Respiring Reflections (2014)

Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos.

First performed at Amherst College, Amherst, MA on 21 September 2014 as part of the Amherst Schubert Project, where the Brentano String Quartet performed in a series of three back-to-back “live recording” concerts featuring the Schubert String Quintet.

violin 1: Sarah Briggs
violin 2: Kaila Graef
viola: Delores Thayer
cello 1: Volcy Pelletier
cello 2: Daniel Ang



My professor Jenny Kallick at Amherst College commissioned me to compose a piece inspired by the Schubert quintet, which I regard as one of the greatest works of chamber music ever written and is one of my favorite pieces. I had previously studied the Quintet by playing it in a class with Prof. Kallick during my freshman year (Performance and Analysis). I later incorporated this work my senior thesis, In Pursuit of Feeling, as the 6th movement. It still stands on its own as a composition, however, and some have commented that its meaning changes dramatically when you listen to it as a standalone piece or as part of the larger work.

Program Notes

Respiring Reflections is a composition which grew from my great love and admiration for Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, widely regarded as one of his late masterpieces and definitely the greatest in its genre. What stood out in the Quintet to me was the wide-ranging scope of its form, exploring a vast range of human expression and emotion, as well as the immense, almost orchestral sonorities Schubert managed to draw out by adding an extra cello to the traditional string quartet ensemble. In composing this work, I decided to focus on a characteristic motif from the second movement of the String Quintet, namely a dotted rhythm motif which has often been associated with bird calls and the sound of nature. To me, this motif evokes not only nature, but also a sigh, or respiration, which has expressive potential in other contexts besides nature. Thus I took this motif and thoroughly developed it using my own harmonic vocabulary, which I would describe as constantly oscillating between spiced-up traditional harmony and more dissonant but tempered modern harmony.

Respiring Reflections uses the instrumentation of a string quintet and thus at times conjures direct remembrances, or reflections, of the Schubert’s original work. At the same time, I sought to explore the potential of the string quintet in a more modern context, such as playing complex polyrhythms. Roughly speaking, the form is ABCBA, with outer A sections that contain the aforementioned dotted rhythm motif and middle sections which are built from completely original motifs, but also containing an echo of the third movement Scherzo. This palindromic structure provides a sense of balance and return to origins as opposed to a long march to victory – similar to how in the Schubert quintet, even at the very last measure of the finale we are left with a view of the dark abyss as opposed to a straight C major chord. Thus while some sections ofRespiring Reflections might seem several sound worlds apart from the original String Quintet, the spirit of Schubert pervades the entire work and guides its overarching expression.