Distant Voices for brass quintet is a four movement, seventeen minute composition written during the spring and summer of 1990. Commissioned by the American Brass Quintet through a grant from The Jerome Foundation, the work was premiered on May 5, 1991 at Delbarton School/St. Mary’s Abbey Church at the eighth annual “Hardly Any Sampson” Music Festival.
The titles of the movements are as follows: I. James Agee: Writer; II. Bobby Hackett: Jazz Cornettist; III. Brother Paul Diveny: Benedictine Monk; IV. Ben and Mark: My Sons. These curious titles were chosen from a long list of people who have had a profound effect on my life. We are all the result of our continuous filtering of a myriad of influences. The “distant voices” referred to in the title are simply the voices in one’s mind that guide ones’ thoughts and actions. Distant Voices is meant to honor these people.
James Agee, the writer of “A Death in the Family”, impressed me from my college days as truly absorbed in his life as a creative artist. His voice challenges me not to accept the obvious or comfortable. Bobby Hackett, an elegantly lyrical jazz cornettist, was one of the first musicians I studied through recordings. I used to listen to and play along with his deceptively simple improvisations. He taught me how to play a line and make a beautiful sound. Br. Paul Diveny, a Benedictine monk at St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey is a special friend who helped me survive family tragedy through religion. He introduced me, through his example, to the spiritual aspects of life in a way that profoundly deepened my awareness. My sons, Ben and Mark, are a constant challenge and surprise. They allow me to see life as a child again and feed my creative approach to living. This depiction captures the energy of them playing “monster”.


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.