photo by Dina Bova

harlan variations

If using Safari and the player doesn't work, try clicking in the waveform of the player window.

for chamber orchestra
duration: 13'
first performance: 21 March 2014; Simmons Center for the Arts, Charleston, SC; Charleston Symphony Orchestra; Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, conductor
availability: rental  |  view perusal score
recording: non-commercial
detailed orchestration: – – timp – 1 perc: vib.glock.BD – pf – str ( or multiples)


Harlan Variations is named for Harlan County, KY, in the heart of southern Appalachia. As a native of South Carolina who spent a good part of his life in the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee, the songs of Appalachia occupy a fairly significant place in my heart. Although I am by no means an aficionado, I have always appreciated and enjoyed this music, filled as it is with colorful characters and stories that simultaneously suggest a darker side of life, often steeped in poverty and misfortune.

Harlan Variations is cast in a kind of a "crossfade theme and variations" form, although it was conceived as having a very "through-composed" sound and feel. It begins with a minor-mode sounding "theme" that dissolves away and ultimately transforms (over the course of several variations) into a bright harmonization of the old church hymn, When We Shall Meet. I first encountered this song on a recording, sung by a congregation from The Old Regular Baptist Church, based somewhere in eastern Kentucky (presumably), and was taken with its soulfulness.