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

Purchase a PDF of the score & parts, audio & video files for $75 via PayPal:

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.

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”

Purchase a PDF of the score and parts for $5 per copy via PayPal:

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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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.”

Kusanganisa (Flute and Marimba 4-hands)

Flute and Marimba Four-Hands, one movement (2003) ca. 6’30”
Commissioned by Queens Council on the Arts for the ensemble Percussia, Ingrid Gordon, director.

Listen to an excerpt performed by Nicole Camacho, flute, with Chris Bonacorsa and Cesare Papetti, marimba:

Kusanganisa excerpt     

Score and parts available for hard-copy purchase from Steve Weiss Music, or purchase a PDF of the score and parts via PayPal for $9:

Program Note:

Kusanganisa is a Shona word, which describes the idea of ‘mixture’. This piece is an arrangement of a work originally written for Flute, Violin, Cello, Percussion and Mbira, a sort of thumb piano of Zimbabwean origin. I chose the title to reflect the mixture of instruments from different cultures and the mixture of cultural influences I hope you’ll hear in the piece; the mbira passages translated to the upper register of the marimba in the middle of the piece, for example. Kusanganisa was commissioned by the Queens Council for the Arts for Ingrid Gordon and her ensemble, Percussia. I rearranged the piece at the request of three of my (now former) students at Hofstra University.

for the straight way was lost

Viola or Cello with Clarinet or Bass Clarinet or Alto Saxophone, 1 movement, (2002) ca. 8’
Commissioned and premiered by the Darkwood Consort, Boise, Idaho.

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Here’s a video with Uldis Lipskis, clarinet, and Dina Puķite, Cello, from their recent performance with my ensemble at Rigas Jaunais Teatris in Riga, Latvia:

Program Note:

For the straight way was lost was commissioned and premiered by The Darkwood Consort in Boise, Idaho. The title became unintentionally more and more appropriate over time, as the work has undergone multiple revisions and tweakings and experiments. The title comes from a passage in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and I chose it because, first, it includes the name of the ensemble that commissioned it from me, but second, it also seems a good description of how the compositional process sometimes goes; sometimes a piece takes unexpected turns (almost of its own volition) that then must be dealt with:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi retrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

-Dante, from The Divine Comedy

How Do I Love Thee? (High Voice, Clarinet or Violin & Piano)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, text.
High Voice, Clarinet or Violin & Piano. (2000) 4’30”

A co-commission and premiere by The Lark Ascending, Nancy Bogen, director, and the Lyric Arts Trio.

Listen to a performance by Marcelle Duarte (Soprano), Dennis Jospeh (Clarinet) & Lin Lee (Piano):


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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving (High Voice & Piano, opt. Clarinet)

Lord Byron, text.
for High Voice & Piano, with or without Clarinet (1999), ca. 3’30”

Commissioned and premiered by The Lark Ascending, Nancy Bogen, director.

Listen to a performance by Elizabeth Farnum (Soprano) & Peter Vinograde (Piano):


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So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Lord George Gordon Byron, 1788-1824

The Far Field (High Voice, Clarinet & Piano)

Theodore Roethke, text.
High Voice, Clarinet & Piano (1997), ca. 22′
Premiered by Elizabeth Farnum, Dennis Joseph & Charles Tauber at NYU.

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Listen to excerpts from a live performance by Melissa Fogarty (soprano), Chris Cullen (clarinet) and Laura Barger (piano):
I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.

At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,-
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat,
eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.

For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm,
a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched
till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes,-
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean,-
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his
dead tree in the chicken-yard.

-Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland,-
At first a swift rippling between rocks,

Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plain,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes
hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers,-

I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,-
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like a monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree:
The pure serene of memory in one man,-
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

Program Note:

I composed my setting of Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field in 1997, over the course of a month; there was a deadline for a performance that in the end was cancelled at the last minute due to an illness. Writing this piece was emotionally difficult for me. At the time, I had written a string of short chamber pieces, and wanted to tackle something large to shake myself out of the pattern. The large-scale trajectory of Roethke’s text moves from a point of isolation and a fearful contemplation of mortality and decay to a place beyond acceptance of one’s own death, to an embrace of it. The rapidity with which I had to set this monumental, beautiful text meant that I had to live with it intimately for that month, and ultimately take that same journey with the poet. I had trouble with this, and would find myself in a sullen funk for days at a time. In the end I found a place within myself to find the beauty in death that Roethke found, and set it that way. As I write these program notes four years later, I look back on that process and that text and can’t help but regard it as one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, and thank Roethke for it.