Morceau pour Sill is a concerto for solo bassoon and septet: clarinet, horn, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It takes its name from its first soloist, Brendon Sill—fantastic musician and friend. Through countless meetings scattered across months I sought Brendon’s guidance for how to best write for the bassoon. We tested out contrasting musical ideas, experimented with playing techniques, and determined together where improvements were necessary. A few times I wrote something nearly impossible, but Brendon could always play it! I am forever grateful for his willingness to try new things and fearlessness of challenge.
The opening movement, Zigzags in Watercolor Harmonies, is based on a lyrical melody that first appears in the bassoon. It is long and winding with large leaps and inward spirals that create a sense of yearning. Alongside the bassoon melody is an ethereal sustain by the septet, an ever-changing chord of blurred harmonies. From the septet, instruments emerge with their own variations on the melody, engaging with the bassoon as secondary soloists. Everything builds towards an expansive climax, but then collapses into agitation. Like a rogue snake charmer, the bassoon twists and tangles the melody, distorting it into unpredictable, theatrical gestures. The septet joins with biting interjections that grow into fiery counterpoint. At its peak, the music transforms into the earlier anticipated climax, complete with soaring melodic lines and rich harmonies. As things settle and relax, the melody is last played in its entirety by a solo horn, the rest of the ensemble gradually disappearing into air and silence.
The shortest of the three movements, ROAR! is an extensive cadenza for the bassoon. The music is rough and visceral, the bassoon snarling in its lowest register and performing wild acrobatics. With ominous drones and dissonant outbursts, the septet responds to the bassoon, marking an ensemble dialogue of conflict: bassoon versus septet. The heated dynamic between the two sides takes its inspiration from a mafia-type board game of secret identities. Eventually, the conflict turns to an aggressive sprint that leads directly to the finale of the work.
Fireworks, Fanfares, and Shenanigans could be described as a certified smorgasbord, incorporating jazz, Mario Kart, Stravinsky, and more! It begins bright and explosive with virtuosic solos for the clarinet, trumpet, and cello. Not to be outdone, the bassoon enters and begins a conversational duo with the double bass. In this movement, all the instruments become equal protagonists, playing together in a variety of duets, trios, and quartets. In these groupings, the bassoon functions like the host of a party, checking in and conversing with each guest. At this musical gathering there are rambunctious dances, groovy musings, celebratory flourishes, and cameo appearances of earlier melodies and motifs. Jam-packed with nearly everything but the kitchen sink, Fireworks, Fanfares, and Shenanigans provides a rousing, kaleidoscopic close to Morceau pour Sill.
Working at the Aurora School of Music (ASM) has provided me with many learning opportunities, namely the chance to familiarize myself with beginning and intermediate piano literature. In this genre the work and collections of James Bastien have remained a staple since their initial printing in the 1960s. His anthology Easy Piano Classics is frequently purchased at ASM and is nicknamed “The Spiral Book” for its distinctive binding. Spiral Suite was born as a twenty-first century supplement to this curriculum, much needed since the book's contemporary section still lists Dimitri Kabalevsky as a living composer! (He died in 1987.)
In this suite I have sought to encompass a wide range of emotions. The opening movement, Castles in the Sky, creates a magical, enchanted atmosphere using accentuated bell-like sounds that blur together, resulting in a shimmering resonance. Rainy Day is the most somber of the movements but contains glimpses of optimism and hope through gentle melodies floating above a rocking accompaniment. In contrast, Groovy Dance Party is vibrant and sassy with upbeat, energetic rhythms. In a Dream closes the suite and uses contrasting modalities and drones to illustrate a mysterious but ethereal soundscape. I hope this work becomes a joy for pianists of any age!
Spiral Suite was commissioned by the Aurora School of Music (Aurora, OH) and was first performed on May 15, 2021.
When I'm not creating music, I can always be found creating something else! I was super drawn to Legos as a child, and now I've rediscovered them as an adult. As part of this fun hobby I built a kinetic sculpture, DUET, in celebration of the Aurora School of Music’s spring recital series. This sculpture features a pianist and violinist playing together. The pianist’s arms move up and down the violinist rotates in place.
The pianist is the most dynamic part of the sculpture and was the most difficult to build! It takes a few simple machines to get it up and running. Inside the sculpture are two weights that rise and fall, each is responsible for the motion of a different hand. The weights are lifted by prongs sticking out of two small wheels. As the wheels rotate, they cause the weights to rise. Once a prong moves past the weight — because of the wheel’s rotation — the weight drops down. Thanks gravity!
Each weight is attached to a loop of string (courtesy of some Christmas ornaments). When a weight drops, this causes its loop of string to yank down on a lever inside the piano. When this lever is yanked down, a piano key quickly flips up, causing one of the pianist’s arms to bounce in the air. In this sculpture the piano plays the pianist!
The violinist sits on top of a big gear that can spin freely. Its back-and-forth rotation is caused by the movement of a grooved Lego piece—one with teeth that fit the side of the gear. The grooved piece itself moves forward and back because it is attached to a rod being cranked by a small gear.
Lastly, the speed of the sculpture is controlled by an early-2000s era LEGO train controller. Ta-da!
When I'm not creating music, I can always be found creating something else! I was super drawn to Legos as a child, and now, I've rediscovered them as an adult. As part of this fun hobby, I built a little model of the Aurora School of Music as a Christmas surprise! Special highlights include two itty-bitty grand pianos (with adjustable lids and shiny strings!), wooden stage, concert hall balcony, practice rooms, waiting area, faculty lounge (with adjustable fridge door!), and the outdoor garden arrangement of white hydrangeas. In all, this project took 40 hours and was totally worth it!
My friend Elanor Lee (cello) and I are halfway through our collaboration! We're super EXCITED by how well it has been going. After a lot of brainstorming, we decided to write a set of six little pieces for cello that don't use the bow. It's 2021, and everyone has explored the infinite library of techniques using the bow. Why not explore what's possible without it? There's a whole world of techniques associated with pizzicato playing, and Eleanor is super dedicated to mastering all the possibilities! She is the perfect musician to help me compose this piece!
Below are some excerpts of the second and
third movements with brief commentary.
The second movement began life as a Sarabande, but never found itself in the proper meter (3/4) for that dance. Instead, it's a quiet, melancholy meditation for the cello. With no bow to use, Eleanor does an amazing job using all of her pizzicato playing techniques to turn the cello into a harp! This movement alternates between slow arpeggios (rolled chords) and lyrical recitative-like passages.
In the third movement, the cellist will use a rat tail comb in place of a bow! Eleanor and I actually discovered this technique somewhat on accident. At first, I was planning on having her use dowel sticks to play this movement. To try this out in a Zoom session, we used a comb to substitute for the dowel (We hadn't bought a dowel yet.) However, we realized that the comb was WAY MORE AWESOME! Because of the difference sides of the comb (teeth, handle, etc.) there's so many playing techniques possible. We ended up using arcomb to create a kind of drumming on the strings and comb bows drawing the comb of the teeth across the strings; it creates a school scratchy punctuation!
An incredible piece I recommend to everyone for listening!
Truly amazing music by an amazing human being.
After a months on hiatus in the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself more ready to composer than ever. I’ve been very fortunate to work on several engraving and arranging projects during all this craziness, but now it’s time to get back to my own music!
I will be working on a series of modern cello miniatures (think bite-size music) in collaboration with cellist Eleanor Lee. Our goal is to explore all the sound possibilities of the cello by using alternative playing techniques (e.g. using a wooden dowel instead of a bow) in variety of combinations with established techniques for the instrument. Just how far can we push the boundaries? Stay tuned!
We hope these little pieces will prove to be of great interest to cellist, composers, and our fellow audience members! What good is a piece of music, without it’s listeners?
Today's composing inspiration brought to you by Cleveland's Wade Park under fresh snowfall. Not pictured: church bells ringing
Current state of the living room...
A new concerto for bassoonist Brendon Sill.
(Probably good I have no roommates!)