Last year, when I was still living in Walla Walla and working at Whitman College, I had the fantastic privilege to study composition with the incredible John David Earnest. If you're not familiar with Mr. Earnest, I strongly suggest that you locate and listen to some of his works. Anyway, working with JD (as folks in the Whitman music department call him) pushed me to new heights as a composer. His combination of gentleness and high expectations is the perfect recipe for the growth of his students.
At the end of our time together, I started work on a string quartet, writing only one short movement, called "Shifting Ground." JD, being the kind and supportive teacher that he is, insisted that it be on the program at this year's Fall Composers' Concert at Whitman, even though I'm no longer there. Violin professor Amy Dodds arranged for her top-tier student quartet to play the piece. This Sunday, October 4th, my piece will be performed by some of the finest string players at Whitman. A live-stream of this performance will be available here.
I thought my blog would be a good place to include the program note, which I wrote up the other day to provide some context about the piece:
The original inspiration for "Shifting Ground" was a string piece by Brad Mehldau called "Now You Must Climb Alone." I was drawn to it because, while it is a departure from his usual jazz mode, it is also rich with Mehldau's unique harmonic sensibilities. I love how the piece moves along gradually, developing an idea, and then surprises with a sudden harmonic jump. I set out to imitate it at first, but did not revisit Mehldau's piece, and so my composition took on a different direction. I aimed to pay especial attention to the internal movements of the piece: to treat each voice of the quartet as being just as essential as the rest. This constituted a departure from my usual habit of emphasizing melody. To that end, I wanted to happen upon my harmonies from a horizontal rather than vertical perspective, in keeping with a piece of advice I received from Dr. Sam Jones during his visit to campus last year.
The result of all this, I found, was a piece that was beautiful (if I may say so), but in a chilling way. I had created something deeply unsettling. In thinking of what the piece might be about, climate change came to mind. What could be more unsettling than that? The idea occurred to me to write a piece of several movements that would capture the grief, the horror, and the absurdity of the global climate crisis--but perhaps also the possibility of humanity waking up to the crisis and doing something about it. "Shifting Ground" is more than anything about disorientation, and it lays the (shifting) groundwork for future movements to elaborate on the complex feelings that accompany facing something so daunting. I hope to continue the project.