Breath & Hammers

Just as no man is an island, neither is any piece of music. There are always traditions, echoes of older works, and ghosts hovering over new works; sometimes their presence is buried and other times it’s quite close to the surface. For Breath & Hammers, the spirit of Thelonious Monk (1917 - 1986) dances discreetly in the background. Although I didn’t use any direct quotes from his music (no Monk tunes were harmed in the composing of Breath & Hammers), the angularity of his melodies were very much in mind as I was composing, especially since I composed the piece in 2017, his centennial year. Monk’s instrument was the piano, and Monk’s sounds lived in a world of winds and percussion, so the choice of piano and wind ensemble for this concerto seemed a natural fit.

The fast-slow-fast three movement structure is squarely in the tradition of the western art-music piano concerto, albeit with decidedly non-triadic harmony and an emphasis on rhythm (especially in Blurry Scurry) that reflects our current time. Straight Ahead Red is an amiable walk with an unexpected question at the end. Some of South of Midnight’s scoring is vaguely reminiscent of big-band; a very expanded, color-enhanced big-band, to be sure. It too veers off into the unexpected: the middle section is a faster tempo, giving a slow-fast-slow structure to the movement. This pattern is directly inspired by the second movement of Bartok’s second piano concerto, although nothing else about the movement resembles Bartok in the least. A short piano cadenza leads directly to Blurry Scurry and its propulsive rhythm leavened with off-beat punches, accents and fills.