Emergence (for Flute Quartet, with prerecorded audio and video projection)

for four flutists, prerecorded audio and video projection (2010) ca. 28′

Commissioned by the Latvian Culture Capital Fund for the Riga-based Flute Quartet 4-tune. Premiered at the Ave Sol Concert Hall in Riga, Latvia, on April 7, 2010.

Flutes: Dace Bičkovska, Lolita Oša, Anna Petraškeviča, Daina Treimane
Video Projection: Uģis Brikmanis (Movements 1-3) & Charles Griffin (Movement 4)
Choreography: Sandra Vītola & Māris Pūris
Dancers: Einārs Lazdiņš, Agnese Pūre, Toms Sandors, Sergejs Zeļeskis

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Emergence Program Notes

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

For the past 15 years, my reading of scientific literature has affected my worldview, brought me solace, and sparked my imagination. The job of science, as I see it, has always been twofold: to rationally peer behind the veil of reality and discover what is there, and also to imagine future possibilities. I find it fascinating how fantastical reality can actually be, and that so many connections exist amongst ourselves and with our world once we actually look.

The science of Emergence, which has no direct translation in Latvian, is the study of how complexity emerges from essentially simple component parts.

King Solomon urged us to look to the ants, “consider her ways and be wise; which having no guide, overseer or ruler, provides her meat in the summer and gathers her food in the harvest.” Scientists and businesses now use Ant Colony Optimization algorithms and other Swarm Intelligence methods for problem solving. Bees, birds, fish and locusts follow essentially three simple rules of movement in groups, and it turns out, humans follow the same rules when walking in a crowded urban environment. The first movement is a structured improvisation for the flute quartet where they use swarming rules to create their music.

The human brain, with its modular structure weaved together by roughly 30 billion neurons electrically firing chemicals across synapses in synchronous waves that produce measurable electronic current up to 12 Hz, is the ultimate example of complexity. Understanding our brains is yet another way of understanding our own evolution as a species: at the deepest level is the emotionless reptilian brain stem, controlling our metabolic system and incapable of anything we would call thought; then comes the limbic system, from which comes our primary emotions and which we share with most other mammals, enabling us to form powerful bonds with each other and with them; stacked on top are the two hemispheres of the neocortex, from which we get abstract and analytical thought, language, and of course, art. As Steven Johnson says in his book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, “ The more you learn about the brain, the more you understand how exquisitely crafted it is to record the unique contours of your own life in those unthinkably interconnected neurons and their firing patterns.”
For this movement I sampled a recording of a symphony by the Baroque composer William Boyce, which was used in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study of how the brain organizes segmented events. The flute quartet part is largely based on rhythms borrowed from gamelan music, where multiple players create a complex interlocking structure based on simpler rhythmic units.

Researchers into artificial intelligence are using the human brain as a model of learning. While estimates vary of exactly when a completely new form of life will be created by us, inorganic but self-aware, I have no doubt that it is inevitable. And that will naturally force us to question the nature of existence and sentience, and given enough time, might even become a new pathway for human evolution. You can decide for yourself the moral or ethical implications. For this movement, I sampled/quoted two orchestral pieces: Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, in which the trumpet part asks “The Perennial Question of Existence,” and the Hymn section of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “Veni Creator Spiritus.”

I decided to go a less serious route with the fourth movement, and create a piece that is somewhat spontaneously created by the flute quartet and the audience. I learned how to use Adobe After Effects to create an animated graphic score, where shapes or graphics of four colors, red, blue, green and yellow are each interpreted by a different flutist, and text or symbol cues are given to the audience to shout, sing or speak. After about a minute, an electronic score enters underneath, comprised mostly of prerecorded human speech and sounds.

Ana Cervantes to premiere …Like Water Dashed From Flowers… at the 38th Annual Festival Internacional Cervantino 2010, October 19

Following on the success of her Juan Rulfo project, pianist Ana Cervantes has put together another multi-composer themed commissioning project entitled Song of the Monarch: Women in Mexico. Nearly 20 composers from around the world were commissioned to respond to the theme, which conflates the varied historical roles played by women in Mexican history and the annual autumn migration of Monarch butterflies into Mexico. This new collection of solo piano music includes my …Like Water Dashed From Flowers…, a piece that borrows elements from the folkloric song La Zandunga and Nahuatl poetry. The piece is somewhat demanding and includes aspects of ritual and song, where the pianist is asked at times to recite text, sing, play a rattle, stomp her foot (wearing ankle bells), or utilize other extended techniques, often while playing the piano at the same time.

The world premiere of ten works from Monarch will take place on 19 October in the Festival Internacional Cervantino, at 12:00 noon in the Salón del Consejo Universitario. The remaining nine pieces are by noted composers: Carlos Cruz de Castro (Spain), Jack Fortner (U.S.A.), Tomás Marco(Spain), Alba Potes (Colombia), Marcela Rodríguez (Mexico), Paul Barker (United Kingdom), Pilar Jurado (Spain) and Silvia Berg (Brazil).

Ook Pik Waltz – Arrangement for Violin, Cello and Guitar

An arrangement for Violin, Cello, and Guitar of a fiddle melody by Canadian Frankie Rodgers. (2008) ca. 4″

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Live performance by Uncle Joe members Iveta Dejus, violin, Ursula Jurjana, cello, and Charles Griffin, guitar, live at the University of Liepaja in Liepaja, Latvia. This was part of Akti Nakti, an evening of performances by several groups throughout the city of Liepaja.

Fischiettando – Arrangement for Piccolo, Violin, Cello, and Tambourine (optional)

An arrangement for Piccolo, Violin, Cello, and optional Tambourine of a traditional Sicilian melody. (2008) ca. 1’30”

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Live performance by Uncle Joe members Liene Denisjuka, piccolo, Iveta Dejus, violin, Ursula Jurjana, cello, and Charles Griffin, tambourine, live at the University of Liepaja in Liepaja, Latvia. This was part of Akti Nakti, an evening of performances by several groups throughout the city of Liepaja.

Panta Rei (Saxophone Quartet or Clarinet Quartet)

Saxophone Quartet or Clarinet Quartet (1997, rev. 2007) One movement, ca. 8’
Premiered by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet in Buffalo, New York.

“The other premiere was Charles Griffin’s Panta Rei, a pulsing, fast, free-flowing piece of tight, dense textures and few open spaces, save for an island of rather uneasy repose in the middle.” – The Buffalo News (9/19/99)

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Select Instrumentaion Version

Here’s a video of Quattro Differente, from their recent performance at Rigas Jaunais Teatris in Riga, Latvia:

Program Note:

Panta Rei is a Greek expression attributed to Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived from 536 to 470 BC. The expression is meant to capture the experience of the flow of time. He argued that “One cannot step into the same stream twice, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on;” that everything is constantly changing, from the smallest grain of sand to the stars in the sky. This description is also appropriate for a great deal of music, the art form most dependent on the flow of time and our experience of that flow. I came upon this quote and the idea for this piece after reading James Gleick’s “Chaos: Making a New Science.”

Shifting Coastlines (Medium High Voice and Piano)

Medium High Voice and Piano. (2000/2007) 20’
Texts by Charles Simic; (John Sokol); Ralph Burns; Howard Nemerov; Albert Goldbarth; Ronald Wallace

In 2000, inspired by our mutual love of science, the amazing artist Karen Fitzgerald and I collaborated on a project funded by the Greenwall Foundation and the Queens Community Arts Fund. We chose six poems by living authors that address the human condition through natural and scientific imagery. I composed six songs for the Goliard Ensemble: solo voice, flute, violin, cello, piano and percussion; Karen created six 60” paintings. The work premiered in October, 2000 at the Steinway Reformed Church, Astoria, NYC. These six round paintings were paired back-to-back and suspended above the audience. The project toured six South-East states during the Fall of 2000.

These pieces are very close to my heart, and over the past year, in my spare time, I revisited, revised and re-arranged five of them, paring it all down to a work for voice and piano in the hopes of making them more easily available for wider performance. Stylistically, the songs live in a place where art song, music theater and pop song overlap. Please email me if you are interested in seeing scores. (At some point I may take care of the sixth song, John Sokol’s Thoughts Near the Close of the Millenium, but not right now.)

Drawing the Triangle / Oleander Hawk:

oleanderhawk_sm.jpgDrawing the Triangle — Charles Simic

I reserve the triangle
For the wee hours,
The chigger-sized hours.

I like how it starts out
And never gets there.
I like how it starts out.
In the meantime, the bedroom window
Reflecting the owlish aspect
Of the face and the interior.

One hopes for tangents
Surreptitiously in attendance
Despite the rigors of the absolute.

Stars / Pearl:

Stars — Ralph Burns

I sit and rock my son to sleep. It rains
and rains. Such as we are both asleep,
we swim past the stars,
bad stars of disaster, good stars of the backbone of night.

We know these stars as they are
and as we’d wish them to be, Milky Way,
Dog and Bear, hydrogen and helium, the 92
elements which make all we know of beauty.

We know nothing of angular size or
the inverse square law of the propagation
of light, and swim through a cold, thin
gas, between and among the stars,

which swim likewise between two creations
like children who know sleep intimately.

Figures of Thought / Triton:

Figures of Thought — Howard Nemerov

To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot’s steepening, tightening turn
Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs
Who cannot see to fly straight into death
But have to cast their sidelong glance at it
And come but cranking to the candle’s flame —

How secret that is, and how privileged
One feels to find the same necessity
Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise
Without kinship — that is the beautiful
In Nature as in art, not obvious,
Not inaccessible, but just between.

It may diminish some of our dry delight
To wonder if everything we are and do
Lies subject to some little law like that;
Hidden in nature, but not deeply so.

The Sciences Sing a Lullabye / Treetops

The Sciences Sing a Lullabye — Albert Goldbarth
Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you’re tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.
Geology says: it will be alright. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean. Go to sleep. Let darkness
lap at your sides. Give darkness and inch.
You aren’t alone. All the continents used to be
one body. You aren’t alone. Go to sleep.
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow,
Zoology says: on rainbow-fish and lithe gazelle,
Psychology says: but first it has to be night, so
Biology says: the body-clocks are stopped all over town
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down on down.

Love’s Discrete Nonlinearity / Rubythroat:

Love’s Discrete Nonlinearity — Ronald Wallace, from Chaos Theory

No heart’s desire is repeatable, or,
therefore, predictable. If a few hungry foxes
gorge on a large population of rabbits,
the population of foxes increases
while that of the rabbits declines,
until some point of equilibrium is passed
and the foxes begin to vanish with
the depleted supply of rabbits, and then
the rabbits multiply, like rabbits. And so on.
The ebb and flow of desire and fulfillment
is a story as old as the world. So,
if I loved you, finally, too much, until
you began to disappear, and I followed,
would you theoretically return to love
repeatedly again? There are forces so small
in our story of foxes and rabbits
no Malthus could ever account for them.
Whole species daily disappear, intractable
as weather. Or think of a continent’s
coastlines, their unmeasurable eddies
and whorls: infinite longings inscribed
by finite space and time,
the heart’s intricate branchings.

Thoughts near the Close of the Millennium / Burning Bush (not complete)

Thoughts near the Close of the Millennium — John Sokol

In this expanding universe, everything is leaving everything,
yet there is no center
From which any of this leave-taking leaves; the middle
of every departure
Is everywhere. Microcosmically viewed, it all looks a lot like
the pores of Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks
When he blew his horn. We’re spinning away from the sun
and the stars
While Ceres moves away from Jupiter and Neptune moves
away from Mars.
Everything is leaving its immediate neighborhood, gathering
more and more distance
For itself, like the furthest quasar, that — 18 billion years ago —
said goodbye to Proxima Centauri.
Even Nancy down the street is leaving Charlie and the kids. Like
everything else,
We’re forever blown away by that first Big Bang. We’re stuck
in the atmospheric saddle
Of a slow-motion explosion, like that one at the end of Antonioni’s
Zabriskie Point,
Where that floating olive might be the earth, and if we slow down
the slow-motion (slow it,
Geometrically, down), we can witness that olive decomposing
and watch entropy eat it up
While we consider that all those little anatomizing volcanoes and
Olive-quakes of it
Might be comparable to the shifting and colliding of continents
which have slow-danced
To the music of the spheres for billions of summer nights, crashing
their own weddings
And feasting off each other’s tectonic plates until the next big bash:
all of which is just the drop-of-an-olive
In a martini glass compared to what it would take to understand
what I’m talking about
Is the energy that is the black hole of me that sucked this martini
so dry that no light exists,
And now the pimento of that olive is the pit of my stomach
which seems to have multiplied
In density a thousand-fold, like a pellet of buckshot become
Or maybe, like — at the core of a white dwarf — that teaspoon
of matter that weighs five tons.
So maybe all this wonder and worry — and all this speculation —
is futile, because, here it is,
New Year’s Eve again and I don’t think I need to overstate my point.

Die Freudenkrone: Ehrerbietung zu J.S. Bach (Organ, Timpani, SATB Choir)

Organ, Timpani and SATB Choir (2007) ca. 11’

Commissioned by the City of Liepāja for organist Lotars Džeriņš to premiere at the VI International Organ Music Festival in Liepāja, Latvia.
Premiered September 8, 2007. With Normunds Everts, Timpani and the Chamber Choir Intis, directed by Ilze Valce

Purchase a PDF of the score and parts via PayPal for $50 and make all the necessary copies for your group. You can also email me for sample pages beforehand.:

Program note:

The title of this work translates to The Crown of Joy: Homage to J.S. Bach, and is part of the text from the chorale movement (verse six) of Bach’s Cantata BMV 103. For this piece, I used that chorale melody (with my own harmonization), along with fragments taken from his toccata and fugue in D dorian (BMV 538).

Ich habe dich einen Augenblick,
O liebes Kind, verlassen;
Sieh’ aber, sieh’, mit großem Glück
Und Trost ohn’ alle Maßen
Will ich dir schon die Freudenkrone
Aufsetzen und verehren;
Dein kurzes Leid soll sich in Freude
Und ewig Wohl verkehren.

I have for a moment,
my dear child, left you;
but see, see, with great good fortune
and comfort beyond all measure
I shall on you the crown of joy
place and honour;
Your brief suffering will into joy
and everlasting good be changed.

English Translation by Francis Browne (February 2002), taken from bach-cantatas.com

From the Faraway Nearby (Piano Four-Hands)

Piano Four Hands, Six Movements, (2006) ca. 20’
Premiered by Hugh Sung and Walter Cosand, at Arizona State University, November 2006.

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This suite is inspired by paintings by the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Originally written for two guitars, the suite was recorded by the Goldspiel-Provost Classical Guitar Duo. Since I rearranged the suite in 2006, it has been performed by several duos, in Latvia, England and the U.S. The paintings, audio excerpts (recordings take from the premiere by Hugh Sung and Walter Cosand) and the liner notes from the Guitar Duo CD are interspersed below.

Excerpting from an American Record Guide review (May 2002): “The centerpiece of the recital is From the Faraway Nearby, a six-movement work by New York composer Charles Griffin. Much of the work is obsessively repetitive, with constantly shifting ostinatos creating a backdrop that is at once hypnotic and engaging in its play with expectation and meter. The harmonic language is largely diatonic, though not without some provocative clashes between melodic figure and ostinato ground. The work was written for the Goldspiel-Provost Duo and they have clearly lived with it long enough to give it a solid, sensitive reading.”

These pieces, as the paintings, share a common simplification of form and clarity of line. Some are literal musical depictions of the paintings while others treat the subject more abstractly. We are offering the following descriptions to provide a better understanding of the relation between the music and painting.

Lawrence Tree

The Lawrence Tree (1929) depicts an upward view of a towering ponderosa pine found on D. H. Lawrence’s ranch outside Taos, NM. The perspective here is not unlike that of City Night, and while City Night may be seen as a testament to human yearning, The Lawrence Tree may represent a more powerful, more substantial, more natural or universal yearning. The painting shows angular branches supporting the foliage. Griffin uses an oscillating harmonic figure in one part to support the angular, rising line of the other.

City Night

City Night (1926) is a tranquil painting showing two shadowed slightly converging skyscrapers framing a white one. Next to the white skyscraper a full moon is visible. This tranquil setting is achieved musically through the primo playing the accompaniment in high, rolled chords while the secondo plays a plaintive single-line melody that begins in the baritone register and climbs to meet its accompaniment.

Pelvis IV

Pelvis IV (1944) is from a series of approximately twelve painted between 1943-45. The early pelvis paintings depict the entire bone standing upright in a landscape setting. This painting, on the other hand, focuses on the ovoid opening within the bone through which a blue night sky and full moon are visible. While Oriental Poppies is a celebration of feminine sexual energy, the Pelvis series is largely a poetic statement about feminine sexual power via cycles, birth, and rebirth. In his setting, Griffin uses a variety of techniques to evoke these elements, such as blue notes, percussive effects, rhythmic displacement, and periodicities.

From the Farway Nearby

From the Faraway Nearby (1937) contains a large deer’s skull and antlers superimposed over a mountain and sky background. The strikingly ambiguous relationship between the skull and antlers in the foreground, (Nearby) and the mountain and sky landscape, (Faraway) is further emphasized by the absence of a middle ground. Griffin musically captures this painting by using a mournful cowboy-esque melody (Nearby) in one part and a simple, delicate accompaniment played in (Faraway) in the uppermost register. O’Keeffe often closed her letters with “From the Faraway Nearby, Georgia.”

Sky Above Clouds I

Sky Above Clouds I (1963) The first of seven paintings on the same theme executed between 1962-65, was inspired while flying to New Mexico. The painting is divided into two registers. The lower one depicts the puffy clouds seen from an airplane and the second register the sky above the clouds. Griffin casts the outer sections of the movement in a lower register and uses frequent asymmetries to create a sense of perpetual motion or flight, while an upper-register ostinato in the middle section is used to delineate the “above clouds” register of the painting. The piece ends with a quiet, coda that in effect “takes off” beyond the frame of the painting.

Oriental Poppies

Oriental Poppies (1928) depicts two red poppies viewed from different perspectives. While on one hand they are identical, the perspective focuses the eye to different details of each flower. Griffin uses an ostinato figure to support a melodic line, and dance-like rhythms to capture the vibrant energy of the painting. The players frequently interchange roles but both are always equal. The listener can choose to listen to either part or the whole as the viewer may choose to focus on one flower or the entire painting.