My work since 2014 can be understood in four categories: My first opera, Switch (2014-16), a series of collected chamber pieces entitled Metamorphoses (2014-2018), a monodrama, Angelus (2015-2019) and ancillary chamber works written since 2014 that are related to the first three projects in various ways.
I composed Switch in the years directly after my father died. Part of what I now realize I was exploring had to do with issues of masculinity and heterosexual male relationships. My relationship with my father didn’t contain any provocative or troubling aspects (he was happily married to my mother for 48 years when he passed), but nevertheless, our relationship, and ultimately, friendship, centered around aspects of maturing male identities and consequently, the practical and fantastical aspects of a heterosexual male’s various archetypical relationships. Hemingway served as a starting point for all of this, but I very much wanted the project to incorporate all of my other literary influences at the time, including Italo Calvino, Joseph Campbell, Thomas Mann, and DH Lawrence, among others. And so the project also necessitated that I write my own libretto which would synthesize all these literary influences around a plot loosely based on Hemingway’s Garden of Eden. The common thread of the literary influences were writings on psychology and mysticism and the tensions between religion and spirituality.
The form of the work is similar to that of an opera comique. Dramatic activity often unfolds in passages where the vocalists act and speak rather than sing recitative. The arias are based on texts of the aforementioned authors and this is where the revelations and epiphanies of the characters occur.
I found that working on Switch was an immensely cathartic artistic experience. I was able to work in an interdisciplinary fashion, collaborating with Laine Rettmer who directed and premiere and Andrea Merkx who designed and built the set. Together, we three turned the Cambridge gallery venue, Le Laboratoire, into an opera space, building in risers surrounding a theater in the round. The all-encompassing set gave an intense intimacy to the production with seats for only 100 people at each showing. The premieres marked a high point in my recent creative work. ______________________________________________________________________________
Program note for Switch:
My first idea for Switch came when reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden. The disillusionment of Hemingway’s protagonist, set against the alcohol-induced dreamscape of the French Riviera, creates a narrative that captivated me in the way it plays with how we perceive
the frustrations and inspirations of the artist. Switch considers a similar theme and adds another aspect that is, for me, interconnected — the life of the muse.
“Precisely as in a dream it is our own will that unconsciously appears as inexorable objective destiny, everything in it proceeding out of ourselves and each of us being the secret theater
director of our own dreams, so also in reality the great dream that a single essence, the will itself, dreams with us all, our fate, may be the product of our inmost selves, of our wills, and we are actually ourselves bringing about what seems to be happening to us.”
— Freud and the Future. Thomas Mann.
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In 2014, as I was writing the libretto for Switch, I came across a number of writings by Italo Calvino that were ancillary to the text I wanted to incorporate into the opera’s libretto. I went down a long digression into Calvino’s writings including a book called The Uses of Literature. In this work of non-fiction, Calvino explores a number of his own literary influences and at various points discusses his admiration for Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Reading Calvino’s thoughts on Ovid’s work made me realize that there were a number of musical analogs to Ovid’s liteary devices that might be worth exploring. Calvino’s analysis includes ideas about how quickly or slowly Ovid can turn a character into an animal, or how a certain embellishing feature of a figure can become its substance, or how the movements of heavenly or astronomical bodies can effect the movements of everything they govern. Through Calvino, I came to appreciate Ovid’s work all over again, this time specifically concerning the way Ovid plays with time. I had not thought much about how the dimension of time plays so vividly in Ovid’s work and I realized that through that parameter, I could play with musical time in similar ways. I set out to write a short work for bass clarinet and cello, Ephemera, and a work for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, Mercury. Ephemera served as an initial study on how to shift textures at various rates in order to create form. The opening tremolo and quick motif resemble a kind of flitting of ephemeral wings. The work coalesces at times as textures converge and is at other time formally led by controlling densities of texture. With this first study finished, I felt that I had developed some new musical techniques that seemed analogous to the ways in which Ovid plays with shifts in time and memory.
In Mercury, I took the idea of the fleet-footed messenger darting between heavenly bodies to construct at first a kind of fragile mobile-like texture in the work’s outset. As the work progresses, I imagine this mercurial maneuverings in thinner more contrapuntal textures. Finally, I imagine the gravitational weight of the bodies themselves, humming in a kind of warm glow. To Calvino’s point, I attempt to shift from one perspective to another in a way that allows the listener to hear many musical allusions to the myth.
Daedalus is featured in the Metamorphoses both for his design of the Minotaur’s maze and for his construction of waxen wings used to help him and his son escape exile. I try to bring both images to bear in my work, using mechanical sounds from the wind instruments to allude to the sounds of Daedalus’s studio, perhaps as he fashions feathers with wax. The image of the labyrinth is suggested more in the winding form that the piece takes. Again, as in Mercury, I sought to construct a multi-part form that moves from one image to the next, trying to capture Ovid’s own style that can similarly turn momentum on a dime. I don’t use jagged juxtapositions, but rather try to shift between textures and musical ideas in varying degrees of pacing so that we can hear rates of change along with a constant sense of transitions being smooth even if quick.
I first wrote Daedalus as a wind quintet for the group City of Tomorrow. Because so many of my intentions grew from my time working on Mercury, I orchestrated Daedalus for the same instrumentation as Mercury so that I would have companion pieces both based on my studies of Calvino and Ovid. This was the first connective piece in imagining the entire suite of works. As I started to conceive of the next work, Narcissus, I received a commission from the Fromm Foundation at Harvard to compose a work for the French ensemble Court-Circuit, which had plans to tour the U.S. in 2018. As I negotiated the opportunity to compose a piece for their tour, I realized that it could be an extension of this project, now with an opportunity to take my ideas into a slightly larger instrumental configuration. Keeping the foundational flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, I added oboe, viola and percussion to the ensemble for the next work in the series, Narcissus.
Narcissus was written in 2017 and takes its name from the Greek myth that is also a part of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Motifs of a circular nature rotate through the instrumentation giving what I hope is a sense energy of spiraling outward as if ripples distorting Narcissus’s reflection in the pool. As in the preceding works, I attempt to build forms by varying the densities and textures of passages so that there is an underlying fluidity but a foreground sense of ever-changing pacing.
The final work in this series, Ananke, was written in the fall of 2018 after my successful collaboration with Court-Circuit that previous spring. I was so inspired by the collaboration we had that I set to compose an even more ambitious work than Narcissus for a similar instrumentation so that it could be conceived as a partnered piece with Narcissus, Daedalus and Mercury. Ananke uses the same instrumentation as Narcissus but replaces the percussionist with a pianist. In Ananke, I wanted to conceive of something cumulative that would cap this exploratory suite of works. I chose to base the work around a Greek myth that does not figure exactly into Ovid’s work but rather, one that governs over Ovid’s work and the works of so much Greek storytelling. Ananke is the mother of the three fates, . In a musical retelling, I was not so much interested in reimaging actions like the beating of waxen wings or the swift movements of a winged messenger. Instead, I modeled the work as a kind of character study of Ananke’s three daughters. The work is in three attaca movements, each painting a kind of musical description of the fates. Ananke’s daughters can be seen as representing the past (Lakhesis), the present (Klotho) and the future (Atropus), but they can also be seen as personifying Ananke’s qualities of inevitability, compulsion and necessity. In the work’s first movement, the unceasing recurring motif is a way to play with the idea of compulsion. As the music moves into a slower movement that does not let go of the underlying motif, a sense of inevitability set in, as if the motif itself was always to be present or could not be let go of as the music continues. The second movement studies the many ways the motif can be recontextualized. Finally, as the second movement makes way for a piano cadenza, a third movement emerges, which takes on fuller textures that are paced more slowly as if a sense of inevitability has set into the work’s musical material. The final movement of Ananke shares similarities with the final passages in some of the previous works in the suite in the emergence of fuller texture and the shift in pacing.
Ephemera. 7′. 2014.
For bass clarinet and cello.
Premiere: DiMenna Center, New York. Vasko Dukovski, bass clarinet; Serafim Smigelskiy, cello.
Recording: Musica Viva ensemble. Pickman Hall, Longy Conservatory. 2014. Amy Advocat, bass clarinet; Raphael Kaiser, cello
Mercury. 8′. 2014.
For violin, cello, alto/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet.
Premiere: Ecce Ensemble. Yoshi Onishi, conductor. DiMenna Center, New York. 2014.
Daedalus. 9’20”. 2017.
For bass flute, clarinet / bass clarinet, violin and cello.
Premiere: September 15th, 2017. Takefu International Music Festival. Takefu, Japan.
Narcissus. 11’20”. 2018.
For bass flute, oboe, clarinet / bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello and percussion.
Fromm Foundation Commission.
Premiered by ensemble Court-Circuit. Jean Deroyer, conductor.
April 19th, 2018. Roulette. New York.
Ananke. 2019. 15′
flute (bass flute / piccolo), oboe, clarinet (bass clarinet), violin, viola, cello, and piano.
I would not have composed Angelus if not for the experience I had composing Switch. After composing Switch I had a wealth of texts left on the cutting room floor. So many of my literary influences had to be left out for brevity’s sake or simply because they seemed tangential, even if still potent and important. Many of these texts continued to circulate in my mind for some time as I continued on other works. One such work that had been on my mind through 2014 and 2015 was Walter Benjamin’s writing in Theses on Philosophy of History on Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. I encountered Benjamin’s text after coming face to face with Paul Klee’s painting in Paris France in the summer of 2015. The complete story of this chance encounter and its consequences is told within the booklet for the album.
In 2015 I put the Benjamin text to music, knowing that as a text fragment it would need more context. I reached back to my work from Switch and took two arias that I loved. I decided to find a way to put them in a new context vis a vis the Benjamin text. The flute and voice aria from Switch concerned Joseph Campbell’s Creative Mythology, though the text itself was mine. The percussion and voice aria concerned a fragment of text from D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse, a non-fiction work by Lawrence that studies the book of revelations. Both this and the Campbell-influenced text seemed perfect to combine with the Benjamin fragment I had set. Still, there was a great deal of work left to be done. After setting more texts by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato and the poet Weldon Kees, I felt that I had an initial framework for the monodrama and a tentative premiere was staged at Le Laboratoire Cambridge, in April of 2016, performed by the Ecce Ensemble. I made a number of revisions to the work after the premiere, rewriting passages that connected the texts and reworking the movements concerned with the settings of Plato’s Phaedrus. Another performance was scheduled by Ecce at the DiMenna center in 2017, and even more revisions ensued. I realized that the work required a prelude to introduce the Benjamin text. I had always conceived of the work as ending with the excerpt from Weldon Kees’s A Distance from the Sea and so I thought carefully on a poem that could open the work to frame the monodrama in poetic texts, the prose lying within. After much thought, I began setting What is Possible, a poem by Adreinne Rich. The way the poem grasps with the vastness of the human experience and difficulty we all feel in gaining perspective and clarity on our own lives seemed the perfect message for a work that then goes on to interrogate the spiritual, psychological and metaphysical aspects of our existence.
The process of writing Angelus was a cathartic experience for me. It required that I had at that point assimilated the lessons I learned in writing the libretto for Switch, which also contained so many literary influences. The process also required a great deal of revision, which compelled me to feel even more that I could ascertain the exact large-scale formal effect I had in mind if I insisted on continuing to revise and listen. This was immensely gratifying and it was only possible because I had developed an ensemble in Ecce that was willing to work with me on numerous performances. Finally, we recorded the finished version of Angelus in June of 2019, three years after its first performance.
There is much more to say about the work, all captured in the album’s program notes, linked to in the booklet below.
Recorded by the Ecce Ensemble
June 19th, 21st and 22nd
The American Academy of Arts and Letters. New York, NY
Nina Guo, voice
Emi Ferguson, flutes
Hassan Anderson, oboe
Barret Ham, clarinets
Pala Garcia, violin
John Popham, cello
Sam Budish, percussion
Jean-Philippe Wurtz, conductor
Joel Gordon, Recording Engineer
Sarah Borgatti. Recording Manager
Mixed and Mastered by Joel Gordon and John Aylward
Produced with funds from: The Guggenheim Foundation, The Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser Foundation, The Cynthia and John Reed Foundation & The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Other Works and Studies (2014-2020)
Flux, Ripple, Flutter