Two oboes and harpsichord brings to mind such a typically baroque formation (usually with a cello or bassoon laying down the bass line) that an immediate assumption would be that À l’écoute were some kind of neo-baroque concoction.  However, when being asked to write a work for two oboes for the 2005 Ostrava Oboe Festival in the Czech Republic, my choice of a harpsichord was motivated not because of its baroque past, but for its brittle, pungent sound.  It serves to contrast to the long, sinuous lines of the oboe.  In approaching this piece, the inspiration was specifically not to write a baroque-influenced piece, but to create a different sound world.  Rather than interweaving lines and counterpoint (as in the wondrous Trio Sonatas by the Czech baroque master Zelenka), in À l’écoute, the two oboes stand out as separate personalities.  Opening the work, the first oboe (Marlen Vavřikovà) betrays an insistent searching quality.  Embedded into its melodic line is a slow chromatic descent.  By contrast, the second oboe (Richard Killmer) has a quiet, confident lyricism.  The two oboes do not stay silent during each other’s solos.  Rather, the other oboist often plays in rhythmic unison with the upper line giving it an added dimension. Although this is really a story about the two oboes, the harpsichord has a very important secondary role.  It enlarges the sound palette and generates settings through which the oboes speak.

As the piece evolves, the intensity of the first oboe pervades various sections and the second oboe’s lyricism predominates in others.  They journey very closely together and journey far – from the vigorous rhythmic unison that has characterized certain passages to a section of great freedom where each player follows a different tempo (during the rapid, wave-like arpeggios of the harpsichord).  After reaching an impassioned oboe outpouring, the work suddenly descends – all players moving downward chromatically.  The following coda is a celebration of arrival.

“À l’écoute”, a favorite phrase of my mother’s, means literally “at the listen”.  To be “à l’écoute” is to be attentive, aware, and poised – all in the moment.  This seemed appropriate both to the trajectory of the piece and the general atmosphere of quiet intensity that characterizes much of the work.


In virtually all of my pieces, it is the sound and personality of an instrument (or combination of instruments) that inspires the emotional content of a piece rather than the other way around.  I am not interested in “imposing” a feeling upon the instrument regardless of its character.  This time, as I gradually acquainted myself with it, the guitar revealed its searing, vulnerable beauty – a quality which totally enchanted me.  It is the guitar’s inability to sustain, its particular six-string resonance, the method of plucking, and the special sound of turns or ornaments – due to the technique of hammer-ons and pull-offs, that I believe yields this beauty. Turns, in particular, enthralled me.  (There is simply nothing like that sound on any other instrument.)  They are central to the musical fabric, as both rhythmic and figurative elements in the piece.

Although we are used to the guitar in highly amplified settings, in its untainted state the guitar seems to me to embody intimacy, both in its delicacy and in its quiet power.  And it is intimacy, mainly, that I explore in this piece – an exploration which unconsciously and naturally gave rise to an air of seeking.  Seeking is universal to humans, but how and why we seek is uniquely particular to each individual.  It is a personal process, intimate in the extreme.  Thus A Seeker’s Song is a very personal evocation of seeking.  There is an overall lyricism reflected in the idea of song that is punctuated by impassioned cries and invocations.  In this way the song seems to overflow beyond its confines.

I am profoundly indebted to Kenneth Meyer for his confidence in my creativity and his courage in commissioning new works for guitar.  I hope I have done justice to this trust and am grateful to have come to know this remarkable instrument.

Listen here

March 2018
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