Carl Fischer - Madrone, Canto del Quetzal, All Hallows, Image Double&Envoi, Chinese poems, Divergences (available for rental only)

Falls House Press / Theodore Presser - Six duets for two flutes, Ha-no (elegy), River Bend

G. Schirmer - To Invoke the Clouds, Breath of the Sun

Fish Creek Music - Trilce, Musica d’amore

Please direct all other inquiries to

Selected Program Notes & Reviews

To Invoke the Clouds
for Flute Solo and for Two Flutes (1995)

I wrote the original version of To Invoke the Clouds for a one-key Baroque or early Classical flute (flauto traverso), with or without live electronics, as a tribute to Luciano Berio on his seventieth birthday . Berio had been my mentor during the three years I lived and studied in Italy. In writing the piece, I wanted to celebrate some of the ideas his work represents: respect for the music of the past, especially music passed down from oral traditions in the context of music today, exploring instrumental virtuosity, and, perhaps the most challenging of all, to write music that is personal, yet still capable of direct communication with its listeners.

The music is based on a Hopi Flute prelude to a dawn rain ceremony, recorded in 1905. This original melody is played at the beginning of the piece as a prelude. A highly ornamented version of the Hopi melody opens To Invoke the Clouds, followed by a sequence of phrases longer in length and gradually reaching to the upper range of the instrument. The final section of the piece brings back the opening in a new way, with pitches freely inverted, leading to a contemplative ending. In the modern flute version I adapted the music of the original traverso piece to make it more idiomatic. It is essentially the same piece, though the subtle effects of alternate fingerings and the use of harmonic fingerings have been adapted to the Boehm flute. The range of the piece has been expanded as well to incorporate the possibilities of the modern flute.

The version for two flutes came about after sketching ideas for a version for Baroque flute and electronics. This seemed to me necessary since the soft tone of the Baroque flute would be lost in many modern concert halls, and that amplification, as well as reverberation and other effects would be necessary to project the sound of the Baroque flute. As a result, I found myself writing secondary lines, counterpoints to the original solo flute line, and the duet version (without electronics) began. In the duet version, the implicit dialogue in the solo version becomes a true duet. The rising figures leading to the high point are accentuated by the dialogue of the two flutes, and the concluding section, now a dialogue, is made more poignant in the version for two flutes.

© Estate of John Thow, all rights reserved.

Chumash Songs (Kapúmi Xucu)
for Violin, Clarinet, Piano and Percussion

When I was commissioned by the Ventura (California) Chamber Music Festival to write a piece as their composer in residence, I immediately thought of the Chumash (the coastal native Americans in California from Malibu to San Luis Obispo), whose culture I learned while growing up in Ventura. My family took me to the famous rock painting sites and to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where I was both intrigued with their culture and appalled at their dismal history after the arrival of their European conquerors. Through the Santa Barbara Museum I was able to obtain a small collection of recordings of Chumash vocal music, 14 short selections, made at the turn of the last century, when the memory of the traditional Chumash culture was still possible to document.

From this small group of recordings, I transcribed and reworked music for the Chumash Songs. I added some music of my own, but only as a frame for the Chumash music. I grouped these adaptations into two movements:

I: Tapakutu momini (Lullabies and Laments)

A tranquil melody, possibly a lullaby, alternates with a searing lament and another melody perhaps derived from Anglo-American tradition. The Chumash seem to have had a different language when singing as opposed to speaking, so the meaning of the original words is not known.

II.: Tomol Journeys

The Santa Barbara Channel Islands were central to the spiritual life of the Chumash, whose famous tar-sealed plank canoes, Tomol, could navigate those difficult waters. The songs here are associated with Santa Cruz Island and the religious ceremonies performed there.

© Estate of John Thow, all rights reserved.

Bellini Sky
for English Horn and Orchestra

The SFS commission for a concerto for English Horn has largely to do with my long association with its English Horn player, Julie Ann Giacobassi, though I had never written a piece specifically for her. But she had been a strong advocate of my previous pieces for the lower end of the oboe family and knew my orchestral compositions composed for the SFS.

Her interest and advocacy of my pieces for oboe d'amore and English Horn led to a recording she made, together with her colleagues Geraldine Walther and Doug Rioth of Musica d'amore for oboe d'amore, viola d'amore and harp. (Fish Creek blurb). This recording came to the attention of MTT who soon contacted me asking for a concerto for English Horn. The result is Bellini Sky, a work I was delighted to compose.

The Bellini in the title is not Vincenzo Bellini, the 19th c. Sicilian opera composer, but rather the 15th c. Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini whose masterful oil paintings I came to love while I lived and travelled in Italy. What always struck me about his art was the perfect rendering of light, particularly skies with clouds. And those landscapes came back to me when I returned to California to live in the Bay Area, where the skies so closely resemble those Bellini painted, particularly in the Fall and Spring.

That atmosphere always suggested to me harmony, and the combination of English Horn, strings, harp and very gentle percussion seemed perfect to realize it. The transparent texture would be ideal to set off the solo line of the English Horn.

In the first movement, "Bellini Sky", the opening contrasts the fluorishes of the harp, marimba and strings with the lyrical melodic line of the English Horn, often using alternate fingerings to produce color in the line. The middle section has a quietly unfolding texture in the vibraphone and strings accompanies a longer sustained line in the English Horn. Out of this the Bellini Sky music emerges in the strings: quietly moving chords gradually dropping in register. A gentle rising line in the English Horn ends the movement.

The second movement, "Ricordanza (Passacaglia)" was written in memory of Luciano Berio, my Italian mentor who died two years ago. Berio loved to overlayer music of different types and so I made a triple layer of counterpoint, one in the percussion, another in the strings and the third in the solo English Horn (based on a melody from the native people of British Columbia). These levels of music repeat until a middle section interrupts with flourishes from the vibraphone and harmonic glissandi in the strings, setting off an English Horn cadenza. The passacaglia returns, with an offstage oboe echoing the solo English Horn line and a brief recall of the Bellini Sky music in the strings.

"Toccata/Bellini Sky II", the third movement, begins with a fanfare for the strings that will recur as a ritornello, one based on the textures of the 18th c. Concerti Grossi of Corelli, yet another Italian influence in the piece. Alternating with this, the English Horn soloist and principal viola exchange phrases of a flute call from the Plains Indians of Nebraska, recorded over a hundred years ago. The middle section here has a canon between vibraphone, harp with an obbligato solo in the English Horn. The strings restate the Bellini Sky music, leading to a conclusion based on the fanfare that began the movement.

© Estate of John Thow, all rights reserved.

SFGate - San Francisco Chronicle: Giacobassi is perfect interpreter for composer's charming premiere

by Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic - Saturday, March 26, 2005
Click here to view article >