for B-flat clarinet and string quartet


13 minutes

Commissioned by/Premiere

June 4 and 5, 2022, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles, Ben Mitchell, clarinet
September 22 and 24, 2022, Omega Ensemble, Sydney and Melbourne, David Rowden, clarinet
Oct 19 and 20, 2022, Third Angle New Music, Portland, James Shields, clarinet
April 7, 8, and 9, 2023 Chatter ABQ, Albuquerque, James Shields, clarinet

Co-commissioned by Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Omega Ensemble, Third Angle New Music, and Chatter ABQ

Nervous Systems was created with the support of a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship and the Edward T. Cone Foundation.


Purchase from Project Schott New York.



The central conceit of Nervous Systems came to me while I was a fellow at the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy. A neighboring town, where I’d frequently take walks, was called Nervi. Both Bogliasco and Nervi sit directly upon the Ligurian Sea. It’s impossible not to hear the sound of waves crashing on the shore; its constant din is an endlessly soothing presence.

Nervi also happens to be the surname of one of my favorite architects, Pier Luigi Nervi, who has been called “the poet of concrete.” He designed some of my favorite edifices in Italy: rigorous modernist masses that are the paragon of symmetry and order, but whose materials suggest an austere roughness.

The confluence of these names, and the fact that the word nervi is also Italian for “nerves” got me thinking about different kinds of systems of organization, be they the internal nervous system of the body, the homeostasis between land and sea, or the architectural plans of a building. I composed the movements of my piece around these ideas.

The first movement, “Hive of Nerves,” features each player playing fast and overlapping rhythmic figures. I imagined different parts of the human nervous system interacting; the music is skittish, nervous. Much like any system, it is the interaction of the constituent parts that is more important than any single element. The clarinet often doubles one of the string players. With its warm and blended tone, it binds all the elements of the system together.

The second movement, “Framed Sky,” imagines the Ligurian Sea spanning out like an endless vista. The strings imitate the sound of the sea crashing on the shore by tonelessly brushing their bows up and down their strings (the Italian word for this technique, spazzolare, is one of my favorites). As the movement proceeds, the strings and clarinet whoosh like the wind, and eventually the clarinet plays multiphonics—or two notes at the same time—that almost blend with the strings. The result is a deliberately slightly out-of-tune soundworld, an attempt to capture the liminal space on the horizon between sea and sky.

The final movement, “Palazzo del Lavoro,” pays homage to the architect Nervi and his building in Turin of the same name. I used rough sounds like sul ponticello (playing on the bridge), bouncing ricochets, and snap pizzicati to simulate the harshness of concrete, while the clarinet dances around these percussive sounds, evoking his sense of play within the rough but orderly universe.


This is truly an ensemble piece with Rowden’s clarinet an equal voice with the string quartet. It is rhythmically based – quite mesmerizingly so with bows bounced on strings, ticking plucked notes and wave-like syncopation – but goes beyond the confines of minimalism. The movements – Hives of NervesFramed Sky and Palazzo del Lavoro – deal with different “systems of organisation”, respectively the body’s nervous system, the equilibrium between the sky and the sea and Nervi’s concrete edifice in Turin.

Steve Moffatt, Limelight