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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."

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.

"After the Storms" Excerpt

"After the Storms" is part of my "Vibrating Piano Strings" project, a cycle of pieces I wrote using primarily recordings of piano strings.

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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

Working with Baltimore-based ensembles

"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 by Elliott Grabill

    A studio recording of "Mountain Piques," for flute, guitar, cello, and live electronics. Many thanks to Pique Collective for performing and recording this.
  • "Mountain Piques" live performance

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

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

    Lisa Perry, electronics; Stephanie Ray, flute; Peter Kibbe, cello; Jeremy Lyons, guitar; Elliott Grabill, composer
  • Graphic Notation

    In addition to traditional Western notation, "Mountain Piques" uses graphic notation. In these two examples, a musician operating a laptop "draws" these curves on their laptop trackpad.
  • 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.
  • Upcoming work

    "Space Legend" is my newest piece. Like "Mountain Piques," it relies on both Western and graphic notation. The diagonal lines between the two five-lined staves tell the laptop performer to move their finger to the left and right.
  • Early sketch

    A handwritten sketch of a tricky passage in "The Rainforest."
  • Pique Collective

    Performing at a house concert in Baltimore
  • Early sketches

    Throughout my creative process, I sketch, engrave, and go back and look what I had just done. I tape pieces of 11x17 paper onto my wall to better understand the order of musical sections. Also important is the "marination" process, where I'll sketch something, forget about it, and come back with "fresh ears," free of value judgements and expectations.

Science Music and Parlor Concerts

In my longest piece to date, "Pluto," I wanted to create as much sound from as little means as possible, ideally to be performed in an intimate space like a parlor. It's 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.

The piece could bring expansiveness and a sense of wonder to a small, intimate venue or hall, a blackbox, a warehouse space, a reverberant church, or a planetarium. The piece’s difficulty varies, but the third movement, “Planet Heart,” was written to be simple enough that a high school performer could play it in their garage.

I also wanted this piece to have an educational element to it that appeals to children. I was exposed to classical music at a very young age, and had a boyhood love for outer space. Children are far less likely to make value judgements about the way music sounds, and just use their imagination to enhance the experience. In addition to performing this piece at college venues, clarinettist Andrew Im and I reached out to community organizations to make music more accessible. We ended up performing at two churches in Vermont and New Jersey.

“Gravity,” the longest and final movement, won third place in the Peabody Prix d’Eté.

  • "Pluto," for clarinet and live electronics

    A recording of the five movement work for clarinet and live electronics.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Concert announcement

    "Gravity" won third prize in the Peabody Prix d'Eté, and was programmed on the Thursday Noon Concert Series.
  • Performance at Peabody

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

    "Gravity" was performed in October, 2016 by Shawn Earle at the University of Virginia Technosonics Festival.

Chamber Music

In addition to "Mountain Piques," featured the first project in my portfolio, I've written a number of 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. "Endurance" is a piece I wrote for flute, clarinet, cello, violin, and piano, and has a more rhythmic quality.

I wrote "Enkidu" for solo saxophone and live electronics. This seventeen minute long work, like "Pluto," uses live electronics to expand the saxophone's capabilities. It is in three movements without break, and was performed at the Electroacoustic Barndance in Jacksonville, Florida.

  • Escape, for bassoon quartet

    Performance in February 2017 at Peabody Conservatory
  • Lake Pontchartrain, video recording

    A live performance of "Lake Pontchartrain."
  • Lake Pontchartrain, studio recording

    Water is emotion, and every body of water I visit makes me feel a different way. On a cloudy, rainy day, the gray waters of Lake Pontchartrain evoke feelings of sadness, serenity, intimacy, and longing. I wrote “Lake Pontchartrain” for string sextet: an ensemble small enough to still feel intimate, but a large enough to bring out lush timbres and harmonies.
  • Enkidu, for baritone saxophone and electronics

    I wrote "Enkidu" for Baltimore saxophonist Tae Ho Hwang. This its February 2018 premiere at Endangered Wise Men Studios in Jacksonville, FL.
  • European premiere

    Concerts of new contemporary music often feature several composers and are programmed around a certain concept. This concert, named after the title of my bassoon quartet "Escape," features other pieces that explore that same theme.
  • Lake Pontchartrain

    I took this photo while riding on a train over Lake Pontchartrain. The gray skies, warm water, and gentle waves inspired the concept of "Lake Pontchartrain."
  • Lake Pontchartrain

    The first page of the score of "Lake Pontchartrain." Six stringed instruments play long notes at staggered intervals, creating the feeling of gentle waves. Though extremely dissonant, the opening is also very warm.
  • Recording session

    Our sextet recorded "Lake Pontchartrain" at Heartwood Studios in Baltimore.
  • Escape, for bassoon quartet

    Handwritten draft of part of "Escape"
  • Performing "Enkidu" with Tae Ho Hwang

    Performing in Jacksonville, FL at the Electroacoustic Barndance

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 as Sir Microtonal

I sometimes perform under the stage name Sir Microtonal. It is my way of personally connecting with the audience. I play 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.
  • Instruments collection

    One note from one instrument can go a long way with the help of electronics. I didn't use to collect instruments until I started attending concerts in Baltimore. The High Zero festival features a lot of interesting music where the musician hasn't necessarily mastered an instrument, but uses it as part of a larger piece in a show. Baltimore-based percussionists have a similar mentality. Many have elaborate collections of percussion instruments from all over the world, and often swap with one another for shows.
  • Performing in Baton Rouge

    Operating the mixer in preparation for a concert
  • Performances of my work

    A poster advertising my tour to the Great Lakes region.
  • Electronic patch

    To perform my work, I create patches on SuperCollider and AudioMulch to alter and process raw sound.
  • Playing at the keyboard

    Many of my solo "Sir Microtonal" songs are short, catchy, experimental, and based on a single concept.
  • Performing at the piano

    Here is a photo of me performing at a standard grand piano. When it comes to connecting with audience, stage presence is important to me.

Songs of the Working Poor

This song cycle is part of a larger set of songs that address issues the working poor deal with in the present United States. Although the US remains the richest country in the world, it faces an ever growing segment of impoverished citizens as income inequality gets worse. "Songs of the Working Poor" borrows ideas from cabaret, jazz, folk, country, Caribbean music, indigenous music, and spirituals to give these sinister texts an American flavor.

So far, I've completed and orchestrated three songs for soprano and large ensemble, and am working on three more songs for tenor. I wrote the lyrics, many of which were inspired by personal life experiences from teaching for a year at a prison, and teaching math for seven years in schools with large percentages of children from underprivileged families. I've also taken on jobs in the service sector to make ends meet.

Each of the songs for female voice borrows from an American genre: cabaret, swing jazz, and folk music. The first song, "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 second song, "Seasonal Affective Disorder," hits straight at America’s present opioid epidemic. It notes some of the causes: doctors overprescribing medicine, depression, alcoholism, isolation, bleak winters, and the decay of cities and towns. A third song, "Wabash," mourns the death of a loved one while portraying American landscapes. Themes in Wabash are reminiscent of both “Oh Shenandoah.”

The second set, for tenor, piano, and bass, addresses men's issues. One song is told from the perspective of a prison inmate who is forced to make undergarments for Victoria's Secret. In another song, the singer mourns the separation between him and his four-year-old daughter. A final song, the singer regrets a bad decision he made in a fit of rage, later reflecting that he doesn't feel capable expression other than anger. Unlike the soprano songs, set for a larger ensemble and based on popular musical genres, the tenor songs are more quiet and introspective.

This project is in its early stages. These songs are currently being considered by several ensembles looking for new music to perform. I hope to write up to twenty Songs of the Working Poor, and possibly develop them into an opera.

  • My Biggest Mistake

    Lyrics to the song "My Biggest Mistake"
  • Writing music

    I want my music to sound "American," and to address American issues.
  • "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.
  • Putting words to music

    Sketches of both music and lyrics
  • "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.
  • Performance at Peabody

    Writing art songs has been an ongoing project for me. This photo features myself between conductor Nell Flanders and baritone Rahzé Cheatham, for whom I set John Keats' "When I Have Fears" for voice and orchestra.
  • "Leave my weeping lilt behind!"

    This song was written in an American folk style. In it, the singer mourns the passing of her beloved, comparing them to the Wabash River.
  • When I Have Fears

    Before embarking on "Songs for the Working Poor," I set John Keats' sonnet "When I Have Fears" to baritone voice and orchestra. Before "When I Have Fears," I set William Carlos Williams' "Nantucket" to male chorus. It was performed by the Washington Men's Camerata. These projects were quintessential to my development as a songwriter.
  • Musical speech

    I've written songs for various forces. Right now I'm writing a second set of "Songs for the Working Poor" for tenor and piano. In the past I've written songs for voice and orchestra, voice and small ensemble, voice with live electronics, men's chorus, and mixed chorus.
  • Brown Muddy Prairies

    When was a kid, I lived for three years in Indiana. Since Indiana is colder than Maryland, I was hoping to see more snow. Instead, the winds seemed to blow all the snow behind a barn somewhere, leaving just the dirt beneath. Factory farms had destroyed the otherwise idyllic rural landscape. Many of Indiana's small towns have been destroyed because industries moved away, and Walmarts have replaced local businesses. The "brown muddy prairies" in "Seasonal Affective Disorder" lay a depressing backdrop for a song about drug abuse.

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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