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Petaluma Howls for voice and electronics

Every night during the month of April 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 quarantine, I recorded a few minutes of my Petaluma, CA neighborhood residents howling at 8pm. These collective outbursts allowed us to blow off steam in an uncertain time, come together as a community, and most importantly, give a literal shout out to health care workers and first responders. Some nights were louder than others and one can hear cars swooshing by my recorder, dogs joining in, or fireworks being set off down the street.

To build the electronic voice accompaniment, I analyzed the recording of each night using specialized software (and my ears) to determine the closest applicable tonality as projected by the howlers. I carefully time-compressed the several minutes of howling from each night into only a few seconds and then electronically filtered and resonated the resulting clouds of sound through a chord progression and synthesized bass line derived from the tonal implications of each recording. The vocal part is meant to highlight the pitch content of the compressed soundscapes with the singer being asked to produce vocal sounds that emulate deconstructed and elongated howls. My hope is that the composition gives the listener a musical and emotional impression of this unique sonic and social phenomenon.

The piece began as an electronic experiment leading to a short version with voice  for soprano Bonnie Lander as part of Rhymes with Opera's 1-minute opera project.  The current version was written for and performed by soprano Abbi Samuels.


The Bird Loop studies incorporate recordings made as part of Soundscapes to Lansdscapes (, a NASA- funded Sonoma County biodiversity study overseen by SSU GEP Professor Dr. Matt Clark. Since Dr. Clark graciously granted me access to the project’s audio database, I have spent many hours working through the thousands of remote recordings and spectrograms to find the most musically rich bird songs that could serve as raw material and inspiration for future compositions. All of the pitch content for the Bird Loop Studies is directly related to the recorded bird song I discovered. My hope is that these pieces become a celebration of the sheer musicality of certain local bird species, highlighting the unique nature of our beautiful county. 

Bird Loop Study No. 1 (Thrush) for vibraphone and electronics

Bird Loop Study No. 1 (Thrush) uses S2L recordings made in the Jenner Headlands on the mornings of June 7th and 8th, 2018 where a single hermit thrush was repeating five distinct musical motives accompanied by the sounds of the wind, ocean, and some occasional cicadas and a Stellars Jay call. The piece opens with the vibraphone imitating all five of the thrush’s sweet and florid motives before pausing so that the vibraphone may be bowed to generate the sustained tones that are looped to provide the harmonic background to the rest of the piece. The piece then moves into sections that explore the motives and their underlying source recordings in more detail, adding additional electronic components as the piece progresses.

Bird Loop Study No. 2 (Meadowlark) for guitar and electronics

If the hermit thrush is the Billy Holiday of the bird world, the western meadowlark is certainly the Jimi Hendrix. Bird Loop Study No. 2 (Meadowlark) uses S2L recordings of western meadowlark songs made in late March, 2019 at Sears Point and during the early Spring of 2021 at Tolay Lake. In both spots, the meadowlark songs rang out over a soundscape that included traffic and plane noise, other birds, and frog choruses. After a swelling harmonic introduction of the Sears Point motives, a grooving section has the guitar alternating between delayed chord arpeggios and direct imitations of these same motives. The third section uses the recordings from Tolay Lake, alternating between repetitions of slowed and real-time fragments of meadowlark motives over a series of accelerating trill-like chords, before arriving at a faster and rousing conclusion. I am forever grateful for the talents and energies of my friend, John Mayrose, for whom this piece was written.

Interlock for Pulsoptional (oboe, bassoon, marimba, piano, electric guitar, electric bass)

There is much music in the world that reveals how a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes the most beautiful aspect of a musical phrase doesn’t reside in a single melody, but is instead reflected in how multiple, simultaneous melodies interact. This holistic phenomenon is especially prevalent in African mbira (finger piano) music, a tradition that I have studied intensely for many years as part of my work with it’s preeminent scholar, Paul Berliner. For over 45 years, he has made it his life’s work to help preserve this amazing Zimbabwaen oral tradition through his scholarship.

The ethical implications of me—a white man from a privileged background, composing a piece based on a musical tradition from a marginalized people—is not lost on me. But it is my hope that Interlock is a worthy representation of the dazzling and grooving rhythmic complexity and unique harmonic beauty I find so compelling in this music. As mbira music is inherently collaborative, involving multiple, interwoven strands of melody, I felt it especially appropriate to celebrate mbira music’s most enriching qualities in a piece for my friends in Pulsoptional.

Much of the piece is based on particular mbira tunes whose component parts are often found in the stylized interlocking piano and marimba lines, leaving the rest of the ensemble to accent the implied harmonies in varying divisions of the beat. In later sections of the piece these parts are distributed to other instrument pairs (electric guitar and bass; oboe and bassoon) at different speeds and textures, all of which culminates in a resounding finale.

Howler for orchestra and electronics

One of the main things that attracts me to the natural world is sound. I found the rain forest of Costa Rica’s remote Osa peninsula particularly rich, being woken up at dawn every morning by persistent Howler monkeys. Their calls are like the environment itself: eerie and beautiful, complex yet primal. I have attempted to infuse these qualities into Howler, using my many recordings of those Howler monkeys as well as my impressions of the Costa Rican wild as inspiration. The piece begins at dawn and proceeds as many of my days on the Osa peninsula did: exploring the pristine yet sometimes rugged terrain, uncovering amazing natural phenomena, and taking time to rest—all the while reveling in the intense biodiversity of this important protected place. I am grateful to Dr. Robert Boardman and the wonderful South Bend Youth Symphony Orchestra for commissioning this piece.

audio excerpts coming soon

Numbers/Dates for Rhymes With Opera (2 sop, bari, a sx, vln, vla, vla, pno, vib, elec)

Numbers/Dates for chamber ensemble and 3 voices was born out of my exposure to the Emotional Prosody Speech and Transcripts project produced by the Linguistic Data Consortium at UPenn. Designed to support research in Emotional Prosody, (the linguistic term referring to the rhythm, emphasis, and pitch of speech which reflects a speakers emotional state) the project consists of recordings of actors uttering semantically neutral dates and numbers while in various emotional states. I was attracted to these recordings by not only the inborn humorous paradox involved in the actors' emotional rendering of non- emotional words but also by the inherently musical aspects of the uttered phrases, suggesting that emotion and music are related in ways that eschew our more commonplace notions of music as being intrinsically emotional.

In composing the piece, I started by musically analyzing the prosodic content of the individually uttered phrases and used them to generate the short melodic fragments that I wove into the fabric of the musical textures created by the instruments. In tandem with these repeated fragments, the singers are asked to emotionally utter the corresponding number and date phrases as they were performed by the actors who recorded the sound samples making up the research project. In most cases, after the singers emotionally speak the segments, the singers have passages that are sung in a more traditional manner, the musical content of these passages containing the melodic material corresponding to the uttered number and/or date.

I. anxiety leading to panic

II. sadness-despair-disgust-contempt

III. anger and happiness

(second) Fastest Land Animal for Short Distances for Pulsoptional (oboe, alto sax, marimba, guitar, bass, elec.) 

(second) Fastest Land Animal for Short Distances, explores ideas of speed and rapidity using elements, both composed and sequenced, of common “breakbeats” found in certain genres of electronic dance music. The breakbeat is the short snippet of sampled drum groove (usually taken from 70's soul and R&B songs) that when looped, lays the rhythmic foundation for much electronic dance music and hip-hop. The music in this piece stems from my attraction to jungle or drum 'n' bass music where breakbeats are sped up at inordinately fast tempos and split into short rhythmic fragments that when sequenced, create a frenetic chain of syncopated drum patterns. I derived much of the rhythmic and tonal contour of the composition from “sampling” and “fragmenting” specific breakbeats that are commonly heard in jungle/drum 'n' bass (listed below). I then mapped each component of the beat to specific instruments. The digitally processed, live electronic accompaniment in this piece consists of the specific breakbeats, both whole and broken, that form the rhythmic skeleton of the entire composition. 


Blowfly.“Sesame Street (Copter Break).” On TV. Hot Records. 1975.

Brown, J. “Funky Drummer.” In The Jungle Groove. Polydor. 1986.

Byrd, B.“Hot Pants - I’m Coming (Bonus Beats).” I Know You Got Soul. Urban Records. 1986. 

Collins, L.“Think (About It).” Think (About It). People. 1972.

Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band. “Apache.”  Bongo Rock. Pride. 1973.

The Winstons. “Amen Brother.” Color Him Father (B-side). Metromedia. 1969. 

audio excerpt coming soon