Can You Guess My Name?

The ninety-one Old English riddle-songs from the Exeter Book are some of the only extant, vernacular riddles from Anglo-Saxon England. Encompassing themes of home-life, animals, flora and fauna, war and sexuality, they provide a remarkable portrait of Anglo-Saxon life, and a clue as to the ways in which Anglo-Saxons understood their world.

Ever since I was introduced to the riddles-songs in my junior year of undergrad (in a stunning, poetic translation by Craig Williamson), the collection—and every turn it takes, from the beautiful to the bawdy to the sublime and ecclesiastical—has been a constant companion and a touchstone for my compositions. I read the collection again and again, to remind myself how to combine the playful with the profound, how to be concise and yet ensure that my material resonates with subtextual meaning, and how to craft endings that are, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, “surprising but inevitable.”

It me took four years, however, to finally entertain setting the riddle-songs themselves, a project which turned into Can You Guess My Name? In Can You Guess My Name?, I have attempted to create an underscore for two riddle-songs, Nos. 5 (Whistling Swan) and 14 (Anchor). My goal for both settings was simple. I wanted to heighten drama of each riddle—their beauty, their violence, their sensuality and their mystery, qualities that have drawn me back to the riddles many times over the years and, I am sure, will do so for many more.


1. Whistling Swan (Riddle-Song No. 5)

My gown is silent as I thread the seas,
Haunt old buildings or tread the land. Sometimes my song-coat and the supple wind cradle me high over the homes of men,
And the power of clouds carries me Windward over cities. Then my bright silks Start to sing, whistle, roar,
Resound and ring, while I
Sail on untouched by earth and sea,
A spirit, ghost and guest, on wing.

Anonymous; tr. Craig Williamson; © 2011 University of Pennsylvania Press. Riddle Songs used with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

2. Anchor (Riddle-Song No. 14)

In battle I rage against wave and wind,
Strive against storm, dive down seeking
A strange homeland, shrouded by the sea.
In the grip of war, I am strong when still;
In battle-rush, rolled and ripped
In flight. Conspiring wind and wave
Would steal my treasure, strip my hold,
But I seize glory with a guardian tail
As the clutch of stones stands hard
Against my strength. Can you guess my name?

Anonymous; tr. Craig Williamson; © 2011 University of Pennsylvania Press. Riddle Songs used with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Naked Light

Naked Light takes its inspiration from four paintings by Edward Hopper (1882-1967): Morning in a City (1944), Morning Sun (1952), Hotel by a Railroad (1952) and Office in a Small City (1953). Each painting depicts a subject(s) standing in front of an open window, staring onto a cityscape just beyond the sill. A strong light returns, flooding their bodies. Rather than bringing warmth however, in each painting the light is cold. In the light, the subjects are revealed to be gaunt, angular, textured and “imperfect”. Emotionally, the light pierces the subjects, stripping away their exterior selves—any costumes or artifices they may have put on—and reveals the insecurities and anxieties that lie beneath.

The emotions evoked in these paintings remind me of various moments in my life. I remembered waking up before any of my cabin-mates at sleep-away camp. A high, small window left open in the night let in the morning light and sounds onto my top bunk. The unfamiliarity of both intensified my homesickness. I was reminded, too, of mornings during my freshman year of college when I would open my shades to see an unfamiliar campus portending four years of new experiences and stressful music theory tests. And now, amidst a pandemic, rampant police violence, and political mayhem, it is a sensation I feel strongly every morning, the sunlight reminding me that it is time to tackle the uncertainties of the day. I decided to represent these experiences in music.

A week after the work’s premier, I discovered that I was not the only person who had gravitated toward Hopper’s works during the pandemic. While researching whether Hopper had painted any works in response to the 1918 influenza pandemic, I found a March 16 tweet, by the author Michael Tisserand. Captioning four of Hopper’s works that depict the painter’s famously solitary subjects, Tisserand wrote “we are all Edward Hopper paintings now.” The tweet received seventy-one thousand retweets and over two-hundred thousand likes. Memes of Hopper’s paintings, often with their subjects removed, proliferated and journals from the New Yorker to Time Magazine published articles detailing the prescience, and sudden popularity of Hopper’s works.

Hopper, it turns out, had not painted any works in response to the 1918 pandemic, but his depictions of lonely figures situated in silent, ominous cityscapes has resonated with viewers during who are currently living in similar isolation. Unwittingly, in using Hopper’s paintings as a springboard for my own writing about solitude, I had connected myself to thousands of other people. My hope is that Naked Light might serve as a point of connection for others, too.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Andrew French, Ayaka Arai, Torstein Johansen, and Alex Goodin who underwent the strange and thrilling journey of giving Naked Light’s virtual premiere during the 2020 Fresh Inc Festival from four different locations in the U.S. I am in awe of their musicianship and dedication, and I thank them for bringing this work to life.

My Mad Dances

I began writing My Mad Dances in my junior year at Oberlin as a choral piece—a setting of Ada Limón’s poem, “A Name.” As so often happens, however, the material began to take on a character of its own—one that was at odds with Limón’s text, one that felt at home, not in the mouths of six solo singers, but in the fingers of six solo string players.

Once I stopped working with Limón’s text and changed my instrumentation, my intention with the piece transformed into a personal, purely musical, endeavor to write fast, rambunctious music that would give the listener an impression of a character absorbed in the fervor of strange dances, awkward movements, elbows and knees flying.

The piece is in three sections. The first is an aggressive dance, replete with stomps, thumbs, and wild spins. A driving ostinato in the second viola and cellos underpins a sprightly, almost fiendish melody in the violins and first viola. The music builds and builds in intensity until it reaches a lush, romantic climax, suddenly melodious and graceful. The second section—an expansive five-part canon—is a waltz, “mad” in its slow un-danceability, but also something of an “eye-in-the-storm” that is the rest of the work. The third section is a recapitulation of the first but elaborated and ornamented in order to drive the piece to as “mad” a conclusion as possible.

Among many reasons, My Mad Dances is important to me because it was the first piece in which I felt that I had successfully wrote fast and canonic music (two types of music that have dominated my work since). The title, then, has a double meaning, referring, not only to dances I’m trying to evoke in the music, but to the mad dance I went through to write music that used techniques and had characters and shapes that were new to me.

Night Through Eight Eyes

Night Through Eight Eyes takes its inspiration from the mythological tale of the famed weaver, Arachne, who, so sure of her skills, challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. As punishment—as the gods’ party line goes—for her arrogance, but also because her textiles depicted the gods at their most duplicitous, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider, and my piece takes place on the first night after that horrible transformation. Night Through Eight Eyes is a fantasy that invites the listener to step into Arachne’s shoes. The piece scuttles through moments of melancholy, anxiety and anger, certain passages representing Arachne’s emotional state, others functioning as pure musical flights of fancy, some quite fevered. Underpinning these frenetic moments, I wanted to explore the notions of powers in the story. Arachne used her art to speak truth to power; Athena used her power to destroy Arachne and her art by turning her into a spider. Ironically, however, Athena’s punishment committed Arachne to a lifetime of weaving—a lifetime of practicing her art and flexing her power, and, in the piece, I have attempted to show Arachne finding moments of power amongst moments of anxiety At its heart then, Night Through Eight Eyes is both an ode to a timeless (and utterly relevant) heroine, and a meditation on the process of regaining one’s sense of self after undergoing a dramatic transformation.