Elliott Grabill

composer | songwriter | teacher

Author: elli9045 (page 1 of 3)

Mountain Piques

Mountain Piques was written for the Pique Collective, a Baltimore-based new music ensemble.  Split into four movements, this work uses electronics to create four nature-inspired scenes.  It was performed in October 2018 at the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre, who created and choreographed visuals to accompany the piece.

This piece uses SuperCollider to produce the electronic part.  A member of the quartet operates a laptop which activates prerecorded audio samples.  They use their laptop keyboard trackpad to change the pitch and volume of the samples.  This allowing them to, like an acoustic instrument, interact with ensemble and interpret it a little differently for each performance.  Graphic notation describes how the electronic musician should perform on the laptop.

Graphic notation

Two melodies played in counterpoint by a performer moving a computer cursor in different directions



Screen Shot 2019-01-31 at 2.56.45 PMThe ensemble writing is intricate and tightly woven, and takes a neoclassical approach to form.  I tried to give equal importance to rhythm, melody, sound, harmony, and gesture.  Though many parts sound tonal, the work was too chromatic for me to set to a specific key.  Much of the piece’s complexity is derived from heavy ornamentation.  The most rhythmic movement, Bursting at the Brim, features a twelve-tone polyrhythm juxtaposed with a tonal theme played by the guitar.


The piece’s entirety can be listened to here:




Songs of the Working Poor

My Biggest Mistake

“My Biggest Mistake,” for soprano

This song cycle is part of a larger set of songs that address issues of working poor. Although the US remains the richest country in the world, over 43 million Americans live in poverty, and over 100 million live in “near poverty.”  While unemployment is low, most jobs for the working poor do not provide the proper health insurance, and Americans often have to take up more than one job to make ends meet. Both cities and rural areas have been ravaged by the departure of industry, and 2017 saw a peak in opioid overdose deaths.  The United States also has the largest prison population in the world, more than Russia or China.

I wrote the lyrics, many of which were inspired by personal life experiences from my career as a math teacher.   I’ve taught in a male prison, as well as K-12 schools in Baltimore City, New York City, and Virginia.  For a decade I learned stories of children from underprivileged families.  My own childhood experiences of being poor also influences my lyrics.

Songs of the Working Poor borrows ideas from a number of musical genres to give these sinister texts an ironic flavor.  Although many of the songs sound North American, I’ve also incorporated sounds of Caribbean music, European music, and classical music.  Given the rise of political and economic instability across the world, I wanted to make the music eclectic.  I have completed six songs so far, three for soprano, and three for tenor.

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 5.33.51 PM

“Wabash,” for soprano

The songs for female voice are orchestrated for large ensemble: piano, flute, trombone, drum set, violin, double bass, and in one of the songs, steel pan.  The songs are influenced by cabaret, swing jazz, folk music, and Caribbean music. The first song, “My Biggest Mistake,” is based on a conversation with a Baltimore mother had to work so hard to provide her son with the basic necessities that she regretted even having a him. The second song, “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” hits straight at America’s present opioid epidemic. It notes some of the causes: doctors overprescribing medicine, depression, alcoholism, isolation, bleak winters, and the decay of cities and towns. A third song, “Wabash,” mourns the death of a loved one while portraying American landscapes. Themes in Wabash are reminiscent of both “Oh Shenandoah.”

"The Food Chain," for tenor

“The Food Chain,” for tenor

The second set, for tenor, piano, and double bass, addresses mass incarceration.  “Anger” explores the toxicity of rage, and how it inhibits judgement.  “The Food Chain” compares animal behavior to human behavior: in prison, you learn lessons such as playing dead, going for the low hanging fruit, and relying on group loyalty.  The final song, “Three Cents an Hour,” is sung by a prison inmate whose relationship with his daughter has deteriorated.  It alludes to an ever growing practice of slave labor in the US: the only way the inmate is allowed to talk to his daughter is by working for an entire month at three cents an hour.  “Three Cents an Hour” and “Anger” are both completely tonal, but “The Food Chain” is written in a twelve-tone style.

I hope to write up to twenty Songs of the Working Poor, including some for alto, mezzo soprano, and bass.  I’m happy to transpose or make small revisions to the songs (both the vocal parts and the instrumental forces) to accommodate a more successful performance.  These songs can be performed individually, or as a set.  If you’d like to view the score, or listen to a MIDI realization, please feel free to reach out to me at thetruebadour@gmail.com.

Written on the Train

I feel a certain closeness to the music when I’m putting pencil to paper.  I carry around my sketches wherever I go, and use highlighters and colored pencils to cross out passages I don’t like and write new ones over it.

When I witnessed composers like Michael Hersch and Kirk Nurock present performers with handwritten scores, I also noticed a collaborative rapport.  It was almost like they were delivering something very personalized to a good friend.

Normally I use Finale to engrave my final product– especially if I don’t know the musicians’ preferences.  But once in a while I’ll find a musician like Peter Sheppard-Skaerved, who embraces handwritten music.

About half of this piece was written on a train from New Orleans to Baltimore.  I also wrote part of Lake Pontchartrain on this ride.



Ocean Mermaid

This short musical poem features an undulating piano riff and a long, extended coda that sounds like laughing on the seashore.

When I Have Fears

for baritone voice and orchestra

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats

When I Have Fears, ruminates on John Keats’ sonnet and the existential issues it presents. It features Keatsian imagery such as bird songs and slow, sarabande-like rhythms.

This recording features vocalist Rahzé Cheatham, with Nell Flanders conducting.  The orchestra is comprised of Peabody musicians.  The instrumentation is 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, a timpani, and strings.


Alarm, for flute and live electronics, puts demands on both the flute and electro-acoustic performer, who uses a MIDI pad to perform notated rhythmic phrases in addition to standard processing.  The flute part alternates between high pitched, sparse pointillism leading to climactic long notes in the lower register.  I also explore the dynamics between a cappella flute sections, and purely electroacoustic sections.  The processing includes looping, granulation and doppler shift.



for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and piano

Like a marathon runner, Endurance maintains the same, steady metronome marking throughout, though its gestures alternate between careful, steady movement, and unpredictable rage.  The syncopation of the opening notes provides a foreboding backbeat, returning throughout the piece in various registers and instruments. Like some of his other pieces, the music’s emotional content is inspired by grief and soul searching, alluding to what humanity must endure in today’s turbulent times.  The work draws from jazz and microtonality, among other influences. 


Lake Pontchartrain

for string sextet (two violins, two violas, two cellos)

Water is emotion, and every body of water I visit makes me feel a different way.  Lake Pontchartrain is a shallow estuary in Louisiana just wide enough that one cannot see the other side.  To get to New Orleans, one must travel across its waters on a freeway or train elevated just above the surface.  On a cloudy, rainy day, the gray waters of Lake Pontchartrain evokes feelings of sadness, serenity, intimacy, and longing.  The piece begins and ends like the lake’s gentle, unending waves: instruments play long single notes at different times, creating a chord progression that sways between dissonant clusters and tonal harmonies.  The quiet middle sections are inspired by nature: wind rustling, birds chirping, and stillness.  It features sparse triadic gestures, microtones, and cellos bowing on the bridge.

Urban Sunrise

“Urban Sunrise” is a humid, sultry aubade, much of whose audio material is generated from the sounds of nature.  Distorted sounds of birds attempt to bring an eerie feel, an undulating tempo, and the basis of the saxophone’s melodic material.  The saxophone ruminates throughout the piece, until the electronic element roots itself in a deep, harmonically driven climax, ending with the a choir of orioles singing at different rates using a supercollider patch.  It was inspired by the sight of the sun rising over Druid Hill Park in Baltimore one hot summer.


Enkidu, for baritone saxophone and live electronics, was written for Tae Ho Hwang, and premiered at the Electroacoustic Barndance in February, 2018.  My goal was to create a longer solo electroacoustic piece whose development is driven by motivic material.  The design of the electronics of this movement resembles a telescope, beginning with little except a bit of reverb, but incrementally expanding the palate to include delay, looping, pitch shift, and the flanger.

Enkidu is the companion of King Gilgamesh of Uruk in the ancient, four thousand year old Epic of Gilgamesh.  Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends, and could be seen as two archetypes of humanity.  Gilgamesh represents the city, civilization, and humanity’s advancement; Enkidu represents the primative, nature, and human’s origin. 

The third movement of the piece mirrors the emotions explored in the second half of the epic, where Gilgamesh struggles to come to grip with his own mortality after Enkidu’s death.  The movement evokes scenes of him crossing the Waters of Death to visit Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah.  The piece ends with the return of the Enkidu theme, a breath of fresh air after the music’s intensity, symbolizing Gilgamesh’s coming to terms with his life’s purpose.

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