Music

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)

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:

pearl_sm.jpg
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:

triton_sm.jpg
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

treetops_sm.jpg
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
and
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down on down.

Love’s Discrete Nonlinearity / Rubythroat:

rubythroat_sm.jpg
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)

burningbush_sm.jpg
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
shot-put,
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

The Whole World Was Listening (SATB a cappella, with Soprano and Tenor soloists, off-stage quartet, more)

Soprano and Tenor soloists, off-stage SATB quartet, SATB choir divisi, a cappella, with or without bass drum and including aleatoric elements (2007) ca. 7’
Carl Sandburg, Text.

Premiered and commissioned by the Manhattan Choral Ensemble, Tom Cunningham, director, as part of their New Music for New York commissioning project.

Purchase a PDF of the score for $1 per copy via PayPal:















Click here to open a PDF sample of the first 10 pages in a new window.

Program notes:

Detecting in the poem three kinds of narratives/emotional/functional states, loosely paralleling a Freudian division, I carved up the musical forces so that

1. the soprano solo (and by extension the solo quartet) is the voice of religion/reason/conscience (super-ego)
2. the tenor solo is the narrator/objective observer (ego)
3. the choir proper represents the impulse toward violence (hence their essential wordlessness and martial stomping) that we somehow never seem to collectively keep in check (id)

Jaws – Carl Sandburg

SEVEN nations stood with their hands on the jaws of death.
It was the first week in August, Nineteen Hundred Fourteen.
I was listening, you were listening, the whole world was listening,
And all of us heard a Voice murmuring:
“I am the way and the light,
He that believeth in me
Shall not perish
But shall have everlasting life.”
Seven nations listening heard the Voice and answered:
“O Hell!”
The jaws of death began clicking and they go on clicking.
“O Hell!”

Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (2008)

I have written a four-movement Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (Weaving Olden Dances), a consortium commission comprised of:

Westchester Chamber Orchestra (NY), Barry Charles Hoffman, Director
Western Piedmont Symphony (NC), John Gordon Ross, Director
San José Chamber Orchestra (CA), Barbara Day Turner, Director
Appalachian State University (NC), James Allen Anderson, Director

It was premiered May 3, 2008 by Barry Hoffman and the Westchester Chamber Orchestra at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. Here are five excerpts from the four movements taken from a live recording of the premiere:

concertoexcerptscg.mp3     

To view/download a PDF of the score that matches the recorded excerpt, click here.

Instrumentation:
2 Flutes
2 Oboes / 2nd dbls EH
2 Clarinets
2 Bassoons
2 Horns in F
2 Trumpets in Bb
1 Percussionist:
Timpani (5); Tambourine; Cajón (or shakers, if unavailable); Susp Cymbal; Bodhrán (or 3 large, closely tuned toms)
Strings

Total duration: ca. 24′
(Mvt. 1: ca. 4’30”; Mvt. 2: ca. 6’30”; Mvt. 3: ca. 7’30”; Mvt. 4: ca. 5’30”)

Program Notes:
Given that composers have defined the term “Concerto” rather fluidly historically, when Barry Hoffman approached me about composing a new Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, I had to decide what it would mean for me. In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. I have long admired that the Baroque Dance Suite represented an internationalist ideal of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time, whose non-variable core included the Allemand (German), the Courante (French or Italian), the Sarabande (Spanish), and the Gigue (English or Irish). Since one of my major musical preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.

To that end, the first movement, after a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan. The second movement is a Pavane, which is a French relative of the Allemande. Traditionally this movement is unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. In place of the Sarabande, I based the next movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions. The final movement is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish Sean Nos and traditional Irish and Appalachian fiddle styles.

There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it’s important to point out that musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it’s simple or not.

Composer Charles Griffin and Conductor Barry Hoffman Discuss the New Concerto for Chamber Orchestra:

Barry HoffmanWhat makes this a Concerto for Orchestra?

Charles Griffin – When you first approached me about the piece, it was your suggestion that I write a Concerto for Chamber Orchestra. Because the request was not for a solo concerto (traditional association with the term “Concerto” is a Romantic one, evoking soloistic virtuosity and the kind of potential for drama that arises from pitting the soloist against the full orchestra), I was forced to consider other, arguably atypical models. I say arguably, because composers’ conception of the Concerto as a form has in fact gradually evolved over the centuries to allow for something much looser in the 21st Century anyway. Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1943, for example, treats the Orchestra itself as the virtuoso instrument, with each section of instruments featured in a soloistic or virtuosic way. The Concerto as a form originates in the Baroque Era, and at that time, composers more often than not conceived of drama in the Concerto not so much by pitting a soloist against the rest of the orchestra, but rather by contrasting smaller groups of instruments against each other.

In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it’s important to point out that musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it’s simple or not.

B.H.Why did you choose the baroque dance suite form?

C.G. – I was on a Bach kick last year. I was listening, reading about and playing through lots of Bach. For me, as with many composers, Bach is a life-long mentor and sustainer, one of the ones to go back to for subconscious composition lessons from time to time. I started every day for about 6 months by playing through some Chorales. During this period I became interested in Bach’s Suites, and the idea of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time. The Baroque Dance Suite by the time of Bach became a semi-standardized multi-movement work whose non-variable core included the Allemand (a stately German dance in 4/4 time), the Courante (a lively French or Italian dance in 3/4), the Sarabande (a slow Spanish dance in 3/4), and the Gigue (a lively English dance in 6/8). There are many variable additions to the Suite, including Overtures, Minuets, Gavottes, etc. While in the traditional suite, all the pieces are related by key, they are not related thematically.

Since one of my major composerly preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.

B.H.In your program notes, you talk about composing the piece, “with a contemporary eye toward the meaning of internationalism today.” Do you feel you accomplished this? If so, how?

C.G. – The original plan was to write a five movement suite, beginning with an Overture. As I was writing, I realized that the piece was getting long. After I’d completed four movements of the planned five, I realized I’d already had approximately 26 minutes of music. You stopped me (for now) from writing a fifth movement, which will eventually be located in the spot between the current 2nd and 3rd movments.

Movement I – Trance Overture. After a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, it quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan. Download a perusal copy of Movement I here.

Movement II – Pavane. The Pavane, along with the Tombeau, is a French relative of the Allemande, which was typically the first proper movement of the Suite. An Allemande is typically in 2/4 or 4/4, unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, most likely of British origin and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. This is the most traditional sounding movement in the piece, with a harmonic and color palate that is a blending of English and French classical styles. Download a perusal copy of Movement II here.

Movement III – Not yet written, but this is where the Courante would occur in the Baroque Dance Suite. I will eventually write something here based on Eastern European traditions.

Movement IV – Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra. This is where the Sarabande, a dance of Spanish origin, would occur in the Suite. I based this movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions. Download a perusal copy of Movement IV (identified as Mvt III in the score) here.

Movement V – Weaving Olden Dances. This is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish traditional music and its American stepchild in Appalachia. Download a perusal copy of Movement V (identified as Mvt IV in the score) here.

Do I feel I accomplished this? Well, it’s an experiment. The Overture movement cannot stand on its own, but the others all can, I believe, which was a secondary or possibly tertiary goal for me. I’ll let others judge how they hang together in sequence. That being said, and to be quite honest, the piece won’t be fully complete for me until that remaining movement is written and placed together with the others. I think the missing movement will help to deepen the sense of stylistic contrast that already exists from movement to movement.

The following reviews are of the San José Chamber Orchestra’s performance of my Weaving Olden Dances: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra that took place at Le Petit Trianon Theater (72 N. 5th Street) in downtown San José, California on Saturday August 29, at 8PM and Sunday August 30, at 7PM.

NEW WORK, OLD DANCES, ELVIRA’S CONCERTO
By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2009
Vol. 12, No. 5
Read the full review here.

The clever idea of a commissioning consortium enables several groups around the country (and not just one) to present a new work om concert. The San José Chamber Orchestra opened its season with the West Coast premiere of New Yorker Charles Griffin’s “Weaving Olden Dances,” part of a merry-go-round taking the dances to four different venues spanning both coasts. It’s a big 31-minute, four-movement work of modern sounds laid over traditional forms—a well-made piece avoiding the expected clichés.

Griffin, 41, enters skillfully into disparate realms. An agitated timpani opening suggests an action movie, giving way to a perpetual-motion ostinato that the composers says was inspired by the gamelan. The Pavane section that follows is lovely, escapist romanticism soaring skyward. The third movement is the most overtly dance-like, with the orchestra parroting the broad strums of the flamenco guitar running through modes as well as the beat of the zapateado dance—a latino tap dance without the tap shoes. The finale, after Irish models, is a joyous noise rushing to a climax. The format idea is derived from the dance suites so prevalent 300 years ago.

There were various solos within this concerto for orchestra, none more notable nor more praiseworthy than on viola (Eleanor Angel) and cello (Lucinda Breed Lenicheck).

Altogether, “Weaving Olden Dances” is an effective work with definite audience appeal. And Music Director Barbara Day Turner led it with high energy, nuance and consistency.

A MODEL OF DIVERSITY: SAN JOSÉ CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OPENER
By Gary Lemco
The Classical Music Guide Online
Read the full review here.

The musical surprise came in the form of Griffin’s four-movement Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, which might be a distant cousin of pieces like Cowell’s Persian Set. A sort of Baroque dance-suite, the music opened with a Trance Overture, in the manner of the gamelan orchestra of Bali, percussive, chiming, clangorous, brash, and declamatory. Long pedal points punctuated the interlocking rhythmic impulses. Some might have thought this music composed by Villa-Lobos. The second movement, Pavane, sounded like a medieval “chest” or “consort” of instruments, utilizing a concertante violin to intone a 13th-century cantus firmus called Novus Miles Sequitur. The third movement, Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra, enjoyed a concertante cello opening. The music became quite syncopated, often touching upon the world of Ginastera‘s Estancia ballet. At its climax, the music became a fugue in flamenco style. The last movement, Weaving Olden Dances, began with a viola that lisped in Irish accents, inviting us to a fierce gigue or reel that incorporates Sean Nos and Appalachian dance elements, allusions to the music for Braveheart and Aaron Copland. Almost every member of the orchestra had a virtuoso, solo run or riff to offer the color of his contribution. Eclectic it was certainly—so even Bartok may have had a hand in it—ending with something like a sea-shanty in Technicolor. But, that it was a successful vehicle for Turner and her SJCO there could be no doubt.

JON NAKAMATSU AND MOZART’S PIANO CONCERTO NO. 21 — A HEAVENLY PAIRING
By Richard Scheinin
San José Mercury News
Read the full review here.

The bulk of the program’s first half was devoted to a new work by Charles B. Griffin, a native New Yorker who lives in Latvia. A nomadic, international sensibility informs his “Weaving Olden Dances: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra,” which draws inspiration from Indonesian, French, flamenco and Irish/Appalachian dance forms.

Commissioned by a consortium of American orchestras (including the San Jose Chamber Orchestra), the work unfolds in four movements.
The first echoes the jig-sawed structure and rhythms of the Balinese gamelan; its highlight is a sinuous and long-lined solo for violin (Cynthia Baehr, here), composed in the manner of Lou Harrison. The second movement, a Pavane, built from a 13th century hymn, is lushly elegiac. The final movements, respectively, draw on flamenco and Celtic melodies — rhythm-charged, but remarkably generic, as if inspired by World Music 101 classes.
Hats off to Day Turner (who has devoted much of her career to performing music of living composers) and the orchestra’s many soloists (i.e. Bruce Foster, such an expressive clarinetist) for giving this piece a shot.

Nightsongs (Clarinet Quintet – Clar. & String Quartet)

Clarinet and String Quartet (2007), One Movement, 11’
Premiered by The Griffin Ensemble at Liepāja Symphony Concert Hall, May 2007.

Nightsongs     

Program Note:

This piece was originally a setting for baritone and string quartet of five short poems by the American poet, Langston Hughes, in one continuous movement. The majority of the piece is based on various transformations of a three-note, bluesy figure. I rearranged and also revised the set in late 2006 in preparation for a five-concert tour in Latvia with my ensemble in May and June 2007. Here are the original poems, in the order of their original appearance:

Night: Four Songs
Night of the two moons
And the seventeen stars,
Night of the day before yesterday
And the day after tomorrow,
Night of the four songs unsung:
Sorrow! Sorrow!
Sorrow! Sorrow!

Border Line
I used to wonder
About living and dying –
I think the difference lies
Between tears and crying.

I used to wonder
About here and there –
I think the distance
Is nowhere.

Drum
Bear in mind
That death is a drum
Beating forever
Till the last worms come
To answer its call,
Till the last stars fall,
Until the last atom
Is no atom at all,
Until time is lost
And there is no air
And space itself
Is nothing nowhere,
Death is a drum
A signal drum,
Calling life
To come!
Come!
Come!

Suicide’s Note
The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

End
There are
No clocks on the wall,
And no time,
No shadows that move
From dawn to dusk
Across the floor.

There is neither light
Nor dark
Outside the door.

There is no door!

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.

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.”

FROM THE FARAWAY NEARBY
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

ltree4handsexcerpt     
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

CityNight4hands     

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

pelvis4handexcerpt     

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

ffn4hands     
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

SAC4hands     
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

Oriental4hands     
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.

Visitations

Visitations (2002) ca. 12′
Solo multi-percussion (Marimba, Vibraphone. Crotales, Cymbal, Tam-tam, Bass Drum)
Commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program
Recorded by Joe Gramley in 2006 (see Discography).

Score and parts available for hard-copy purchase from Steve Weiss Music,
or purchase a PDF of the score and parts via PayPal for $7.50:

Program Note, taken from Gramley’s CD and written by John Beck:

During Gramley’s days with Ethos, the group performed two of CHARLES GRIFFIN’s percussion quartets, one of them a commission (“The Persistence of Past Chemistries”). In 2001, with the aid of a Meet-the-Composer grant from New Music Marimba, Gramley got ready to begin collaborating with Griffin on a solo piece using multi-keyboard composition. Their first brainstorming session, destined to be rescheduled, was set for the morning of September 11 at Gramley’s studio in Manhattan.

Charles Griffin, a native New Yorker whose choral and instrumental works have been performed throughout the U. S. and Europe, remembers how the 9/11 attacks “colored our moods and thoughts” every time he and Gramley met in the months that followed. During an early work session, while improvising with Gramley’s mallets on the marimba, the composer came up with an opening whose “mood reminded [him] a little of Randall Thompson’s choral work Alleluia,” a reverent request for peace written during the Second World War.

Much of what Griffin wrote next would be marked by fragmentation and violence, but he remembers how, around January of 2002, the first snowfall of the season created one of those cityscapes that make New York “beautiful in a way it isn’t at any other time.” Some of the anger about September 11 was beginning to leave him, and the coda to his new composition came back around to the prayerful opening section in a way that may suggest conciliation to a listener.

Visitations would not be fully finished until early 2004, shortly before Gramley recorded it. Griffin explains that when a composer assembles a unique combination of musical instruments for a single percussionist, “it’s as if he’s creating a brand new instrument.” In the complex Visitations, Griffin wrote for three keyboards: concert marimba, vibraphone and crotales—small, chromatic, antique Turkish bells. At the piece’s climax, a bass drum, cymbals and gongs are also heard. Griffin knew he had “this really amazing, just monster, player” in Joe Gramley, but he also knew, during their months of collaboration, that he was pushing the performer toward—and sometimes even beyond—his limits.

Gramley remembers his own approach to the work becoming much more serious and deeply focused in the post-9/11 atmosphere, but he describes the mental and physical challenges with a kind of athletic relish. While pointing out how the keyboards require three different types of mallets (switched by the performer “when either hand has a moment off”), he also catalogs the different sorts of strokes he’s got to keep alternating: “very hard downstroke; quick upstroke; smooth, full downstroke. And don’t forget the pedal in the vibraphone! Visitations is such a balancing act that in order to perform it, I’ve got to take off my shoes. Otherwise I’ll slip off the pedal.” Memorization of Griffin’s music also proved a must: “There is no physical way for me to look at four different performance environments—and sheet music to boot.”

And yet, what pleases Gramley most—the surest indicator of his successful collaboration with Griffin—is how the emotional beauty of the piece never gets lost in the performing tour de force it requires.

Aijā, ŽūŽū (SAB with Soprano solo and piano accompaniment)

SAB with soprano solo and piano accompaniment (2006) ca. 3’30″
Arrangement of two Latvian lullabies.
Premiered July 2006, at the VII International Festival for Young Latvian Musicians, Ogre, Latvia.

Listen to the premiere (put together in two short rehearsals):

01-aija-zuzu.mp3     

Purchase a PDF of the score for $1 per copy via PayPal (Comes with pronunciation guide):















Program note:

This piece interweaves elements from two of the more popular Latvian lullabies, with sparse commentary/doubling in the piano part. The piece was written assuming few male singers. If there are many male voices in your choir, you might want to consider giving the solo line to more than one singer. Use your judgment based on the dynamic balance available of your group.

Text:
Mazi bērni, maza bēda,
Lieli bērni, liela bēda, ā!
Mazi bērni maizi prasa,
Lieli bērni sudrabiņa, ā!
Pasniedz, pelīt, miedziņu caur paceples lodziņu, ā!
Ka kaķītis neredzētu, ka pelīti nenomiegtu, ā!
Aiz kalniņa mēnestiņis, aijā, žūžū, ripu rapu uzripoja, aijā, žūžū.
Mēnestiņis man iedeva, Savu zvaigžņu mētelīti, aijā, žūžū.

Translation:
Little children, little worry,
Big children, great worry, oh!
Little children demand bread,
Big children demand silver, oh!
I can see through a tiny window
The warm little mouse who brings you slumber, oh!
I pray the cat does not see him.
I pray the cat will let him be, oh!
A little moon is rising above the hill, lullaby.
The moon gave me his coat of stars, lullaby.