Chamber Music

  • "Chrysopoeia" - music for string quartet

  • "Solo, for Bassoon"

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Solo, For Bassoon

I wrote Solo, for Bassoon while confined to my 130 square ft. studio apartment in Iowa City, starting in late April and completing it in mid-July of 2020. I spent most of that time torn between an anxiously dreaded and polyvalent need to produce, and a grudging resignation to an exhaustion-dictated stillness. In writing this piece, I sought to capture these two forces as they worked upon my mind and body.


Technically speaking, this piece was not composed with particular sounds as its starting elements. Instead, I dug deeply into the mechanics of playing the instrument, and chose particular configurations and motions of the hands and fingers as the focal materials of the work. There are multiple physical processes at play, which collide with and actually warp each other over time until they are fused into one blur of chaos. This piece is actually something of a choreography of motions, each with their own aims, that elide with and frustrate each other. They are all underscored by, suffocated with, and ultimately collapse into stillness.

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I wrote this piece shortly after completing Chrysopoeia. Much of my string quartet's material is written around the open strings, with the goal of making the physical execution of the piece as idiomatic as possible. I wanted to take a similar approach with Solo, so the early stages of composition was very research focused. 

This graphic (left) is from a chart I produced at that time (corroborated with my performer– thanks Keegan!). I was specifically interested in the fingering mechanisms, and in how many fingers would be required for any given note. I began to consider creating phrases whose contours were not based upon pitch per se, but upon the amount of keys required to play. The sequence of notes would then be a choreography of physical activity. 

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Above is a passage from the score. The annotations beneath the staff note the number of keys required for each note on each hand. The first phrase adds fingers on the left hand, and then holds four fingers while the right hand quickly oscillates between a decreasing amount of fingers from five to one and no fingers. The phrase is the complemented by another which echoes this activity in the left hand, and then escalates elsewhere.

The graphic staff above is likely recognizable to anyone familiar with more recent concert music; it illustrates in dynamic intensity the amount of breath to be used over time. Phrases are slurred when breath remains constant across the fingerings.

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Solo also features combinatorial fingerings, in which the player is called to finger different notes on each hand. In the second measure of the passage above, the player begins by fingering F3 with the left hand while fingering B2 with the right hand. The left hand sustains this while the right hand transitions to the next notes (successively adding one finger after another).

In truth I had no idea what sort of sounds would be produced by these actions. Keegan was sometimes able to produce a few different results for one action, and we worked together to decide which we liked best. To add to the curiosity of this piece, we sometimes found that an action we expected to produce rather intense sounds actually resulted in rather muted results. By and large I did not alter things upon such discoveries, as I wanted the piece to remain true to its rootedness in Keegan's physical execution of the actions rather than the sounds (I know, a possibly strange choice for a piece of music). However it also allowed me to remain true to the more personal, programmatic elements of the piece: a confluence of activity trapped within itself, spinning up toward chaos and then disintegrating in futility.