Song-Shaped Absence in a Soundtracked World


Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, piano
Duration: 7:30


Intended for a program that centered around themes connected to Paris, I found myself with a kind of license to make use of a soundworld I associate with the luxuriating and ecstatic harmonic palette of composer Olivier Messiaen. This association informs the middle part, or B section, of the piece. Another influence here involves the simple act of playing the flute. I grew up playing the flute, have deep muscle memories connected to it, and the opportunity to write for Mimi Stillman naturally summoned this past experience. One of my favorite pieces to play was C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in A minor, and the opening of that piece has made its way into this work. It operates as a ghost, and perhaps represents a sort of nostalgia, though it also connects with a broader, overarching idea, which has to do with an urge to reflect on the extent to which in the twenty-first century we all inhabit a soundtracked world. I’m fascinated by the question of what music may have sounded like in, say, the world of C.P.E. Bach, a world in which there was no constant piping in of soundtracks, no backing tracks. A world in which noise was a certainly different matter, as perhaps was silence. The Bach piece that I loved to play is to some extent made of simple minor triads, and these are the same musical objects with which I associate a lot of the background music I hear these days. Think, for example, of the seductively windswept music that accompanies the opening credits for the tv show Downton Abbey. What does it mean that these musical materials are the same and yet used to such different purpose? Or is the purpose not so very different? On the one hand, it’s easy to push a minor triad in the direction of something you might hear while on hold for the dentist, something utterly generic, ignorable, or melodramatic, and on the other hand very possible to go for something pointedly expressive and foregrounded. It’s with this spectrum in mind that I hope to suggest multiple musical possibilities, to blur the boundaries thereof, and also to invoke the notion of absence. To wonder if something is missing, or lost, or not yet found.


Song-Shaped Absence in a Soundtracked World was commissioned by Mimi Stillman and Dolce Suono Ensemble and premiered by Mimi Stillman, Ricardo Morales, and Charles Abramovic on April 28, 2019 at Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA.