Rhonda Belle Martin was a 49-year-old waitress from Montgomery, Alabama when she was convicted, in 1957, of committing heinous crimes against her family. She married five times—the last, to her stepson—and had five young children with one of them. In many ways, her very existence was at odds with the growing silent majority of what the American family was supposed to represent. These Walls explores the interior monologue of a seemingly-remorseless, self-centered woman over the course of a few restless night hours. — Kyle Tieman-Strauss
Who lies responsible for a soul in chaos? The indistinguishable hours between dusk and dawn wither swiftly by in a maximum security solitary confinement unit in Montgomery, Alabama. Outside these walls, the 1950s meets a new decade, a new America: conceptions of gender, race, family, and American values rapidly changing by the day. Rhonda Belle Martin inhabits two worlds, her limited present and unspeakable past, but to the world she is already dead. A fleeting and forgotten distraction in the local newspapers. A woman who spent the majority of her life slowly and painfully poisoning her mother, two husbands, and all of her five young children. A serial killer. Can Rhonda’s choices teach us anything?
Whether or not she realizes her time is soon to expire, Rhonda experiences the full scope of her emotions and most treasured memories within a cramped and lonesome cell, vacillating fiercely between devoted tenderness and crippling pain. The unbearable weight of Rhonda’s past is caused by a multitude of sources, but now, it is all her own. In her final moments, she is resigned, content, with nothing more to say or do. The electric chair silently waiting around a corner, Rhonda finds acceptance of impending death. Whether she accepted her years of life, we will never know. — Matthias Hope Naroff
I weep to think of what a deed I have to do
Next after that; for I shall kill my own children.
My children, there is none who can give them safety.
— from The Medea, Euripides
Excerpt (Part I): I remember a time
Excerpt (Part I): No, no, no!
Excerpt (Part III): Where is my place, here?
Excerpt, last 8 minutes (Part V): “Give and it will be given to you!” / There’s no more time now / Can it be?
Emilia Donato as Rhonda Belle Martin
Frank Capoferri, saxophone
Adam Holmes, percussion
Johanna Wienholts, harp
Aimée Niemann, violin
Aya Terki, cello
Kyle Tieman-Strauss, conductor
instrumentation soprano; tenor saxophone, percussion (vibraphone, children’s glockenspiel (2 octaves), almglocken, timbale, padlock, chain, kick bass drum, simantra), harp, violin, violoncello
premiere May 15, 2017, NYU Blackbox Theatre, NY, NY; Emilia Donato as Rhonda Belle Martin
conducted by Kyle Tieman-Strauss
directed by Georgia Mills
written July – December 2016
instrumentation multitracked tenor, clarinet, piano, percussion, violoncello, contrabass
written April 2018 –
James Tate’s poetry inhabits a world much like our own, with elements of the everyday that seem normal enough. Upon closer inspection, one sees that they’re every so slightly off, containing small details that don’t quite make sense. The three poems I set here reflect his preoccupation with the diffculties of change and the bizarre quotidian lives we live—symbolized by menacing new construction projects, herds of buffalo in suburbia, and a blue butterfly. It Was Here is dedicated to Emilia Donato and lasts about thirteen minutes.
instrumentation soprano and piano
written October 2015 – January 2016
Most of my music aims to create a long line across an entire piece—the opening material carrying the music through to the final note. This technique is a very old one: think Brahms’s themes-and-variations, or 16th century motets. But the minimalist music of the 1960s and 70s follows a similar path, its shifting sands slowly leading you to point B relatively unawares. I wanted to make a piece that reuses the opening music over and over, spinning out new material as it goes, arriving at different, yet somehow related music at the end.
The lilting woodwinds combined with stratospheric string notes that open Strong Arm present the main threads of the piece. In counterpoint to these elements are big brass chords and short string motives that move quickly from soft to loud—first appearing as sporadic interruptions, then by about two-thirds through overwhelming all else. At its zenith, the texture explodes, each of these elements fractured and flung scattered across the slow dissolution of the piece. Strong Arm was commissioned by the NYU Symphony Orchestra and lasts about seven minutes.
NYU Symphony Orchestra, Eduardo Leandro, conductor
premiere May 8, 2017, NYU Frederick Loewe Theatre, NY, NY
written February – March 2017
Spending a month of the summer in the Berkshires holds special meaning for me; as a teenager, I spent a few summers at Tanglewood just a few miles south of North Adams, a kind of musical coming-of-age that has resonated with me ever since. In writing this piece for the Bang on a Can Summer Institute, I thought a lot about what I associate with the Berkshires—the specific, expansive natural environment; the respite from the city; above all, the excited energy of music-making. In Sideline, the piano holds everything together as a kind of concertante instrument, emerging on its own only in the middle of the piece for a lonesome solo with the saxophone, a starry landscape refracted in memory. Sideline lasts about 6 minutes.
Bang on a Can Summer Institute, Ken Thomson, conductor
premiere July 25, 2016, Bang on a Can Summer Institute, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
written May – June 2016
instrumentation bass clarinet and vibraphone
commissioned by Conduit
premiere fall 2018
written June 2018
Bearthoven’s instrumentation is a jazz trio, so I thought about the kind of music I could make with this collection of instruments filtered through my own lens. What resulted is a groove with no let-up, nor a readily-identifiable meter. Muscle is a small hommage to Steve Martland and lasts about five minutes.
instrumentation vibraphone, piano, contrabass
premiere April 3, 2017, New York University
written February 2018
This string quartet is called Keep It Together because it’s about, well, holding a piece together. Each time an instrument enters, it begins in a strange place in the meter, first with a very fast ‘impulse,’ followed by a long note. As time goes on, these entrances fall closer together and the impulses become lengthened, to the point where the long notes disappear entirely. Keep It Together was written for the JACK Quartet and lasts about six minutes.
instrumentation string quartet
premiere April 24, 2016, Provincetown Playhouse, NY, NY
written January – March 2016
Lookout is a bit of a confessional: despite having playing a string instrument for most of my life, I’ve never written a string quartet. It felt only fitting, then, that for my first go at the genre, the piece would be for a very unconventional version of this group of instruments. ETHEL are, most noticeably, amplified, which lends itself less to the delicate harmonies that pervade much of the quartet repertoire of the last 300 years, and more to fast, driving music (that might also just be me).
I was more excited, though, by the idea of having both low voices—viola and cello—on the outside of the group. As a cellist, I played so many frankly boring bass-voice parts that I wanted to give the low voices a workout and bring them to be at least on par with the violins. Viola and cello take the lead throughout, including in beginning and ending the piece; I’ve often given them melodic material, either in a high or low register, that might ordinarily be reserved for the violins. The result is, I hope, a vaguely vengeful attempt to bring the classical quartet traditions that I became so familiar with to my own language. Lookout is dedicated to ETHEL, with excitement, is in two parts, and lasts about 13 minutes.
instrumentation amplified string quartet
commissioned by ETHEL
premiere March 8, 2017, National Sawdust, Brooklyn
written October 2015 – March 2016
The instrumentation of my sextet, Echo Chamber, is a bit odd, consisting of clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello, and bass. Not quite a Pierrot ensemble, this lopsided collection of instruments presents a few acoustic challenges that don’t seem to have a ready answer. Light Echo is an obsessive piece, built entirely on the opening few bars of music. In it, I tried to pit players against each other, while simultaneously finding, I hope, ways to make them cooperate. The piece lasts approximately nine minutes.
instrumentation clarinets, piano, percussion, violin, cello, double bass
commissioned by Echo Chamber
premiere February 22, 2016, New York University, NY
written July-September 2015
Writing for saxophones is one of my favorite things to do; either paired with other instruments, or together in a quartet as they are here, saxophones have a certain sultry and delicious range of expressive capabilities. For this quartet, I wanted to exploit that wide range in as many different ways as I could.
The first movement is concerned with a small melody that the soprano and alto saxes introduce at the outset; the music is smooth and rocky in turns, alternatively harnessing the instruments’ natural inclination to blend with each other, and trying its best to thwart it. A short, frantic second movement follows, made entirely of canonic mountains and valleys that delight in using the highest range of the saxophone. The final movement is soft and somewhat mischievous: a tapestry constantly in motion is bookended by two quiet, rhythmically-staid sections. Minor Details was commissioned by Dynamic Music Festival, is dedicated to the Manhattan Saxophone Quartet, and lasts approximately eleven minutes.
Manhattan Saxophone Quartet
instrumentation clarinets, piano, percussion, violin, cello, double bass
commissioned by Dynamic Music Festival
premiere February 28, 2015, Frederick Loewe Theatre, NY, NY
written November-December 2014
instrumentation solo harp and playback
commissioned by Hope Wilk
premiere fall 2018
written September 2017-January 2018
Nothing Personal arose from a series of short studies I made for my dear friend Aya Terki involving live cello and a looping pedal. After months of fiddling with different looping solutions, I ended up writing this piece, which makes use of loops in the musical material, however eliminates the need for live looping. The piece has two main contrasting sets of material: long, fractured melodies; and obsessive fast arpeggios. These motives interact in various ways, slowly coalescing into the urgent music of the final section.
instrumentation solo cello and playback
commissioned by Aya Terki
premiere July 3, 2016, Scholes Street Studio, Brooklyn, NY
written May-June 2016
When I think about percussion, the first characteristic that comes to mind is theater. Watching percussionists run around the stage juggling many different instruments is particularly thrilling, and, above all else, is what has always attracted me to percussion music. Seen and Heard is about exactly this; while writing the piece, beyond the notes and rhythms, I was thinking about what the music would look like on stage. Seen and Heard is dedicated to Adam Holmes, and lasts about ten minutes.
Adam Holmes, vibraphone
instrumentation solo vibraphone
commissioned by Adam Holmes
premiere November 6, 2015, New York University, NY
written April-June 2015
I often—lovingly—think of the harp world in the same sphere as that weird part of the Internet with odd diet blogs and Scientology forums; it comes complete with a sort a shibboleth and its own lingo. Objection comes next in a line of shorter harp pieces that I’ve written over the past few years, in the hopes of figuring out how the instrument and its attendant baggage works—I spent hours digging through Salzedo and other ‘harpy’ texts, and did a lot of listening. The result is a piece that I hope does right by generations of pathbreaking harp composers.
Hope Wilk, harp
instrumentation solo harp
commissioned by Hope Wilk
premiere April 22, 2014, Mazzoleni Hall, The Royal Conservatory, Toronto, ON
written January 2014