The Persistence of Past Chemistries (Percussion Quartet)

Percussion Quartet (1998) ca. 9+’
Scored for Marimba, Xylophone, Cajon, and various standard mixed percussion (all wood).
Commissioned by Ethos Percussion Group under the auspices of the Jerome Foundation.
Premiered at Weill Recital Hall. Recorded by them in 1999 (see Discography).

Performed by Ethos Percussion Group

Ethos performed this work extensively in the U.S., including at Weill Recital Hall in New York at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Subsequent notable performances include PASIC 2003 by the NIU Percussion Quartet and PASIC 2004 by Ethos. It has been performed at several universities too: Rice, UNT, and Northwestern, among others. It has recently come into the repertoire of Exit 9 Percussion (New Jersey) and Tambuco (Mexico).Here is Ethos playing the last five minutes of the piece live at Symphony Space in New York City.

Program Note:

One of the ways that Professor Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachussets defines life in her book What is Life?, is as “patterns of chemical conservation in a universe tending toward heat loss and disintegration. . . . Death is part of life because even dying matter, once it reproduces, rescues complex chemical systems and budding dissipative structures from thermodynamic equilibrium. . . . Preserving the past, making a difference between past and present, life binds time, expanding complexity and creating new problems for itself.”I hit upon the title for this piece after I had already decided to restrict the sonic palette exclusively to instruments made of wood, a way to acknowledge this uniquely human reconstitution of organic matter. Not only do the instruments give the trees from which they came new life, but the musicians also bring new life to their instruments. Furthermore, my music tends to be the sum of sometimes disparate parts that take on new life through their integration; jazz, latino, and minimalist music all coexist in The Persistence of Past Chemistries.  

From the Faraway Nearby (Two Guitars)

Two Guitars, Six Movements, (1998) ca. 20’
Premiered by the Goldspiel-Provost Classical Guitar Duo, at Weill Recital Hall.

Recorded by them in 2001 (see Discography).
This suite is inspired by paintings by the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. The paintings, audio aexcerpts and the liner notes from the 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.

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 (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 first guitar playing the accompaniment in harmonics while the second guitar plays a plaintive single-line melody that begins in the baritone register of the guitar and climbs to meet its accompaniment, ending with harmonics in both parts.

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 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 an accompaniment played in harmonics (Faraway) in the other. O’Keeffe often closed her letters with “From the Faraway Nearby, Georgia.”

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 (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.

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.

Listen to 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.

Arguments & Agreements (Brass Quintet)

Brass Quintet (Two Trumpets, French Horn, Trombone, Tuba) (1996, rev. 2006), Three Movements, ca. 10’
Premiered by The St. Anthony Brass Quintet at the University of Minnesota, 1996.
Listen to excerpts from a live performance by the St. Anthony Brass Quintet (Movement I, middle to the end; Movement III, retransition to recapitualtion to the end):

Arguments and Agreements - Excerpts

Program Note:

The piece was originally scored for Brass Quintet with Bass Trombone instead of Tuba, written for Ron Larson, a bass trombonist and student of mine at the University of Minnesota. Ten years later, I rearranged it for the traditional brass quintet formulation (two Trumpets, French Horn, Trombone and Tuba) and wrote a new, chorale-style second movement. Below the surface I was interested in exploring the dynamics of argument as it relates to the unique dynamic of being in a chamber ensemble — the kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle negotiations that take place between musicians that are working together so intimately and so intensely. For example, in the first movement, the French Horn’s role is to set the tone for the movement at the beginning and to insist on restoring a kind of uneasy order at the end of it, an isolated appeal to reason in response to the other four members taking angrier and angrier detours that result in a kind of shouting match.

Fall, Leaves, Fall (SATB divisi a cappella)

SATB divisi, a cappella (1996) ca. 3’
Emily Brontë, Text.
Premiered by San Francisco Choral Artists, Magen Solomon, director.

Listen to a performance by the Freeport High School Select Chorale, Stephen Pagano, Director


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

Click on the picture to open a PDF sample:
Fall Leaves Fall Page 1 Click to open a PDF

Fall, leaves, fall; die flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Program Note:

In my setting of Brontë’s poem, I tried to musically linger on the image of a falling leaf through the use of suspensions and lazy, chromatic, interweaving vocal lines. As with leaves, the motion is primarily one of descent, but an occasional updraft lifts the vocal lines too. In most cases, by the time the suspended line resolves, the chord around it has changed, forcing the line to continue.

Vernacular Dances (Piano Solo)

Solo Piano (1996) Three Movements. ca. 12’30”

Premiered by Perry Townsend at Steinway Hall. Of the premiere, the reviewer for the New Music Connoisseur (Vol. 5, No. 4, 1997) wrote: “Starting off the program was Griffin’s Vernacular Dances, which plays off popular styles (Latin rhythms, blues, jazz) in a very serious way. This muscular work, expertly played by pianist Perry Townsend, was the strongest of the concert.”

Recorded by Teresa McCollough (for Innova) and Tomoko Deguchi (for Capstone). See Discography.

Watch pianist and visual artist Hugh Sung’s intrepretation of the first movement, filmed at Field Concert Hall, The Curtis Institute of Music:

Listen to Teresa McCollough perform the second movement:


Listen to Perry Townsend perform the third movement:


Program Note:

A composer can only express their perception of the world through the filter of their own experience, and since my earliest musical experiences revolved around singing and drumming, I often incorporate in my writing elements of popular and/or world music that are most compelling to me, within the context of continuing a concert music tradition. Written in February 1996, Vernacular Dances is a three-movement work that comes from this impulse. The first movement blends jazz and latinesque motor rhythms with melodic material loosely derived from Webern’s Variations for Piano, Op. 27, Mvt. 2. The second movement is gentle and arioso, orchestrally conceived. The third contrasts blues rhythms with some I picked up listening to Latin Jazz. The piece was premiered by Perry Townsend at Steinway Hall in new York, and has been recorded by Tomoko Deguchi for Capstone Records and by Teresa McCollough for Innova Records.

The Vampire Chronicles (Orchestra)

The Vampire Chronicles (1995) Four Movements. ca. 24’
Orchestra. (See below for specific instrumentation.)

Received performance prize of premiere by the University of Minnesota Orchestra, Keith Clark, director.

Listen to excerpts from the premiere:

Movement I:


Movement II:

Movement III, opening:

Movement IV, middle:

Program Note:

The Vampire Chronicles (1995)
I. Interview: Allegro frenetico; Adagio; Allegro Moderato
II. Predator: Allegro; Tranquillo; Moderato; Agitato; Hymn-like; Allegro
III. Bloodlines: Adagio con moto
IV. Theft: Presto; Furioso; Feroce; Tranquillo; Furioso

The Vampire Chronicles for piano and orchestra was written in 1994-95 as my thesis piece at the University of Minnesota. Inspired by the first four novels in a series by Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned, and The Tale of the Body Thief), it is roughly 24 minutes long, in four movements. A quasi-mini-opera without words, I attempted to reduce the novels to their dramatic essence, and find musical analogues for the drama — to have the music represent my reading of the narrative trajectories and interactions of the prinicpal characters in the novels, providing each character with their own harmonic or instrumental color and melodic/motivic profiles. These novels seemed inherently musical to me. Indeed, a violinist is an important character in the second novel, and the main protagonist/antogonist (he’s a little of both) poses as a rock star in The Queen of the Damned. Anne Rice’s vampires are colorful, powerful creations, but the forces that drive them raise issues that concern us all: the after-life, temptation, our history, our sexuality, and societal progress, among others. It is my hope however, that one need not be acquainted with the novels in order to appreciate the piece.

Specific Instrumentation:
2 Flutes (II doubles on Piccolo, Alto Flute)
2 Oboes (II doubles on English Horn)
2 Bb Clarinets (II doubles on Bass Clarinet)
2 Bassoons (II doubles on Contrabassoon)

4 French Horns in F
2 Bb Trumpets
2 Tenor Trombones
1 Bass Trombone

4 Percussion: Xylophone, Glockenspiel, Bass Drum, Snare Drum,
Suspended Cymbal, Tam-Tam, Tambourine, Hi-Hat,
Chimes, Shaker, Triangle, 2 Congas, Claves, Steel Drum
3 Tom-Toms, Crash Cymbal, Vibraphone, Marimba,

1 Harp
1 Piano (doubles on Celesta)

Violin I
Violin II

Agnus Dei (SSAA a cappella)

SSAA a cappella (1995) 3’30″
Text in Latin.
Premiered and recorded by the Piedmont Choirs, Bob Geary, Director.
Also recorded by the Peninsula Women’s Chorus, Martin Benvenuto, Director.
(See Discography.)

Listen to the recording by the Peninsula Women’s Chorus:

      Agnus Dei, with the Peninsula Women's Chorus

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

Program note:

Based upon John the Baptist’s reference in John 1:29 to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the text in Latin is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.


Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Evoking plainsong through use of the dorian mode and using layered but constantly evolving ostinati, the Agnus Dei creates a mood of gentle but increasingly insistent supplication.

Fist Through Traffic

Alto Saxophone and Percussion Ensemble
(1+8 players) 3 Movements, (1993) ca. 8′
Full instrumentation: Eb Alto Saxophone, Vibraphone, Marimba, Chimes, Timpani, Congas (2 or 3), Timbales (2), Tom (2), Bass Drum, Sand Blocks, Claves, Triangle, Cowbell (more cowbell!!), Tambourine, Suspended Cymbal, Hi-Hat, Brake Drums (2), Whistle
Premiered by the University of Minnesota Percussion Ensemble, Fernando Meza, director, with Richard Dirlam, Saxophone.

Listen to a performance of the 2nd movement, with Anthony Canestro and the Queens College Percussion Ensemble:

Industry - 2nd. Mvt. of Fist Through Traffic     

Score and parts available for hard-copy purchase from Steve Weiss Music, or purchase a PDF of the score and parts via PayPal for $25.

Subsequent notable performances include: Queens College Percussion Ensemble, Michael Lipsey, Director, with Anthony Canestro; Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble, Paul Vaillancourt, Director, with Amy Griffiths; North Carolina School of the Arts Percussion Ensemble, John Beck, Director, with Taimur Sullivan; and Interlochen Percussion Ensemble, Kim Burja, Director, with Timothy McCallister. Recorded in 2012 by Saxophonist Amy Griffiths and the Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble. The Audio CD is also available here.

Program Note:

A composer can only really express their perception of the world through the filter of their own experience, and since my earliest musical experiences revolved around singing and drumming, I often incorporate in my writing elements of popular and/or world music that are most compelling to me, within the context of continuing a concert music tradition. Written in 1993 while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Fist Through Traffic is a three-movement work that comes from this impulse.
The title of the work comes from a line from a Paul Simon song as an homage (I was listening to his Rhythm of the Saints album quite a lot at that time) and to reflect my sympathy for his approach to songwriting, which in the long run has also been about integrating diverse elements from outside his native experience or from outside the expectations of the genre into his personal style.

Three Miniatures (Wind Quintet)

Wind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, French Horn, Bassoon), 3 Movements (1993) ca. 8′

Purchase the score and parts via Paypal for $10:

Download a perusal PDF of the score in a new window by clicking here.

Program Note:

Inspired by the poetry of Juan Ramon Jiménez, this piece was premiered by the North Woods Wind Quintet at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. It has subsequently been performed by the Emerald Winds (as part of an Encore Grant from the American Composers Forum), Imani Winds (usually as part of their music in the schools outreach programs) and Quintet of the Americas.