance history

06.29.2016 Sound of Late, Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium


Defeat Device (2016)

for piano, electric bass, percussion (6')

Program note

In 2015 Volkswagen was caught fitting their vehicles with "defeat devices" in order to evade emissions tests. One email to engineers as litigation approached revealed an executive desperate for any plausible explanation for what was still taking place:
"Come up with the story, please!"

At the outset, a simple process of insertions quickly defeats the sense of upbeat and downbeat. Throughout the piece I'm interested in developing these mechanically interlocking materials so that they "target" other elements of the music for "defeat." I'm also interested in having these mechanical materials accrue lyricism in the way their elements assemble in new configurations. I want these mechanical materials to be entangled, desperately trying to come up with the story.

Performance history

03.31.2017 Sound Out Loud, Midwest Graduate Music Consortium
11.16.2016 Bearthoven, University of Pennsylvania


Piano Stretch (2016)

for solo piano (7')

Program note

Piano Stretch takes the sharply different soundworlds of inside-the-piano harmonics and spacious, resonant chords on the keyboard and considers them together. Some harmonics sound just as discrete as the notes played on the keys; some chords on the keys sound just as microtonal as the complex harmonics found inside the piano. The pianist must stretch to reach everything, and in some sense the piano itself must stretch as well.

Performance history

06.05.2017 Eric Huebner, June in Buffalo
03.30.2016 Karl Larson, University of Pennsylvania


Wake (2014)

for flute and guitar (3')

Performance history

07.04.2014 Duo Damiana (Molly Barth, flute; Dieter Hennings, guitar), Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium


Sinking Song (2014)

for three female voices

Program note
Performance history


Hail (2011)

for trumpet and percussion

Program note
Performance history


Sol de invierno (2013)

soprano, trumpet, and cello


Trio No. 1 (2013)

flute, cello, and piano


Kept Unharmed (2012)

for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, electric guitar, and bass


Kate (2013)

for singing cellist


This music with all of you (2011)

4 movements for piano four-hands

Program note
Performance history


Kernel (2015)

for wind ensemble


Sinfonietta (2013)

for chamber orchestra


Passionate Armistice (2011)

for full orchestra

Program note

I started work on this piece after encountering the fifth movement of Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klange (The Book of Sounds), an hour-long suite for solo piano. I first heard the movement in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 film Notre Musique, where it was presented as the sole audio for the film’s brief first act, a catalogue of images of war and suffering without commentary. What was arresting about the music was its harmonic palette—of a kind with Messiaen’s, yet flirting with jazz—and its expression within an unrelenting ostinato. I began imagining the possibilities of a music that would likewise deploy dense, dissonant, yet still distantly familiar harmonies within a heavily rhythmic framework.

The title mixes two metaphors found in Wagner's prose on overture form: referring to a closed ending he composed for Gluck's overture to Iphegenia in Aulis, Wagner claimed that he brought the main themes to an armistice, "though no full peace," and referring to Mozart's overture to Don Giovanni, he lauded its "transfiguring light of music as a passion personified in tones."

Performance history

04.15.2011 Berkshire Symphony


Three Bands (2010)

for two solo horns and large ensemble