Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Compositions

Explore Robert Greenberg’s Compositions:

Recordings/scores are not yet available for all works listed.

Exercised for Piano Four Hands (2018)

  1. Black Key Inferno
  2. Angel’s Hair Redux
  3. Punishing Exercise

(ca. 8’)

The Daughters of Atlas for Violin, Cello, and Piano (2018)

  1. Prelude: Foss
  2. Amber Waves
  3. Siren’s Web
  4. Seven Sisters
  5. Foss Redux

Of a Single Mind for Two Cellos (2014)

Suite Revelation for Cello and Piano (2014)

  1. Overture
  2. Nigun no. 9
  3. Molad’ti
  4. Gilu Hagalilim
  5. Y’mey Hanoar
  6. The Gigue Is Up

(ca. 12’)

My apologies upfront for all the first person pronouns in this program note!

A few years back, Nina Flyer asked me to write for her a piece of music that would contain or make reference to Jewish/Yiddish/Hebrew dance music and/or folk songs. The more I thought about it, the more difficult I realized the challenge would be. As best as I could tell, I had three options. Option one: I could set said dance music/songs for cello and piano, with the result being a series of arrangements: nice, but artlessly unoriginal (meaning dull). Option two: I could weave the tunes into a single narrative and in doing so write another version of “Schlomo” (a self-proclaimed “Hebraic” work for cello and orchestra by Ernst Bloch).  Option three: I could make up my own ethnic-sounding melodies and either arrange them for cello and piano or weave them into some sort of Hebraic narrative: options one and two all over again.

So I came up with option four. I selected four folk tunes (movements II, III, IV, and V) and composed a counter-melody to each. The first half of movements II, III, IV, and V set that counter-melody without any reference to the original folk tune. The second half of those movements then combines the counter-melody with the original tune (and thus the “revelation”, as the original tune is “revealed”).  

The generally two-part shape described above (excepting movement IV, which is “A-B-A” in structure) suggested Baroque binary dance form, and so I turned the piece into a sort of Baroque dance suite. It begins with a French Overture based on the counter-melodies of movement III and V, and concludes with a gigue based on the counter melodies of movements II and IV. The historical references are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and I can only hope they will be taken that way.  

A thousand-and-one thanks to Nina Flyer and Lori Lack for their patience, hard work, and musical brilliance. Suite Revelation is dedicated – with the greatest respect and affection – to Nina Flyer.

180 Shift for Violin, Cello, and Piano (2013)

  1. Elegy and Variations
  2. Song and Dance (Shake, Rattle, and Roll)
  3. Re-Invention (Toccatissima)

(ca. 19’)

Aside from being an obvious (if hackneyed) reference to the commissioning ensemble, Trio 180, the title 180 Shift well describes the large-scale dramatic action of the piece: from beginning to end, it traverses an expressive distance of 180 degrees, from elegiac sorrow to hot-footed sizzle.

180 Shift is cast in three movements. Each movement is based on the same thematic material, although that material is transformed continuously across the span of the piece.

Movement one, “Elegy and Variations” consists of a series of a theme, six free variations of the theme and a quiet intermezzo before the sixth and final variation. The movement is melancholy, reflective, and generally subdued in tone.

Movement two, entitled “Song and Dance (Shake, Rattle, and Roll)” sees materials introduced in the Elegy transformed first into a introspective song and finally into a vigorous, gigue-like dance. The three parts of the movement are characterized, respectively, by “shakes” (tremolos), “rattles” (in the piano; we’ll know them when we hear them) and “rolls” (arpeggios).

Movement three – “Re-Invention (Toccatissima)” is fast and virtuosic, a (mostly) two-part invention that sees the basic thematic material re-invented once again.

180 Shift is dedicated, with great affection and respect, to Trio 180: Ann Miller, Nina Flyer, and Sonia Leong.

Invasive Species for Piano Quintet (2012)

  1. Three-Part Intention
  2. March of the Yellow Crazy Ants
  3. One-Part Incursion
  4. Pretty Pretty Poison
  5. Two-Part Ignition
  6. E. globules (10-20-1991)

(ca. 15’)

The title Invasive Species refers to non-native species of plants and animals that, once introduced to a new environment, have an adverse affect on the habitats and bioregions they invade and colonize.

Specifically this piece is about three “invasive species”: yellow crazy ants (“March of the Yellow Crazy Ants”), water hyacinths (“Pretty Pretty Poison”), and gum eucalyptus (“E. globulus”). Generally, the piece is about confrontations between like and unlike elements, as depicted – in particular – by the confrontation between the piano and the string quartet.

The yellow crazy ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes) most likely originated in West Africa. Accidentally introduced to northern Australia, it has devastated the local ecology. The ant is called “crazy” because of its unpredictable movements as well as its long legs and antennae that render it most definitely goofy. Goofy this movement is as well. It starts out quietly but ultimately it occupies all the registral space available, from top to bottom, a strained (but well-intended) metaphor for the ant’s invasive domination of its bio-niche.

The common water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a free-floating aquatic plant native to South America. Characterized by beautiful, lavender-to-pink, six-petaled flowers, the water hyacinth has invaded and colonized large areas throughout North America, Asia, Australia, and Africa, where it starves bodies of water of oxygen, killing off native species while choking entire ecosystems with its bulk. This movement is two movements in one: a fast movement and a slow movement. In the first part, the strings portray a lively, oxygenated, watery environment (“pretty”) that is slowly strangled by the emergence of the piano. The second part of the movement consists of a lush chorale for the piano (“pretty poison”), a chorale that nevertheless chokes off the unfortunate strings.

“E. globulus” refers to the Blue Gum Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), an incredibly fast-growing tree native to Australia. Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees were planted in huge number in the San Francisco Bay Area during the nineteenth century in the erroneous belief that they would supply timber when mature. It was a major eco-blunder. As it turns out, the hard, oily Eucalyptus wood makes poor lumber but extraordinarily flammable tinder. The incendiary nature of these trees was made abundantly clear during the Oakland Hills Fire Storm (October 20, 1991), which spread with terrifying speed thanks, in large part, to exploding Eucalyptus trees. In a series of episodes, this movement depicts the growth, combustion, and storm of fire abetted by the Eucalyptus on 10-20-1991.

Three brief introductory movements precede each of the “invasive species”: “Three-Part Intention”, “One-Part Incursion”, and “Two-Part Ignition”. The titular references to Bach were made irresistible by the superb recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier made by pianist Roger Woodward, who is one of the dedicatees of the piece. Indeed, Woodward’s piano might well be considered the invasive element among the stringed instruments of his fellow dedicatees in the Alexander String Quartet.

Invasive Species is dedicated – with love and respect – to Roger Woodward and the Alexander String Quartet on the occasion of the ASQ’s thirtieth anniversary.

It’s Snowing (String Quartet No. 5) (2011)

  1. DECG
  2. Blue Skies (Inclement Weather)
  3. It’s Snowing

To my wife, our angel,
Diane Elizabeth Clymer Greenberg, 1974-2009

Lemurs are Afraid of Fossas for Cello and Piano (2011)

  1. Predating Game
  2. Things That Go Bump in the Night
  3. The Shadow Knows

(ca. 13’)

In a musical world filled with self-indulgent titles, Lemurs are Afraid of Fossas is right up there. I beg forgiveness and offer this explanation.

My five year-old daughter Lillian and her three year-old brother Daniel are most partial to a kid’s TV show created for Nickelodeon called “Go, Diego, Go!” The show features an 8 year old boy, Diego Márquez, who rescues animals around the world. In an episode we watched together, Diego was tasked with rescuing a lemur: a bug eyed, tree hopping primate from Madagascar. During the course of the episode, young Diego made a trenchant observation: “Lemurs are afraid of fossas.” (Fossas – pronounced “foosas” – are cat-like carnivores that love to eat lemurs like I love pigs-‘n’-blankets.) My daughter Lillian and I began to sing, back and forth, “Lemurs are afraid of fossas.” So was born the thematic melody that drives the piece, and the thematic element that underlies the piece.

In the first movement, “Predating Game”, two distinct themes pursue and flee from each other amid a harmonic environment featuring tree-like, vertical sonorities.

The second movement, “Things That Go Bump in the Night”, is an impressionistic passacaglia based on the tree-like sonorities of the first movement.

“The Shadow Know . . .” is a chasing/hunting game (a musical genre once called a “caccia”) in which the piano and violin shadow each other throughout.

Lemurs are Afraid of Fossas was composed between April 29 and June 16, 2011 and was written for and is dedicated to “Martha and Monica”, pianist Hadley McCarroll and ‘cellist Monica Scott.

South Bay Angle (A Twisted Tango) for Violin and Piano (2011)

(1991; revised 2011) (ca. 6’)

Titles, like mold-scum atop month-old cottage cheese, can take on a life of their own.

South Bay Angle was originally composed in 1991 during an Astor Piazzolla-inspired fit of tango-madness. While a more appropriate title for the piece would have been something on the lines of “I Can Write One of Those!” or “This Gringo’s Token Tango”, circumstances conspired in another titular direction.

The piece was originally intended for performance on a program produced by Composers, Inc., a new-music collective in which I was (and remain) an artistic director. Composers Inc. was then in its seventh season. In those days when newspapers still mattered, Composers, Inc. sought to receive as many print reviews as possible. To that end, the organization invited Paul Hertelendy – who was then the music critic for the San Jose Mercury News – to cover its concerts. He said he would do so provided that there was some sort of “south-bay angle” which addressed the specific needs of his south-bay readership. Thinking myself clever, I thus entitled the piece “South Bay Angle”. Hertelandy would get his “angle” and Composers, Inc. would get its coverage.

It didn’t work out that way. The piece was never performed; Hertelendy never got his “angle”; and Composers, Inc. never received a review from the San Jose Mercury News. Instead, twenty years later, I returned to South Bay Angle and rewrote it from the ground up.

The piece is cast as a large-scale “A-B-A” form. The violin is a willing participant in the tango during the “A” sections, but a rather reluctant tangoista in the “B” section, during which it tries mightily to turn the music into a waltz. It does not succeed, and the piece ends as it began, in a blaze of rhythmic fury.

So Let Us Live – Really Live! for Baritone and Piano (2009)

  1. When I Was One-and-Twenty, A. E. Housman
  2. For an Amorous Lady, Theodore Roethke
  3. Love Me Not for Comely Grace, John Wilbye
  4. So Let Us Live – Really Live!, Gaius Valerius Catullus

(ca. 8’)

The four love songs that that constitute So Let Us Live – Really Live! were commissioned by John Goodman in honor of his wife Kerry King’s fiftieth birthday. The set – with its (relatively) light poetry and (excessively) tonal settings – was originally intended as “Hausmusik” (“house music”), music to be performed privately among (semi-inebriated) friends. However, certain personal events that occurred during their composition have compelled me to go public with them, and thus, with John and Kerry’s indulgence, they are receiving their premiere here, rather than in a living room.

A thousand-and-one thanks to Allen Shearer’s wonderful voice and Lino Rivera’s exquisite hands, which were constantly in my mind’s ear during the composition of the songs.

With love to Kerry, from John and Bob.

Texts

I. WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY

E. Housman (1859-1936)

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free:
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

II. FOR AN AMOROUS LADY

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

“Most mammals like caresses, in the sense
in which we usually take the word,
whereas other creatures, even tame snakes,
prefer giving to receiving them.”

The pensive gnu, the staid aardvark,
Accept caresses in the dark;
The bear, equipped with paw and snout,
Would rather take than dish it out.
But snakes, both poisonous and garter,
In love are never known to barter;
The worm, though dank, is sensitive:
His noble nature bids him give.

But you, my dearest, have a soul
Encompassing fish, flesh and fowl.
When amorous arts we would pursue,
You can, with pleasure, bill or coo.
You are, in truth, one in a million,
At once mammalian and reptilian.

III. LOVE ME NOT FOR COMELY GRACE

John Wilbye (1574-1638)

Love not me for comely grace,
For my pleasing eye or face;
Nor for any outward part,
No, nor for my constant heart:
For those may fail or turn to ill,
So thou and I shall sever.
Keep therefore a true woman’s eye,
And love me still, but know not why;
So hast thou the same reason still
To dote upon me ever.

IV. SO LET US LIVE – REALLY LIVE!

Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84 – 54 B.C.E.)

So let us live – really live! – and let us love.
As for the gossip and harrumphs of the old farts, well,
they’re not worth a copper penny.

Suns set and rise again, over and over,
to bubble bright as ever.
But our little light shines only once
before the sleep of endless night.

So kiss me! Kiss me a thousand times! A hundred more!
Now a thousand again! Another hundred!
Don’t even think of stopping!
Give me another thousand, and then a hundred,
so many kisses that we can never count them all.
A hundred thousand thousand kisses:
let us cast them to the wind, and never know their number,
or jealous eyes might glitter green over such a richness of love.

Texts used with permission.

Tempus Fugit for Piano (2008)

(2008) (ca. 6’)

Time does fly. It’s a fact made apparent by, among other things, anniversaries. Composers, Inc. turned twenty-five this season, and I for one can hardly believe it. To all the wonderful and dedicated people who have helped Composers, Inc. thrive over the years, and particularly to my dear colleagues – Frank, Jeff, Marty, and Allen – I hope this piece brings a smile.

Tempus Fugit was composed during the fall of 2008. It was written for – and is dedicated to – another dear friend, Lino Rivera. When Lino and I discussed the celebratory nature of the piece I intended to write, he made but one request: that somewhere, somehow, it contain a fugue (for no other reason than Lino likes fugues). Thus the third and final part of the piece begins with a fugue, which itself in based on materials from the first part, blah blah blah. The title is thus a slightly strained double entendre, as the word “fugue” comes from the same root as the word “fugit”: the Latin “fugio”, which means “to flee”. I trust no one will actually do so before the end of the piece.

Anything You Can Do… for Vibraphone and Violin (2006)

  1. Identity Crisis
  2. Fine Motor Skills (Good Vibrations)
  3. Mano e Mano

(ca. 12’)

The mind searches for the oddest of couples.

Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.

Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett.

The violin and the vibraphone.

Aside from the letter “V”, the two instruments have almost nothing in common. We consider: the violin is the most aristocratic instrument in the Western musical tradition, the prima donna of the instrumental world, an instrument that has had, lavished upon it, more extraordinary music than any other since its invention roughly 475 years ago.

And then there’s the vibraphone, a percussion instrument with pitched metal bars and motor-driven resonators that produce a vibrato. Invented around 1925, it’s an instrument created for dance bands and popular music.

Anything You Can Do . . . is a confrontation between these two musical opposites. A sense of contest characterizes the entire piece, as the vibraphone seeks to establish its bona fides side by side with the violin, which in turn attempts to keep the vibraphone in its place by beating it at its own game.

The first movement is conceived as a race, in which each instrument acts like the other – the violin explosively and percussively, and the vibraphone with lengthy bowed passages – while seeking to shake off the other. The movement concludes with the violin paying a series of huge, chords and a long, sustained triple-stop that, much to its fury, the vibraphone manages to match with a sustained double-stop of its own. The movement ends in a draw.

The second movement begins with the violin doing its best to match the vibrato patterns of the vibraphone’s variable motor. Ultimately, the violin breaks free and plays a broad, arioso-styled melody. The vibraphone tries to match it, but cannot; try as it might, its fixed range cannot reach the stratospheric heights of the violin. Advantage violin.

The third movement is constructed in three sections. In the outer sections, rapidly rising and falling lines and counter rhythms pervade as each instrument seeks to gain an advantage over the other. In the middle section, alternating, hocket-like phrases give way to bent notes and glissandi in the vibraphone, which infuriates the violin (“how dare this upstart percussion instrument do something ordinarily associated with me?”). The movement concludes with the violin once again attempting to lord its greater range over the vibraphone by playing a long sustained F# – the same pitch that conquered the vibraphone at the end of the second movement – only to have the vibraphone top it by playing a harmonic a full seven notes above the F#. Game, set, match: vibraphone.

Some respect, please, for the new kid on the block.

Anything You Can Do . . . is dedicated, with a thousand and one thanks, to Victor Romasevich and Jack van Geem.

Snappy Rejoinder (String Quartet No. 4) (2005)

  1. Walk
  2. Sub
  3. Buzz

(ca. 13’)

In 1941, Aaron Copland explained that he no longer used the jazz “idiom” because his music “could not possibly be confined to two dominant moods – the blues and the snappy number.”

Well excuse us.

In the spirit of respectful rebuttal, I offer my fourth string quartet, entitled Snappy Rejoinder.

When the Alexander Quartet’s ‘cellist Sandy Wilson and I first discussed what sort of piece this quartet might be, he suggested something “jazzy”, the Alexander having just performed Eddie Sauter’s Focus with jazz saxophonist David Sánchez. I loved the idea, and immediately thought of Copland’s rather ungenerous quote. Besides, if the piece didn’t work, I could always blame Sandy.

Snappy Rejoinder puts in the foreground three elements that are usually perceived as middle ground and background in jazz: the walking bass, chord substitutions, and the steady-state rhythmic accompaniment/continuo supplied by the drums. Snappy Rejoinder is set in three corresponding movements: “Walk”, “Sub”, and “Buzz”.

In the first movement – “Walk” – the “walking bass” itself becomes a principal thematic element. The movement is capped by a series of solos, during which the second violin gets just a little carried away. The composer wishes to point out that whatever silliness results is intentional. The second movement – “Sub” – functions as an intermezzo between the two more rhythmically active outer movements. “Sub” is structured as a passacaglia, and its theme – drawn from the first movement – is reharmonized using various “chord substitutions” over the course of its five variations. The third movement – “Buzz” – is a tour de force for the second violin and viola in particular, who must create a constantly shifting rhythmic environment while at the same time providing a melodic accompaniment for the outer voices. This movement was inspired by a great friend and former student of mine, the jazz drummer Tony Williams, who died in 1997. Tony was an orchestra unto himself, and it was impossible to distinguish whether he made the drums sound like a “melody” instrument or whether he made a “melody” instrument sound like drums.

Snappy Rejoinder is dedicated to Ruth Felt – with love and respect and everything in between – on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of San Francisco Performances.

Funny Like a Monkey for Piano Quartet (2001)

  1. Knock Yourself Out
  2. Flutterby
  3. Morph (with apologies to J. B.)

(ca. 16’)

Funny Like a Monkey is one of the many phrases coined by my then 16 year-old daughter in order to address the actions and well-intended attempts at humor by both her younger brother and her hopelessly antiquated father. What I love about these phrases – of which Funny Like a Monkey is but one of many – is their use of nonsequitur elevated to high verbal art. They are at once biting and humorous, and are filled with the sort of over-the-top verbal bravado that only a teenager, as the self-acknowledged epitome of hip, can get away with.

Though Funny Like a Monkey is scored as a traditional piano quartet, it is in reality composed for string trio PLUS piano. Along with being part of the larger ensemble, the piano has a featured role in the piece: it is narrator, commentator, curmudgeon, critic, and emcee, as it introduces and comments upon the relative merits of the musical materials that comprise the work.

The first movement is entitled “Knock Yourself Out”. The movement’s energy and exuberance, as well as its mercurial-shift-on-a-dime nature is a rather personal reference to the dedicatee.

The second movement is entitled “Flutterby”. A spoonerism created (or at least favored) by my daughter, the reference is to a sort of macro- butterfly, a “mega-mariposa”, if you will, one of extraordinary beauty and delicacy that floats and drifts and shimmers in some imagined place.

The third movement, “Morph, With Apologies to J.B.” refers to the rather obvious fact that the music keeps morphing in and out of the finale of Johannes Brahms’ (J.B.’s) Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25. I’m crazy about Brahms’ piano quartets, and I have surrendered to the urge to mess with his pitch collections and thematic motives. The movement, with its musical puns, metamorphoses, and attempts at humor, is a perfect example of what might be referred to as “funny like a monkey”.

Funny… is dedicated, with love, to Rachel Amy Greenberg on the occasion of her 16th birthday.

And Goodness Lay Over the High Snow: Five Songs on Yiddish Poetry (2000)

  1. The Circus Lady, Celia Dropkin
  2. Of Course I Know, Zishe Landau
  3. Widowhood, Malka Heifetz Tussman
  4. Poem, Malka Heifetz Tussman
  5. Winter, Jacob Isaac Segal

The five poems that comprise And Goodness Lay Over The High Snow were all originally written in Yiddish. Though I’ve set them in English, they are heard here in superb translations by Marcia Falk, Grace Schulman, and Ruth Whitman. The songs were composed between September 1997 and July 2000.

These songs were written to celebrate the poets and their poems. Celia Dropkin (1888-1956) was born in Bobroisk, Russia, and died in New York City. Zishe Landau (1889-1937) was born in Plotsk, Poland and died as well in New York. Jacob Isaac Segal (1896-1954) was born in Solovkovitz, Ukraine and died in Montreal. Malka Heifetz Tussman (1896-1987) was also born in Ukraine and died in Berkeley, California. All of these poets emigrated from the old world to the new; and although all of the poems I have set were written in the new world, they were created in the language of the old. They reflect, then, new experience and contemporary emotions, given voice through a native language and expressive style that reflect centuries of tradition.
These are passionate, deeply moving poems, for which I have tried to provide music equal to the expressive power of the texts. The piano part is a full partner to the voice, and the technical demands made of the pianist and soprano are not inconsiderable.

I. The Circus Lady

Celia Dropkin

I’m a circus lady,
I dance between the knives,
standing in the ring,
tips pointing up.
My lightly bending body
avoids death from falling
by brushing lightly, lightly against the blades.

Breathless, they watch me dance
and someone prays for me.
Before my eyes the points flash in a fiery wheel,
and no one knows how much I want to fall.

I’m tired of dancing between
you, cold steel knives.
I want my blood to scald you,
I want to fall
on your naked tips.

An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry, 3rd edition; Ruth Whitman, Wayne State University Press, 1995; used by permission

II. Of Course I Know

Zishe Landau

Of course I know today is Sunday
and tomorrow will be Monday
and after spring comes summer
and our system is a bad one,
and in New York lives Opatoshu,
the pride of France is Jaures.

I also know many deep secrets:
the Duke of Abruzzi is
no duke. He’s our equal,
and he often goes walking down the street
on nice days; his coat on his arm.

I also know: that Darwin guessed right,
Copernicus was right,
but best of all I know:
I
am
lost forever.

An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry, 3rd edition; Ruth Whitman, Wayne State University Press, 1995; used by permission

III. Widowhood

Malka Heifetz Tussman

1.
Do something
to the W
in “widow”
so it won’t be
like a spider

that crawls on my flesh
scratching death,
scratching
death.

Do something
to the
W.

2.
Illumined within myself,
luxuriating in my warmth,
I am a column of sun.

And he bent down,
bent down low over me.

I looked up and softly said:
My name is Desire—
is yours Passion?

And he: No, my name
is Compassion.

And he opened his large, square mouth
and blew on my glow
and put me out.

3.
A gentle hand slowly descended
like an earth-longing leaf
to brush my skin.

A quiet cheek,
cool and compassionate,
bent down and barely touched mine.

And he whispered
like a quiet prayer:
Wife, sad wife.

He had wanted to calm,
he had meant to soothe
the wailing of my flesh.

With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman; Marcia Falk, Wayne State University Press, 1992; used by permission

IV. Poem

Malka Heifetz Tussman

I’m becoming lighter
and lighter all the time
and it gets harder and harder
for me to bear my lightness.
Soon a breeze will succeed
in taking me
who knows where.

It’s long past midnight
and I don’t rest.
It’s not yet day
but I don’t sleep.

And it gets harder
and harder all the time
to transport my lightness
Into tomorrow.

With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman; Marcia Falk, Wayne State University Press, 1992; used by permission

V. Winter

Jacob Isaac Segal

My father woke at dawn
and found death at the table
in the empty gray house.

Death rose from the bench,
cane in hand,
came to his bed
and said, like a Jewish stranger:

“Reb Aaron Ber,
you’re not well;
it’s still and white;
the road is easy and silent.
Look: just hold on to me
and off we’ll go.

And off they went.
They passed the synagogue.
The first minyen was at prayer,
candles and lamps lit the windows,
and goodness lay
over the high snow.

The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, ed. By Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk, Grace Schulman, translation; Penguin Books, 1987, used by permission

The Fair Singer for Soprano and Piano (1999)

Text by Andrew Marvell

Rarefied Air for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1999)

  1. Liftoff
  2. Creatures of the Night
  3. Fresh Aria
  4. Crystal Set

(ca. 23’)

Rarefied Air was originally written for the ensemble Strata. “Strata”, according to my Webster’s Collegiate, means “layers lain atop one another … regions of the atmosphere that are analogous to the strata of the earth.” “Rarefied” air is that thin, clear, high layer of air lying at the top of the lower atmosphere, also known as the “stratosphere”.

This bit of atmospheric esoterica is meant to explain the inspiration for “Rarefied Air”. Movement I, “Liftoff” displays immediately the three basic registral strata of the piece: an explosive and densely chromatic low level (the “ground”), an intervening and rather more lyric middle level (up in the “air”), and a brittle and brilliant upper level (the “Strata-sphere”, as it were). The music of the first movement aspires to leave the ground and achieve escape velocity, a task ultimately accomplished by movement’s end. The second movement, “Creatures of the Night”, is meant to explore that strange, sparkling, twilight place where the edge of the atmosphere touches the edge of space. Movement III, “Fresh Aria”, descends back towards the middle register. The fourth and last movement, “Crystal Set”, is a crackling, virtuosic finale that returns, ultimately, to the earth.

Behavioral Science for Trombone Solo (1998)

1998 (ca. 12’)

  1. Part 1: Misbehavior/Out of control
  2. Part 2: Vulgar Behavior/Gross stuff
  3. Part 3: Crisis of Confidence/Whining and whimpering
  4. Part 4: Behavior Becoming/Reflection and Introspection
  5. Part 5: With Flying Colors/Putting It All Together

The initial inspiration for Behavioral Science was as follows: a few years ago, a trombonist friend of mine asked me if I wanted to join him and a few of “da boys” in attending the premiere of the “Beavis and Butthead” movie. Whoa. Beavis and Butthead with the low brass; a most stimulating prospect. A previous and, I’m sure, less interesting engagement kept me away, but the formative idea behind Behavioral Science was born: how do you civilize the eternal adolescent that is the trombone/trombonist without taking away its/his/her essential energy and joie de vivre?

Behavioral Science, then, is “about” the trombone and, to a degree, trombone players themselves (which, by the way, I was once one myself and my daughter presently is). The piece begins with the trombone completely out of control – a raucous, screaming, stuttering length of lacquered plumbing. Across the span of the piece the trombone gradually learns lyricism and self-discipline, gaining maturity and, ultimately, self-mastery. Behavioral Science concludes with a series of extremely virtuosic passages that require, as they do, the most exacting control imaginable.

Behavioral Science was composed between December, 1997 and February, 1998. It is dedicated with great affection and gratitude to Neil Hatler for his help, advice, and tireless dedication to the piece.

A Footnote Extended for Soprano and Piano (1997)

Text by Dannie Abse

Piano Concerto No. 2 (1997)

  1. Throb
  2. Lyres and Smokers
  3. Silver Bullet

Among the great philosophical questions of our time – has life meaning?, the chicken or the egg?, breath mint or candy mint? – surely one of the most profound concerns the nature of the piano. Is it a string instrument or a percussion instrument? Should the piano be treated, like a violin, as an instrument capable of infinite lyricism, delicacy and nuance? Or is the piano but a glorified trap set, eighty-eight drums strong, from which we should milk every pop, bang and twang?

Of course, the piano is both a string and percussion instrument; my Piano Concerto No. 2 seeks to walk the line between sing and slam, pop and purr. The first movement, entitled “Throb”, displays both sides of the piano’s personality in no uncertain terms: rapid, percussive lines and pounding chords eventually give way to a gentle, lyric piano, smitten as it is by the solo flute. The title – “Throb” – describes the two-note “heartbeat” rhythm on which the movement is built. The second movement, entitled “Lyres and Smokers”, begins with a volcanic and passionate piano cadenza. The title is a hackneyed reference to the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, in which the piano (“the lyre of Orpheus”) gradually calms and quiets the orchestra (“the beast”). In this movement, the roles are reversed; the mysterious and sustained orchestra must calm and quiet the “beast” in the piano. Ultimately, the orchestra succeeds; the movement concludes with an ethereal and becalmed piano solo. The third movement, entitled “Silver Bullet”, is percussive and metallic sounding from the start, featuring as it does three brake drums (literally the metal brake drums from demolished automobiles). In this movement the piano’s brilliant, bell-like upper register is exploited in particular, ringing and clangorous tremolos in the piano both compete with and compliment others heard in the orchestra. The action-hero fanfares that emerge in the brass are intended as an orchestral tribute to the piano.

Throughout the first and third movements of the concerto percussion instruments are prevalent, as they seek to seduce the piano to their way of music. They do not succeed. Ultimately, the piano stands apart, a combination of passion, bravura, percussion and song.

Piano Concerto No. 2 was composed between January 1996 and July 1997. It is dedicated, with great affection and respect, to my friend Mack McCray, whose personality and pianism inspired every part of this piece – indeed, a combination of passion, bravura, percussion and song.

Pluck for Guitar Solo (1996)

  1. Toccata/Hands of Steel
  2. Strum/Serenade
  3. Oh Tanenbaum
  4. Two-Part Contention
  5. Jon Doe
  6. True Pluck

(ca. 19’)

A number of years ago, the great English guitarist Julian Bream told David Tanenbaum – the dedicatee of tonight’s premiere – not to premiere a guitar work unless he knew for a fact it was the composer’s second guitar work. Sage advice. The guitar is an instrument that gives up its secrets to a non-guitar playing composer only reluctantly. Indeed, the timbral, digital and chordal subtleties of this most subtle and intimate instrument are truly understood by the guitarist only. Pity the outlander who composes for the guitar for the first time!

With this last thought in mind I had, until last fall, managed to avoid writing a guitar piece. However, even the most abject compositional coward will relent when a musician like David Tanenbaum asks for a piece and offers his assistance and critical judgement in its composition. So it was with PLUCK, composed between November of 1995 and January of 1996. Bream’s advice notwithstanding, PLUCK is my first guitar piece. Tanenbaum is brave.

The title, PLUCK, thus refers to both the action of plucking strings as well as “pluck” – bravery, grit, true grit. PLUCK is written in six interrelated movements. The first movement, “Toccata/Hands of Steel” introduces much of the essential pitch and harmonic material of the piece, as well as Flamenco-style rasgueado strumming which, try as I might, I could not resist using. Movement two, “Strum/Serenade”, explains itself in its title. Movement three, “O Tanenbaum” (a designation for which David has forgiven me) reprises the Toccata and describes, well, a sort of musical tree (David has forgiven me for this, too). “Two-Part Contention” is a combatative, argumentative movement that pits the treble strings of the guitar against the bass. Movement 5, “John Doe” is a lyric and mysterious moment of rest before the manic finale. Movement 6, “True Pluck”, is a fast, furious and virtuosic finale.

PLUCK is dedicated, with greatest respect and affection, to my friend David Tanenbaum. May he only want to play my second guitar piece.

Among Friends (String Quartet No. 3) (1995)

  1. With Friends Like These
  2. Inner Voices
  3. Little Hands and Little Feet
  4. Freund Barry
  5. Friendly Persuasion
  6. All For One and One For All

I’ve known the Alexander String Quartet since 1987. More than just colleagues, they have become my friends: I’ve traveled with them, performed with them, watched them rehearse, dined with them in their homes and they in mine; I know their children and they know my children. Throughout the time I’ve known the members of the quartet I have observed the relationship between them, that special bond shared by the members of any touring band, described by one pundit as being “like a bad marriage with no sex.” Such issues notwithstanding, this particular marriage works. A string quartet represents, perhaps, the ultimate musical compromise between individual incentive and the common good. In a string quartet, by definition, four distinct instrumental voices and four different instrumental roles unite to create a whole greater than its parts. And, lest we forget, behind each instrument is a person, with his own particular attitudes, feelings, needs, and, yes, issues, all of which must be tempered and blended for the common good of a good performance.

“Among Friends” is, its liberties aside, about the four people behind the instruments of the Alexander String Quartet and their relationships with one another; the way they play, rehearse, get along and, on occasion, not get along.

The first movement, “With Friends Like These” is gritty and contentious in tone. The players argue, debate, annoy, tease, irk, cajole, abuse, harass, form brief alliances, heap merde upon, gang up on, and otherwise find endless ways to irritate each other. It is in this movement that the individual characters of the four instrumental parts stand in highest relief: the first violin as coloratura “prima donna,” forever attempting to soar above it all; the second violin as “the voice in the wilderness,” the viola as “the voice of reason” and the ‘cello as “mover and shaker.” The opening of the movement is marked “argument in progress; with greatest intensity.”

The second, third and fourth movements are a series of portraits, played without a break. In movement two, “Inner Voices,” the second violin and viola are featured in a collegial and decidedly non-contentious dialogue. Movement three, “Little Hands and Little Feet,” is the quiet center of
the quartet. It is here that the first violin finally attains the lyric heights vainly sought in the first movement. The fourth movement is a vigorous dance entitled “Freund Barry.” This movement honors three great friends: Dr. Barry Gardiner, whose friendship and support made the writing of this quartet possible; Gustav Mahler, whose Symphony No. 4, second movement (“Freund Heine”) inspired this one; and Sandy Wilson, who first encouraged me to compose my second string quartet (“Child’s Play”) for the Alexander in 1987 and whose boisterous ‘cello is “Freund Barry’s” alter-ego.

The fifth movement is entitled “Friendly Persuasion.” Rapid fire repeated notes, accompanimental figures and melodic lines are shuttled about from voice to voice, each time elaborated or altered in some way. In this way the music slowly metamorphoses, ultimately arriving at a version of the argumentative music that concluded the first movement. Movement six, “All For One and One For All” is a fast, brief coda/finale, during which the quartet plays primarily in unison, the musical antithesis of the contentious argument that began the quartet.

“Among Friends” was commissioned by Dr. Barry Gardiner and the Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress for the Alexander String Quartet.

“Among Friends” is dedicated, with enduring gratitude, to Dr. Barry Gardiner.

On Trial: Concerto for Vibraphone and Chamber Orchestra (1994)

  1. Trial by Fire
    Intermezzo 1
  2. Trial by Water
    Intermezzo 2
  3. Time Trials/Trial Run

What the solo singer was to the eighteenth century and the pianist to the nineteenth, so the percussionist is to the second half of the twentieth century – the transcendent virtuoso, expanding both the instrumentation of the percussion ensemble and playing technique to ever new levels of virtuosity.

Even as we praise them, though, we must pity the late-twentieth century percussionists. They are virtuosi in search of a repertoire; all dressed up, not much to play. Unlike the eighteenth century singer, who had the popular medium of opera and the services of specialized composers to write for them, modern percussionists work in relative obscurity, are rarely soloists, and can count on relatively few composers to write for them. Unlike the nineteenth century pianist/virtuoso, the modern percussionist is neither a media darling nor the beneficiary of a huge and growing repertoire of instrument-defining etudes and concerti. It would seem that the percussionist’s fate is to slave away within the bowels of the orchestra and the new music community, inventing, defining, composing and transcribing music for instruments that in many cases did not exist two generations ago.

I’ve indulged in this brief history in order to provide some background for David Johnson’s request, first made in 1991, that I write him a vibraphone concerto. The vibraphone is not just an instrument in search of a repertoire but one in search of respect. It is most often perceived as a jazz instrument at best, a dance band instrument at worst; certainly not as a “genuine” concert instrument, like the piano or violin for example. However, the vibraphone’s merits – its extraordinary tone, its clarity of articulation, the speed with which it can be played, and its ability to sustain pitch and provide variable vibrato – make it an instrument ripe for compositional exploitation.

Exploit it I have. In writing ON TRIAL, I have sought to create the sort of big, heroic, virtuosic, instrument-defining concerto characteristic of the nineteenth century. First and foremost, the piece is an etude – a study, a trial – for the performer. Speed, stamina, rapid changes in articulation and different modes of articulation, sustaining, and variable vibrato all play vital roles in the piece. The ensemble parts are likewise quite virtuosic; the third movement (“Time Trials/Trial Run”) is, in particular, a concerto for everybody.

ON TRIAL is in three movements, with brief solo vibraphone intermezzi occurring between the movements. The first movement, “Trial By Fire” is organized around three fiery vibraphone cadenzas. The basic rhythmic grouping of the movement is rapid groups of six, and whether the mood is smoldering or conflagratory, the movement is characterized by high energy and explosive, percussive articulation in all the instrumental parts. Movement II, “Trial By Water” features a bowed vibraphone. The rapid harmonic motion of the first movement is here slowed down, creating a series of impressionistic episodes through which the vibraphone weaves its path. Movement III, “Time Trials/Trial Run” is a series of high-speed races, three in all. The first, labeled “Heat #1: Foot Race” is a relatively simple contest ending in a dead heat between the vibraphone and flute. The second heat, labeled “Hocket, Skip and Jump” is a series of disjunct, interlocking and increasingly active phrases which test the timing and accuracy of the entire ensemble. Last and longest, “Heat Three” proceeds through a number of episodes, labeled “Steeplechase,” “Running the Gamut” and “Relays.” The concerto ends as it began with a blistering, rapid-fire cadenza and a reference back to the beginning of the first movement.

ON TRIAL was written between December 1993 and August 1994. It is dedicated, with great affection and respect, to David Johnson and the members of XTET.

Crazy Levi (1993)

“Crazy Levi” is the third of my works celebrating the rich, and today relatively unknown tradition of Yiddish language poetry. The first set, “The Passing Years” for baritone and piano, set poems by turn-of-the-century immigrants to the new world. The second set, “Iron Balconies and Lilies” for soprano and chamber ensemble, traversed the life experiences of a woman, from youth through extreme old age. Unlike these other pieces, which were comprised of various poems by various poets, “Crazy Levi” consists of a single, narrative poem by Rokhl Korn. It is a timeless tale of life, loss, humor, grief and death, the human spirit and the power of love.

Rokhl (Rachel) Korn was born in 1898, in a Polish village then in a region known as Galicia. “Crazy Levi” is an early poem. Typical of Korn’s poetry, it is imbued with the atmosphere and spirit of the countryside, a characteristic which continued even after she left her native village for the more urban confines of Lvov and Warsaw. Korn managed to escape Poland and flee to the Soviet Union as a refugee during the second world war. She emmigrated to Montreal in 1948, where she died in 1982.

“Crazy Levi” is a true duet for soprano and piano. The piano part, quite orchestral in concept, is not merely an accompaniment, but fully as important and dramatic an element as the voice part itself. The narrative nature of the poem requires the soprano to be a story teller as well as a singer, assuming the voices and moods of the characters and narrator as they appear during the course of the poem.
“Crazy Levi” was composed between December of 1992 and August of 1993.

Crazy Levi – Rokhl Korn

And no one knows what became of him, Crazy Levi, who tied the roads
from Yavarev to Moshtsisk
to Samber to Greyding in a bow,
carrying always in his breast pocket
his letters from Rivtshe,
his uncle’s youngest daughter.

All the houses in the villages knew him,
the road accepted his long shadow
like a horse that knows its rider,
and the dogs lay quiet in their doghouses
when the familiar smell of Levi’s black coat
spoke to their hearts.

Women strong and wide and bent to the ground,
were in the field when Levi came by.
They would toy with him
and with a laugh that smelled of goodness, like dark bread,
they would say,
“Levi, you have no father, no mother.
Why don’t you take a wife
like the rest of your people?
She would wash your shirt for you
and cook you a spoonful of something warm to eat.”

And Levi would look at their raw, swollen feet
and plow the broad field of his forehead
with the painful thought that was always present to him:
“Because my uncle wouldn’t give me his daughter for a wife,
I carry my heart around
like a cat in a sack,
and I want to leave it somewhere
so that it won’t be able to find its way back to me.”

And he would take a filthy piece of paper from his breast pocket
and read aloud from a letter in German, “An Liebchen!” –
and a red berry would blossom
in the dark moss around his lips:
Levi’s crazy, melancholy smile.

But after one long hard winter
(worse than any the old people could remember),
the small eyes of the windowpanes
looked for Levi without finding him
and the dogs put their heads down to the ground
and sniffed at all the tracks on the road,
thinking that he might have come by.

And to this day, no one knows what became of him.
Maybe the hungry wolves in the woods tore him to pieces
or maybe his mother, who had died in the bloom of her youth,
missed her son, and a small white hand
reached out to him from the dark attic of an old house.

“Crazy Levi” by Rokhl Korn, from THE PENGUIN BOOK OF MODERN YIDDISH VERSE by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse and Khone Sheruk. Copyright © 1987 by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse and Khone Sheruk. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

And Opposition of the Stars for Soprano and Piano (1992)

Text by Andrew Marvell

Iron Balconies and Lilies for soprano, piano and chamber ensemble (1992)

  1. A City By The Sea – Anna Margolin
  2. Hay Mowing – Moyshe Kulbak
  3. When Grandma, May She Rest In Peace, Died – Moyshe Kulbak
  4. Longing – Rachel Korn
  5. Ancient Murderess Night – Anna Margolin
  6. Lullaby – Traditional
  7. Toys – Abraham Sutskever
  8. Old Age – Jacob Gladstein
  9. Rest – Jacob Isaac Segal

IRON BALCONIES AND LILIES was written between December 1991 and November 1992. The nine poems of the cycle, originally in Yiddish and by various poets, speak of a woman’s life at various stages, from extreme old age to youth, and back to old age. The poetry is magnificent and direct: at turns quiet, passionate, gentle, ferocious, erotic, agonized and violent. In setting these poems, I have particularly sought to capture the many images and metaphors that unite them. For example, the music representing the violent, life-giving blades (scythes) of No. 2 evoke agonized, ritualized grief in No. 3, a ghastly (and comic) celebration of death in No. 5, and ultimately, a wondrous and benign angel of death in No. 9. Over the course of the cycle, the power and singular clarity of childhood memory gives way to the quiet complexity and blurred edge of adult memory.

Iron Balconies and Lilies was commissioned by and is dedicated to Sylvia Anderson.

Prelude

No. 1
A CITY BY THE SEA
Anna Margolin

When did it all happen? I can’t remember.
It hangs in the air like a ghostly song:
a city by the sea, nocturnes of Chopin,
iron balconies and lilies.

Night. Two sisters dreamily touching
with their slender fingers the dim stream
of memories in an old-fashioned album.
Slowly the photographs grow young.

Through the half-open door, among the ferns,
trancelike, intoxicated figures gently sway
in a last waltz. O dead youth!
The dancers swim and fade like shadows.

It was – – it was – – I can’t remember.

PART ONE: Youth

No. 2
HAY MOWING
Moyshe Kulbak

Over the fields autumn mist curled and strayed.
Grandfather left at dawn for the marsh to mow hay.
As day came the rakers, like jolly Klezmer, stood in the haze,
With Grandfather first, they sang a psalm of praise.
Then a step and a twist and a whistle, as if lightening had leapt.
For a piece of bread, children (my Grandfather said), one must sweat.
And the scythes whistled brightly.

Coats off, with thick, hairy arms – they seem more like fir-trees – my grandfather and his brothers;
As their blades twitch, dew spurts, grass falls, one bunch on another.
A bird sings in a tree and my Grandfather beams:
“What do you say to that? A cantor, right here on the scene.”
Now they sharpen their scythes, smoke, grab a sip from the pitcher,
Then arise with a groan . . . “Help me God!”, back to work, blades again
all a-glitter.

And the hands bend with sureness, legs crack, arms fall and then rise,
Until all see red twilight glow dim on their scythes,
And all of them smile. They can see bread and herring, latkes and pies.
They throw on their coats, and walk along as quail shout by their way.
With their scythes on their shoulders they silently gaze, as mute as the hay.

No. 3
WHEN GRANDMA, MAY SHE REST IN PEACE, DIED
Moyshe Kulbak

When Grandma, so very old, died,
the birds were singing.
With her kind deeds and generous heart
the whole world was ringing.

When they lifted Grandma from the bed
no one made a sound,
not even a whisper, as they gently lowered
my Grandma to the ground.

Grandpa stormed ’bout the house,
silent, rage and fury in his eyes
because he, he had promised Grandma
to be the first to die!

And when they brought my Grandma’s body into town,
all the Christian folk cried.
Even the Catholic priest, Vassily, wept
when he learned my dear Grandma had died.

It was only when the Shamash drew his knife
to rip in their clothes the mourner’s slash
that my uncles, poor wretches, began to scream
like prisoners torn under the lash.

PART TWO: Love Songs

No. 4
Longing
Rachel Korn

My dreams are so full of longing
that every morning
my body smells of you —
and on my bitten lip there slowly dries
the only sign of my pain, a speck of blood.

And the hours like pitchers pour hope,
that you’re not far away,
and that now, at any moment,
you may come, come, come.

No. 5
ANCIENT MURDERESS NIGHT
Anna Margolin

Ancient murderess night, black mother of darkness, help me!
Beguile him, ensnare him, swallow him, flay him, tear him to bits!

And I,
whose drink was tears,
whose bread was shame,
will drink swooning
greedily and long
like a lovesong
over his corpse.
I’ll arise like someone who’s long been sick,
a dark figure dressed in red,
and I’ll bow to all four corners of space
and I’ll sing and sing and sing and sing to life
my praise of his death.

PART THREE: Children

No. 6
LULLABY
Traditional Folk Song

If I had the Emperor’s might,
It would not be such a delight
as you are, my sunshine.
When I see you the world is mine.
Sleep my baby, at my breast.
Rest my darling, rest.

No. 7
TOYS
Abraham Sutskever

Love your toys, my darling daughter,
Poor things, they’re even smaller than you.
And at night when the fire goes out,
Cover them up with stars.

Let the golden pony graze
in cloud shadowed grass.
Lace up the little boy’s shoes
when the night wind blows cold.

Put a straw hat on your doll
and put a little bell in her hand.
Love your toys, my darling daughter,
for not one of them has a mother,
So they cry out to God from their beds.

Love them, your little playthings —
I rememeber a cursed night
When there were dolls left in all the streets
Of the city. And not one child.

PART FOUR: Age

No. 8
OLD AGE
Jacob Gladstein

In old age affection thins.
You move unsure of your limbs,
feeling the prick
of every passing day.

A pity to have missed
so many (. . . )sunsets.
Flowers, trees and grass
stab you with their thorn-song.
You tread
as if stepping on glass.
You acquire a cool smile.
And you grow stingy
with God’s gift of time.

Postlude

No. 9
REST
Jacob Isaac Segal

Such a calmness
upon your face,
thin, perfect.
Your every word
is a song,
sharp as October’s
crystal ring.

A breeze freshly falls
over your weariness,
a guest blows in – Death,
clothed in the lightest snow.

Throwing off his hat
and coat, he holds up
his proud, gray head,
joins us at our table,
and crosses his legs.
And on a silvery afternoon
our talk is filled with light.

All poems used with permission
Translations © copyright 1992 Robert Greenberg

Dude ‘Tudes (Angelova) (1991)

“Dude ‘Tudes – Six Short Etudes on a Short Subject: Samuel Mark Greenberg (age 22 months)” was completed in December of 1991. The designation “‘tudes” of the title has a dual meaning, referring as it does to the study (“etude”) nature of the movements and to the fact that, at a year and three-quarters, Samuel Mark was a dude with most definite attitude. The six ‘tudes each offer a brief commentary on one or another aspects of his personality. They are:

  1. Orneriness/Contrary Motion
  2. Building Blocks/Chords ‘n’ Stuff
  3. Dreams of Play/Trills and Tremolos
  4. Dancin’ Fool/Quarter-Minute Waltz
  5. Angel’s Hair/Legato
  6. Cruisin’ With The Dude/ Octaves-R-Us

“Dude ‘Tudes” is dedicated, with great respect and affection, to Robert Helps.

It Don’t Mean A Thing for Percussion Sextet (1990)

(ca. 7’)

The title and musical content of IT DON’T MEAN A THING . . . display a certain cultural schizophrenia. “It Don’t Mean A Thing . . . If It Ain’t Got That Swing” is the title of a popular/jazz tune written by Duke Ellington in 1932. By appropriating the first half of Ellington’s title, I have meant to imply the second half – this piece should indeed “swing,” with as much raw, almost vicious power the players can muster. However, the actual musical content of the piece has nothing to do with 1930’s jazz. Rather, it is based on the sound and martial spirit of the Japanese Taiko ensemble. The role of the “O-Daiko” (the “Great Drum”) is here played by the bass drum, which initiates and concludes all the major sections of the piece. The bass drum behaves like a drill sergeant, goading, bullying, commanding and cajoling the other players into various sorts of action across the span of the piece.

There are essentially two different sorts of sections in IT DON’T MEAN A THING . . . : those sections underlain by ostinato patterns and those explosive, less continuous sections which are not. All the sections are based on some version or versions of the rhythmic pattern heard at the very opening of the piece, consisting of three fast strokes. IT DON’T MEAN A THING . . . is scored for a conductor and six percussionists playing a variety of instruments: six timpani, eight tom-toms, four roto-toms, two sets of bongo drums, four snare drums, three brake drums, a tenor drum, a bass drum, five temple blocks, four wood blocks, four cymbals, a sixteen inch Chinese gong, and a tam-tam. The score requests that the piece is “To Be Played With Energy, Fury, and the Greatest Possible Precision Throughout!”

IT DON’T MEAN A THING . . . was composed between May and December, 1990. It is dedicated to my former student Luis Gutierrez and the San Francisco Conservatory Percussion Ensemble.

In Shape: Concerto in Three Movements for Two Pianos and Marimba (1990)

  1. Wedge
  2. Labyrinth
  3. Spike

The title “In Shape” has a dual meaning; it refers to both the physical condition (of the players) demanded by the piece, and the thematic content that characterizes each movement. The first movement, “Wedge,” is based on an expanding wedge-shaped motive. This first movement is rather heroic (bombastic!) in nature and is the most outwardly concerto-like movement of the piece, featuring as it does a dramatic interplay of solo textures and a rock & roll, low register cadenza for all three instruments near its end. The second movement is called “Labyrinth.” It is essentially a long cadenza for marimba. The title of this movement refers to the harmonic paths created by the tremolo pianos, which direct the mallet player, after various and increasingly harrowing episodes, to a tranquil and mysterious refuge at the end of the movement. The third movement, “Spike,” refers specifically to the explosive, martellato accents which fill the texture, and generally to the overall hammered effect of the movement. During the course of the work the line between the marimba and the pianos is thinly drawn. Much of the piano writing, particularly in movements two and three, is derived from the sort of tremolos and hammered sounds generally associated with percussion instruments. The technical demands and frequently break-neck tempos indicated in the score demand a soloistic, concerto-like virtuosity from all three players.

Miracles for Piano Solo (1989)

  1. Prelude: My Feelings
  2. The Full Moon Whispered to the Wind
  3. The Scared Clouds
  4. Trees
  5. Thunder (perpetuum mobile)
  6. Rain
  7. Breeze (Gently as a Cat … Intermezzo)
  8. I Love the World (Finale)

The Passing Years (1989)

  1. God Gave Me, Eliezer Greenberg
  2. East Broadway, Mani Leib
  3. The Passing Years, Reuben Eisland IV. Rabbi Elimelech, traditional
  4. At My Wedding, Jacob Isaac Segal

“The Passing Years” is a cycle of five songs for baritone and piano, completed in June, 1989. The texts were written by immigrant Jewish poets around the turn of the century. The poems reflect, in varying degrees, emotions universal to the immigrant groups which have so shaped American culture – feelings of vitality and hope for the future, spiritual strength in the face of poverty and back-breaking work, nostalgia for a world left behind, and a love for traditions as-of- yet unsullied by assimilation.

These songs were written to celebrate the poets and their poems, and the masculine, pioneer spirit they embody. Eliezer Greenberg (no relation to the composer) was born in Bessarabia, Romania in 1897 and emigrated to the United States in 1913; Mani Leib (pen-name of Mani Leib Brahinsky) was born in 1884 in Ukraine and emigrated in 1905; Reuben Eisland was born in Galicia (an area which today straddles Poland and Ukraine) in 1884 and emigrated in 1903; Jacob Isaac Segal was born in Solobkovtsy in Ukraine in 1896 and emigrated to Canada in 1911. The text of “Rabbi Elimelech” was drawn from a traditional Chassidic song called a “nigun” – an ecstatic religious song which would be danced to during the course of a prayer service. (The original melody to “Rabbi Elimelech” can be heard in the gaps between the stanzas of the poem.)

All these poems were written in Yiddish, a language, like English, with a huge vocabulary drawn from various other languages and capable of a tremendous degree of expressive nuance. Though heard in English translation, the poems still project the spirit and energy of the originals. Unlike English, Yiddish is today a language on the verge of extinction. Indeed, the “old world” nostalgically invoked by these poems has entirely ceased to be, having passed, with the years, into memory.

I. God Gave Me, Eliezer Greenberg (born 1896 in Lipkon, Bessarabia – died 1977 in New York)

God gave me
A pair of hands like sledge hammers,
And broad shoulders:
So I carry good naturedly the burden of life,
As an elephant does a fly on his neck.
And I bless him for it every day.

But a childlike heart
God also gave me,
That trembles like a harp
At the least stir of wind,
And at any lovely woman’s glance
Is caught in the net of love,
Where it struggles like a helpless bird.
And for this I bless God
Ten times a day!

II. East Broadway, Mani Leib (born 1883 in Nížyn, Ukraine – died 1953 in New York)

Of all rich streets,
Most dear to me is my shabby,
Jewish East Broadway.

Graying houses; two uneven rows:
Frail, restless and exhausted bodies:
Their worry tinged with God’s own fire –
It barely glows, yet it does not die.
And on the corners, seers and rebels
Who shout a nation’s woe unto the sky.

And the poets. O, rhapsodic brothers!
On the grime of each street
You transmute a nation’s heart – finely –
Into the strains of a new hymnal.
Long after you each stone will join you people
In the prayer of your song.

III. The Passing Years, Reuben Eisland (born 1884 in Radomyśl Wielki, Western Galicia – died 1955 in Miami Beach)

I wish I were already old.
I would get myself a heavy staff,
And buy a snuffbox too,
And I’d sit on my front step and laugh
Seeing the people rush by hurriedly,
As if they had no time to stay,
Hurry, hurry all the day.

Or maybe I would just go
Through the streets, calm and slow,
With a smooth face,
Marveling at the unruffled pace
With which over the stones
I move my old bones
Step by step,
Step by step.

IV. Rabbi Elimelech, traditional

When Rabbi Elimelech became very merry
Became very merry Elimelech,
Off he took his jacket, shoved his cap upon his head
And called for his fiddlers two.

Then the fiddling fiddlers
Fiddled very fiddingly,
Fiddled very fiddingly,
Did they.

When Rabbi Elimelech became very merry,
Became very merry Elimelech
Off he took his Talus, he polished his glasses,
And sent for his drummers two.

Then the drumming drummers
Drummed very drummingly,
Drummed very drummingly,
Did they.

And when Rabbi Elimelech became very, very merry
Became very, very, very merry Elimelech,
He made the Sabbath prayer with his Shamas Naftali,
And sent for his cymbal players two.

Then the cymb’ling cymbalists
Cymballed cymballically,
Cymballed cymballically,
Did they!
They did!

V. At My Wedding, Jacob Isaac Segal (born 1894, Solobkovtsy, Ukraine – died 1954, Montreal)

At my wedding a red haired madman
Fiddled on the smallest, gentlest little fiddle;
He played his sweet lament and fabled song
While other fiddlers watched in dumb amazement.

Where did he learn it, this red haired simpleton?
When you consider that he lived and worked
In backwards villages
And played only at drunken gentile brawls.

If you can picture it,
He could hardly scratch together
A handful of holy words,
Not even to save himself.
As for sleeping,
He bedded on a wooden bench,
And if a servant gave him radishes ffrom the master’s garden.
He was fed.

It was at my wedding this poor devil played,
No one could stand still yet all were rooted:
Ears in the air like pointed spears,
While the little fiddler tenderly caressed
And fiercely scored the people,
Tore them to bits,
Flayed them and drew blood from all their veins,
Until stretched as tight as violin strings,
The old folk, quivering,
Cried out, cried out for mercy.

All poems used by permission
Translations R. M. Greenberg

Child’s Play for String Quartet (1988)

String Quartet No. 2

  1. Games (fast)
  2. Intermezzo: Sogni d’Oro (“Dreams of Gold”) (slow)
  3. Dances (very fast)

Child’s Play was completed in August 1988. In no way does the title refer to the technical demands of the piece, which are considerable. Rather, it refers to the endlessly imaginative, energized, and constantly changing play that might be engaged in by four different, though like- minded children. Indeed, the inspiration for the quartet was my then two-year-old daughter Rachel, whose boundless energy and capacity for play I found (and still find) rather terrifying.

Child’s Play consists of three movements: “Games” (fast), “Intermezzo: Sogni d’Oro (Dreams of Gold)” (slow), and “Dances” (very fast). In “Games,” four energetic and well-rested players leap out of the starting blocks together and engage in sport of various kinds: running games, chasing games, teasing games, tag, echo games (“Simon Says”), races, and so forth, eventually returning to the unison from which they began. “Intermezzo: Sogni d’Oro (Dreams of Gold)” offers a quiet, episodic, dreamlike respite from the frenetic mood of “Games.” In “Dances”, the energized character of the first movement resumes, only faster. “Dances” is a perpetual motion movement in three parts, with a slower, more fragmented middle section sandwiched between a boisterous and frenzied “dance of life.” This movement ends much in the same way as the first movement began, bringing the circuit of the piece to a close.

Child’s Play was commissioned by, and is dedicated, with many thanks and great appreciation, to the Alexander String Quartet.

New Time for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1986)

  1. Prelude
  2. Part One
  3. Part Two
  4. Part Three
  5. Postlude

(ca. 20’)

The Separate Rose: A Chamber Cantata for Soprano, Tenor and Mixed Chorus (1986)

Text by Pablo Neruda

New Time for clarinet, violin and piano (1986)

  1. Prelude
  2. Part One
  3. Part Two
  4. Part Three
  5. Postlude

NEW TIME was composed in 1986 in conjunction with choreographer Victoria Morgan for the Dancer’s Stage Ballet Company of San Francisco. The choreography, for three mixed pairs of dancers, describes aspects of the changing relationships between men and women in our contemporary urban world.

NEW TIME is in five parts. The Prelude introduces the three couples and the music that represents them and their relationships. Part One, a duet for clarinet and piano, describes a dependent, almost abusive relationship. The clarinet, fearful and tentative, attempts to escape the smothering, almost violent embrace of the piano. Part Two, a duet for violin and piano, describes a narcissistic couple so preoccupied with their own movements they never have the opportunity to dance with each other. They finish their frenzied dance too exhausted to interact with one another. Part Three, for all three instruments, is a love song, in which the third couple attempts to capture and attain for themselves the spirit of romance and intimacy that can be so difficult to preserve in a world characterized by change. Couples one and two have witnessed this “love” dance from the sides of the stage. The Postlude revisits the three couples. The narcissistic dancers, in reaction to the love duet, notice each other for the first time, and touch hands tentatively as they exit. The fearful woman of Part One (represented as before by the clarinet) is finally possessed of enough courage to break free of her abusive partner. He is left alone on stage, shocked and dismayed, as the ballet ends.

Prayer for the Great Family (1985)

Mixed Choir

Texts by Gary Snyder

(ca. 11’)
(1981; revised 1985)

Quasi Un Madrigale: Four Italian Songs for Soprano and Piano (1985)

  1. Il Palatino/”The Palatine”; Aldo Palazzeschi
  2. Poesia d’Amore/ “Love Poem”; Salvatore Quasimodo
  3. La Trombettina/”The Little Trumpet”; Corrado Govoni
  4. Quasi un Madrigale/”Almost a Madrigal”; Salvatore Quasimodo

Quasi Un Madrigale sets the poetry of three 20th century Italian poets: Salvatore Quasimodo, Aldo Palazzeschi and Corrado Govoni. These expressive, evocative poems deal variously with states of memory, nostalgia, and longing.

The four songs are conceived as a cycle. The first three songs are true duets, with the piano a full partner of the soprano. The fourth and final song, from which the cycle draws its name, constitutes the emotional core of the set. It is at once a resigned lament of personal loss and an affirmation of new life.

Quasi Un Madrigale was composed between February and September 1985.

All poems used with permission (see PDF Notes).

Hear a Fractal, There a Fractal… (1984)

Violin Solo

By Various Means for Clarinet Quartet (1983)

1983 (ca. 16’)

  1. Passacaglia
  2. Theme and Variation
  3. Chaconne

By Various Means was composed in 1983. The work is in three movements. The piece draws its title from the “various” variational techniques and forms employed in each movement. The composer begs the listeners’ indulgence in differentiating between passacaglia and chaconne, a differentiation not generally recognized by our musicological brethren.

I. Passacaglia.

The first movement, marked espressivo, is a quiet mesto written using strict serial techniques. The theme, a twelve tone row played first by the solo clarinet, appears twelve times in succession, always at the same transposition (on the same notes), but with different rhythms, varying accompaniment, and in different instruments.

II. Theme and Variations.

The second movement sees the theme of the first movement extended into a longer, more rhapsodic melody. Following the theme itself, again played by the clarinet, there are five variations and a brief coda.

III. Chaconne.

In the third movement, the twelve tone theme of the first movement is divided into three groups of four notes. These groups of four notes become the melodic and harmonic units from which the movement is built. The movement is characterized by a sea of undulating motives, out from which melodic lines rise and fall from view. Brief moments of synchrony mark the divisions between the four-note groups. The movement features a buzzing introduction and twelve successive sections. The sections 1 – 11 become increasingly compressed; section 11 consists solely of the twelve tone row in its original (first movement) form. A long ritard ensues. Section 12 recalls the slower, more introverted mood of the first movement before accelerating into a fast conclusion.

Concerto in Three Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1983)

Breaths, Voices and Cadenze (String Quartet No. 1) (1982)

For String Quartet

(ca. 15’)

Breaths, Voices and Cadenze for string quartet was composed during the fall of 1981. The three large sections of the quartet correspond to the designations of the title. In Breaths, pitches, timbres and finally, motives slowly emerge from the quartet in long, breath-like phrases. In Voices, these motives combine to form long melodic lines which, over the course of the section, are extended and developed harmonically and contrapuntally. In Cadenze, the ‘cello, first violin and viola respectively solo, each exploring another aspect of the melodic material developed in the Voices section. The slower, more lyric music of the Cadenze section gradually gives way to a leaner and more spare texture as the music begins to disintegrate. The quartet ends much as it began, with a long, breath-like single note played by a violin.

Molad Ti’: A Processional for String Quartet (1981)

O Sweet Spontaneous Earth (1981)

Mezzo-Soprano and Piano

Text by E.E. Cummings

(ca. 6’)

Fantasy Variations for Chamber Orchestra (1979)

(ca. 10’)

Festejo Episodios: A Divertimento for Five Players (1979)

For Two Percussion, Piano, Flute and Trombone

(ca. 23’)

Pieces for the Holiday for Piano (1978)

Pieces for the Holiday for Piano (1978)

Five Little Songs of Love, Death, Incest and Spring (1978)

For Soprano and Piano

Texts by E.E. Cummings

Theme and Nine Variations for Piano (1976)