My compositional activity continues along the path I began in the mid-1970s. At that time I was concerned with integrating theoretical and technical elements of music with philosophical and literary ideas. For instance, At the Still Point, for orchestra (1977), and Mestiere, for piano (1979), use the technique of ‘frozen registration’ to illustrate a poetic image: the ‘still point’ where past and future meet in T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton; and the integrity of one’s life and work implied in the title of Cesare Pavese’s Il mestiere di vivere (The Business of Living). Tenzone, for two flutes and piano (1975), relies on the interplay of extended techniques and timbral devices between two flutes, mirroring a lyric interchange between two poets in medieval Italy. The dramatic tension in Trasumanar, for twelve percussionists and piano (1980), reflects Dante’s struggle at the beginning of the Paradiso to understand the sensual pull of being human and the spiritual aspiration to transcend human experience. All of these works contain strong characteristics of Japanese music: transparent textures and delicate nuances; sounds frozen in space; circular musical forms, a kind of mobile fixity where tensions expand and contrast against a background of stillness.
In the 1980s and ’90s I began to differentiate between influence and resonance. ‘Influence’ in the sense of direct musical influences and quotes from a specific composer. For example, I directly quote a moment from the third movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra in my 1979 Mestiere. As opposed to the use of ‘resonance’ in my 1983 Piano Concerto in which I acknowledge a lifelong passion for the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland and incorporate their sounds into the texture of my work without imitating their music. I developed new structures, as in Piano Sonata (1986; revised 1987), which adopts the modular arrangement of a triptych lithograph by Jasper Johns. I developed new textures, as in Traverso, for flute and piano (1987), where I blend Japanese transparency with the heroic and open musical landscape suggested by American harmonies of the 1930s and ’40s. The title of Resisting Stillness, for two guitars (1996), suggests a way of listening to the work and reflects my creative struggle at the time–a personal pulling up from silence–as well as my interest in the power of pure sound wedded to lyrical line.
I am increasingly turning to text setting as one of my major compositional concerns. The Gift of Life, for soprano and piano (1990-1993), a song-cycle based on texts by Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov and Thornton Wilder, grew directly from my work with text and characters in Tight-Rope, a chamber opera I wrote with Henry Butler in 1985. Songs that followed set the words of Allen Ginsberg (“Guru”), Sheldon Harnick (“Chez Vous”), Muriel Rukeyser (“Recovering”), and Carl Sandburg (“Baby Song of the Four Winds” and “Prayers of Steel”). From 1997-2002 William Zinsser and I collaborated on Modern Love Songs, a cycle that sits somewhere between cabaret/standard tunes and art songs and reflects our shared passion for the American Songbook. And most recently, Sailors & Dreamers, for voice and chamber ensemble (2007-2010), written with Shirley Kaplan, pays tribute to the tides and the currents that carry us forward to the new and the unexpected.