Almanac

for string quartet

2017

For me, writing music can sometimes feel like a constant question of WHO AM I. Some pieces feel like battlegrounds, where identity asserts itself against all odds. Others are floating dreams, unconcerned and unaffected, identity trailing lightly behind. Others still, I am changed by the end.

This piece was hard to write. It felt like I was flailing through this question, doubting myself before putting my pen to paper. I've grown to appreciate being lost in flailing though, or at least finding it preferential to being lost in consistent or comfortable habit.

Amid this process, my teacher Carter pointed out that my music sounds more sure of itself than I sound when I talk about it. Within this reflection, I realized that my music is a map. All of it is vulnerable, my internal landscape upended, drawn from this corner to that, on display in its nakedness, yet made more powerful in being witnessed. The music can be consulted along the way, a guide of sorts, of how things were before I had a verbal way to describe them. And thus, I wrote an almanac, music that is overly affected by being looked at, but earnest in its vulnerability and unashamed of its questing.

Thread

for mezzo-soprano, trumpet/flugelhorn, and piano

2016

Once-robins (for Ash and Blake)

for Clarinet, Horn in F, Violin, Cello, and Piano

2016

This piece tells the story of a mentor of mine, who is now more like a sister. It tells the story of 2012, when she gave birth to Blake. In many ways the music is an attempt to depict this fantastical world of childhood and the more complicated world of motherhood, the joy and reverence but also the pain of always having to let go. This story may be a little different than others of its kind, though, because Blake has Down syndrome, and from my limited perspective as a humble witness, the emotional arch of that journey is different than that of mothers who don't have a baby with Down syndrome. 

For movements I, II, V, and VI, the text accompanying this piece comes from Ash. Movement III incorporates spoken word. These are things that have been said to Ash or come from books that were given to Ash.

My ultimate intent in this project is for it to be healing, a meditation and celebration, but also the pain of words like "normal," that bar us into certain ways of being. Above all though, this piece is about the quiet certainty of love.

 

I. "Happy birthday, little Blake! Welcome to the world!"

We found out the child was a boy on February 8th and we named him at that point - Blake Alan Swanson. My husband Dan’s first words, “That’s my boy!!” and pride dripping from every syllable.

I heard a heartbeat start dropping and immediately asked if that was my Blake and they said no, it was my own heartbeat.

The doctor said, “Happy birthday, little Blake! Welcome to the world.”

They said he had a semi-crease, slanted eyes and lower ears, all consistent with Trisomy 21.

Calmness…acceptance…I never once questioned that he was mine and I would love him no matter what they told me.

 

II. All Because of the Extra Chromosome that Exists in Every Cell of His Body

How many mothers are there now with a three year old with Down syndrome. Down syndrome down syndrome down syndrome - what a strange ring it has. And not really a ring. It’s a drone and a chant that pervades my life. It sounds so strange and it has no meaning until it does and then it means everything and everything means Down syndrome. What does normal mean anyway? What a horrible, dreadful word.

 

III. from Friends

I can’t go out without at least two or more people recognizing and asking me and telling me about their mother’s brother’s cousin’s dog’s aunt’s brother’s wife’s son who had Downs 20 years ago and what a blessing they are and how they are just incredible and how their personalities are just perfect.

 

IV.

 

V. Is it obvious?

Can they see the Downs? Is it obvious? Are they just being nice? I find Blake so cute and beautiful but he is mine. Maybe other people see it and are quickly judging. Maybe they are whispering their real thoughts in their minds where I can’t hear. Sometimes I look through his pictures and the almond shaped eyes jump out at me. I get so scared of the world he will grow up in.

 

VI. He will be pure love

Blake… if I think without any outside influence, then he just is. He is just my child, he is just my son. I feel a smile creep over my face and feel a sparkle in my eye - because that is all he is in those moments. It is just me and him. There is nothing more.

Page of Cups

for piano, clarinet, and viola

2016

Written for and performed by Alice Sprinkle, David Leech, and Sarah Broadwell, The Pine Trio. Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, so you'll hear falling into wonderland, chatting with the Cheshire cat, entering a mad tea party, some Queen of Hearts raucous (truly she's a reversed Queen), and falling back into the dream.

For me, Alice in Wonderland is a Rite of Passage story. Alice is becoming less child and more adult. Her body is changing, she wants to go somewhere but doesn't know where, and she's trying to figure out the rules of Wonderland but they mostly seem absurd and nonsensical. I think where I differ from Lewis Carroll, is that the childhood innocence doesn't truly die. There is something we still can gain from finding this place of everything being new, from journeying to wonderland.

In the Spirit of the Divine Feminine

for Mezzo-soprano, alto flute, clarinet, English horn, bassoon, viola, cello, and 2 percussionists
2015

The longer I’ve worked on this piece, the less I’ve felt I understood it. This piece was conceived in dance, contemplating questions of feminine energy and mother energy. In the circles I was dancing, I felt infinite. This was the first time I felt there was something divine inside me. In a way, this piece was written to honor that. 

A year passed after that dance before I began writing a single note, and six months more passed still between the first draft and “final” draft. The problem with writing about spiritual feelings is that you’re always on a journey around them. In my original ideas, I wanted a piece devoted to the Divine Feminine, a piece devoted to the Divine Masculine, and then a piece devoted to the Holy Sacrament of the Sacred In-Between. I knew I would start with feminine, because that’s what I understood the most, and then I planned to write the in-between and then the masculine, once I was ready. So embarked on this journey, writing the notes intuitively.

When I first was getting feedback on this piece, it was with my former piano teacher in her hand-made cabin up in the mountains. I remember distinctly seeing her lying back on the couch, silver hair bathed in blue moonlight as we listened to the first MIDI versions of the piece through ancient speakers. Even through MIDI, she seemed to grasp it without any explanations or dialogue. It wasn’t until I landed back in school the following semester that I was forced to look critically at all my intuitive decisions. All the sudden I found myself facing questions like “Is motherhood inherently feminine?” and “Does Divine Feminine require motherhood?” and the most complicated - “What is the Divine Feminine?” (To which, I - of course - just wanted to sing back “What isn’t the Divine Feminine?”) 

These questions I don’t have answers for, because my fragments of images around these concepts remain just that - fragments, and instead I am left exalted by emotion, enticed by divine mystery, and perplexed by contradictions. It is because of this that I have no academic explanation of this music, and truly I don’t know if an academic explanation of these concepts could ever be crafted. So instead I offer to you a less definitive understanding of the Divine Feminine - a paradox between the finite notion that this music is a photograph of how I felt about it during a single moment in time and the infinite notion that this music deals with precisely that - the infinite.

Oya

for string quartet
2014

So it goes.

for 2 Trumpets
2014

“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?” 
-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

It wasn’t by plan that I wrote a trumpet duet. When asked to write one, I thought it might turn into some obligatory piece that was amorphous and didn’t have any meaning for me once it was finished. Needless to say, it became a lot more than that.

As I was first thinking of the piece, the melody from “Taps” kept trailing through my head, and I was reminded of how odd I felt it was - that a song consisting of only notes from a major triad was played at military funerals. This got me thinking about how I’d picture grief to sound.

“So it goes.” attempts to depict the raw emotion of death rather than a heroic story or commemoration of death. It features different extended techniques for trumpet, asking performers to cry through the trumpet, imitate bombs, and imitate sirens. While the title can be taken in a variety of ways, its original intention was to allude to the endless motif from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which appears, somewhat flippantly, after anyone in the book dies. 

for string quartet
2013



i. a childhood memory
you followed that girl with too many smiles
and too few emotions,
while i followed my sky.

ii. we were negated in youth
somewhere between the growing up,
the growing unwise and too old
or rather -
losing childhood --
we lost each other.

iii. we reach each other as concealed blades
you wore long sleeves
and i didn't own shorts.
we suffered and coped in ways we shouldn't say out loud,
but we hadn't yet learned to read each other's
darkness.

iv. the world unsewn -- you almost died
i found you in the mountains and the wind wouldn't stop -
(i didn't know if i'd find you alive)
the ranger had that posture about him
and you were crying.
i couldn't talk to you then -
you were taken to the hospital and received nine stitches about the artery in your right wrist.
("we'll try to save your kidneys")

v. now and not yet happened
"i want to live i just don't know how"
we walk the tracks at night and share the silence that says everything.
something changed from then to now
and something will keep changing from after to now to after,
but slowly we become
worthy
of our suffering.

unpainted

Charcoal Ink-Blotted

for Bass Clarinet and Marimba
2013

Armando Dances

for Clarinet and piano

2013

Written for Dominique Armando Ramirez. 

I. from Clouds

II. Harlequin

III. Of Mountain and Vines