NMC 15th Anniversary Bash



Lisa Kaplan (Eighth Blackbird) – Vick (i/y), Andy Akiho
Patience, Ayanna Woods

Lawrence Axelrod (Chicago Composers’ Consortium) – Oscurecimiento gradual, Orlando Jacinto Garcia
Talking to Trees, Lawrence Axelrod

Elizabeth Start (Chicago Composers’ Consortium) – April in New Orleans in April, Elizabeth Start

Jacob Greenberg (International Contemporary Ensemble) – Endless Shout, Geoge Lewis

Janice Misurell-MitchellDensity 21.5, Edgard Varèse
The Light that Burns: in memoriam Gabriel Mitchell, Janice Misurell-Mitchell


Stephen Burns & Clarice Assad (Fulcrum Point New Music Project) – movements from Pendulum, Clarice Assad I. Hermetic II. Luminous

Nick PhotinosEverything in Bloom, Susanna Hancock
Inner Space, Kyong Mee Choi
Dam Mwen Yo, Nathalie Joachim

Henry ZhengThree Miniatures, George Benjamin
I. Lullaby for Lalit
II. Canon for Sally
Nocturne, Kaija Saariaho

Marianne ParkerSetting the World at Five and Seven, Frank Oteri

Amy WurtzPsychotic: A Tainted Land, Malcolm Solomon

Amy Wurtz and Marianne Parker – Karnavalito from Sonata Serrena No. 1, Gabriela Lena Frank

Shi-An Costelloencores for piano, Shi-An Costello

Program Notes

Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho, is a solo for prepared piano that uses auditory and structural palindromes throughout the work to symbolize the subtle differences that lie beneath an assumed symmetrical structure or state of being. The bell-like preparation notes of diminishing pulses, which are continuously interrupted by the conventional notes, represent a consistent, yet fading image of a forgotten dream. My goal was to create a miniature percussion ensemble with the piano by incorporating extended instrument-preparation and compositional techniques inspired by John Cage, George Crumb, Béla Bartók and Jacob Druckman. This piece was written for and dedicated to Vick(i) Ray and Vick(y) Chow, two amazing contemporary pianists who have been a major musical inspiration for me over the past few years.

Patience, by Ayanna Woods, is the first part of 3×5, of a series of 3-5 minute pieces whose scores all fit on a 3×5 card. Woods shares, “I started the project in order to challenge myself to take a small, simple idea and push it as far as it could go. By transforming a single seed, the piece simultaneously explores escalation and stillness.”

Pianist Kaplan first performed Patience last Fall. She notes that she loves the contrast that the piece has…a sense of constant motion while at the same time also managing to seem static. “I thought it would be the perfect kind of postlude following Andy’s piece this evening”

Oscurecimiento gradual (slowly darkening) was written by Orlando Jacinto Garcia in the spring of 2005 for pianist Max Lifchitz and the 2005 Nuovi Spazi Musicali Festival held in Rome. The title refers to the slowly decaying sounds that are present throughout much of the work as well as the tendency towards darker timbres heard in the lower registers as the work progresses. Although not a programmatic piece, these trends seemed to suggest the image of the fading light at twilight as it progresses into the darkness of the evening. As with much of my music the interplay between register, density, timbre, and pacing are important aspects of the piece.

This series of pieces, Talking to Trees, began as a pandemic project for Lawrence Axelrod. In March 2020, New York pianist Adam Marks put out a call for one-page pieces to composers. He would learn and record these in hi sliving room and then post them online. In that odd quiet period, I took solance in the view of trees, then bare, in the park outside my building. After I wrote the first piece, there seemed to be more to say. These beings who support us in so many ways kept speaking. So I wrote five more short pieces over the next several week, trying to connect to both the physical reality of the trees as well as the crucial role in the environment that they play.

April in New Orleans in April, by Elizabeth Start, was written for Frank and April Smith, the winners of the silent auction “personalized composition” at the 2019 Elgin Symphony Orchestra fundraising event, who “always” go to New Orleans in April. It begins with a theme representing April, the person. This theme then interacts with various segments of music reminiscent of things one might experience in New Orleans in the month of April: a distant parade starting up, “throws,” the parade coming closer, blues and zydeco. Throughout, the April theme is present but transformed in response to the musical environment. In April of 2020, I got an email from April telling me that listening to this piece was as close as she could get to New Orleans this year, due to covid-19.

Endless Shout, by George Lewis, is part of an open-ended, striated network of sonic codes that announce membership in what literary theorist Houston A. Baker Jr. calls the “blues matrix.” Baker’s notion of “blues utterance” presence a living, mutable, mobile, noisy, unstable, vibrant—and ultimately infinite set of postmodern sensibilities. The work pays homage to the great stride and boogie-woogie pianists, and is dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2018), whose passion for the music of these brilliant artists led me to a deeper understanding of their impact on American culture. —George Lewis

Density 21.5, for solo flute (1936), by Edgard Varèse, was written at the request of Georges Barrère for the premiere of his platinum flute, the density of platinum being close to 21.5 grams per cubic centimeter. The piece is one of the first in the solo flute repertoire to be based on motives which are extended through an exploration of particular rhythms and timbres, rather than a more traditional melodic development.

The Light that Burns: in memoriam Gabriel Mitchell for solo alto flute/voice, by Janice Misurell-Mitchell, uses as its basis a phrase from the film Blade Runner: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. I wrote it as a memorial to our son Gabriel, filmmaker, artist, and songwriter, who passed away at the age of 38 in 2012; this quote was one of his favorites. There is a rhythmic “motto” spelling out the letters, “G-A-B-E”, using the Bb as “B”. The piece is a memorial to those who have passed away too soon.

Pendulum, by Clarice Assad, was commissioned by the International Trumpet Guild in 2019.

Pendulum is a dynamic work for trumpet, scat singing and piano,  featuring extended vocal techniques, vocal percussion and an extra part for mouth harp.  This 15 minute piece, in three movements explores dance-like rhythmic intensity, rich harmonic color of the music from South America and a beautiful, longing intermezzo-esque movement for piano and trumpet.  

I. Hermetic
II. The Caregiver  
III. Luminous

Everything in Bloom was commissioned by Bang on a Can and Gordon Nicol, and written for Nick Photinos. About the work, Susanna Hancock writes: “We don’t always see or understand the sacrifices our parents make for us until much later, especially those of our immigrant parents. After Nick proposed writing a piece exploring motherhood, I was quite eager because I feel like the true weight of what my mom has done so that I can achieve my dreams has finally come into focus. Everything in Bloom is dedicated to my mama: an immigrant, a chef, a boss, an entrepreneur, a community leader, and so much more. This is the first piece I’ve written for her – to honor her and her story – and it won’t be the last.

Inner Space, by Kyong Mee Choi, describes a state that can only be accessed through calmness and quietness of mind. The lyrical lines and the circular motion of the sound are intended to create a somewhat hollow aural sensation, which represents the Inner Space of our mind. Cello and electronics interact as if they draw the outer lines of the imaginary but yet profound space we all carry within.

Dam mwen yo in Haitian Creole simply translates to “they are my ladies.” In Haiti, the cultural image of women is one of strength. They are pillars of their homes and communities, and are both fearless and loving, all while carrying the weight of their families and children on their backs. As a first generation Haitian-American, these women – composer Nathalie Joachim‘s mother, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins – were central to my upbringing and my understanding of what it means to be a woman. In Dantan, Haiti-Sud, where my family is from, it is rare to walk down the countryside roads without hearing the voices of women – in the fields, cooking for their loved ones, gathering water at the wells with their babies. This piece and the voices within it are representative of these ladies – my ladies. And the cello sings their song – one of strength, beauty, pain and simplicity in a familiar landscape.

George Benjamin‘s Three Miniatures for Solo Violin is a very personal exploration of the violin, with each movement dedicated to a friend of the composer’s. Lullaby for Lalit starts with a serene and lilting melody. Halfway through, a mirage of harmonics begins to pierce through the hypnotic melody, eventually carrying the listener away, it would seem, to dreams. Canon for Sally is a bombastic contrast to the previous movement – dense, devious and harrowing.

Kaija Saariaho‘s Nocturne was written in memory of Witold Lutoslawsky, and served heavily as inspiration for her violin concerto. Because of the nature and history of the Nocturne, I thought it would be appropriate to share this piece rather than the third movement of the Benjamin. The Nocturne serves as a reflection of loss, while also symbolizing deep new inspiration and a guiding light forward.

Setting the World at Five and Seven – from composer Frank Oteri: I grew up surrounded by pianos and it has remained a constant source of inspiration throughout my life. Years later, when I learned about the harpsichord, I became obsessed with its hypnotic timbre and over the past two decades it has been an instrument I frequently return to. But the clavichord is something else entirely, a lost secret from another era which like alchemy or hermeticism seems far removed from our time.

While the harpsichord has proven itself to be an invaluable contemporary music instrument, in everything from Ligeti’s Continuum and Carter’s Double Concerto to Albert Ayler’s Love Cry and Diana Ross’s “Love Child,” the clavichord— despite some remarkable recordings by Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett—remains mostly uncharted territory. Too gentle for very dense contemporary vocabulary and too quiet for rock and roll, it requires much more introspection. In fact, it’s probably best suited for music with only two parts, like much of C.P.E. Bach’s music. So I endeavored to create a two-part composition for clavichord that would remain sensitive to the instrument’s character while still exploring the kinds of musical ideas I gravitate toward, which are the result of listening to music spanning all the Bachs, Ligeti, Carter, Ayler, Diana Ross, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, and beyond. It is possible to play this music on other keyboard instruments as well provided the interpreter approaches the music with a clavichord-like sensitivity.

I’ve been fascinated by music using 5-beat rhythmic cycles for as long as I can remember. Partially because I’ve never been able to reconcile the seeming naturalness of a quintuple meter (after all, we have five fingers) with its always being somewhat awkward sounding, like there’s one extra beat. As I grew older I became equally fascinated with 7-beat cycles which have a similar unstableness, only in reverse; they sound like they’re missing a beat. So it was only a matter of time before I pondered the possibility of overlapping a 5-beat cycle with a 7-beat cycle which results in a sonic queaziness in which you’re never quite sure if you’re gaining something or losing something.

Since each hand is essentially in a different time signature, the only meaningful meter to indicate for Setting the World at Five and Seven is 1:1 since the two parts share the same downbeat. Therefore a metronome marking of whole note equals 30 means that the left hand’s quintuplets go by at 150 and the right hand’s septuplets go by at 210. This polyrhythm temporarily resolves to both hands playing parallel septuplets, but this is merely to prepare for a metrical modulation to a situation where the left hand’s subsequent quintuplets are at 210, making the right hand’s septuplets speed up to 274, hence the overall whole note equal 42.

Eventually the parallel septuplets return to prepare for a reverse metrical modulation back to the original tempo. To keep listeners focused on this polyrhythm, the pitches are limited to a pentatonic scale (although that’s a 5 as well) and the harmonic progression is a standard 12-bar blues although it probably won’t sound like a blues to most people. In the 14 century, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the expression “setting the world at six and seven” to connote risking one’s life, from which the still current phrase “at sixes and sevens,” meaning in disarray, derives. Perhaps setting the world at merely five and seven will prove to be ultimately not quite as dangerous.

Psychotic: A Tainted Land was written while the composer, Malcolm Solomon, was living and working in North Carolina. The piece was written as a response to his experiences as a Black man while living there, which, as can be clearly heard in the music, were not peaceful. The music is written in uneven meters throughout, with five, seven, or three beats to a bar, and just as soon as you start to hear a pattern, the rug is pulled out from underneath you yet again. Dr. Solomon says his whole experience was “off-kilter” and he expressed this expertly in his music. It is a great challenge to the performer, who must stay on top of all the shifitng accents and also bring out the patterns which emerge and are transformed. It has been my pleasure to meet Dr. Solomon and bring his music to a wider audience–before September 2020, it had only been performed in New Zealand!

Sonata Serrana No. 1, by Gabriela Lena Frank, is inspired by the distinctly Andean concept of mestizaje as championed by Peruvian folklorist José Maria Arguedas (1911-1969) whereby cultures can co-exist without one subjugating another. Allusions to the rhythms and harmonies of the mountain music of my mother’s homeland of Perú abound in each of this work’s four movements, with an additional nod to the colorful style of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). The four movements are:

I. Allegro Solar (Sun Allegro)
II. Scherzo Nocturno (Night Scherzo)
III. Adagio para el Anochecer (Adagio for Dusk)
IV. Karnavalito (Festive Song in the Quechua Indian style)

Encores for solo piano, is a set of short pieces written by Shi-An Costello during the summer months of 2020. They are studies in intimacy, time, and focus. (shiancostello.com)