7-15 Players


"First they Came…"

Text: Martin Niemöller

2018/8’

for vocal quartet+string trio

written for the Oregon Bach Festival

soprano, alto, tenor, baritone,
violin, viola, violoncello

Score

"First They Came…", for vocal quartet (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone) and string trio, was written for the 2018 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. I had chosen this iconic poem due to my reaction of the current political state in this country. In 2017 I was living in England at the time, and I was horrified to learn about the Executive Order 13769, titled "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States", often referred to as the “Muslim ban” or the “travel ban,” signed by President Donald Trump on 27 January, 2017. Although this law was revised to a “watered down, politically correct version” from its predecessor, the symbolism in this poem between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America is quite alarming and “speculatively” prophetic. Clearly the ugly insidious mask of fascism is subtly creeping up into America’s homeland: anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and of course, the hatred towards those of the Islamic faith is on the rise, and in some instances, an acceptable form of scapegoat behavior in the United States. When completing this work, by sheer “coincidence” I happen to stumble upon "The Handmaid’s Tale" TV series on Hulu, which is currently based on Margaret Attwood’s 1985 dystopian model. The main protagonist and narrator, Offred the Handmaid, makes the following observation when reflecting of her "old life" as "June" before the great fall of America’s society to the “Republic of Gilead,” which caught my eye upon creating this piece based on Niemöller’s text:

“Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”


Offred’s repeated theme of "not waking up" is strikingly similar to Niemöller’s repeated stance on "not speaking out", and the gradual “heating bathtub” could also resemble the slow purging of the collective groups from his poem. Although Attwood’s vision of a totalitarian theonomic military dictatorship is not so quite far off from the Trump presidency, there are symptoms in our current political climate that are parallel to the Republic of Gilead. It is my hope that my musical approach to Niemöller written in 2018 is a cautionary tale, rather than being a prologue for what could transpire if we are not careful. Moreover, I will close this commentary of my musical rendition to Martin Niemoller’s "First they Came…” by stating a very special historical quote as a dire warning: “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana).

“First they Came…”

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

-Text, Martin Niemölle


the Facts they deserve to know

2010 (2013 Rev)/8’

for chamber ensemble and electronics

written for the DETOUR New Music Ensemble

fl, cl, sax, hn, 2 vln, vla, vlc, cb


Score

the Facts they deserve to know is a setting of selected texts from President John F. Kennedy’s address to the American Newspaper Publishers Association entitled “The President and the Press.”  The press conference took place at the Waldoff-Astoria Hotel in New York City on April 27, 1961.  I have always been intrigued by the late President, both as an iconic role model and a controversial leader of great strength and character.  Many historians, as well as some conspiracy theorists, attest that this speech was the first step in the chain of events leading to the cover-up of his assassination.  Whether I believe that or not, the important thing is for the audience to decide for themselves if JFK’s words have any relevance to our current state of political affairs.

My piece combines live performers with pre-recorded electronics, as well as edited recordings of JFK’s voice.  My goal was to create an atmosphere of irony and illusion.  This composition depicts the triumph and victory of these prophetic words of truth and reason, though at the same time echoing the manipulative forces that trampled on these parables, as the world watched in horror the end of the golden Camelot on November 22, 1963.  The audio file was edited to create many faces of the deception of politicians; not necessarily to place judgment on this man, but rather to question the intent of all political administrations.  Whether or not one believes John F. Kennedy was a successful president, it cannot be denied that his words of truth and responsibility for those in power still hold strong merit.  Unfortunately, “honesty is the best policy” is sometimes only a mask concealing what really lies behind the curtain. For a complete transcript of the speech, click here.

For electronic only version


Construction in Process…

2010/6’30

for small chamber ensemble

written for the DETOUR New Music Ensemble

fl, cl, perc, pno, vln, vla, vlc

“Construction in Process…” is written for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and violoncello. It has a length of 6-7 minutes, and was premiered by the DETOUR New Music Ensemble at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn on January 21, 2011. It was also performed by Signal Ensemble at the 2011 June in Buffalo Festival, conducted by Brad Lubman.

I have always been intrigued by the “process in itself concept” as it pertains to the act of composing.  The “process” of constructing a piece of music is an art in and of itself, rather than the finished product per se.  Before starting this piece, I had recently attended Marina Abramović’s exhibit “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in NY.  Although my piece has no aesthetic relation to her exhibit, I was captivated by the live performance aspect in the making that culminated in her work, which inspired me to write a piece based on that analogy. “Construction in Process…” does not feature any type of live improvisational or ‘aleotoric” techniques that could be linked to this theoretical notion of “art as a process.”  Rather, it is the composition itself that is constructed on small motives that seek to represent this specialized concept.

Ravel’s “Bolero” had come to my mind when starting this piece.  Although it is featured as a composition related to dance movements, a few musicologists have pointed out that Ravel was influenced by the sounds of construction at factories that could be heard from his villa in Montfort-l’Amaury, France.  As daily construction looms around my apartment in Harlem, I had put these two notions together, observing the beauty in the process of a composed work, rather than the completed masterpiece.

“Construction in Process…” has a hint of a sonata-allegro form.  However, it is very subtle, as the small motives and light fragmented themes repetitively colliding and building upon each other become the dominant force of the piece. It was composed in the months of May and June of 2010 in New York City. This piece and performance will be dedicated to the memory of John Jennings, my best friend of 20 years who helped construct certain aspects of my life


Cityscape

2005/6.3’

for chamber ensemble

written for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music New Music Ensemble

fl, ob, 2 cl, hn, trpt, trb, 2 perc,
pf, 2 vln, vla, vlc, cb

Score

Cityscape depicts the miraculous invention of the urban community, i.e. city. When writing this piece I indeed had New York City in my mind, as the Big Apple represents the giant metropolis of the American culture. What is fascinating of the modern birth of the urban revolution is that worlds within worlds solely exist in just one city. More than just communities, a culture juxtaposed against another is a reality in a compact environment such as New York. I tried to paint the everyday life of Manhattan, such as Wall Street, Central Park, Harlem, and Greenwich Village; all separated a few blocks away, yet worlds apart. Once a musical trademark of the Big Apple, derivative jazz motives and jazz-like progressions in Cityscape are intertwined with the main sections of the piece. At times it is the foreground, then becomes an echo of a middleground to depict the contrast worlds of, for example, Harlem versus Times Square.

The beginning opens with an introduction of mysterious string clusters with a foreshadowing pitch bend against the short Jazz motive. The clusters pick up and disintegrate into a fast pulsing section of minimalist texture that represents the fervor of the New York corporate bustle. The section then blends into a mysterious dissonant polychord, while the jazz textures creep in as an echo. The next section, or one can say the next “world” in Cityscape depicts the tranquil nocturnal life of the Upper West Side. One can correlate the idea of Charles Ives “Central Park in the Dark” in this section. However, there is no musical reference whatsoever. The pitch bends in the woodwinds against the string harmonics with the resonating jazz textures represent the illusion of time and how the market beast of New York is a disillusion in itself. When writing the pitch bends I had thought of Salvador Dali’s famous painting “The Perception of Memory” to represent the limitation of our existence with the boundary of time that New York is sadly known for. The section fades into an anticipated build up of individualized rhythmic motives as the opening chromatic clusters blends with the repeated woodwind motives before a complete climax of the whole ensemble; the jazz tune soars out in the foreground before the final release. In addition, the derivative progression in the piano overlaps in the next section, resembling a broken record that is just a distant memory of the golden age of New York culture that once existed from the roaring twenties up to the late 50’s.

It is a new day, or a new beginning in Cityscape as the next section depicts an innocent quality of sunrise and fresh air as new motives and ideas throughout the ensemble spring about against a static chord while the jazz tune slowly repeats itself. Another climax takes place that paints an eternal bliss, yet comes to a complete halt with the jazz tune again in the foreground. The piece concludes as the perception of time is brought about by a chromatic cluster chord in the background as a repeating piano motive with the jazz tune interlocked with a distant bell fades out. Finally, the string clusters from the introduction make its last appearance to achieve the journey that Cityscape so desperately tries to capture.