Bald Mountain Breakdown (2013) for violin, ‘cello, and piano

DURATION: ca. 5:00

COMMISSIONED BY: CULTIVATE 2013 for Music from Copland House

WINNER: National Association of Composers/USA 36th Annual Young Composers’ Competition 2014

FINALIST: Thailand International Composition Festival Competition 2014


Bald Mountain Breakdown was conceived in the days and weeks following the death of Earl Scruggs, a banjo innovator who pioneered the intricate three-finger picking style which has characterized bluegrass music for nearly 70 years. Anyone who knows me, even casually, probably knows that I play the 5-string banjo and am deeply indebted to American folk music traditions, particularly bluegrass, in my approach to composition. After Scruggs’ death I found myself playing every day; spending lots of time with his massive catalog of tunes and thinking about all the things I value about his music. Eventually these thoughts coalesced into an idea for an homage of sorts: a brief, exhilarating piece paying tribute to Scruggs’ influence by exploring how elements of his playing manifest themselves in my music. As the title suggests, the work takes as its point of departure “breakdowns,” traditionally instrumental songs in which multiple players take solo breaks on the same basic tune. While my piece shares the driving, rhythmic exuberance of many Scruggs breakdowns, elements of his style are used solely to generate compositional ideas without relying on direct quotation (saving me a ton of money on royalties in the process). Still, bluegrass-savvy listeners will hopefully be able to discern the chromatic kickoffs, rolling arpeggios, relentless syncopations, slides, pull-offs, hammer-ons, harmonic chimes, on-the-fly tunings, up-the-neck solos, and stop-times permeating the musical fabric of my breakdown. This is for Uncle Earl.