It’s been several years since I have written an entry in Notes from the Field. Events during the past several months have given me a lot to think about. And that includes the connection between the arts and social issues. At their best, the arts can be not just a reflection of their times, but can also provide an emotional call to action. This is certainly true for music, in many ways the most abstract of all the arts. For the truth of this, one need only look at the songs that helped spur many social movements over the past several centuries to realize that they owe as much to the melody as to the words for their broad appeal. This is again such a time, when in the United States in particular, many of us have been stirred to action following the latest in a long line of deaths of unarmed Black and Brown citizens at the hands of police. A great example of powerful art that speaks to its time is the work for male chorus and orchestra, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, an African-American composer based in Atlanta. The work was premiered by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and the Sphinx Ensemble in 2015, five years before the latest murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and others. This is the ensemble featured in the attached video. Sphinx is an organization that promotes the training of African-American and Latinx classical musicians. It is my view as a composer and citizen that we need to promote and support musicians of color in our community. In addition, if we can collaborate with and support organizations like Sphinx we will be working toward the important goal of making concert music and our society more inclusive and equitable.
Author Archives: Erik Nielsen
Sketches is a set of eight short pieces for solo piano written in 2010. Here they are in Youtube video performances by the pianist, composer and filmmaker Brian Hanke.
Piano Quartet #1
I composed my Piano Quartet #1 in 2018 on commission from my friends, the Northern Third Quartet: Sofia Hirsch, violin; Elizabeth Reid, viola; John Dunlop, cello; and Alison Cerutti, piano. The work is in six movements. Movements II and V are solo movements for viola and cello, respectively, while Movement III is a duet for violin and cello. Movements I, IV and VI are for the entire quartet. Here is a recording of the Northern Third Quartet’s third performance of the work in October, 2018:
String Quartet #2
My second string quartet was written in late 2007 and early 2008 on commission from the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vermont in honor of its 100th anniversary. It’s a five-movement work in which movements I and II are played without pause. The same is true of movements IV and V. Here is a recording made at the premiere performance in March, 2008, performed by the Chiara String Quartet, for whom the work was written:
Glimpses of Azure
Glimpses of Azure is a four-movement work I composed in 2013 on commission from the wonderful Boston-based conductorless string orchestra, A Far Cry. Here is a performance of the work by them that took place at the Gardner Museum in Boston in December, 2013.
Fanfare in B-flat
I wrote this short fanfare in 2014 on commission from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, in honor of their 80th anniversary. Here is a performance by them from March, 2015, with Music Director Jaime Laredo conducting.
Our Wish This Year is Peace
I wrote this work back in late 1992, almost 30 years ago, and it is still my most-performed choral piece. And unusually for me, I also wrote the words. Here is the text:
OUR WISH THIS YEAR IS PEACE
As we look out upon the darkness of the night,
The shorten’d days, our world bereft of light and warmth,
Our wish this year is peace.
As we lament the poor, disfigured, bleeding earth
Whose sons and daughters kill her in their march toward worthless goals,
While all her life slips down and ever further downward,
Our wish this year is peace.
For justice to rain down upon us all,
The poor, the dispossessed, the hungry, smallest child,
We must do more than hope.
But hope is often all we have
To outface logic and the seeming void
Which cries with hideous laughter “All is lost!”
And yet in darkness often miracles occur.
The smallest seed will germinate and, blurring time and space, confound the odds and grow.
And so, like seeds, our hopes in darkness rest.
While tears of love and moist despair, invested without thinking,
May bring nurture and the birth of something new,
Awaited since the dawn of time by all who truly love.
Our wish this year is peace.
Trajectory of Flight
Trajectory of Flight is a cycle of six songs for mezzo-soprano and strings. The work was written in 2011 for a concert of some of my choral and vocal works. All poems are by Vermont poet Jean L. Connor. Here they are:
NOW, IN MARCH
Outside, drifts of brazen snow
and the bitter hour glass of cold.
Inside, pressed against the pane,
pots of green and the first white
geranium, tenuous, unfolding.
And hidden deep within, the stubborn
candle of my will, ablaze,
steady, before that duality,
death, a February thing, and life,
which reaches out to April
and on occasion sings.
ALLEGRO: A MAY SONG FOR
NESTING SWALLOWS AND FLUTE
Lay claim my love. This flowering
tree is ours, this sweet aperture
our home. Now the high notes,
reedy, clear. Listen. Music, dipped
in azure, ripples towards the sun.
Ascend. Ascend. Join forces
with the flute. Come breast the sky,
the gentian sky. Turn. Turn.
Scissor the fabric, release the tethered world.
Down in the woods,
a thrush repeats
the measured triads
of his flute-like song,
recounts the old rhapsodic tales
of lost serenities and peace.
As darkness deepens,
his voice grows still
and I am left
in a thin white cup,
Everything was made of time:
the apples, green, the milk-weed pods,
split and drying, the seeds,
All was movement and becoming,
clouds cartwheeled through space,
never arriving. Day held
no fixed point, only urgencies
and the tattered banners
of the hours. At last,
the longed-for darkness came,
hollowed out, shaped as night.
Then, not as an intruder,
but as one accustomed to the place,
the hour, a cricket began to sing,
steady, sure, and as he sang
the world slowed to meet
his pace, found itself webbed
about in peace. The grasses–
sleep-heavy, wet with dew.
KEEPING THE SILENCE
If you listen,
you hear apples fall
and the low nasal complaint
of a nuthatch.
In the distance,
a man hammers, a dog barks,
the church bell
mingles with the cry of asters.
In the wind-dipped silence,
I hold a space apart:
the call of jays
cannot reach me.
I have become amenable
to purple, the savor of grapes,
the waning of crimson,
the fall of leaves.
Now in October,
I sing a slow song,
praising the gold
Quick flight of a bird
across the field that lies
outstretched before the night.
Only silence in the going.
Late, late. And a cool mist rising.
Unknown the name,
unknown the color,
the only certitude,
the dark trajectory of flight.
All poems taken from A Cartography of Peace, published by Passager Books, 2005. Copyright 2005 by Jean L. Connor. Used with permission of the poet.
The performance is by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hoffman, Sofia Hirsch and Laura Markowitz, violins; Elizabeth Reid, viola; John Dunlop, cello; and Evan Premo, bass; conducted by me.
I- Now, in March:
IV- Late August:
V- Keeping the Silence:
VI- Almost Night:
A Voice in the Night
A Voice in the Night is a work for bassoon and piano that I wrote in 2015 for bassoonist William Short, principal bassoonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, and Bryan Wagorn, pianist and assistant conductor at the Met. This recording is of the premiere performance in New York City, November 15, 2016, played by Billy and Bryan.
A Fleeting Animal
A Fleeting Animal, the opera I created in 1999 and 2000 with my friend, the late poet and playwright David Budbill, was first performed in 2000 and then received a second run of performances in a newly-revised version in September, 2015. This latter set of performances featured a stellar cast of singers and the instrumental ensemble TURNmusic, all under the stage direction of Margo Whitcomb and the musical direction of Anne Decker. The opera is set in a small, northern Vermont town in the early 1970’s and is the tragic story of Tommy, the returning veteran who is haunted by his military service in Vietnam, and Grace, the much-maligned single mother with whom he falls in love. It touches on life in small towns, PTSD, poverty and racism, as well as the beauty of Vermont and the joys of the seasons, particularly the short, but vibrant summer. The music includes a number of styles, including the influence of contemporary concert music, jazz, blues and Quebecois folk song. We have now made the video available of the final performance at Chandler Center for the Arts, Randolph, Vermont, September 20, 2015, complete with subtitles. The film and subtitle work was done by Jeff Tolbert.
Here are the Vimeo links:
Act I (Please note that these are very large files and may take quite a bit of time to load; be patient!)