For The Sparrows (2018)

commissioned by the Quintet of the Americas through the National Endowment for the Arts

“For The Sparrows” was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for a residency designed by the composer Judith Sainte-Croix. Tragically, Judith passed away weeks before the commission came through and I was asked to take over, which I was honored to do in her memory. In essence, Judith, together with Barbara Oldham (hornist of the Quintet of the Americas), created the construct of the piece, putting all of the constituents together — I just had to write the music, and quickly. I saw it as an opportunity to step into another composer’s world and contributing something of my own. In the process of writing this piece I had the incredible privilege to interview seniors, workshop movements with enthusiastic children of local schools, and lead an improvised “happening” with the Jackson Heights Orchestra on a sweltering July day. Judith Sainte-Croix loved spending time in nature, gathering her inspiration on long walks and meditations. Following her example, and as an avid cyclist, I biked to and from most of the residency activities from our apartment on the Upper West Side, some 10 miles away.

The work is in four movements, which were composed in the order of appearance.

The first movement, for the quintet alone, was based on interviews with seniors at the Salvation Army Center in Jackson Heights. It recalls the memories of John, who grew up on a farm in Ireland without running water, recalling the smell of hay from his childhood, and the memories of Farida, who came here from Pakistan where she had a TV show, where she remembers the smell of saffron. This movement also for me brings the image of finding Judith walking around in nature, with birds chirping away.

The second movement, for quintet and recorder students of PS69, was written with a given challenge in mind: the students knew how to play only four notes –– could I compose a memorable tune using only four notes? During a workshop, Barbara Oldham suggested that we teach the kids the song of the White-Throated Sparrow, which uses two notes. The melody you’ll hear came from this inspiration. This movement also features an improvisation on the Native American Flute, an instrument previously owned and frequently played by Judith Sainte-Croix, which we used in our school workshops.

The third movement, for the quintet and the Jackson Heights Orchestra, was inspired in part by the available instrumentation of the JHO, which would add two woodwind quintets and strings to my palette (e.g. the soloists Quintet of the Americas, plus two more of each woodwind instrument in the JHO), as well as two trumpets and percussion. I wanted to create a composite melody that is tossed around between the three woodwind quintets. The shape of this melody is somewhat of a wilting flower – it’s infected, I’d like to think, with a sort of inward shyness. As the piece progresses, the melodies get more courageous — but you’ll have to judge if they succeed. This movement is inspired by Judith’s illness and the struggle of her final weeks.

The final movement, featuring the student choir of PS149 with the Quintet and the JHO and the recorder ensemble of PS69, recalls the four-note theme of the White Throated Sparrow melody, now in the guise of a song with lyrics written by me, and the last verse written by Judith Sainte-Croix. The optimistic text and message of the song is set against a wistful orchestration, punctuated by distant sleigh bells. It is my hope that, as these sparrows sing and fly, we think of family, of friendship, and of Judith Sainte-Croix, whose work brought so many people together, even in her absence. I hope that she is smiling down on us today.

With deepest gratitude to all involved,
December 2018

CATEGORY orchestra & soloists
INSTRUMENTATION woodwind quintet, children’s choir, recorder ensemble, chamber orchestra
DURATION 20 minutes
WORLD PREMIERE December 15 2018 at PS69Q, Jackson Heights, NY (see video above)
WORLD PREMIERE PERFORMERS Quintet of the Americas, Jackson Heights Orchestra conducted by Patricia Glunt, student choir of PS149Q and recorder ensemble from PS69Q
SCORE AVAILABILITY A Perusal PDF score is available on request (contact Ljova). Parts and arrangements are available for sale via PDF or mail delivery; arrangements for combinations not listed above may be commissioned on request. [contact for more info]