Couplet for a Desert Summer

A tone poem for chamber orchestra

Couplet for a Desert Summer was my first attempt to derive an orchestral work from a keyboard improvisation. It is not an arrangement but uses the improvisation as an initial sketch. Recording and transcription were a much more time-consuming (and expensive) proposition around 1980 when I started putting together this piece. Analog recording was done on reel-to-reel tape recorders, transcription sometimes having to use slow speed, and replaying a passage over and over to transcribe everything by ear. Though tedious, it was actually a terrific experience, and taught me a great deal about music, especially the fluidity of rhythm!

just add water washMy first sketches (transcriptions) of Couplet for a Desert Summer are from 1980, though I didn’t complete the revisions and orchestration until two years later. It was my first work for chamber orchestra, and it is scored for Classical era instrumentation without trumpets, and with the addition of piano and metal percussion. I tried to take advantage of the solo players, both winds and strings, and also wrote a prominent part for the piano. It was the first time I had used piano in an orchestra work.

Summer in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona is a special time. The piece was written in the summer, and gradually it became a piece about the summer. There is oppressive heat in the summer, of course, but there is also great beauty, dynamic weather (the annual monsoons) and a lot of activity in the natural world. In an essay by Joseph Wood Crutch, the noted nature writer who spent much of his career in the desert outside of Tucson, he lamented that nobody visits the Arizona desert during the summer. The summer is when everything happens. The cactus and ocotillo bloom, the reptiles, birds, insects, and mammals are all active. The Sonoran Desert biome
 is the world’s second most diverse, outside of the rain forest, and it comes alive during the summer, notably at night. In July, the summer monsoon comes to refresh the parched earth and trigger another unique round of activity.

The two movements of Couplet For A Desert Summer describe the two most dynamic moments of every day in the desert, Dawn and Dusk. Dawn starts as the sky begins to brighten; the nighttime activity bleeds into the day. The birds awaken! Sunrise has the coolest temperature of the day and the animal life is at its most active. The music starts haltingly but soon coalesces into an extended lively passage, before a passage for flute and piano announces a section for the rising sun. The movement ends with the mirages beginning to form as the heat starts to build.

The second movement, Dusk, opens with the call to awaken at sunset. A piano solo escorts the sun to the horizon as the wildlife comes out of hiding. A boisterous passage follows for nearly the whole first half of the piece. As the sun begins to set, the music becomes more reverential. The music builds as the sunset colors spread across the sky. At a climatic moment, there is a reference to “Morning” from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg. It is in the wrong movement. Dawn in the desert is nice, but the sunsets are spectacular!

The work is scored for flute, 2 oboes, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, metal percussion, piano, and strings. The work was first performed in Feb. 1984 by the Phoenix Symphony, Clark Suttle conducting.

Couplet for a Desert Summer – 1. Dawn

Couplet for a Desert Summer – 2. Dusk


A new work for chamber orchestra

Unlike many of the other works I have posted, this work for small orchestra was written within the last couple of months.  Most music I write has a practical purpose of some sort, for a person, group, event, or all of the above, but this piece was started almost on a lark.  The first sessions of working on a piece are always a little mysterious. I have different, sometimes conflicting visions of what I am going to do. For this piece, I let these early ideas also shape the instrumentation, trying to decide what sorts of textures and sounds I wanted to work with.

aperitifI originally thought I was going to write the piece for string orchestra, but I gradually started adding other instruments, until I ended up writing a work for a small chamber orchestra. I was determined to not use un-pitched percussion instruments as I wanted the piece to have a chamber music feel.  The piece has several “swirling” sections and I knew I needed a harp or piano in the mix.  Eventually I decided to use both piano and harp, plus a marimba. I felt I needed to spotlight these instruments to add a special flavor to the piece.  There are no doubles in the winds; they are all playing different instruments. This adds an a la carte character to the piece and heightens the chamber music aspect.

Aperitif is an adaptation of the first track of the piano solo album, Downhill, which will be released later this year (2019).  The album tries to display several examples of a collection of events that seem to flow from an initial trigger.  The series of events seem to flow as easily as a ball rolling downhill. Some triggers, such as an “aperitif,” are relatively harmless, while others, such as lies and arguments, are much less so.  The resulting events can always be slowed or stopped, but not without serious effort and reflection.

The events triggered by Aperitif take the form of social interactions among a group of friends over dinner.  The interactions become more and more personal, sometimes funny, sometimes heartfelt, while at other times being a bit more biting.  The music seems to evolve around certain personalities, one rather facilitating, another stronger and somewhat dismissive, one prone to being a little alarmist, and another one somewhat overly sentimental.  These acquaintances discuss things light-heartedly at first; gradually adding a little more humor and satire until someone becomes a little offended and things become a little uncomfortable. The conversation then begins to dissolve and ends with a promise to get together again.

The work is scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, bass trombone, marimba, piano, harp, and strings.  The work is more of a tone poem than an overture, but nevertheless is, not surprisingly, meant to be a concert opener, hopefully triggering wonderful things to follow.