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Visit Nathan Shirley’s YouTube channel for over 250 more videos.

Blue Midnight

Performed live by the Raleigh Flute Choir | Commissioned by Ann Pearce

Irene Burke, piccolo | Rosene Rohrer | Kim Kittner | Cathy Laffoon | Erin Munnelly | Lauren Robbins-Pollack, alto | Thomas Mease, bass | Ann Pearce, contrabass

Carswell Recital Hall | Meredith College | Raleigh, NC

Suite for Harpsichord

Suite for Harpsichord is dedicated to Daniel Angerstein who graciously provided his beautiful double manual harpsichord for the premiere performance and recording.

As the piano evolved and began to dominate musical life in Europe, the harpsichord slowly fell out of favor. However, at the time the piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (around 1700), the harpsichord had reached perfection over a period of roughly 400 years beginning in the 14th century. It was an extremely capable instrument. Many of the more robust varieties borrowed features from the pipe organ — two keyboards and various stops to alter timbre which offer a range of sonic possibilities.

The biggest limitation of the harpsichord is the same for the pipe organ — the inability to fully control dynamics. This shortcoming forces the composer to think more narrowly about music — to focus on pitch and rhythm above all else. In the world of art, forced limitations often lead to novel solutions, and sometimes the perfection of the medium. And so the limitations of the harpsichord and organ almost certainly helped shape music of the baroque era. I would go so far as to suggest that Bach’s mind boggling perfection of counterpoint might very well have not been achieved, had it not been for the limitations of the harpsichord and organ — two of his main musical tools.

“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time.” -J. S. Bach

So I attempted to fully embrace these limitations and write a new work, in my own style, for the instrument that gave birth to the piano.

The suite opens with a brutal scene of some strange ritual Sacrifice. The cold and harsh sounds exploit the harpsichord’s natural metallic tone to a degree not often heard from this instrument. The upper manual periodically echoes the dominant lower manual.

The Lament presents its solitary little melody over and over, each time separated by silence as sufficient energy is summoned to begin again. Near the end it seems as though the music is finally leading towards some sense of closure. But no, it returns once again to where it began, lost in grief.

No suite would be complete without at least one dance, and so, we are now thrust into a lively Folk Dance.

With Reanimation we emerge from the momentum of the dance. The melody is given to the bass in the first section with chords in the treble pushing things along. It twists and turns and eventually leads into a set of variations which build in intensity as the sacrificial offering rises from the dead. After this climax, the original melody returns with a tender accompaniment guiding it along.

Suite for Piano

Each of the 5 short movements from my Suite for Piano were commissioned specifically for this recording. Some were written with very specific suggestions while others were written with few or none at all. Though these works could stand alone, they were composed with each other in mind. So while they offer significant contrasts, when united they reveal a broader picture.

Vision makes use of both Eastern and Western musical styles. Sometimes the Eastern style is dominant, sometimes the Western, but often the two are fused together as one. -Commissioned by William Clark in honor of Penelope W. Clark and Sophia L. Clark

Opening with a tonally ambiguous melody which floats around us, Haze meanders about — searching. Along the way we glimpse some beautiful but fleeting scenes — then we’re back in the haze. -Commissioned by the Bost Girls in memory of their father, the Reverend Doctor Jeff Bost

The Mazurka is a traditional Polish dance made especially famous by Chopin. It’s characterized by a triple meter and distinct rhythm with accents (often) on beats 2 or 3. Like many of the Polish mazurkas, this mazurka makes use of the lydian mode, a scale which can be very bright and lively. -Commissioned by Rickard Dahl

A delicate melody made of little repeated notes comprises the heart of Reflection. It is constructed in rondo form, where the opening material recurs with different material woven in between each occurrence. -Commissioned by Jayne Anderson, Larry and David Weigel in loving memory of Eric Anderson Weigel

With much difficulty and uncertainty, Struggle slowly trudges through dark chromaticism. As soon as it seems to find its way, it slips back into the darkness. Eventually however, it triumphs — ending with the original chromaticism now transformed into a howling victory. -Commissioned by Treavor Gouge

Suite for Synthesizer

Suite for Synthesizer was composed for three ‘virtual instruments’ I created using Pianoteq — currently the most advanced ‘physical modeling’ software around. When it comes to artificially simulating actual instruments, synthesizers had been largely replaced by sampled instruments, until recently. Sampled instruments work by playing back recordings of individual notes of actual instruments. Due in part to the advancement of computer processing power, physical modeling (a type of digital synthesizer) has rapidly evolved — in some ways surpassing the realism of sampled instruments. Physical modeling seeks to build digital reproductions of instruments by mathematically replicating every aspect of the sound production, from the vibrations of a string, to the resonance of a soundboard, to the sympathetic vibrations in other strings as sound waves travel inside the body of an instrument. But physical modeling also allows for the construction of virtual instruments which simply don’t exist. I see this as its greatest potential.

The 3 synthetic instruments presented here have been manipulated to sound completely unreal — yet they behave like acoustic instruments, with a wide dynamic range and the responsiveness of a fine piano. I performed all of these on a midi keyboard with wooden-key piano-like action. This is my first attempt at writing specifically for solo synthesizer, and each of these three movements were composed using the same virtual instruments presented here.

The instrument used in Oblivion is a physically modeled Italian harpsichord which has been heavily altered to give it a longer sustain, a wide dynamic range (and timbral range from dark to bright), as well as other alterations to create a uniquely smooth and otherworldly tone.

Darkness is an unusual dance-like piece, written for a (modified) virtual Pianet N (an electro-acoustic instrument produced in the 1970’s). It too has been heavily altered to produce a wide dynamic and timbral range. Also, a buzzing effect has been added, modeling parchment resting on vibrating strings, as well as other alterations to lend it a bizarre electric quality.

The instrument used in The Return is a physically modeled Blüthner piano, again heavily altered to produce a longer sustain, an organ-like quality at softer dynamics, and other adjustments giving a round and rich tone.

The Injured Toad

The Injured Toad was composed when I was 16. I had recently discovered the music of Satie and was really intrigued. The Injured Toad is stylistically very much inspired by some of his little oddities, particularly the Gymnopédies. As a teenager I spent a lot of time photographing and videotaping nature, and was especially interested in the strange dramas which unfolded between insects and other small creatures. This little piece depicts the tragic fate of one such animal. The subtitle reads, “with its side ripped open.”

Etude for One Hand or Two

I composed Etude for One Hand or Two in 2014 after having broken my right hand. While my dominant hand was incapacitated in its cast, I decided to keep my left hand active at the piano by writing an etude for it alone. This proved to be quite an interesting challenge both to compose and to play. After losing the use of my right hand for months, talking to doctors, and weighing the risks of corrective surgery vs. letting the bone grow back in an imperfect position; a certain level of frustration and doubt set into my psyche. This frustration came through in the music — I made no attempt to suppress it.

Once the bone had healed and my finger strength and flexibility had returned, it quickly became apparent that my tendons still had a long way to go in adjusting to their new physiology. After a lot of physical therapy, I’m pleased to report that my playing is back to 100% now that my tendons and brain have adjusted to my slight hand deformity.

Atrophy in the unused appendage demanded that my right hand return to the piano as soon as possible. From time to time I would practice my left hand etude, but whenever I played it, my right hand would scream to play along. Pretty soon I let it play along, and the result is the two-hand version of this etude. The only structural change in this version is a slightly extended ending. Whereas the original version ends in lonely uncertainty, the two-hand version throws aside uncertainty, ending in triumph.

This etude is dedicated to the excellent hand occupational therapist, Howie Dortch, who helped me immensely both physically and mentally as I regained the use of my right hand.

The Lake

Nathan Shirley, music | Ana Carolina Scott, voice | Edgar Allan Poe, words | video by Nathan Shirley | experimental recording performed on Pianoteq Special | Thanks to Ben Shirley for technical help

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Lake was first published in 1827, inspired by a trip to Lake Drummond in The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina. In setting this poem to music, I left the text completely unaltered. Though the general feel is dark and subdued, the piano part constantly jumps quickly and softly over the entire range of the keyboard as it depicts the dark waters of the Lake. The piano often only hints at the vocal line — as a ghostly shadow coming and going. The singer must have a sharp ear in order to navigate this strange twisting melody. The version presented here was recorded in an experimental way to give the piece a unique yet modern atmosphere.

Annabel Lee

This composition is dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn and Edgar Allan Poe, written in 2009 to commemorate the 200th year since their birth (both in 1809). It is inspired both by Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor, and Poe’s last poem- Annabel Lee. It’s main theme is styled very romantically, to give an air of the 19th century. The solo violin loosely represents Annabel Lee, while the piano loosely represents the narrator. Each section reflects the different events and emotions conjured up by the poem.

Performance at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Daniel Petrica Ciobanu (piano), Calin Andrei (solo violin), Rivoli String Quartet, Michael Cretu (contrabass).


Cultus was composed in 2006 as a homage to the 20th century master Dmitri Shostakovich. It makes use of his signature motif- D, E-flat, C, B, which is derived from the letters in his name.* This idea was taken from the famous BACH motif which is based on the same letters-to-notes concept. Shostakovich used these signature notes very prominently in much of his music, and they also happens to make up part of the octatonic scale, used by several different cultures including music of Persia. Cultus was written to evoke the spirit of Shostakovich’s music. The word is Latin for ‘struggle’, or ‘toiling over something in order to refine’. Shostakovich’s career (like so many Soviet composers and other artists) was spent toiling over his compositions. Working under unpredictable and oppressive circumstances, he had the impossible task of writing music which was (barely) acceptable to the authorities (Stalin), yet at the same time did not sacrifice his own artistic ideals. Like much Soviet era art, there is much dark sarcasm in his music. Cultus reflects this sarcasm. In the current work the D, E-flat, C, B motif is first introduced very subtly, slowly becoming refined until there is no mistaking it.

*This is taken from an alternate spelling- Dmitri Schostakowitsch. In the German musical system S = E-flat, and H = B.

Images, #8

Images is a collection of 10 short pieces each having been inspired by a separate painting (composed in 2002). The majority of these paintings were created in the Renaissance, and the subject matter of all is religious, centering around the Catholic saints, but also containing stories taken from the bible, including the Book of Judith.

Music for Strings & Marimba

Ryszard Haba on marimba, Jan Jazownik conducting. Live in Krakow.

Images, #10

Images is a collection of 10 short pieces each having been inspired by a separate painting (composed in 2002). The majority of these paintings were created in the Renaissance, and the subject matter of all is religious, centering around the Catholic saints, but also containing stories taken from the bible, including the Book of Judith.

Saint Stanisław

This music was composed by Nathan Shirley to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Polish artist Wyspiański. It was performed in Krakow during the unveiling of Wyspiański’s newly realized stained glass window depicting the body of Saint Stanisław in his opened coffin. The window was to be placed in the Wawel Cathedral, but the painting for the window proved controversial, and the window was never made… until 2007.

The composition consists of original music, but also incorporates the famous hymn to Saint Stanisław “Gaude, mater Polonia” originating in the 13th century. Just as the dismembered corpse of Stanisław rejoined itself, so too do the fragmented musical elements rejoin at the end. The narrated text of Wyspiański has been removed from this video.

Jan Baryła conducts the Orkiestra kameralna “Orfeusz”.

The Seven Modes

Lydian is one of the pieces from The Seven Modes. Visualization created by Nathan Shirley.

Locorum Musica

For flute and string orchestra in 3 movements. Live in Krakow.

Images, #9

Images is a collection of 10 short pieces each having been inspired by a separate painting (composed in 2002). The majority of these paintings were created in the Renaissance, and the subject matter of all is religious, centering around the Catholic saints, but also containing stories taken from the bible, including the Book of Judith.