Imagine that five people walk into a room and sit around a circular table expectantly. One by one they begin to speak, not with their voices, but with the instruments each person has brought with them. First the clarinet is heard, then the flute followed by the horn, then the oboe and finally the bassoon. They each vie for attention, seemingly attempting to agree on how they are to proceed. Finally they decide that each performer will tell a story with the others commenting or embellishing or even taking over the story. This is the dream that I had which inspired Short Stories.
Commissioned by The Aspen Wind Quintet and funded by Chamber Music America with funds from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Short Stories was written in 1994 and subsequently premiered that summer by The Aspen Wind Quintet at the Chautauqua Institute in New York.
The work is comprised of six movements with movements four, five and six played attacca. Each movement has an evocative title which hints at the story being told or at the storytellers themselves. Wildly divergent, Short Stories moves from mysterious to boisterous, from playful to painful, and climaxes with a vibrant, joyous dance.
The Figured Wheel is a cycle of four songs for soprano, oboe/English horn, bassoon and piano written in 1987-88 for the Fiati Chamber Players. The title alludes to the ancient “wheel of fate” and more specifically to the inexorable passage of time. The work begins with a poem by Pablo Neruda titled “Slow Lament” which deals with the death of a friend. Notice the line, “The thick wheel of the earth its tire moist with oblivion spins, cutting time into inaccessible halves.” The next poem, “How Gently You Rock My Child To Sleep” by Pedro Salinas, is a tender, spiritual lullaby that expresses the deep desire of most of us to create and protect life. The third poem is “The Birthday” by Philip Dacey. Here we have a young woman celebrating her thirtieth birthday with her husband and son, as she contemplates past dreams, present reality and future “wishes”. The last poem is “Nocturne” by Eugenio Florit and is a poignant portrait of one poet’s imagined death. We end the cycle as we began with a solo voice, this time the poet’s own.
On the morning of November 3, 1979, a caravan of cars and vans occupied by members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis drove to Morningside Homes, a residential development in Greensboro, NC, where an anti – Klan demonstration with approximately one hundred participants was forming. When the caravan arrived, heckling soon escalated into physical violence, culminating with the Klan and Nazis opening up their trunks and withdrawing shotguns and high powered rifles. They fired into the crowd. Eighty – eight seconds later, five demonstrators lay dead or dying. One of them was my brother, William Evan Sampson. In Memoriam: W.E.S. was an an attempt a year and a half after the murders to express my personal feelings about the tragedy. The music to this day pales compared to the actual pain, anger, fear and disillusionment. But, it served as a catharsis and continues to be an expression of my great love for my brother.
Four Winds for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon was commissioned by the Chelsea Chamber Ensemble and completed in October, 1991. The title refers to the four instruments and also hints at the method of composition. Four Winds was written quickly and spontaneously with almost no pre-composition and no title in mind. This is contrary to how I usually work. I wrote this piece as if I were composing a letter to each one of the players allowing my thoughts to follow their own direction; “with the wind” if you will. Only after all four movements were completed did I return and make adjustments. Then, upon deciding on the title of the entire work, I looked for character titles of each individual movement. They are as follows: 1. Impulse 2. Breakaway 3. Crosscurrents 4. Into the Sun.
Dectet for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, 2 Violins, Viola, Violoncello, Double Bass and Piano was written on commission for the Chicago Chamber Musicians and completed on September 23, 1998. It is an unusual work for me because there is no program or narrative impetus in any of the movements except for the second. This means that writing about the music becomes a bit pale compared to the actual sounds themselves, which stand quite well on their own.
I can reveal that the first movement begins ominously with a sustained pedal in the bass and ostinato figures in the other strings while the winds create long lines over this texture, but until you hear the actual sounds, this could describe a thousand other pieces. I could mention that the third movement owes its life to Shostakovich with his twisted waltzes and decadent nostalgia, but, until you experience the playfulness of my own twisted sequences, these are just words. I could describe how I love that the fourth movement has this energetic, indomitable quality with a percussive piano, swirling string lines and screaming winds, but you may think me merely boastful. The music only lives in the music. If words could truly duplicate or explain, we would not need to sing.
That said, I would like to tell a story around the second movement. After completing the first movement in the middle of August, 1998, I began the second. For several days I pondered what might follow the rather “fearful first” with little success. Then on Friday, August 21st, my family left me for the day to visit relatives and I struggled alone with my still born thoughts. Eventually, I wrote down my first tentative notes and before long I was furiously writing measure after measure. I stopped around four in the morning having completed what I later knew was most of the movement. The next day, when I studied what I had written, I was surprised to find that the movement was a traditional passacaglia with a four measure ground bass and a strong sense of loss and lament. Its simple directness puzzled me.
I continued revising the movement the next few days. The following Wednesday I received a call from a friend asking if I had heard about Alan. I said “no: and he proceeded to tell me that Alan Balter, conductor, clarinetist, and good friend, had died in Philadelphia on Friday night from complications after lung surgery. I was stunned not only for the terrible, wasteful loss of a dear friend but, also because I realized that the second movement was so urgently created at the moment of his passing. The lament now made sense and has added a reverent poignancy to the rest of the work.