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.
Two melodies played in counterpoint by a performer moving a computer cursor in different directions
The 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:
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.
for B flat clarinet and live electronics
Pluto is a thirty-five minute long chamber work for clarinet and live electronics. It has five movements:
II. Cosmic Rant
III. Planet Heart
IV. The Sun’s Quiet Heat
Work on this piece began in July, 2015, around the time of NASA’s Pluto flyby. By the end of the year, I had a performable draft. After winning third prize in Peabody’s Prix d’Eté, the final movement Gravity was programmed in the Peabody Thursday Noon Concert Series, with Melissa Lander on clarinet. The third movement, Planet Heart, was premiered in August 2016 by Michele Jacot at the Toronto International Electro-acoustic Symposium, and performed again by Chase Mitchusson at NSEME in March 2017. Clarinetist Shawn Earle also performed Gravity at the 2016 University of Virginia Technosonics Festival.
In February 2017 I teamed up with Andrew Im to perform the piece in its entirety. We did so at the Centre Street Performance Studio in Baltimore. We performed it again in at the Music City Festival in Orange, NJ, and perform it in Rutland, VT on August 13.
The piece is expansive both in length and in texture, with long undulating loops and delay that continue the clarinet’s sound like a piano’s sustain pedal. Noise and ring modulation provide contrast to the smoothness of the clarinet. The electronics allow for loud sections, harmonies, and sounds lower than the clarinet can play– all derived from a clarinet.
Below are recordings of Serenity, Planet Heart, and Gravity.
for stereo fixed media with optional video
Pranayama is an acousmatic work in four movements. The title derives from the Sanskrit word meaning “breathing in life.” Like Indian music, each movement centers around a single note with a swirling timbre (much like an tambura), and an abundance of tiny ornaments. Like much Western classical music, the piece is structured around four movements, each with its own expressive arc.
I created this work from about one hundred recordings of piano chords. Some of these samples I recorded by striking the keys; in other cases, I silently depressed some keys, struck others, and recorded the vibrations from the resulting harmonics. For each sample, I edited out the initial strike of the key, and faded in the rest of the track so that it sounded more like a stringed instrument than a piano. I sequenced and layered these tracks to create the piece. In certain sections, I added recordings of my own voice, as well as synthesizer pads. One might also hear the pedal, as well as other ambient sounds.
Beyond fading in and out, adjusting the gain, panning, and adding synthesizer pads, I used no additional software (i.e. SoundHack or Max) to write this piece. One only hears the raw recordings of the piano, synthesizer, and voice. Optional visuals may accompany this work created by my father, Vin Grabill, a video artist at UMBC.
So far, the work has been presented three times in its entirety in Washington, DC. The third movement was also featured at the 2011 International Computer Music Conference in Huddersfield, England. This piece is meant to be listened to in its entirety. However, if time is limited, the third movement can serve as an adequate representation of the full composition.
Listen to a continuous playlist of all four movements here:
for stereo fixed media with optional video
One question I ask myself when writing music is “would I listen to this?” I make it a habit to record everything I write or improvise. I leave it alone for a while, and then listen again. If it’s not engaging to me while I’m driving my car, getting dressed, or cooking dinner, I toss it for something that is. My first computer piece, Un Jardin also became the piece that for a while I listened to far more than any other of my compositions.
I actually composed Un Jardin while writing a choral piece. The piece wasn’t going anywhere, so I took a break and started playing with Garage Band on my computer. I recorded overtones from my piano. I edited out the initial strike of the piano key and faded in the sound. Then I laid the recordings on top of each other, staggering them to create (unlike a piano, and more like a violin) a continuous sound.
Editing the gain, pan, and laying multiple tracks on top of each other were the only ways in which I used technology to alter the recordings. The first movement, “Un Jardin,” begins with the soft sympathetic vibrations of the piano (caused by me striking open fifths) and reaches a warm climax with the fundamental vibrations of the lower piano strings. In the second movement, “Ceres”, I created a grinding vortex of sound with a subtle, pulsating rhythm, sometimes with chords emerging from the stew of over 44 simultaneous tracks. I took a similar though less radical approach with the third movement, “Quasi Sostenuto,” this time giving the piece more of a harmonic quality.
Though modern sounding, the structure of my three-movement piece takes influence from classical archetypal forms to lead the listener on a journey. The arch-like first movement invites the listener into a hypnotically pensive soundscape and is followed by a “scherzo” of sorts in the second movement; the piece ends with the third movement returning the listener into a sublime meditative state before fading into nothingness.
I. Un Jardin
I. Un Jardin
III. Quasi Sostenuto
III. Quasi Sostenuto