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These Walls

Libretto by Matthias Hope Naroff

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

See also: Confinement Arias – four arias from the opera, arranged for soprano and piano

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
duration 60′

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Vocal music

Confinement Arias

Four arias from my chamber opera, These Walls, arranged for soprano and piano. I selected these arias for their expression of confinement—both physical and mental—which is both a central theme in the opera, and is apropos of the COVID-19 pandemic's homeboundedness in which I arranged these arias.

The four arias arranged here are:

I. I'm a giver (from Part 1)
II. Father? Where are you now? (from Part 2)
III. Berceuse (from Part 3)
IV. Give, and it will be given to you! (from Part 5)

instrumentation soprano and piano
written April – May 2019
duration 20' total (individual mvts. may be performed alone)

Forsaken Tunes

Coming soon!

instrumentation multitracked voice, clarinet, piano, percussion, violoncello, contrabass
written April 2018 – December 2018
duration 30'

It Was Here

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
duration 13′

Large ensemble music

Strong Arm

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

instrumentation orchestra
premiere May 8, 2017, NYU Frederick Loewe Theatre, NY, NY
written February – March 2017
duration 7′

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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

instrumentation sinfonietta
premiere July 25, 2016, Bang on a Can Summer Institute, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
written May – June 2016
duration 6′

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Small ensemble music

new work

Coming soon!

instrumentation viola and harp
commissioned by Les Deux
premiere TK
written 2021
duration TK

So soon, and for so long

Coming soon!

instrumentation clarinets, baritone saxophone, piano, synth, violin, violoncello
premiere TK
written December 2020 –
duration TK


Throughout Abject—true to the title—the ‘quiet groove’ that the vibraphone establishes at the outset finds different ways of rearing its head in both bass clarinet and vibes, to a maximal effect. Abject lasts about six minutes and is dedicated to Conduit.

instrumentation bass clarinet and vibraphone
commissioned by Conduit
premiere February 7, 2019, Areté Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
written June 2018
duration 6'

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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 2017
duration 5'

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Keep It Together

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.

JACK Quartet

instrumentation string quartet
premiere April 24, 2016, Provincetown Playhouse, NY, NY
written January – March 2016
duration 6'

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Lookout is an exercise in revenge. Having played the cello for most of my childhood, I can’t begin to count the number of uninspiring bass-voice parts I’ve stared at. For Lookout, my first string quartet, I wanted to give the viola and cello a workout, to level the playing field in a way. ETHEL bend the typical string quartet setup: they are, most noticeably, amplified—lending well to the kind of music I traffic in—however they also place the viola and cello on the outside of the group. With this spotlight, I gave those two players material that might ordinarily be reserved for the violins, pushing their registral limits in the process. (This isn’t to say the violins are left out; they too are required to perform some stratospheric acrobatics.) Lookout is dedicated with excitement to ETHEL, and lasts about fourteen minutes.

instrumentation amplified string quartet
commissioned by ETHEL
premiere March 8, 2017, National Sawdust, Brooklyn
written October 2015 – March 2016; April 2019
duration 13'

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Minor Details

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
duration 11'

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Solo music

Isolation Étude

During the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, when nearly every live music performance was cancelled, I wrote this short piece for violinist Sarah Martin as a part of Gabriela Lena Frank's #GLFCAMGigThruCOVID—a scheme by which a bunch of composers wrote short pieces in order to create online performance gigs for our community of new music interpreters. The piece is a short exercise for the composer and performer in making my fifth-based harmonic universe work idiomatically for the violin.

The video of the first performance is available on YouTube.

instrumentation solo violin
commissioned by Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music
premiere August 13, 2020, online
written September 2017-January 2018; November-December 2019
duration 3'


Writing for harp is probably my favorite thing to do. The breadth of sound possibilities is enormous, and keeping track of pedal settings is a wonderfully difficult mind game to which to set onself. For Creases, I sought to plumb the depths of harp technique, to create a piece that sits well within the fingers and eschews unnecessarily difficult (or non- idiomatic) figures. At the same time, I wanted a really dense sound, in a way that only the harp can provide. The result is a piece for one solo harpist, playing along with a backing track comprised of three other iterations of themself.

The piece is constructed on a cyclic harmonic foundation—a series of chords perpetually in a downward shape, which over time expand and yield related harmonies, before contracting again at the end. Creases is dedicated to Hope Wilk—my conspirator in bringing proper contemporary harpwriting to the mases—and lasts about 13 minutes.

instrumentation solo harp and playback
commissioned by Hope Wilk
premiere TK
written September 2017-January 2018; November-December 2019
duration 13'

Nothing Personal

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
duration 10'


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
duration 6'