A Commissioning Project

We have undertaken a long-term project we call LifeMusic that connects the music we make with the American experience and issues of our time. With the support of the Institute of American Music, we commission two works per year, one each from an established and an emerging composer. Each composer is asked to write a quartet that is inspired by some dimension of the American experience – perhaps a literary, historical, or musical source, or a significant and enduring issue. With these commissions, we seek to produce an ongoing series of works from living American composers that are not only inspired somehow by life in America, but also reflect the highest standards of musical excellence. The idea of LifeMusic grows directly from the experience of the Ying Quartet.

Our mission has always been twofold: to make classical music a relevant and vital part of American culture in all its diversity, and to do so with the highest standards of artistic integrity. Whether we are performing in Carnegie Hall or the White House, teaching at the Eastman School of Music or spending a week in Helena, Montana, the Quartet is committed to exploring the many ways in which great music can impact and transform our daily lives. LifeMusic is intended to be suitable both in the concert hall and in community settings as an effective manifestation of that powerful connection between music and life.-The Ying Quartet


List of Works

Dark Vigil of Youth (1999)

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts, the winner of a 2001 Guggenheim fellowship, composed Dark Vigil of Youth just after the horrific high school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Written in one movement, the work explores the emotional complexities and turmoil of adolescence while struggling to understand the ongoing problem of youth violence that plagues our country. Though not programmatic, the quartet is serious in nature and by turns mournful, wrenching, questioning and explosive. It concludes with an extended section of quietly pulsing, lyrical counterpoint as a memorial to the victims and a continuing search for spiritual transcendence. (20 minutes)

Corner in Manhattan (2000)

Michael Torke

Michael Torke’s quartet celebrates the rhythms of everyday life in Manhattan in three contrasting movements. Each movement captures the spirit of one of the three streets that intersect in front of the composer’s apartment building, each at a different time of day. Whether it is the relentless traffic and the honking of taxicabs on “Sixth Avenue in the Afternoon,” the quietly blinking neon lights of “Bedford Street at Night,” or the gradually building bustle of “Houston Street in the Morning,” Corner in Manhattan is a colorful look at the energy that pulses through lower New York City. (19 minutes)

Love Letters (2000)

Carter Pann

Written in the tradition of Janacek’s Second Quartet, Intimate Letters, this work is inspired by the sometimes blissful, sometimes torturous experience of romantic love. The movements are titled “Prayer,” “Serenade,” “Limbo” and “Passions.” Pann writes in a dizzying blend of styles from nineteenth century romanticism to modern-day Pop. (19 minutes)

The Village Street Quartet (2000)

Paquito D’Rivera

While Grammy Award-winner D’Rivera is perhaps best known as one of today's pre-eminent Cuban jazz musicians, he also works with such organizations as the Lincoln Center and New Jersey Chamber Music Societies. Of his inspiration for this piece, D’Rivera says, “I call it The Village Street Quartet because it contains several elements of the various types of music you hear in the summer, while walking the streets of New York's Greenwich Village; from Arabic to Jazz to Samba to African to Latin.” (16 minutes)

Eagle at Sunrise (2001)

Augusta Read Thomas

Read Thomas writes about her piece: “Eagle at Sunrise is a modest 7-minute work, which features the cello, largely in the higher registers. The music is immediate, bold, colorful and dramatic. The work celebrates the passionate sound of the strings and is built from a tightly wrought harmonic scheme and its resultant counterpoint. The spirit of America, symbolized by the eagle, our national bird, at sunrise is an image of hope and implicit faith in the inevitability of new beginnings and ardent dreams.” (7 minutes)

Three American Hymns for String Quartet (2001)

Daniel Kellogg

Daniel Kellogg is a graduate of Curtis and has studied with Ned Rorem and Don Freund. The Young Concert Artists Composer-in-Residence for 2002-04, Mr. Kellogg was also the recipient of the 1998 ASCAP Morton Gould Award and the 1997 Charles Ives award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the words of Ned Rorem, “his palette is varied, his form secure, and his music is touching and always honest.” “Three American Hymns for String Quartet,” writes Kellogg, “seeks to celebrate American hymns and the power and purpose they have had in American lives. Each movement is based on an American hymn and the music seeks to express the meaning of that hymn.” (15 minutes)

At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert (2002)

Chen Yi

One of a group of Chinese-American composers who have achieved remarkable success in recent years, Chen Yi is a past winner of the prestigious Ives Prize. She has been the Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor in Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory since 1998. Widely commissioned by orchestras, ensembles, and soloists, her music blends energy, drama, color and great beauty, often drawing on the long tradition of Chinese classical and folk music. This work consists of three movements, which are inspired by the impressive programs that the composer saw at a Chinese New Year celebration concert in Kansas City, Missouri. (15 minutes)

United States: Seven Viewpoints for String Quartet (2003)

Ned Rorem

Words and music are inextricably linked for Ned Rorem. Time magazine has called him “the world’s best composer of art songs,” yet his musical and literary venture extends far beyond this specialized field. Rorem has composed three symphonies, four piano concertos, and an array of other orchestral works; music for numerous combinations of chamber forces, six operas, choral works of every description, ballets and other music for the theater, and literally hundreds of songs and cycles. He is the author of fourteen books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism. The composer writes about this piece: “Since I am American, obviously so is my music. As to how that is defined, the music alone can tell. …I’ve united the seven sections—or ‘states’—with the overall title, United States, subtitled ‘viewpoints’ (which might better be termed ‘earpoints’). The seven movements are each programmatically named.” (16 minutes)

Southern Harmony (2003)

Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the International League of Women Composers, and Composers Inc. (the Lee Ettelson Prize), among others. Ms. Higdon is currently on the composition faculty of The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She writes: “Southern Harmony is a portrait of the South, where I grew up (Georgia and Tennessee). The three movements depict gentle aspects of Southern life: a slower pace, simple living, and an emphasis on traditional, handed-down music. This piece includes some of the techniques that are found in Appalachian-style string playing (open strings and slides). …While this work is much less complex and moves at a slower pace than most of my music, I like to think that it doesn't necessarily reflect the South as being simple, but rather what is for me a simpler time.” (14 minutes)

String Quartet No. 3 (2004)

Bernard Rands

Bernard Rands has had a long and distinguished career as an international composer and Professor of Music at Harvard University. Through a wide range of performance genres, the originality and distinctive character of his music has emerged—a “plangent lyricism,” a “dramatic intensity,” a “musicality and clarity of idea” and a “sophisticated and elegant technical mastery”—qualities he developed from his early studies with Dallapiccola, Maderna and Berio. Mr. Rands’ accomplished career includes many prestigious honors, including awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has been commissioned by such leading orchestras as the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the Israel Philharmonic. Quartet No. 3 is in one continuous movement made up of fifteen sections each of which (after the first) is a “transcription” of a previous section, though not always in chronological order. Rands uses the term “transcription” in the sense that an existing passage of music is rearranged for the ensemble. (16 minutes)

Icefield Sonnets (2004)

Pierre Jalbert

Pierre Jalbert is currently the Composer-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He received his musical training at Oberlin Conservatory and the University of Pennsylvania. He has received numerous awards for his compositions, including a Guggenheim fellowship, BMI and ASCAP Awards, and recently, the Rome Prize for 2000-2001. In 1999, he was appointed Young American Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony, a position he held until 2002. In the Fall of 2002, he became Composer-in Residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He currently teaches at Rice University in Houston, where he is Assistant Professor of Composition and Music Theory at the Shepherd School of Music. Icefield Sonnets is a work inspired by the poetry of the young American poet Anthony Hawley, and evokes vivid images of crystalline ice and frigid winter storms. (14 minutes)

Mark Twain (2005)

John Duffy

John Duffy, a major figure in American music, has written more than 300 works for symphony orchestra, opera, theater, television and film. He and his music have received many awards in recognition of his excellent contributions to music: two Emmys, an ASCAP award for special recognition in film and television music, a New York State Governor's Art Award, and the (New York City) Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture. John draws on his extensive experience with text and music and creates a performance piece for string quartet and narrator based on texts by Mark Twain. (12 minutes)

…but not simpler… (2005)

Tod Machover

The brilliant composer, inventor, and entrepreneur Tod Machover is a key figure in the MIT Media Lab. He is especially well-known as a pioneer in creating music that synthesizes acoustic, sampled and electronically generated sounds in dramatic and striking ways. The title of this work comes from a famous statement of Albert Einstein's: "One should always make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." ("Man soll die Dinge so einfach wie moglich machen, aber nicht noch einfacher.") The piece dramatizes the search for calm and coherence in the midst of present-day complexity and diversity, and uses the togetherness or divergence of the four quartet players as a main source of tension and movement. "...but not simpler..." is an homage to Tod’s mentor, Elliott Carter, and is a testament to how Carter’s music, ideas, and convictions influence him deeply in ways that continue to surprise. (15 minutes)

American Spiritual (2005)

Patrick Zimmerli

Effortlessly bridging the worlds of jazz and classical music, composer and saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli writes in a sophisticated and unique blend of many influences. His style spans from the impressively brilliant and virtuosic to the soulful and reflective, and is at every turn engaging and communicative. This large-scale, four-movement work is a musical exploration of the many types of spirituality alive in America today. Not attempting to be comprehensive or even too specifically allusive, it takes as its starting point some forms of religion that are most emblematic of the contemporary spiritual quest in America. (29 minutes)

Anniversary Dances (2006)

Paul Moravec

Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Paul Moravec is an extraordinarily prolific composer writing in all genres from opera to symphonic music, though his output in chamber music commissioned by some of the most prominent chamber music ensembles has been particularly distinguished. Anniversary Dances unfolds in one extended movement. The brief introduction is followed by six “dances” that suggest motions of the soul as well as physical movement. While its overall trajectory covers a wide variety of contrasting musical, emotional, and spiritual characteristics, the work is unified by repeated motivic and harmonic elements initially laid out in the first two “dances.” (14 minutes)

Quartet No. 3 “To the victims of war” (2007)

Lowell Liebermann

Composer Lowell Liebermann has written well over a hundred works for every kind of instrumentation and voice, and many of these works have long been considered standard repertoire. His impressively productive career already boasts a broad range of recognition and awards. His Quartet No. 3 is a one-movement work firmly rooted in the musical and formal language of the grand string quartet tradition. Ebbing and flowing from passages of spare, unadorned counterpoint to outbursts of passionate tumult, Liebermann's lament is an eloquent and heartfelt outpouring of powerful emotion. The Quartet's dedication, “To the victims of war,” links this work with Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8, which was written 47 years earlier and dedicated “To the victims of fascism and war.”

Three California Landscapes (2008)

Peter Knell

Peter Knell is a young composer whose background includes numerous ASCSP and BMI awards as well as a Fulbright fellowship, who has also enjoyed success in major international composition competitions. Divided into three movements titled, “Kern River,” “Joshua Tree,” and “Newport Beach,” the imagery from Peter’s second string quartet reflects impressions from his childhood as well as the varied topography of his home state of California. (17 minutes)

Next Atlantis (2008)

Sebastian Currier

Sebastian Currier is the winner of the 2007 Grawemeyer Award, and orchestras, soloists and chamber music ensembles around the world and his music perform his music regularly. One particular area of interest for Sebastian is mixing live music with pre-recorded electronic sounds. The overall character of Next Atlantis, for string quartet and pre-recorded sound, is one of sustained quietude, peacefulness, and serenity, but with a sense of emptiness and loss not far off. It is an elegy for a future that must not happen: New Orleans has been submerged under water. Sounds of water, both above and below the surface, pervade the piece. It is a thoroughly arresting, emotional, and haunting work. (22 minutes)

Quartet No. 6 “Addio” (2009)

Richard Danielpour

In his own words, Richard Danielpour writes music that seeks to have “an immediate visceral impact and elicit a visceral response.” His work is widely known and praised for its beauty and Romantic influences. In this quartet, Richard is inspired by the complex, bittersweet emotions of the universal human experience of having to say goodbye. Though at times playful and lighthearted, the extended work winds through deeply felt lines played more and more quietly and peacefully to the close. (25 minutes)

Three Rags for String Quartet (2010)

John Novacek

John Novacek is as well known for his prominent performing career as a piano soloist and chamber musician as he is for his inventive and engaging original compositions. He has focused especially on the much beloved American tradition of ragtime and stride piano, and has written his own rags for many soloists and chamber music ensembles. The three rags included in this set for string quartet are “The Atlantic Side-Step,” “The Drifter,” and “Intoxication,” and are a splendid tribute both to the likes of Scott Joplin and violin virtuosos Wieniawski and Sarasate. (12 minutes)

String Quartet #2 “Concussion Theory” (2012)

Kenji Bunch

In his unique blend of styles from Classical to American vernacular, violist and composer, Kenji Bunch, writes a work that reflects on a specific time in American history. He writes, “During the ecological disaster of the 1930s "Dust Bowl," the US government funded desperate attempts to manipulate the rain from the sky.  While none of these were successful, a popular method was the launching of TNT into the sky, in hopes of creating moisture-filled clouds with their explosions.  This idea was called ‘concussion theory,’ a term and procedure that I found intriguing, and became the inspiration for this work for string quartet.” The piece is divided into four short movements—No Man’s Land, Black Sunday, Concussion Theory, and A Gentle Rain—that are not strictly programmatic and yet are highly evocative and descriptive musical portraits of these events as Kenji pictures them.  (24 minutes)

Awakening (2012)

Billy Childs

Awakening is the second string quartet from Billy Childs. Billy actually had his start in classical music beginning with cello lessons, but eventually made his career as a multiple Grammy award winning jazz pianist and composer. His writing reflects as strong influences from composers such as Debussy or Bartok as it does from Monk or Tatum. In this quartet, Billy was inspired by Janacek’s Second String Quartet “Intimate Letters,” in particular, Janacek’s incredible ability to communicate complex psychological states with gripping clarity through music. Also tied to actual events in Billy’s life, the quartet begins with the the initial shock, panic, and terror of getting a phone call early in the morning from his wife, telling him that she was in intensive care-- she had suffered a pulmonary embolism. The rest of the quartet vividly illustrates how the experience affected him emotionally, physically, and spiritually. (23 minutes)

String Quartet No. 8 “Sylvia’s Diary” (2013)

Lera Auerbach

Lera is as sought after for her virtuosic and emotionally powerful compositions as she is for her brilliant and highly communicative piano performances. “Sylvia’s Diary” is a reference to the writings of American poet, Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at the age of thirty at the height of her powers. Using the full range of her compositional voice, Lera seeks to capture the full range of the humanity found in Sylvia’s writing. In Lera’s own words, “…what seemed most striking to me is how acutely alive she was, discovering and experiencing life with full awareness and sensitivity. We tend to think of Sylvia as someone who has been from early on fascinated with death and who tried to kill herself more than once throughout her short life, but perhaps because of this fascination with death, she was also intensely, vividly alive, and her diary entries are often full of joy, exuberance, dreams, even though the darker emotions of anger and fears are also openly present and are examined and embraced by her.” This quartet is intense, gripping, haunting, and thought provoking. (25 minutes)

The River, the Bird, and the Storm (2016)

Billy Childs

The River, the Bird, and the Storm is jazz great and Chamber Music America president Billy Childs’ second contribution to the LifeMusic project, following his 2012 quartet Awakening. This piano quintet was premiered by Billy and the Ying Quartet in 2016 at the Eastman School of Music. Phillip Ying says, "Billy's newest piano quintet showcases Billy's unique musical voice at its most fluent. The River features expressive musical lines that hover over intricate and constantly flowing figuration; The Bird is the slow movement of the work and is generally reflective, thoughtful, and intimate;  and The Storm as you would expect is dynamic, with the most clearly jazz-influenced rhythms and includes the sounds of an actual rainstorm improvised by the ensemble. It's always hugely rewarding to explore the distinctive blend of musical styles that influence Billy's writing with the composer himself.” (25 minutes)

The Conference of the Birds (2018)

Christopher Theofanidis

Christopher Theofanidis is a Grammy-nominated composer and recipient of numerous national and international prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Rome Prize. His “The Conference of the Birds” is based on a 12th Century Sufi allegorical poem by the Persian poet Attar of Nishapur which tells the story of the seeker’s journey toward God. In the allegory, all the birds of the world convene and determine that they need a ruler. Such a leader is known in the form of the mythic and divine bird, Simorgh, who resides in a distant land, and the journey to it is through seven valleys of understanding. The first of these valleys requires the birds to cast off all their preconceived ideas and all dogma in their thinking, and the final requires annihilation of the self in order to attain complete communion with the divine. The valleys are:

The Valley of Quest
The Valley of Love
The Valley of Unity
The Valley of Knowledge
The Valley of Detachment
The Valley of Wonderment
The Valley of Poverty and Annihilation

This work traces the metaphoric journey in seven short character pieces, each lasting between 1 and 3 minutes, and each focusing on a highly defined musical personality evoked by the corresponding valley. Much of the string writing is inspired by the flocking movement of birds; that is, there is a ‘group logic’ - a kind of unity of movement and purpose in which all the parts are highly interdependent. (15 minutes)