Author Archives: Phillip Sink

“freehand-jot” for Saxophone Quartet

I just received the recording for “freehand-jot” from the recent premieres concert. Feel free to take a listen. If you are interested in learning more about the piece, read the previous blog.



I’d like to extend further commentary on this piece in this blog. The previous blog discusses the inner meaning of the piece in hindsight. This blog will go a little further into that in relation to my current research topic, which is the Totalistic movement of the 90s (and even today?). It has been a lot of fun attempting to dig into an established “ism” that has occurred recently. There has not been much written about this beyond the writings of Kyle Gann (who, in which, I am interviewing this coming week!) I first heard of this movement back in 2004 when I scheduled a discussion with Appalachian State’s percussion professor, Robert Falvo. Since then, I have been very interested in this movement, since by the very definition, is something I’ve been trying to work into my own compositions. In a nutshell, Gann has described Totalism as “having your cake and eating it too.” This is to say, composers have used all types of music, from popular forms, Eastern forms, other world musics, and modern art music through the filter of minimalism to create music that can appeal to seasoned listeners as well as the layperson. Additionally rhythm is extremely important to the Totalist composers. They feel that the postminimalist did not go far enough in their pitch and rhythmic choices.

With that definition, I do feel that this particular piece has the Totalistic aesthetic in mind. I will eventually post a long blog concerning the topic once my paper is finished. Who knows where the hell music is going these days… I think the Totalists were onto something, and we should continue to go there.

Good news about this piece. The West Circle saxophone quartet is performing this at the regional NASA convention in Chicago this coming winter. They are playing “freehand-jot” along with a piece by David Biedenbender.

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MSU Premieres

Recently I have had two Michigan premieres on Tuesday, November. The first was a wind quintet I wrote this summer for the UNL Chamber Music Institute, and the other was a sax quartet titled “freehand-jot.” Feel free to view them below. The wind quintet is first on the program, and the sax quartet is last starting at the 34:00 mark. I have previously blogged about both pieces, so if you want to learn more, visit some of my previous posts. “freehand-jot” will be premiered in Chicago this February for the regional NASA conference.

“Hoketus” by Andriessen (music you should check out)

I’m currently chin deep into a research project studying the Totalistic movement of the 90s. In short, the Totalistic movement was based in downtown NYC and involved postminimal composers interested in creating music that appeals to casual and serious listeners using a minimalistic backdrop. Unfortunately, there isn’t too much written about this movement beyond the writings of Kyle Gann. With this is mind, I am having to broaden the research back to minimalism, which led me to a book titled “Repeating Ourselves, Minimalism as Cultural Practice” by Robert Fink. Even though though this is a fascinating read, most of the musical examples provided in the book are staples from the minimalistic movement. I already know these, and it’s nice to stumble across pieces I’m not familiar with. Today one example that I’m not familiar with appeared in a chapter comparing minimalism to TV advertisement. Finally, something new to me! (Maybe I like minimalism/postminimalism a bit too much).

Anyways, the piece is call “Hoketus” by Louis Andriessen. The title reveals the technique use in which to create the piece. The technique is borrowed from old Medieval music called the hocket. This is cool technique where composite rhythms and melodies are generated by alternating patterns.

I particularly enjoy the shifts starting at 8:00 in Part I toward the end of the piece.

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Canciones de Jara: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra

I have had the great fortune to study with some awesome composers since 2001. My current composition teacher, Ricardo Lorenz, just premiered an exquisite viola concerto performed by Roberto Diaz (the president of the Curtis Institute) and the MSU Symphony Orchestra. Roberto Diaz performed the concerto immaculately; it was an absolute joy to listen to such greatness.

Composer Ricardo Lorenz with violist Roberto Diaz

The piece was based on songs by the Chilean singer/songwriter Victor Jara, who was murdered by Pinochet’s regime because of his outspoken protest songs.  Ricardo gave the piece a sense of reverence to Victor Jara in a very genuine and sincere way.  I was blown away.  I don’t want to give away too much by divulging some of the surprises within the piece… and believe me, there are some surprises that will evoke both emotional and physical reactions. As hackneyed as this line is: it sent chills down my spine.

It is a piece that doesn’t reveal itself upon the first few listenings.  After hearing it one and a half times, I am looking forward to having my own copy of the recording so that I can hear more of its secrets.

Lorenz came to our studio class yesterday to discuss the concerto and he posed a few questions that I will like to explore in future blog posts:

How does a composer of art music make a social, emotional, political, etc. statement without the aid of images? (i.e. films)

specifically….  How can you convey a non-musical message in a form as traditional as a concerto?

How can music in itself convey empathy?

I haven’t kept my word of blogging once a week!  I must repent by doubling up blog entries for the next few weeks.

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Many many times I realize that I go about doing things without knowing exactly what I’m doing.  After the fact, I sometimes have one of those “Oh yeah!  THAT is what I was up to!” moments.  I had one of those moments last week.  These moments have everything to do with me being an intuitive person… I get this from my mother, who is the most incredibly intuitive person I know.

This moment involves a saxophone quartet I composed during the first part of the year.  The piece is titled “freehand, jot” which I want to consider two pieces in a collection, and not two movements of the same piece.

For a while, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I was doing with “freehand.”  I could never coherently explain to my professor why I was writing what I was writing… however, he loved the music.  I love it too, but still am very nervous about putting it out there for public consumption. The ol’ premieres concert is approaching soon and I want to put some music on!  So, I found a sax quartet made up of graduate students at MSU to perform it.  Putting it together for the quartet made me reexamine what I wrote months ago.

I figured it out.  I can finally explain what I was doing in hindsight.

Here it goes:

“freehand” is made up of a chromatic collection of 5 pitch-classes.  That’s it.  No more, no less.  I was simply giving myself an exercise of using very little pitch material to create a piece.  Also, no melodies allowed!  I write melodies…  all the time…  I can only think of one piece (post-minimal) that doesn’t have a tune of some sort.

So that’s  it… I was simply giving myself a compositional exercise I’ve never tried before.  I used rhythm, timbre, intensity, density and TEXTURE to shape the form.  Then I realized exactly why I was playing around with the title “freehand.”  In high school I quickly realized that I would never become a visual artist.  Sitting in Art I, I spent hours on freehand line drawing exercises.  The lines would start out straight, but they immediately began to wobble and contort into a drunken path down the page.  I had to come to terms with the devastating news… I couldn’t draw straight lines!  Most people can’t.  I am one of them.  This is not essential to all forms of visual art, but I immediately knew that I simply did not have the technique for it.  I mean, who wants to become an artist anyway?

This also took me back to the times in elementary school. Many times I would get the red pen of death on top of the page marked -5…. handwriting.   Sorry if my nervous system isn’t good enough for you Ms. Teacherperson.  Another afterthought: I can barely read my own handwriting most of the time.

Anyways, the music reminded me of those painstaking exercises I endured in high school.  My hand would cramp. I feverishly erased lines and tried again.  Still the end results were be a sad lines that would veer from their paths of infinity.  This is like me veering from the path of trying to become an artist.  I still dabble… I’m a hobbyist… by the way… the cool banner on my website… I painted that.

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Economical Composing

I am now studying with Ricardo Lorenz, a composer from Venezuela who has been getting a lot of recognition in recent years. He is having me go through a few different pre-compositional processes to compose a neuftet (nonet, nine-net, 9net) that is made up of string quartet+wind quintet.

Compositional Economy:
For the first week’s lesson, I brought in a few musical ideas based on the trichord [0, 6, 7] (or [0, 1, 6] in prime form). For this piece, I want to build the melodic and harmonic material using this set. I am intentionally reducing my pitch choices.

Spending some time with metacognition can help you become a better composer. Metacognition is thought on thoughts; self-analysis of your thought processes. For instance, when I was a young, spry composer, I often infused a wealth of musical ideas in one piece. As rich as this may sound, this usually creates terrible music. The error of my thinking was that I thought it was clever to entrench the audience with many many great musical ideas in one piece. Flood them with my brilliance! Show them what I can do with sounds, harmonies, rhythms, texture, etc. Wrong… what a terrible way to go about composing.  The fewer good ideas the better.

It is like the amateur painter using the entire box of paints for a work rather than a few select colors. Many great artists use very few colors to create amazing works by blending, mixing and pairing colors. If they do use many colors, there are still colors that are salient. The color choice is the building block  of a painting, and the composition/subject is the grand schema.  Once the small-scale and large-scale framework is chosen, the artist can fill in the rest from the outside-in.  This is a similar process we go through as composers.  What I’m discussing in this post is the small-scale choices I am consciously making to produce material for the piece.  Maybe in the next post, I can talk about the grand schema of the piece.

By choosing a small set of pitches (I may extend it to a hexachord) as the “glue,” it will make it easier to create a consistent sounding harmonic language. The melodic and harmonic material will relate, and this can be expanded to the larger structure. Professor Lorenz wants me to attempt thinking in a psuedo-Schenkerian way, where the main trichord (or hexachord; yet to be decided) becomes the skeletal structure of phrases… and in reverse.. harmonic ideas can be pulled from the initial (main) melodic idea. This will open up possibilities for harmonies in a transformative way… Pulling pitch material from the same source in order to create different sonorities. Otherwise, if I only use [0, 1, 6] for the harmonic material, the harmonies will quickly become homogenous, boring, and predictable. So this process, hopefully, keep the language consistent, yet with variety. The goal is to compose outward from a small idea.

Below is the original idea:

This idea is a series of [0 1 6] sets.  Additionally, the entire contour is a [0 1 6] set as well:

Looking at this small amount of music, I plan to use permutations of this figure to produce more melodic material.  Since this is a compound melody (melody with multiple layers), I will play around with the different layers in this idea.

What I’m focusing on now is forming harmonic ideas from the figure above.  The following is a complete harmonic cycle using just these pitches:

From this, I can pull short melodic ideas from the voice leading.  Here is one I will use: (C E Db F E)

and this one: (C Bb A C A G#)

It’s a start…. this harmonic cycle will be used in many ways.  I’m starting out by using very open voicings. Later in the piece the harmony will become very close and crunchy.  Also, it will be sent to the high and low tessiture.

This is what I have now.  Composing is fun.

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Dichotomies in Music

In Professor Lorenz’s class, “20th Century Music Literature,” we are focusing on music from 1950-2000. We discussed something today that all composers should think about while composing music. When describing a piece of music, one can list many things… one could make a list such as: angry, forceful, sectional, sad, in 4/4 time with regular metric accents, harmonically complex with a chromaticism, reoccurring motivic ideas. These descriptions fall within two categories: delineated descriptions and inherent descriptions.

Delineated values are framed by cultural references. These tend to be the emotional response of the listener in context of their cultural surroundings. This is where terms such as: sad, forceful, warlike come into play. Inherent values are inborn in the sound of the piece. This is where descriptions such as “harmonically complex” and “reoccurring motivic ideas” fall. Modernists such as Cage and Boulez wanted to create music that was inherently good, and strip the music of any delineated meaning. There are many music reviewers in the pop music realm that can only attach value to music in delineated terms. If fact, I did an experiment with my intro to music theory class (the students are not music majors) where I asked students to describe a piece of music. I would say 95% of the responses were in the delineated category. As an exercise, I had them listen to a piece of music of their own choosing, but describe only the inherent qualities of the music. Many of them had a very hard time listening to music in this way. As composers, I think we attach a lot of inherent value to our work (we are artists and we cannot help ourselves). Now consider this… if the general public attaches value to music in cultural ways rather than inherent ways, what does this imply for us?


Classical and popular music can both be very complex. There are different types of complexities due to way each type is disseminated. Classical music is disseminated via notation. We can compose a sketch of an orchestra piece on a grand staff and then transfer the music to the orchestra… you can then scale it down to a string quartet, or a wind quintet… all versions would have the same complexities of pitch and rhythm material and still be totally recognizable. This type of complexity is extensional. Popular music has intentional complexity. Pop music is disseminated via recordings, so the timbre, style, mixing, and recording is what makes a lot of the music. Now this is probably why there are so many god awful marching band arrangements of pop music… it simply doesn’t transfer well due to the different complexities.

I personally like thinking about these two types of complexities. There are a lot of composers that have tried to write music with both extensional and intentional complexities. Take Scelsi for example… many of his orchestral works are entirely focused on timbre and texture and he is able to create wonderful new sounds with the orchestra. However, these sounds are achieved using notation… but, the sounds are NOT transferable to any other ensemble. I personally have been on the same path of considering timbre and texture just as important as pitch/rhythm. This becomes an issue when I am trying to sketch out ideas for larger ensembles. When I am composing with timbre shifts/effects, and different textural densities, it is difficult to sketch out ideas without drawing lines and jotting down things in text form since this type of complexity is not notationally driven. Often my goal is to produce music that is idiomatic to whatever I’m writing for… music that isn’t transferable. I thought this discussion about complexities brought up an interesting parallel in what I try to do as a composer and what I hear other composers doing. Varese brought this up…. how do we deal with our notation system that restricts us in so many ways? How can we keep our tradition of writing for acoustic instruments, while infusing more intentional complexities in our music? This is something I’m personally interested in, but I think it is something for all composers to think about.


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The UNL Chamber Music Institute.

My MSU composition colleagues and I have made a pact to produce at least one blog per week on our personal websites.  Occasionally we will then post our personal blogs on other blogs, such as the MSU composition website.  Someone made the point that there is no point in having a blog-style website unless you are producing new material regularly.  I’ve been incredibly guilty of not doing much in terms of blogging, or keeping my website up to date.  So this year, I’m committed to producing at least a short blog once a week.

This summer, I was one of six composers nationally to participate in the UNL Chamber Music Institute.  This was the first time I’ve ever applied to a summer program like this as a composer.  For this institute, each chamber group participating is paired with a composer… the composer writes a piece for the group and the group has three days to rehearse and perform it in concert.  During this week-long institute, the composers had a daily masterclass, and attended masterclasses about chamber music performance and entrepreneurial led by the members of the Chiara String Quartet.  Additionally, the composers had daily rehearsals with their assigned groups.

I was assigned to write for the Quintessential Winds, a wind quintet based in Long Beach, CA.  I’ve been in this kick to use old poetry that I have written years ago to drum up inspiration for composing.  I found an old poem titled “Looming” for the first movement of the piece.


the dyspeptic looming clouds
stumble over your every word
from your ginger lips
stacked precisely
but the careless sting
from frozen red (cheeks
and) ears linger

The first movement started with the pitch center “A” and two simple melodic fragments.  From there the long sustained sounds went through series of color shifts, while solo melodic passages interweave within the texture.  My current composition teacher described the movement as “organic.”  I think that this single word is very accurate in portraying the music.

The second movement was a result of the first movement.  I wanted to write a contrasting movement that featured more metric drive and ensemble playing.  The harmonic language is based on a synthetic scale I constructed using 8 pitches, and an additional synthetic scale based on the original. After I wrote the music, I used the music to inspire a poem.

A Silver Strand
A silver strand of words
extrudes itself from clinched teeth
out of order, in any order
flits around tenses,
wraps around tense fingers and
curls off a sunken brow.
on an impatient shoulder it rests.
interrupted by jagged punctuations the
strand meteorically dashes to dangle
heedlessly on the tendrils of the sun.

After I finished, I found it appropriate to title the work “Two Poems for Wind Quintet.”

The institute was a fantastic experience!  I hope to be able to do more institutes in the future.  The performance opportunity was great, but even greater was the networking and bridge building with the other composers and performing groups.  This experience led to a commission of a nonet composed of the Quintessential Winds and the Phoenix based Tetra String Quartet.  This piece will be written by January and premiered in L.A. sometime in February of 2011.

Program Notes to My Recital

I have uploaded my performance of “This Staggering Night” under the Audio Samples tab.  Feel free to listen!

Upcoming Recital

I’m currently working on putting together a split saxophone/composition recital, which is to be held in late March.  The concept of this recital is to present a collection of new music that includes a softer and more subtle side of modern music.  Much of the music will be nuanced by soft dynamics and effects with occasional loud bursts of sound.  Currently, I’m working on marimba and sax duet concept piece that will be titled “this staggering night,” which I will also serve as the name of the recital.  So far, there will be five pieces (hopefully) on the concert.

Here is the program in the works:

Ryo Noda, Mai for solo alto saxophone

Rosse, Le Frene Egare for solo alto saxophone

Sink, Mindnosis, electronic work

Scelsi, Tres Pezzi for tenor saxophone (or soprano)

Sink, Improvisation Machina for improvised percussion and interactive electronics.

Sink, This Staggering Night for marimba and alto sax


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