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New program note for Earmarks

Earmarks was commissioned by the Boreas Ensemble at North Dakota State University, and despite my best efforts, it took on a vaguely political theme. In the early stages of writing this piece, I shared online the idea of writing a work for piano, clarinet, and saxophone where the piano played for as long as the performer chose, the wind players were silent, and I’d call the entire thing “Filibuster”, after the political tactic of talking for as long as possible to delay any actual work being done. Among the comments egging me on, there were a handful of those who dissented. Oh, they agreed with my incredibly clever title idea, but they balked at the idea of a piece of music, especially one without a text, being political. After all, they said, Stravinsky tells us that music is unable to express anything.

I’m perhaps the wrongest person to tackle that criticism or to write a political piece, and the idea of writing a piece about politics in the United States in 2018 seems like cheating. It’s too easy. There’s already so much being said. And I’ve never considered myself a political activist–I’m far too introverted for that. I reject the notion that our political discourse is only effective when it’s loud, obnoxious, and riddled with expletives. I think that sometimes change is affected through the church sermon that makes you uncomfortable enough to put a little more in the offering plate. Sometimes change is achieved through laughtivism. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of quiet solitude in a voting booth.

And so, Earmarks is a musical (and hopefully humorous) view of some of the issues in today’s political climate, designed to make you make you laugh–or to make you think. And definitely to make you talk.

It starts out with Echo Chamber, where everything you hear is everything you want to hear. As we move more and more of our lives online, we’re at the mercy of algorithms that try to deliver more of what we like–and give us options for removing that which we don’t. The more time we spend in these echo chambers, the less we hear from dissenters. (The piano tries to come in with a new idea later in the movement, but is largely ignored).

The second movement, Filibuster, does what I initially intended. Although all three instruments do get to play, it’s a lot of repeated, pleasant-sounding milquetoast stuff without a great deal of substance that never really resolves. And it has a repeat sign at the end that allows it to be played as many times as the performers wish. How long this movement is depends entirely on the whim of the pianist.

A swing state is a state with a similar level of support for both parties that can go either way during an election. Likewise, Swing States is a piece for saxophone and piano, and a piece for clarinet and piano, and it’s a struggle to see who’s going to win. Will they sort out their differences? Will we?

Political opinions–like works of art, scientific discoveries, and everything else of value–are only improved when they are allowed to be constructively criticized, discussed, and defended.

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Earmarks receives its premiere on July 9 at Clarinetfest in Ostend, Belgium.