Elliott Grabill

composer | songwriter | teacher

Category: Uncategorized

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.

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“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.

List of works


Reed Quintet No. 2, 30′ (2023)

Reed Quintet No.1 “Heroes and Villains,” 25′ (2022)

Oboe Trio No. 1, 9′ (2022)

Sonata for Flute, Percussion, and Electronics, 12‘ (2021)

Flowers of Resurrection, for flute, violin, piano, and cello, 5′ (2021)

Deep Purring, for reed quintet and electronics, 3′ (2020)

The Dragons are My Children, for cello and bass, 2′ (2020)

All the Little Kittens, for flute and viola, 3′ (2020)

Calling into a Cave, for reed quintet and electronics, 10′ (2019)

Song of Despair, for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, 8′ (2018)

Mountain Piques, for flute, guitar, cello, and electronics, 25′ (2018)

Lake Pontchartrain, for string sextet, 9′ (2017)

Endurance, for Pierrot ensemble, 9′ (2017)

Escape, for bassoon quartet, 7′ (2016)

Responses, for clarinet sextet, 3′ (2015)

Rust Belt, for brass quintet, 12′ (2015)

EP, for trumpet and bassoon, 7′ (2015)


Song Cycles

Grief Never Leaves, for soprano, oboe, and piano, 10′ (2020)

Teacher Tales, for mezzo-soprano and piano, 20′ (2019)

Songs of the Working Poor, for soprano and large ensemble, 10′ (2018)



Union Dues, for wind ensemble, 10′ (2020)

When I Have Fears, for baritone and orchestra, 8′ (2016)



Di Heilich Shrift, for mixed chorus, work in progress (2020 – )

I Love Winter, for two sopranos and alto, 3′ (2015)

Making the Year, for mixed chorus, 3′ (2014)

Nantucket, for men’s chorus, 2′ (2008)

Young Sycamore, for men’s chorus, 2′ (2008)



Birds of Lethe, for alto saxophone and electronics, 6′ (2021)

Hide and Seek, for alto saxophone and electronics, 7′ (2021)

Mother Earth, for bassoon and live electronics, 7′ (2019)

Burnt Letter, for piano and live electronics, 4′ (2018)

Enkidu, for tenor saxophone and live electronics, 17′ (2017)

Urban Sunrise, for alto saxophone and live electronics, 8′ (2017)

Written on the Train, for solo violin, 4′ (2017)

Darl, for clarinet and live electronics, 10′ (2016)

Alarm, for flute and live electronics, 9′ (2016)

Pluto, for clarinet and live electronics, 30′ (2015-2017)

Ocean Mermaid, for MIDI controller, 3′-7′ (2010 – 2017)

Wildflowers, for MIDI controller, 4′ (2013)

Katharos, for piano, 11′ (2010)

Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave., for piano, 8′ (2007)


Fixed and Multimedia

Take Me to the Sea, for fixed media, 5′ (2017)

Acousmatica, for fixed media, 12′ (2015)

Snowy Shore, for fixed media and narrator, 3′ (2014)

After the Storms / Sapa, for fixed media and dance, 9′ (2011)

Pranayama, for fixed media and video, 25′ (2010)

Un Jardin, for fixed media and video, 15′ (2009)


“Nivāhayati,” for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass.

“Nivāhayati” is a collage of notes, fragments, gestures, and phrases. Its structure explores buildup, growth, and decay, imitating both human form and nature.

The word “nivāhayati” is taken from Sanskrit and means “set to motion.” The piece is probably my most complex instrumental work, with ten solo parts interacting with one another. The work attempts to capture the experience of time as I interpret it, highlighting its dualities: activity versus pause; history versus present; linearity versus cycle; and cause versus effect.

The also piece focuses on my interest in human dynamics.  While writing it, I sometimes pictured a party scene in which the musicians converse with one another, sometimes arguing, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences.  I imitate vocal inflections using glissandi and blue notes.  With the range of timbres available, I investigate the personalities of each instrument and imagine how, if each were a person, they would interact with one another.

I wrote this piece between August and November, 2014. The score can be viewed at issuu.com/elliottgrabill. If you are an ensemble interested in performing this work, please email me at thetruebadour@gmail.com.






Musical Samples and CV

I am a composer who writes instrumental, vocal, and electronic music, often combined with another medium like film or dance.  As a composer, I am interested in sound, movement, gestures, and how the listener perceives them both concretely and emotionally.  In much of my work, I take sounds from real life, sculpt them into new abstract musical objects, and string them into an aural narrative.


Below are short excerpts of three of my pieces: Pranayama, Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave., and Crnogorska.  Click these links to watch these pieces in full.



Please click the link below to view my curriculum vitae.


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