circles mostly in wood

Frank J. Oteri

About this work:

I still have the first Manhattan street map I ever bought from back when I was in elementary school and living in Chelsea where I lived virtually all my life until November 2001. I still remember being totally intrigued by Broadway's curved path allowing it to intersect with both North-South and East-West traffic corridors through all of Manhattan, and most particularly, for some reason, where Broadway eventually meets up with Riverside Drive, our Westernmost thoroughfare, up in Inwood near the very top of the island. Thinking I'd live downtown all my life, I didn't realize that one day I would walk past the corner of Broadway and Riverside Drive every morning. The process of unexpected transformation, which had affected so many aspects of my personal life for about a year, was the guiding principle for the composition of circles mostly in wood, scored for wind quintet, a very unexpected heterogenous combination of instruments which are not even all from the same orchestral family. In fact, the title of the composition is a play on the fact that all of this music is inspired by something in my new neighborhood, Inwood; each movement completes a circular journey of some type scored for an ensemble consisting of mostly, but not exclusively, wooden instruments. Also, the five movements worked themselves out over the course of a year which completes a circle, and each are based in some way or another on a hexachord in the quartertone system that when inverted, retrograded and retrograde-inverted generates the full cycle of 24 quartertones, completing yet another circle.

1. houdini

One of the urban legends about my new neighborhood is that the great early 20th century illusionist Harry Houdini once lived in a small Victorian-looking building at 47 Seaman Avenue, across the street from the large Art Deco-era apartment complex where I now live. This mysterious two-story dwelling, built on a slant near the most provocatively-named street corner in Inwood (Seaman Avenue and Cumming Street), seems totally out-of-place and inevitably provokes a reaction from visitors once they've recovered from reading the street signs.

In reality, Houdini's wife Bess bought a house in Inwood at 67 Payson, not 47 Seaman, but only after his death. However, there are many accounts of Bess's failed attempts to reach her husband through seances held every year on his birthday, Halloween. Houdini had apparently promised that communication from beyond the grave would be his ultimate feat of illusion.

Like the historic Houdini who probably never once visited Inwood, at least corporeally, this music was born before I moved to Inwood and before I ever thought I'd be living here. A 24-tone row of equally-tempered quartertones, built from 4 mirror forms of an identical hexachord, serves as a cantus firmus upon which a tonal rhapsody, a blues motive and supporting harmonies are traded between instruments, endlessly repeating yet always modulating. (Each of these various contrapuntally-woven motives return on their own as the thematic content in the subsequent movements of this composition.) Once the 24th note of the cantus is reached, the circle is complete and the movement is over.

The relentless pursuit of complete stasis through perpetual transformation, which still feels to me like a magic trick after laboring over it for many months, now seems like a harbinger for all the changes in my life that were soon set in motion leading to and from my move to Inwood. And now that this is my home, my goal in this music is to realize Houdini's final illusion by bringing him to Inwood once and for all.

2. eenan (a.k.a. the place where we got really really drunk)

The oldest standing home in Manhattan is the farmhouse at the corner of 204th Street and Broadway which once belonged to 18th century magnate Jan Dyckman whose claims to fame include resisting bridge tolls. Now a museum, Dyckman House today stands across the street from one of NYC's best liquor stores and, at the time I composed this music, from what was one of NYC's strangest dive bars, Keenan's Piano Lounge, or rather "eenan" since the K had been missing for many years. But that's not all that's missing. Despite the name, there was no piano anywhere in the entire establishment; rather the perimeter of the bar itself was in the shape of a grand piano with the bartender and booze located inside where strings and hammers ought to have been.

A rumor about the etymology of the name Manhattan is that it is a Native American language corruption of a phrase meaning "The Place Where We Got Really Really Drunk," a result of first contact with Europeans who plied their unwitting hosts with alcohol in order to swindle them out of real estate, an event which actually occured in Inwood. If such a deal were to go down now, it might occur at a place like "eenan" over a $2.50 gin and tonic hearing a piano-less jazz band perform as they occasionally have been doing in recent months. Imagine a group of players led by a clarinet with one musician always missing (like the piano and letter K on the sign outside) playing a 12-bar blues derived from the "houdini" blues theme expanded to a 12-note scale derived from two of the row forms that would never work out comfortably on any keyboard instrument and you'll be imagining the music I hear in my head when I think of this place.

3. shorakkopoch

In 1626, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from the Reckgawawanc Indians for trinkets & beads worth about 60 guilders (the equivalent of 24 dollars) in what is now called Inwood Hill Park, the last area of natural forest left in Manhattan. Today, the worst real estate heist in the history of humanity is remembered by a rock surrounded by a circle of dirt where dogs occasionally urinate.

To me, the park and this rock are metaphors for all the magical joys and trauma of today's post-modern world and my life, which continues to transform within it. The 60 guilders are the 60 possible 3-instrument combinations harmonizing the possible triads within the row's source hexachord built from 24 tones, a pitch equivalent of dollars, moving at a glacial pace reminiscent of a glacial drill hole into a rock found elsewhere in the park. Two always change but one always stays the same. Though seemingly lifeless, this motion is very much like life itself. Once again, when all possible combinations have occurred, the music ends.

4. tubby hook

One of New York City's best viewing posts is from a table at the Tubby Hook Café located at the Dyckman Marina on the edge of the Hudson River from where the George Washington Bridge looks most majestic. Named for one of the neighborhood's earlier appellations, Tubby Hook rests on the site of a former ferry terminal and to this day marks the end of a huge pile of disparate rocks of various sizes where more than brave adventures can still experience a fenceless walk at the edge of the Hudson.

In recent years, Tubby Hook has morphed into a Dominican karaoke club. Imagine the rhapsodic "houdini" theme never sung the same way twice, for such is karaoke, wandering from timbre to timbre, or rock to rock, on a walk at the edge of the Hudson that I imagined would restore the stability of my life but instead turned out to be a harbinger of its transformation. While "tubby hook" is arguably the most intuitive and unabashedly tonal of all of the five movements with the exception of the obvious functional blues tonality of "eenan," the four layers of deliberative non-imitative counterpoint in "tubby hook" are grounded by the oboe's cantus firmus (created from the 12 pitches of the total 24 discarded from the second movement) which cries out through a series of measures that add up to the age I was when this uncertain journey began.

5. spuyten duyvil

During my years as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I was simultaneously caught in the crossfire of uptown and downtown musical ideologies and tormented by members of the University's always-losing football team.

Twenty-years later, now that the uptown and downtown battles of the past generation have largely waned, I find myself frequently wandering the northern edge of Manhattan, further uptown than any uptowner, staring out past the Columbia University Football Team's Baker Field over at a Bronx neighborhood called Marble Hill which is built on a rock that was attached to the island of Manhattan until 1876 when it was severed off to make the waterways of the city more navigable.

The rerouted Harlem River now separates Marble Hill from Manhattan spilling into the Hudson River via an inlet with the strange name of Spuyten Duyvil, which legend has it derives from an ill-fated challenge issued to Satan.

Nearly four centuries ago, Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland, summoned a trumpeter named Anthony Van Corlaer, to warn Dutch settlers of an imminent attack by the British. Despite a furious storm, Van Corlaer rushed to sound the call.  Upon reaching the northern tip of Manhattan, he swore that he would swim across the divide in spite of the Devil (in Dutch, "in spuyt den duyvil"), but he drowned before reaching the Bronx.

Local legend describes the devil grabbing Van Corlaer by the leg as he swam across the inlet trying to pull him under. Van Corlaer reached for his trumpet and blew such a terrific blast that the frightened Devil let go, but Van Corlaer didn't have the strength to make it to the other side. For years after, people claimed they could hear a trumpet blowing in the wind on nights when a storm raged.

Here the trumpet is replaced by French horn and flute, the two metallic instruments in the otherwise "woodwind" quintet, which blare diads that apply the missing notes to all 13 possible tonal triads in the 1/4 system containing the pitch C. These diads form those triads by harmonizing with the endlessly recurring Cs (for the big C painted on the edge of the Marble Hill rock) that begin every possible permutation of the hexachord stated by the other instruments, ideally at the satanic speed of quarter note equals 666 which is probably faster than anyone will ever be able to play it since no one can outrun the Devil. When all of the seemingly-tonal serial hexachord permutations and seemingly-serial tonal triad combinations are exhausted, once again the circle is completed and the movement is over, and at that point so is the entire piece.

On several levels, “spuyten duyvil” is probably the most “uptown” music I have ever written, yet it is more “downtown”-sounding than most of my work. I suppose I’m still fighting my own demons or perhaps this is the supreme irony of a lifelong geographical downtowner now living “beyond uptown.”


The world premiere of circles mostly in wood took place on February 26, 2003 at Washington Square United Methodist Church in New York City in a performance by Pentasonic Winds (Erin Lesser, flute; Miriam Kapner, oboe; Michal Beit-Halachmi, clarinet; Gina Valvano, bassoon; and Angela Cordell, horn) which was part of a concert presented by Composers Concordance. (Insufficient rehearsal time due to blizzards resulted in a performance of only the first four movements.) Another performance of circles mostly in wood by the Sylvan Winds on April 8, 2004 at New York City’s Greenwich House Music School, as part of Victoria Bond’s Cutting Edge Concerts, featured the first, fourth, and a modified version of the last movement.

Click here to see Frank J. Oteri's guided tour of the various historic locations in Inwood that inspired circles mostly in wood. To obtain either a hard copy or a PDF of the score and parts, please visit

Year composed: 2002
Duration: 00:20:00
Ensemble type: Chamber or Jazz Ensemble, Without Voice:Woodwind Quintet
Instrumentation: 1 Flute, 1 Oboe, 1 Clarinet, 1 Bassoon, 1 Horn in F
Instrumentation notes: In order to perform circles mostly in wood, players must be familiar with quartertone fingerings.

Frank J. Oteri's profile »