Split (2015)

scored for piano solo and orchestra (3333.4331.3perc.harp.strings)

duration 25 minutes

Split is a hyper-active fantasy for piano and orchestra.  The piece was written for Jeffrey Kahane, and I took much inspiration from the wit, vitality, and expressive character of his playing.  I started with the idea of casting Jeffrey as a mercurial trickster, wreaking havoc in and among the various sections of the orchestra, but as the piece progressed he became less the prankster and more the pranked, an unwitting protagonist trapped in a Rube Goldbergian labyrinth of causes and effects who tries, with ever greater desperation, to find his way out of the madness and on to some higher plane.

In one sense the piece could be read as the spirited inner dialogue of a pianist with many conflicting personalities.  Each of these personalities is associated with and amplified by a different group of instruments in the orchestra.

In another sense, the piece is an epic battle between the pianist, who has many different stories to tell, and the percussionists who are constantly interrupting these stories and switching the music to different channels entirely.  Each percussion instrument acts as a very specific trigger in this game of channel-changing jump-cuts: the pop of a bongo drum starts a minimalist perpetual-motion-machine, the metalic zing of a spring coil unleashes florid and effusive arpeggios, and the scrape of a washboard sends everyone down a relentless spiral of asymmetric suspensions (and the list of actions / reactions could go on and on…).  This is a universe with a lot of rules, and for the most part I abide by them all.

In yet another sense, the title references my thinking about the orchestra and its dual nature as both organism and machine.  Talk to any player in a symphony orchestra and they will describe their role as a cog in a well-oiled clockwork.  Indeed, part of the thrill of watching an orchestra is to behold the mechanistic precision of its members.  Yet on the other hand, what makes the orchestra unique and indispensable (especially in this age when almost all the sounds in the music around us are made, in one way or another, by a computer) is the unmatched and unfiltered human energy and collective human expression of its constituent musicians.  Split seeks to explore this clockwork vs. organism dialectic, to celebrate the outer reaches of both precise synchronicity and complete freedom, to chart and traverse the distance between people being machines and people being people.

Split was premiered by Jeffrey Kahane, James Gaffigan, and the New York Philharmonic on December 10, 2015 at David Geffen Hall in New York City.

Split was reviewed here in the New York Times.