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Symphony No. 1, My Hands Are a City

for wind ensemble

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I. Across the groaning continent
II. The Americans
III. My Hands Are a City

In 2005 I wrote The Rivers of Bowery, a short work celebrating a verse from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. I soon discovered that both the musical and extra-musical themes were much larger than the length allowed, and so I designed this Symphony as a complete expansion, both in thematic scope, and in musical material.

In my neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the musicians and poets and characters of our mid-Century “Beats” are still very active ghosts. I walk past the tenement where Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, stroll across “Charlie Parker Place”, and over the city streets rapturously described in prose and verse, and captured in era photos and film. Surrounded by these spirits, I structured the work in three movements, each taking on a different aspect of the sensory experiences I collected from my months of immersion in the novels, poetry, and photographs of these artists.

Titled after a line from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the first movement opens the Symphony with the restlessness and constant drifting of a young generation terrified of stagnation. As a short burst of agitated motion, this moto perpetuo reflects Kerouac and his characters “performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!”

The second movement takes its title from Beat photographer Robert Frank’s powerful collection, The Americans. In 1955, Frank traveled the country taking extraordinary photos of a nation that is actually many nations. This movement does not “describe” any of the individual photos, but rather is an attempt at an overall musical picture of the paradoxical America Frank saw: diverse, yet uniform; determined, yet lost; sated, yet unsatisfied.

The final movement, My Hands Are a City, titled after a 1955 Gregory Corso poem, overflows with mid-Century American vernacular. Altered progressions from bebop tunes, and stretched out, frozen, and suspended solos from Lester Young and Charlie Parker recordings all fill out the work. In its larger scope and breadth, the movement is a summing up of the symphony’s themes, both poetic and musical.

In all of it, taking material from The Rivers of Bowery happened quite naturally. The process was much like approaching my finished piece as if it was my sketchbook, and using that once-final material as the cells and harmonies to then spin out. But where in the overture I concentrated on capturing Ginsberg’s singing of the lost and outcast mobs of his counter-culture, in the expanded work I was intrigued with the ever-present cloud of sadness hanging over much of the work of The Beats. It’s a quiet sadness I hear even in the frantic bebop of Bird and Miles, and in my re-reading of the classic literature of the period—perhaps adding a tinge of darkness to the colors of this Symphony.

Watch Stuart Sim’s excellent lecture-recital on the work, The 21st Century Symphony, featuring the Arizona State University Wind Symphony.

Genres:   Winds

Subgenres:   Large Ensemble


3Fl(3.db Picc), Ob, EHn, EbCl, 3Cl, BCl, CbCl, 2Bsn, SSax, ASax, TSax, BSax, 4Tpt, 4Hn, 2Trb, BTrb, Euph, Tba, Cb, El.Gtr, Pno/Cel, Timp, 6Perc (Glock / Crot / Vibr / Mar / TubBells/ RideCym / SusCym / ChinCym / CrCym / SplashCym / Piat / Hi-hat/ Tri / 2T-Tam / 3MixBowls / SD / 2BD / Timb. / Wbl / SandpBl / Shkr / Guir / Clav )

Commissioned by

Two consortiums organized by Jeffrey D. Gershman: Mvts. I-II and Mvt. III

View Errata Info

(to the 8/09 1st Editon)

Mvt. I-III.

  • A Contrabassoon part is now available to substitute for the Contrabass Clarinet; if this instrumentation change is possible, it is encouraged.

II. The Americans

  • The Flute 2 part is missing from m.4-6. Flute 2’s m.4 is a half rest, eighth rest, dotted quarter E-flat-6 (piano), tied to a whole E-flat-6 in m.5, tied to a dotted quarter E-flat in m.6. It is correct in the part.

Recent Performances

  • March 28, 2024 - Oregon State University Wind Ensemble at LaSells Stewart Center, Oregon State University. Conducted by Dr. Erik Leung.
  • March 6, 2024 - Oregon State University Wind Ensemble at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, WNW CBDNA Conference. Conducted by Dr. Erik Leung.
  • April 30, 2020 - Bowling Green State University Concert Band at Kobacker Hall, Moore Musical Arts Center, BGSU. Conducted by Dr. Kenneth Wayne Thompson. POSTPONED DUE TO COVID