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Work Samples

Bursting at the Brim

"Bursting at the Brim" was written for Pique Collective and choreographed by the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre. It's the second movement of a larger piece, "Mountain Piques."

"The Food Chain," by Elliott Grabill

Many thanks to Baltimore artists Aaron Thacker and Taylor Boykins for performing this! I wrote the lyrics to the "Food Chain." The song reveals the cynicism and hopelessness of someone being bullied.

Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave.

"Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave" is a piano piece I wrote as part of my "Music, Film, and Photography" project.

Lake Pontchartrain Excerpt

An excerpt of my string sextet "Lake Pontchartrain." To hear to piece in full, visit my "Chamber Music" project.

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About Elliott

Baltimore City

Elliott Grabill's picture
Elliott Grabill has composed independently for over a decade, receiving commissions from ensembles such as Pique Collective, the Washington Men's Camerata, and Dark in the Song. His compositions have been described as “sumptuous and gorgeous,” “hauntingly beautiful,” and “very American.” In addition to concert music, he has written for film and dance. He develops much of his musical voice from studying and writing electronic music. The lyrics to his art songs, which he writes himself, have been... more

Song Cycles by a Math Teacher

My song cycles are informed by over ten years of teaching math and working with students of all ages, from elementary school children to prison inmates. "Teacher Tales," to which I authored the lyrics, bears personal witness to an ever growing segment of impoverished citizens. "My Biggest Mistake" is based on a conversation with a Baltimore mother had to work so hard to provide her son with the basic necessities that she regretted even having a him. "The Food Chain" is my cynical reflection on bullying, and "A Serf To Your Wage" parodies the lessons taught in schools that, as Noam Chomsky puts it, manufacture consent. I borrow musical ideas from cabaret, jazz, and twelve-tone music to give these sinister texts an American flavor.  These songs were runner up in the Arcade Emerging Composers Competition.

After "Teacher Tales" I composed "Grief Never Leaves," three apolitical songs influenced by Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder." These songs take influence from post-romantic and feature an oboe. These songs were streamed as a virtual concert from Stages Music Arts in Timonium. Taylor Hillary Bokins and Aaron Thacker performed "Teacher Tales;" Laura Snyderman, Lydia Consilvio, and Lior Willinger performed "Grief Never Leaves."

For my next song cycle, I'm commissioning three Baltimore City high school poets to write the lyrics. I am offering these poets are receiving mentorship and guidance, and in mid-2021, the lyrics will be complete and I will begin writing the music.

  • "A Serf to your Wage," by Elliott Grabill

    When I started this song cycle, my goal was to point out issues facing education, from nine years of teaching math. When I finished the piece, I realized that I had critiqued much more than education. School was just my metaphor for societal woes.
  • "The Food Chain," by Elliott Grabill

    The music from "The Food Chain" is derived from a twelve tone row. The text uses animals as metaphors for both bullies and victims. Pretending not to be weak, acting opportunistically, and attaching one’s self to a clique are all coping strategies for being bullied. Students learn these strategies at school, and carry them throughout their lives.
  • "My Biggest Mistake," by Elliott Grabill

    My Biggest Mistake is told from the perspective of an overworked, underpaid mother just trying her best. Still a teen, she is beginning to wonder if having a child was a mistake. Though this character is pro-life, the song demonstrates the economic consequences that women and children still would face if abortion were made illegal.
  • "The Day He Left," for soprano, oboe, and piano

    This is the first song in my song cycle "Grief Never Leaves," showing three glimpses into the emotional turmoil of a woman who has lost someone very dear-- yet not knowing if he is alive or dead. She suffers from the pain of loss, constant uncertainty, and a tepidness to move on in hopes that he may come back. This song focuses on the shock of losing her lifelong companion in the blink of an eye. It is ridden with the anxiety someone experiences after the first couple of weeks after losing someone.
  • "Grief Never Leaves," for soprano, oboe, and piano

    This is the third song of "Grief Never Leaves," a cycle providing glimpses into the emotional turmoil of a woman who has lost someone very dear-- yet not knowing if he is alive or dead. This song ruminates on the persistence of grief. Time and therapy help, but it never really goes away. Grief is complex, and grief is intense-- worse than physical pain. Many thanks to Lydia Consilvio, Laura Snyderman, and Lior Willinger for performing this.
  • "Making the Year," for mixed chorus, by Elliott Grabill

    This choral piece is a setting to a poem by Nova Scotian poet Bauke Kamstra.
  • "Nantucket," for men's chorus, by Elliott Grabill

    I wrote this piece for the Washington Men's Camerata in 2010. It was performed at the Kennedy Center later that year in DC.
  • My Biggest Mistake

    Lyrics to the song "My Biggest Mistake"
  • "They're gonna cut his Medicaid"

    A snapshot of the score of "My Biggest Mistake." This song written from the perspective of a teenage mother who is forced to work three jobs, for fear that she'll lose her son's health insurance.
  • "These winters seem to last till summer"

    A page from the song "Seasonal Affective Disorder." This song is written in a swing jazz style, and addresses the opioid epidemic.

Music for Puppet Theatre

"Mountain Piques" is a composition I wrote for the Pique Collective, a Baltimore-based contemporary music ensemble.  It was premiered on October 18, 2018 at the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre, who crafted abstract shapes and choreographed their movement to the music.

The work is a quartet for three acoustic instruments (guitar, flute, and cello) and a fourth musician who, using a laptop computer's trackpad, controls a range of sounds just like a normal instrument.

"Mountain Piques" embraces many classical music archetypes.  Before electronics, composers used the flute’s flutter, the cello’s warmth, and the guitar’s intimacy to convey imagery of nature.  I add a psychedelic quality to the work's pastoralism with audio samples of birds, frogs, and ambience.  Like much classical music, the piece also explores rhythmic complexity, polyphony, and uses four contrasting movements as an expressive canvass.

The slow first movement, "The Rainforest," ends with the metaphor of a ticking clock.  "Bursting at the Brim," the title of the second, scherzo-like movement, comes from a line from “Ode to a Nightingale,” by John Keats.  Electronics this time bring in the sounds of birds, again creating a musical metaphor.  

"The Heaven of Animals" and "Waterfall" are longer and more experimental.  In these movements, sounds of the forest become erie, with undulating pitched rhythms, and an aggressive electronic part.  These movements also contain virtuosic solos in the cello, guitar and flute parts.  One section features a drum with the flute, guitar, and cello perform much like their ancestor instruments from the Middle Ages.  While the flute is normally considered a high pitched instrument, the third movement uses an alto flute to explore a darker, more melancholy side to the flute.

This project took about a year to complete.  I spent seven months writing it, and the Pique Collective spent an additional four months learning to play it.  The Pique Collective, whose vision is to bring new music to alternative venues, reached out to Black Cherry Puppet Theatre to create visuals for the piece.  Puppeteers Michael Lamason, Jeanine Padgett, Emily Schubert, and Alissa Glenn crafted large, abstract shapes and choreographed them to the music.

  • Mountain Piques - I. The Rainforest

    The piece opens with the musicians tip toeing through a quiet, mystical soundscape.
  • Mountain Piques - II. Bursting at the Brim

    The second movement of "Mountain Piques" is a colorful scherzo with intricate rhythms. Towards the end of the piece, I incorporated recordings of blackbirds into the melody.
  • Mountain Piques - III. The Heaven of Animals

    The third movement of "Mountain Piques" is more experimental than the first two. It uses a laptop, which the musician uses to control the pitch of electronic sounds being generated.
  • "Mountain Piques" live performance

    A live video of the Pique Collective performing "Mountain Piques," with the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre performing choreography.
  • Recording "Mountain Piques"

    Lisa Perry, electronics; Stephanie Ray, flute; Peter Kibbe, cello; Jeremy Lyons, guitar; Elliott Grabill, composer
  • Black Cherry Puppeteers

    A photo of the premiere of "Mountain Piques," including the Pique Collective performing the piece, and puppeteers of the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre performing choreographed visuals.
  • Mountain Piques Poster

    This image was designed by Peter Kibbe to advertise "Mountain Piques" on social media.
  • Pique Collective

    Performing at a house concert in Baltimore
  • Mountain Piques - IV. Waterfall

    The fourth movement of "Mountain Piques" is the longest movement, and combines aspects of the first three movements.

Elliott Grabill's Chamber Music

In addition to "Mountain Piques,"  I've written several other pieces for small ensemble. My personal favorite of these is "Lake Pontchartrain," for string sextet.   It captures the stillness of the lake, its cloudy days, and its surrounding bayous, combining it with emotions of sadness, longing, and nostalgia.  

"Escape," for bassoon quartet, has been performed in New York, Maryland, Tennessee, and Spain.  It's overall a bleak piece; the dark registers of the bassoons and a hulking contrabassoon solo are mixed with arcs of wailing and quarter tones. 

During COVID, many musicians took their music online, performing together virtually but apart physically. This year I had the chance of working with the Civitasolis Quintet and Music&Friends Chamber Ensemble to write three shorter works: "Deep Purring," "All the Little Kittens," and "The Dragons are My Children."

I've written several longer works that haven't been performed, including an electroacoustic reed quintet, and a quartet for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello.

Music for Solo and Live Electronics

I'm passionate about composing music for one person and speakers. Normally, the piano accompany a musician or vocalist. Not all venues have pianos though, and I wanted to explore a different way of accompanying instruments.

My longest piece to date, Pluto, is written for just one clarinet, and one person operating electronics.  Playing into a microphone, the clarinet interacts with live electronics to create a one-person orchestra.  With techniques such as looping, delay, pitch shift, ring modulation, and aliasing, the clarinet creates a living surreal electroacoustic environment symbolizing interstellar space.

I repeated this process in Enkidu, for baritone saxophone and live electronics. I have also been commissioned to write a piece for bassoon, and one for alto saxophone; recordings will be released soon.

  • "Gravity" by Elliott Grabill

    Shawn Earle performing "Gravity," the fifth movement of my forty minute long cycle "Pluto," for clarinet and live electronics.
  • "Enkidu," for baritone saxophone and electronics

    Tae Ho Hwang performing "Enkidu" at the Electroacoustic Barndance in Jacksonville, Florida in 2018.
  • Solo instrument + live electronics

    Below is an example of what my music looks like on paper. The electronics turn a single instrument into a one-person orchestra. High quality speakers immerse the audience in music.
  • Screen Shot 2021-01-15 at 6.49.24 PM.png

    Tae Ho Hwang on baritone saxophone performing "Enkidu," with me at the table operating the electronics.
  • Performance in Vermont

    Andrew Im and I have performed this piece in its entirety in Baltimore, Orange, NJ, and Rutland, VT. The piece works well in churches with a reverberant acoustic and a calming environment.
  • Pluto Concert Flier

    Andrew Im performed "Pluto" in its entirety in Baltimore, Rutland, VT, and Orange, NJ. We wanted to bring music to local communities. Our New Jersey concert had a strong turnout of children.
  • Performance at UVA

    Shawn Earle performing "Gravity," the fifth movement of "Pluto," at the University of Virginia Technosonics Festival in October, 2016.
  • Performance at Peabody

    Melissa Lander performing "Gravity" at the Thursday Noon Concert Series at Peabody Conservatory.

Music, Film, and Photography

I wrote "Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave." for piano in 2007 after living in New York City for a year and a half.  I had essentially failed at my first job.  Luckily I found a new one in Virginia, but the process of moving out was extremely cathartic.  New York had been my home.

The last night I spent in my Queens apartment was nightmarish.  Heat radiators were going off, water was dripping from a faucet, and I heard sounds in my own head.  I was also hyper-aware of the sounds I heard when I walked out of my last day at work.  The relief of never having to return quieted my mind enough to hear the sounds of New York's traffic and children laughing.

After composing it and performing it at the Church of the Holy City in Washington, DC, Vin Grabill created a video to accompany it from hundreds of photos I took in New York.  The video was featured at the Rosebud Film Festival.

  • Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave., Brooklyn

    Music written and performed by Elliott Grabill, photography by Elliott Grabill, video by Vin Grabill
  • Kings Highway beginning

    "Kings Highway" has a very free tempo, focusing on gesture and color. These single chords in the dark, lower reaches of the piano resemble the thundercloud over my head, and set the tone for the piece.
  • Rosebud Film Festival

    "Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave." was made into a film by Vin Grabill and screened at the Rosebud Film Festival.
  • Photo featured in the film

    This is one out of a multitude of photos that were incorporated into the film of "Kings Highway / Stillwell Ave." These street signs are actually from Queens; the intersection of Kings Highway and Stillwell Ave. in Brooklyn looks similar.
  • Creative process

    Here is a picture of me composing at the piano. Before writing down notes, I spend a lot of time sketching, improvising, recording, and listening to those recordings later to find the best material.
  • Kings Highway, middle section

    In this section, the piano quivers at a very high octave range, made to resemble ice and cold. The "feathered beams" of the notes give the pianist moderate freedom to insert their own spontaneity.
  • From the film

    One of many photos from the film of "Kings Highway." The shapes and colors of the New York City subway system are one of the many little things that make the city unique.
  • InTowner Review

    A review of a concert of my work in Washington, DC, featuring "Kings Highway" and "Uriel," a piece I wrote for tenor and live electronics.

Solo Performance

I have a growing number of compositions that I perform using an apparatus of synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and computers.  Many of these songs are short, loud, experimental, and written to be performed at underground venues.

Baltimore has a scene for people who crave new, interesting music.  I've performed my solo work at Reverb, Bloom Bars, and a number of venues around the country.  These works explore freedom of form, timbral variety, and lyricism in a way that's neither classical nor pop.

  • Ocean Mermaid, for MIDI controller

    This song's use of phasing and looping create a warm, undulating tone. A high pitched solo, controlled by a small MIDI controller, sounds like whistling wind (or mermaids laughing).
  • Wildflowers, by Elliott Grabill

    This piece begins with a simple melody and expands into a euphoric landscape.
  • Cadmium, by Elliott Grabill

    This song uses the musical coding program SuperCollider to create powerful, firey mass of sound.
  • Performing at Reverb

    My solo work lends itself well for underground venues. This work is too experimental to be mainstream, and too odd to be programmed in a classical concert setting.
  • Electronic patch

    To perform my work, I create patches on SuperCollider and AudioMulch to alter and process raw sound.

Vibrating Piano Strings

Early on in my composition career, I became hypnotized by the sound of vibrating piano strings.  Most people distinguish a piano's sound by its attack.  One day while I was experimenting, I recorded myself playing a note on the piano, and then edited out the attack so only the decaying string vibrations could be heard.  I began building entire pieces by splicing together hundreds of recordings of piano strings, like a mosaic.

"Un Jardin" is a work for fixed media in three movements, which Vin Grabill later set to visuals.  It has an extremely angelic tone, beginning with a repeating, warbly, hymnlike chord progression, and leading to an overwhelming climax.  "Ceres," the second movement, is simply a cluster of every piano key at the same time.  The lightness of the piano sounds turns the dissonance into a shimmering texture, highlighting some keys more than others to create melodies inherently connected with sound.  

I continued experimenting with recordings of piano strings in "Pranayama," which sparsely features samples of synthesizer and my own voice to add a tinge of color to the piano sounds.  "After the Storms," incorporates the sounds of electric guitar, handbells, windchimes, buzzing home appliances, and computer synthesis.  It begain as a dance piece choreographed by Danielle Greene and performed at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, also heavily uses piano string recordings.  Later Vin Grabill made it into a video piece.

These three pieces have been featured at a variety of venues.  "After the Storms" was presented at the SEAMUS conference, and "Pranayama" was presented at the International Computer Music Conference.  They've also been shown at the Church of the Holy City in DC, the Vitruvian Gallery in DC, the Tin Roof Brewery in Baton Rouge, and broadcasted on WTJU. 

  • Pranayama

    Music by Elliott Grabill, video by Vin Grabill
  • From "Un Jardin"

    A still from the Vin Grabill's visual interpretation of "Un Jardin." Featured is an Olympic swimmer, filmed through a convex plexiglass lens in front of a television set. Superimposed is a cheering crowd.
  • From "Pranayama"

    "Pranayama," which was set to film by Vin Grabill, has a flowing, multilayered quality, much like the colorful, flowing belts of green and purple seen here.
  • From "After the Storms"

    A still from "After the Storms"
  • Clouds

    The thin texture of cirrus clouds was one of my inspirations to write "Un Jardin." Water is emotion, and to me, cirrus clouds represent the cold, icy, and unattainable.
  • Interview with John Scherch

    On my soundcloud profile, I talk with John Scherch of WBJC about "Un Jardin," "Lake Pontchartrain," and "Enkidu."
  • Recording the piano

    I make it a point to record pianos wherever I go, usually just a single note or chord. Every piano sounds a little different, and I use these nuances to change the music's timbre over time.
  • Recording the piano

    I've collected audio samples of hundreds of chords from pianos throughout my life.

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