Ashes Denote that Fire Was
I. Fire on 24th Street
II. The Embers
Cello, piano, & fixed electronics
Year of composition
Ashes Denote that Fire Was for cello, piano, and electronics is a piece about art about fire, especially its aftermath. The title is drawn from an Emily Dickinson poem on fire’s ability to remove any trace of what was there before:
Ashes denote that Fire was —
Revere the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile —
Fire exists the first in light
And then consolidates
Only the Chemist can disclose
Into what Carbonates.
Similarly, this piece is concerned with forgotten memories.
In Fire on 24th Street, New York City (1907) by Everett Shinn, an inferno engulfs a gloomy, industrial city block. Shinn was a member of the fittingly named Ashcan School, known for their unflinching looks at the hardships of urban and immigrant life. The fire depicted most likely occurred at the Empire Works building on February 6, 1864. In the middle of the Civil War, a fire that claimed no lives was not major news. However, it did cause an estimated $2.9 million in damages (adjusted for inflation), mostly to uninsured small businesses including a pianoforte manufacturer. You’ll hear the violence of the fire erupting, the awful clanking of machines falling apart, and even flames destroying some pianofortes. However, I also hoped to capture some of the fire’s morbid beauty, which might have spurred the crowd of onlookers to huddle a little too close to the building. The sirens in the electronic track were recorded on the streets of Manhattan.
The Embers (1879) by Everett Shinn depicts an old man in an austere, dimly lit room. Swaddled in winter clothes and clutching his cane with both hands, he stares into a dying fire. Thinking of my grandparents, I couldn’t help but view that nearly extinguished flame as a metaphor for memories toward the end of a life. The movement opens with disjunct fragments of a cello melody, representing a memory that cannot quite be placed, while burbling runs and glissandi evoke embers crackling. The piano enters with a faintly remembered chorale that slowly comes into focus. This builds into a brief moment of lucidity where the cello and piano recall the theme in its former glory. As the fire dies, the cello fragments and piano chorale are revealed to be two pieces of the same idea. At last, the memory fades for good, and the fire dies out with an unfinished half cadence. The crackling in the electronics was recorded at my grandparents’ home in Schuylkill Haven, PA, where Grandpa Biever always keeps the fireplace burning through Christmastime.
Movement 2 was premiered by Joanna Kim, cello, and Jason Brauer, piano, April 2023, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.
Movements 1 and 2 (with electronics) were premiered by Cindy Chen, cello, and Jason Brauer, piano, at the Provincetown Playhouse, New York, NY, November 2023.