News, Thoughts, Soapboxes, and/or Essays

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.


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

New program note for Crosswinds

Walter Jordan has just delivered the program note for Crosswinds, and like his previous work, it's pretty fantastic.


Crosswinds represents a melding of the traditional woodwind sound of the clarinet with digital live electronic techniques, and the piece explores the potential for this relationship in three parts.

To begin the piece, the stage performer breathes through the clarinet, which serves to inform the electronic elements to come. This initial breath is captured by the computer program and is modified and reduplicated to create the sonic tone of a soft wind always present beneath the piece to come. This is the first step in uniting the digital and woodwind elements, as the same breath which animates the clarinet also activates the electronics.

From this most fundamental element, the breath becomes a single sustained note from which the computer will generate all of its subsequent tones. The impression is one of a mentor relationship, where the traditional instrument provides the tools and the support for the electronic elements. The disposition is contemplative, though it alternates between a subdued easiness and a playful mystery, as if to introduce the digital aspects to the range and variety of the clarinet’s moods. The rapport between the two is hesitant in the first part: the electronics contributing a subtle reverb as the performer teaches the computer dexterity through a number of broad leaps, hinting at but never fully embracing the main motif.

As the theme becomes more self-assured, the digital element now produces its own tones, parroting the clarinet melody to signal its readiness to be an equal partner in the conversation. As the clarinet begins the second part of the piece, the computer now provides a harmonizing undercurrent each time it is invited to do so by the performer.

In the third part, the electronics play counterpoint to the skill of the clarinetist, the two elements intricately entwined. From the elemental sound of wind first produced by the performer and perpetuated by the computer, the piece concludes in a celebration of the relationship built between the two, and the main theme is fully expressed as the two take it in variations.

Crosswinds is, in many ways, an experience of the history of our music through the relationship between traditional clarinet and modern digital techniques: the common elements they share, the singularity of their own particular strengths, and the beauty that can be experienced when they collaborate.

Program note by Walter Jordan
Please credit Walter Jordan when using this program note