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About this Piece

Composed: 2013
Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd & 4th = piccolo, 3rd = alto flute), 4 oboes (all = English horn), 4 clarinets ( 3rd & 4th = bass clarinet, 4th = contrabass clarinet), 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (1st = piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo, brake drum, cowbell, crotales, glockenspiel, gong, guiros, hard plastic, kick drum, kitchen knives, metal block, “monster” hi-hat, “nasty” cymbal, ratchet, sandpaper blocks, snare drums, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, Thai gongs, tom toms, triangle, tubular bells, vibraphones, washboards, wood blocks, xylophone), harp, piano, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)

Stem is a constellation of movements. Each gazes from a different angle at the network of relationships (real and made up, historical and spontaneous) between music, education, and violence. We live at or around the intersection of these forces, where teenagers kill one another, where kids die soon.

- (v.) To arise or originate.

The form of the piece is a multiple choice problem. (From the Wikipedia entry on Multiple Choice: “The stem is the beginning part of the item that presents the problem to be solved. The options are the possible answers that the examiner can choose from, with the correct answer called the key and incorrect answers called distractors.”)

While educational testing takes place in countries around the world, the multiple choice test is uniquely American. It is both the most economical and most limited form of standardized test. Ambiguity is a contaminant. The multiple choice test allows no space for partial knowledge. It is a sanctuary to the objective.

- (n.) The main part of a word to which affixes are added.

a.) Turn back the clock starts the piece as it will end. It is made of the same music as the final measures of the piece, but slowed down enough to linger or even freeze on individual moments. This is inspired by the idea of returning to the scene of a traumatic event, replaying it over and over in your memory, dismembering each moment as if you could find and remove the one that made the crucial difference.

b.) Fugue state is made from tiny samples of the Fugue from Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, cut out from their original context and reordered into a new piece. The musical traits that traditionally define a ‘fugue’ – including the ordered sequence of subjects and countersubjects in imitative counterpoint, presented so clearly and educationally by Britten – are no longer audible. Instead, other qualities of the material are emphasized (including the texture, if not the functional logic, of his counterpoint).

- (n.) In musical notation, the vertical line extending from the notehead (indicating pitch) to the flag (indicating rhythm).

c.) Shadow of Billy the Kid is a poetic autopsy of a violent child. The music comes from shards of a pretty chorale, each run backwards and forwards, as if dissected for examination.

d.) The Kid’s kids scrawls on the score of the final scene of Aaron Copland’s 1938 ballet Billy the Kid. The iconic/heroic/melancholic French horn “open prairie” theme is left as the centerpiece, while other elements of Copland’s score reverberate as distant echoes or rot entirely. This movement imagines a legacy left for future generations by the famous outlaw and by music that romanticizes vigilantism.

e.) Shadow of Gwendolyn Brooks is a filtered, microscopic view of Brooks’ poem, We Real Cool. The poet’s own reading is the source material: the rhythm is preserved exactly, but only the very lowest and very highest audible pitches are extracted and amplified. It is a close-up on the fringes of sound, or the fleeting atmosphere in the room. It is a futile attempt to contain something that cannot be captured, and a tribute to the voice that vividly portrayed seven kids that die soon.

- (n.) The main line of descent of a family.

f.) Distractor superimposes noisy transcriptions drawn from contemporary electronic music with samples from Morton Feldman’s 1986 orchestral work Coptic Light. Like many of Feldman’s works, Coptic Light obscures an audible pulse and maintains an extremely soft dynamic (ppp) throughout. Here, Feldman samples are heard in their original orchestration, at different rates of speed, atop a blunt beat.

g.) All retch and no vomit returns to the same pretty chorale we’ve heard before, lifted from an older piece of music where it once occupied a structurally important and emotionally powerful position. At first this source material is completely frozen and we only hear it in shards. Gradually it thaws, becomes richer, and nearly regains its original form before liquefying completely and slipping away like water. While this process is heard in the strings, the rest of the orchestra plays a series of chords reiterated from earlier movements: moments of Britten and Copland haphazardly layered on top of each other and violently struck in a repeated pattern.

Meaning is only ever produced by friction between things. It is the space between stars in a constellation, the adjacency of tiles in a mosaic, the ambiguity of simultaneous correct answers.

- (v.) To restrain or stop.

— Ted Hearne