Performances Past and Future: Microscript, Stress Position, Inter


This Saturday, May 28th, Ensemble Dal Niente will premiere my latest work, Microscript for flute, oboe, soprano saxophone, violin, viola and cello. The concert will take place at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, IL at 7:30pm. I am excited to once again work with Dal Niente, a group that combines uncompromising virtuosity with bold, provocative programming as evidenced by Saturday's concert which will include György Ligeti's Piano Concerto (with soloist Winston Choi), Morton Feldman's Vertical Thoughts 2, Louis Andriessen's Workers Union and Augusta Read Thomas's Rise Chanting (to be performed by The Spektral Quartet).

The title Microscript alludes to a series of texts or "microscripts" by the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878 - 1956). On small pieces and scraps of paper, Walser composed entire stories, poems and, in one notable case, a novel (taking up only 24 pages!) using microscopic handwriting. For years following Walser's death, these texts were thought to be written in some sort of indecipherable code. However, scholars later discovered that the tiny markings (each letter between 1 and 2 millimeters high) are actually a very old form of German shorthand called Kurrent script. This shorthand dates back to Medieval times and remained in use up until the middle of the 20th century.

Walser's "microscripts" are not only fascinating in terms of the literal meanings conveyed, but are also quite striking from a purely visual standpoint. The Painters' Table Blog nicely articulates and elaborates upon this point:

"It’s easy to see why Robert Walser’s “Microscripts” are some of the most visually interesting pieces of 20th century writing. The tightly-packed miniature ‘Kurrent’ script used by Walser presages later developments in drawing – Brice Marden’s shell drawings immediately come to mind as do works by James Castle, Joesph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Henri Michaux.

More interesting than the microscripts’ visual connection with later developments in drawing, however, is the effect Walser’s method has on the resulting prose – namely an uncanny ability to evoke spatial and temporal movement akin to that in painting.

Like paintings, which can be experienced at once as a whole, Walser’s compressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) constructs full narratives than can be consumed rapidly – nearly ‘at a glance’ as it were. Their short length allows the reader to revisit the work in detail, focusing on sentences, phrases, or words as one might examine the painted passages or marks on a canvas."

It is this invitation to examine each work in a highly focused manner that ultimately interests me. The piece I wrote for Dal Niente is not intended to provide any sort of literal connectivity to Walser's stories or his idiosyncratic script. I am not attempting to musically depict one of his plot lines, set his text or develop some sort of musical shorthand in order to fit an entire piece onto a scrap or two of paper.

Rather, I want to create a similar sense of focus and intensity. I want the listener to gain a heightened awareness of the sonic detailing and I seek to do this in part by limiting certain parameters in order to emphasize others. Microscript begins with nearly two minutes of a single pitch. This seemingly static handling of pitch serves to elevate one's sense of articulation, which in this case - with constant changes in string assignments, bow contact points, articulations, etc. -  is quite diverse. It is my hope that the physicality of the sound is as apparent as that of Walser's writing and I furthermore wish to grant the listener the freedom to linger over and carefully examine various gestures and textures.

Again, I'm very much looking forward to working with Dal Niente and I hope to see you at the performance.


Below are recordings from two recent performances of my works. On April 23rd, Jonathan Katz performed Stress Position for solo amplified piano at Northwestern University's Lutkin Hall. On April 24th, The Talea Ensemble performed Inter for flute, bass clarinet, violin and cello at The Roger Smith Hotel in NYC. I want to thank Jonathan and Talea for their generous support and their beautiful playing.

Review: Talea Ensemble Premieres Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee

The American premiere of Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee (Snow) for 9 players was performed by the Talea Ensemble on Friday, January 21st at the Scandinavia House in New York City. An hour in length, Schnee begins with extremely delicate, grainy, pulsating squeaks that are steadily and methodically articulated by individual string instruments. Over top of this eery ground, a gentle piano melody whispers from the highest register, a place where the noise of the hammers is nearly as present as pitch. The combination is austere and utterly stunning.

These sparse, noise-infused gestures would not seem to be the typical building blocks for canonic writing. And yet, Schnee is comprised of five pairs of canons occasionally interrupted by three brief Intermezzi. The second of each canonic pair is essentially an alternate version of the first. The changes are most notable in the orchestration. The squeaking string sound that begins the piece (canon 1a) is transfered to hissing pieces of paper rubbed against wood in 1b. The bouncing, off-kilter rhythmic interplay between breathy winds and stopped piano (stopped with mailing envelopes) in canon 2a is augmented in 2b when the same material is played by the entire ensemble including a wonderful stereophonic back and forth between the two pianos. 

When interviewed during the concert, Abrahamsen (pictured at left) said that he wanted the two versions of each canon to come together in the ear of the listener forming a sort of third dimension. This proves effective given that the canons are very well-defined in terms of tempo and texture and thus it is easy to hold the first canon in one's memory while taking in the second. The result is reminiscent of how Luciano Berio transformed some of his Sequenzas for solo instruments into Chemins for solo instrument and ensemble. A larger counterpoint emerges between past and present, the old version and the new.

Another interesting element to Schnee involves proportion. Each pair of canons becomes progressively shorter in duration. Thus, canons 1a and 1b clock in at 9 minutes apiece while 5a and 5b are only a minute each. As a listener, the generous time assigned to the first two pairs of canons seems extreme initially. This approach, however, allows for "space" to move around. To put it another way, Abrahamsen (like Morton Feldman) puts the listener into a state where every sonic detail can be grasped without the risk of becoming lost. This is important at the outset when scraping strings and rustling paper barely bleed into audibility. In the Talea Ensemble's performance, such quietude was exacerbated by the dry acoustic space at the Scandinavia House, a direct contrast to Ensemble Recherche's highly resonant recording of Schnee. While I generally favor a resonant setting, the dryness forced me to draw nearer and listen with even greater intensity, an effect that felt true to the musical material.

In manipulating the listener's sense of proximity to the sound, Abrahamsen creates a spacial interplay that is far more powerful live than on a recording. Also unique to the live experience is the hyper-focused atmosphere that enhances the unusual temporal and proportional qualities mentioned above.

Friday's concert began with two works by another Danish composer, Bent Sørensen. I often feel sorry for composers whose smaller pieces are programmed alongside another's magnum opus. However, Sørensen's The Deserted Churchyards and Funeral Procession (both for mixed chamber ensemble) were compelling on their own and set up the Abrahamsen rather nicely. Performed back to back without pause, these works reveal the composer's gift for creating striking timbral combinations (I must give credit to any composer who can subtly and beautifully incorporate slide whistle into a piece). Like Abrahamsen, Sørensen often manipulates material by redistributing it to different parts of the ensemble, setting up interesting points of comparison. He also shares an affinity for skirting the edges of audibility.

The Talea Ensemble deserves high praise for their outstanding musicianship which was deftly displayed in the Sørensen and Abrahamsen.  Both composers require each player to generate a vast array of sounds (detuned strings, running fingers up and down the piano without actually depressing the keys, executing whistle tones on the flute, dipping percussion in water) and at times require the partial deconstruction of an instrument (as when Abrahamsen has the clarinetist remove the mouthpiece and slam the palm against the open-ended tube) or augmentation (stopping piano strings with mailing envelopes). This is certainly not unusual for contemporary art music, but to execute the sounds well and to furthermore maintain one's focus for such long stretches of time reveals uncommon endurance and versatility.

Talea also must be credited for presenting important works that all too often go unnoticed in the U.S. Schnee was completed in 2008, recorded in late 2009 and was not performed in America until last week. I am hopeful that Talea's stellar performance will serve to broaden domestic interest in these two very important composers.