Galileo Celebration Update

string trio playing Nocturnes

Jennifer Strernick (vln.), Erin Araujo (vla.), and Eric Grata (vc.) performing Nocturnes in the Rotunda of the University Art Gallery. Photo credit: Emily O’Donnell.

Saturday, February 15, 2014 was a snowy day in Pittsburgh, just like seemingly every other day this past winter. The snow was falling hard enough in the morning that I wondered whether the celebration of Galileo’s 450th birthday would have to be cancelled, but the front passed through and the skies cleared up, so that afternoon I made my way over to Pitt’s University Art Gallery to meet the trio and go over a few final places in Nocturnes. Honestly though, there wasn’t much for me to do until people showed up. And show up they did, over a hundred or so representing many different sectors of the University and community.

UAG curator Isabelle Chartier, the driving force behind the whole event, introduced all the participants who had gathered in the front gallery where Aaron Henderson’s video montage played. Professor Paolo Palmieri, from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science gave a brief talk on Galileo, highlighting Galileo’s interest and skill in art and music as well as his contributions to astronomy.

After Dr. Palmieri’s talk, attendees were invited into the Rotunda to view Michael Morrill’s Linea Terminale paintings as the the string trio (Jennifer Sternick, violin; Erin Araujo, viola; and Eric Grata, cello) premiered Nocturnes, twelve miniatures to frame each of Michael’s twelve paintings. My hope was that people would turn toward the painting, but I think it’s very difficult  to turn away from seeing a chamber ensemble do its thing. I tried to set a good example myself though, moving through the circle of paintings, studying each one for about the space of one nocturne.

From my entirely biased perspective, I think Linea Terminale and Nocturnes worked well together. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how music can alter our perception of the passage of time. When I set a text for vocal music, I’m doing nothing so much as slowing down the pace at which the text is declaimed, allowing the words to unfold more clearly, often repeating words or phrases to focus our attention. “Setting” Michael’s paintings to music was a similar sort of thing—an effort to help focus our awareness and maybe slow down time a little.

I’m so happy to have been a part of the Celebration of Galileo’s 450th Birthday. It was a very positive and successful event! I’m particularly grateful for all the hard work Isabelle Chartier did to make the event happen and to Michael for his enthusiasm and support for Nocturnes.

A Celebration of Galileo’s 450th Birthday, Premiere of Nocturnes

February 15, 2014
3:00 pm

 Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Free


University of Pittsburgh Departments of Music and Studio Arts and the University Art Gallery have organized a commemoration of Galileo’s 450th birthday. The interdisciplinary event will take place from 3-5 p.m. in the Rotunda of the University Art Gallery.

The centerpiece of the event will be an interdisciplinary installation I’ve had the privilege of collaborating on with Pitt Studio Arts faculty members Michael Morrill and Aaron Henderson. The installation is built around Michael’s Linea Terminale paintings, themselves inspired by Galileo’s moon drawings. Aaron’s video and my brand new composition for string trio were created as a response both to Linea Terminale and the broader idea of celebrating Galileo’s life and scientific contributions.

Linea Terminale consists of twelve paintings in four groups of three. I structured my music along the same lines — four sets of three miniatures, averaging around a minute each. About the time I was finishing up the twelfth section, it occurred to me that the common character of all the movements was that of a nocturne so that’s what I’ve titled it: Nocturnes. I realized that the whole time I was composing the piece, the image of Galileo peering through his telescope at the moon was in the back of my mind. It makes sense because night time is still the best time to observe the moon.


Special guest Paolo Palmieri, from Pitt’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, will give a brief talk on Galileo and his contributions prior to the performance.

This interdisciplinary celebration of Galileo’s 450th birthday is cosponsored by the Departments of Studio Arts and Music, the University Art Gallery, and the Departments of History and Philosophy of Science, Physics, and Astronomy and Philosophy. The event is free and open to the public.

Watch: Video Excerpt from Separate Self, Movement III

Separate Self (Movement III excerpt) from Garth Zeglin on Vimeo.

Here’s a little longer video excerpt from the third movement of Separate Self. It will give you an idea of just how elegant Garth Zeglin’s kinetic fabric sculptures are in action.

I like to think of the essence of counterpoint as multiple parts having their own interest and yet never banging into each other. In the third movement of Separate Self, I took very clearly defined materials and worked on having the lines constantly shift in their relationships to each other. The end result is a soundscape that has a high degree of both stability and fluidity. I’m really happy about how the musical and visual gestures work together for this movement.

Animé BOP! Screens Virgil Cantini Film, Performs my Score

April 14, 2013
7:00 pm

Bellefield Hall Auditorium, Free


L-R: Linda Fisher, bassoon; Robin Driscoll, oboe; Rob Frankenberry, piano

I’m delighted that Pittsburgh trio Animé BOP! will screen Will Zavala’s film Virgil Cantini: The Artist in Public while performing my score for said film live. Will and I have been working closely with Animé BOP! bassoonist Linda Fisher to make some minor revisions to the film and the music so that it’s more suitable to a concert setting. It will run abut 8 1/2 minutes total and include many familiar scenes around the city, clips from Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, and some wonderful glimpses into Cantini’s studio. In short, it’s a film that is truly steeped in Pittsburgh’s cultural life.

Will and I first collaborated in 2009 on the film about Cantini, the founder of Pitt’s Studio Arts program whose sculptures occupy prominent places around the Pittsburgh cityscape. The impetus for the film was the ongoing Artists on Film project cosponsored by Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and we’re delighted that it continues to hold appeal and find new audiences.

Animé BOP! is calling the concert The Pittsburgh Composers and along with Will’s film and my score, it will include Nancy Galbraith’s Incantation & Allegro, James Ogburn’s Complements and Collisions, the premieres of eX (e to the x) by Mark S. Fromm  and Semplicemente by Noah Rectenwald, and Robert Frankenberry’s arrangement of Daron Aric Hagen’s Tryst.

I hope you can make it!

Scenes from Final Battle for Love at Virginia Arts Festival

June 4, 2012
7:30 pm

Chandler Hall, Diehn Fine and Performing Arts Center
Old Dominion University

On June 4th in Norfolk, the John Duffy Composers Institute Singers and members of the Virginia Symphony will perform scenes from the  world’s finest baroque-metal professional wrestling opera, The Final Battle for Love. I’ve written a brand new scene titled “The Battle Before the Final Battle” and I’ve revised the scene “Starla.” I’m very excited about the new scene because it means that we get to know all the main characters very early on in the opera.

By way of preview, this will be a concert presentation rather than staged with piano. Also on the program is Jake Runestad’s The Toll. Both pieces will be played twice with discussion in between each performance featuring comments by the iconic John Duffy, Robert Cross (director of the Virginia Arts Festival), and music director Alan Johnson.

And it’s only January!

So as good news goes, this will be hard to top. And it’s only January! I’ve been invited back to the Virginia Arts Festival as a Composer Fellow with the John Duffy Composers Institute. This year, I’ll be a Returning Fellow which is a new program funded by a Mellon Foundation grant that enables the VAF to bring back two Fellows from previous sessions. As a Returning Fellow (Re-Fellow?), I’ll get the chance to have scenes from my opera performed with chamber orchestra accompaniment, which is a magnificent opportunity and a real privilege!

Once again I’ll be presenting scenes from The Final Battle for Love, this time in their fully orchestrated glory. There are some minor revisions I want to make to existing scenes and I have a new scene in mind that I’ve been wanting to write, The Penultimate Battle for Love that will put most of the main characters on stage earlier in the opera, but we’ll see. Regardless of whether I do revised scenes or new material, it will be a blast. Can’t wait!

Kecow hit tamen update: audio and video from the premiere

Really could not be happier with how this premiere came off.
Ryan Day synced his visual art to the audio mix-down. Performed by IonSound Project, audio recording by Chris Boyd, and mixing and mastering by myself. Can you tell how much I dig Ryan’s art for this project? Seeing as I splashed it into my banner? Since even now, I have a still from the video as my desktop image? Just sayin’.

Late Breaking! Screening of Virgil Cantini Film This Tuesday

So I just found out from filmaker Will Zavala that a film I scored for him in 2009 will screen this Tuesday night (December 13) as part of Pittsburgh Filmakers monthly Film Kitchen series. The film is called Virgil Cantini: the Artist in Public and it features lots of art around the city that Pittsburghers will likely have seen without realizing who made it. Also, there’s a clip of Cantini talking with King Friday on the Mr. Rogers show! This film has so much Pittsburgh color in it! I felt like I had set part of my city to music when I finished the score!

There’s a reception at 7 p.m. and the films begin at 8 p.m. (So wouldn’t that be a pre-ception?) Tickets are a mere $5, so come out if you can. There’s a nice little preview of the evening in the City Paper this week.

IonSound Project to Premiere “Kecow hit tamen”

IonSound Project will premiere my multimedia collaboration with Ryan Day, Kecow hit tamen, on November 20 at Bellefield Hall Auditorium. The concert takes place at 7 p.m. and tickets are available at the door. General admission is $15 and student/senior admission is $10. Also on the program are premieres of works by Nizan Leibovich and Christian Kriegeskotte, along with Robert Frankenberry’s transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition. All the compositions were inspired by (or in my case, developed in parallel with) visual art, and the art for each work will be projected on a screen at the back of the stage. The entire evening will be a feast for the ears and the eyes.

About Kecow hit tamen

My father is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, a tribe whose history is far more difficult to ascertain than that of other eastern native peoples. Modern Lumbee trace their ancestry to Eastern Siouan, Cherokee, and Tuscarora, with one of the enduring legends being that the tribe is descended, at least in part, from the intermarriage between members of Raliegh’s Lost Colony and the Hatteras. The Carolina Algonquian phrase “Kecow hit tamen?” means either “What is this?” or “What is your name?” The phrase was recorded by Thomas Hariot during Raliegh’s initial expedition, and, given the competing theories on Lumbee history, seems like an appropriate starting point for my own reflections on that history.

Thomas Hariot’s translations of Carolina Algonquian and additional vocabulary derived from John White’s annotated watercolors supply the best samples we have of the language spoken the by native peoples they encountered. Sadly, only a hundred or so words remain of a much larger effort and these describe mostly the local flora and fauna.

I approached the composition of Kecow hit tamen almost as I would a vocal piece, sketching a melodic fragment for the question itself and for each of Hariot’s and White’s words. These fragments then became the basis for a series of overlapping micro-variations that constitute the instrumental layer. I have not tried to mimic Native American musics in any way, but rather evoke the experience of learning a new language, with the need to say a word in different ways in order to feel where it should be in the mouth and throat. The instrumental layer then, is designed to capture the visceral feeling of exploring new words while the audio samples surround the listener with approximations of how the spoken language might have sounded.

The idea of developing Kecow hit tamen as a multimedia work emerged when my good friend Ryan Day and I were discussing his Translation series of images, works that “translate” texts into color patterns. The idea of a visual artist and composer both working with the same non-narrative text turned out to be a fruitful one, and we developed the piece collaboratively from start to finish. I will leave the detailed description of the art to Ryan, but to me, one of the most exciting aspects of this digital painting is the subtle, continuous animation that transforms the work as the music unfolds.