Although it’s difficult to define, we recognize music as music; for most of us, whether it is for instruments, or uses unusual sounds, or best heard in an elevator, we know it when we hear it. But certain special categories have long remained – a song (or however you might call it: a chanson, a lied, a canzona) is something we can describe, and it’s not easy to imagine a song without a voice.
But it’s not a radical notion: composers have been experimenting with the idea for a good long while (Mendelssohn, for the piano, in Songs without Words; more recently Oliver Knussen’s Songs without Voices  for 8 players). My earliest conceptions for this piece started from a similar vantage point, or to it more bluntly, from a composerly need: a mood to be lyrical. Songs is, in the end, conceived as an interlude (for a special and unusual program: nestled between Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concerti), a large musical palindrome that begins and ends in nearly the same place.
An early idea—taking on the old song forms and giving that music to instruments—gave way to imagining songs of my own. But rather than simply replace an imagined singer with real players, I chose to express my lyrical thoughts in a larger context, via the myriad ways that are natural to a great orchestra. Perhaps a glimmer of a sweet lullaby or of chant from centuries past (dutiful, constrained, surely noble, perhaps transcendent) will be apparent, however distorted, as refracted through my camera’s lens. I also began to imagine places where these songs might occur—a medieval fair, or a nursery of trees, or even in a cave that sings back, or a great meadow where all songs are distant.
Songs is warmly dedicated to Alan Gilbert – friend to singers, players and composers alike.
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.
"Songs begins and ends in a rustling, nocturnal hush… The style sometimes has the brassy, jagged extroversion of Strauss’s Expressionist period, and sometimes the tuneful quiet of a lullaby, or perhaps of an old television ad jingle coming faintly from the next room… the conclusion is lovely: glassy harmonics in the strings over soft, shifting chords in the winds and brasses."
New York Times