Shortly after completing graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I composed three works for standard wind, brass, and string ensembles to hone my orchestration skills and explore the expressive potentials of the orchestral families. Variations for string quartet and Circles for wind quintet were both composed in 2001, and contemporaneous sketches for a brass quintet went unrealized until 2004 when they finally found a home in Suite for Brass. I played in a wind quintet during my undergraduate career, and felt very comfortable with the ensemble; nevertheless, Circles is the only one of these chamber works that has, as of this writing in 2020, never been performed.
In many ways, Circles is the most inventive of those three early works, and contains a number of techniques that I continue to use in my music. It is framed by twelve quotations from an essay of the same name by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I composed musical corollaries to each quotation, and these proceed, attacca, as a continuous set of fantasies. Two of these fantasies return (embedded in other fantasies) at pitch levels that equally divide the octave: the first returns at the tritone, and the fourth returns at successive major thirds, such that they delineate formal and harmonic cycles. The seventh fantasy, setting Emersonʼs evocative assertion that “the new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet,” intones the chorale tune “Das alte Jahre vergangen ist” with each chorale phrase presented in the styles of successive musical ages, from Renaissance imitative counterpoint through a quotation of Bachʼs harmonization through early classical and late romantic styles and culminating in a disjunctly atonal, symmetrical Webernian setting—all in the space of about 90 seconds. The twelfth and final fantasy, setting “good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it,” is both the summation and negation of the whole, in which many of the main ideas of the work are recapitulated in reverse. Lengthening silences separate these mini recapitulations, which inevitably agglomerate in the silence following the double bar.
Other less obvious compositional ploys are at play in Circles, which I continue to use to varying degrees in my current work. These include musical cryptograms (several friendsʼ names appear in the third fantasy), numerology (the numbers 7-3-7 in the fourth fantasy), large-scale “games,” such as the gradual expansion of intervals (most clear in the eighth fantasy), and “buried”quotations (such that they would never be experienced as quotations—the eleventh fantasy, for example, features one such quotation from Beethovenʼs Missa Solemnis).
The Emerson quotations, in the order they appear in Circles, are as follows:
1. “The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.”
2. “I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.”
3. “…every friend whom he loses for truth, he gains a better. O blessed Spirit, whom I forsake for these, they are not thou!”
4. “Everything looks permanent until its secret is known.”
5. “…the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.”
6. “The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice; here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining.”
7. “The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet; the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing.”
8. “Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder.”
9. “Each new step we take in thought reconciles twenty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law.”
10. “…all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself.”
11. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
12. “Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it.”