I began “Short Stack” in the Fall of 2008 and finished before Thanksgiving. I felt a bit useless as a composer – “between commissions”, as it were. At various times in my career I’ve felt the urge to write something “just for myself”, and this was one of those times. I had just premiered my fourth opera, and most of my other work for the previous two years was either conceptual in nature (“Taming of the Ox”- an improvisational work for any number of players, responding to watercolors I had painted), electronic (the “Listening Music from the Age of the Crystal Moon Cone” album), or generative/algorithmic (“Gloria in 36 Ways” for choir, any duration, any order). While my work was getting wide recognition with repeat performances and good press in the US and abroad, I felt called to do something more-or-less traditional. As well, when I have written pieces “just for myself” the results have been pretty satisfying professionally (“Tuba Sonata”, “Possession” for orchestra), so I started thinking merely about sounds I liked, and people I was interested in playing those sounds.
Originally conceived as a multi-media installation work, including video and food for the audience with live eaters on stage (I’m dead serious), the work was deliberately scaled down to expose the musical materials for what they are and are not. The musical materials are more filtered than most of my music. There are no obvious attempts at tonal writing and there are no obvious colloquialisms. There is limited reference to so-called “Jazz harmony” or Carnatic (Indian) music; it is one of my most academic, as well as heartfelt, works to date. The piece does again quote the White-Throated Sparrow (heard much in all of my work), my argument for Michigan’s state bird, and the owner of a lovely “pitch-class set” or song.
The only vestige of the original intent of Short Stacks are the titles, which are dedicated based on their breakfast preference – in the order of the performance – to my mother, myself, my wife, and my oldest friend and fishing buddy, Greg (who’s Finnish-ness only partly justifies the cuisine of the last choice). Perhaps an ideal performance of Short Stacks would include live video projections of (the composer) eating, the smell (and sound) of the pancakes, and the music, of course. I hope the audience can accept this non-Gesamtkünstwerk version
of the piece, however.