commissioned by: WDR for the JACK and Arditti Quartets at the 2017 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik
premiere: May 2017
length: 15 minutes
date: February 2017
instrumentation: spatial string octet (1st violin and cellos on stage, all others around the audience)
program note: Undone began as an experiment with spatial arrangement of a string octet. My initial aim was to create a work using only acoustic sound that would achieve conditions similar to those I have attained in other pieces that rely on digital signal processing and amplification. Seven performers physically located around the hall spatialize, resonate, and echo (in a variety of ways) the music first played by the principal violinist. But while composing the piece, I became increasingly distracted and dismayed by political developments in the United States and Europe, and the work became much more than a formal exercise in acoustic spatialization.
My grandfather came to America in 1902 when he was 20 years old, leaving behind his parents and twelve brothers and sisters, most of whom were later murdered during the Holocaust. The synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah was almost completely burned; today, one remaining wall has been integrated into a secular building in a town that is devoid of Jews. Yet because the United States accepted him as an immigrant, my grandfather was able to survive, worship freely, start a small business, and raise a family. Although neither he nor my father ever made much money, I was able to get an excellent education and have enjoyed a comfortable life with many extraordinary opportunities — including this one — to do what I love most: make music.
To witness my country elect a racist president and close its doors to refugees, and to read about the rise of right-wing nationalism in Germany and other European countries, has been deeply troubling. As I composed the piece, my thoughts and emotions about my family’s past and contemporary events inevitably began to make their way into my music. Drawing on memories of my own bar mitzvah ceremony, I chose to incorporate references to Ashkenazi haftarah incantation (the way 13 year olds chant sacred texts during their bar mitzvah) to honor my deceased family members. These references, along with the more restrained material from earlier in the piece, yield and ultimately give way to the despair that I and so many others feel about our present geopolitical moment.