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curareApple Ephedrine Pie premiered at San Francisco's Center for New Music, performed by the acclaimed Friction Quartet, a part of the tenth annual Irregular Resolutions concert.

This piece is a series of seven "miniatures" for string quartet and electronics. Each movement focuses on a particular plant's pharmacology, exploring the narrow region that lies somewhere between effectiveness and toxicity. Humankind has used all of these plants for centuries; the drugs contained in the plants (or their derivatives) are all still in use today.

A video of the premier is provided below followed by individual audio tracks and the concert's program notes. Many thanks to Steve Mobia (video) and Ryk Groetchen (audio)!


Also of note: the Friction Quartet read through an early draft of the piece in mid-2014 and provided helpful suggestions. Below are the individual movements and program notes.


1. Opening: Ephedrine is derived from gymnosperm shrubs around the world (Ephedra).  It is a powerful stimulant.

2. Curare Roses: Curare is a paralyzing arrow poison used by indigenous peoples of Central and South America. Derivatives of curare are still used as an adjunct to anesthesia during surgery.

3. Thujone: The wormwood (Artemisia) plant contains a number of psychoactive molecules.  The most notorious is the “active” ingredient in absinthe.

4. The Atropine Café: Small doses of atropine from the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) induce tachycardia, confusion, sensations of flight and hallucinations.  For eons, women (including Cleopatra) used atropine – very carefully! – to dilate their pupils. Atropine and its derivatives are still used by ophthalmogists, and it is also a life-saving drug for cardiac emergencies.

5. Foxglove Canvas: Digitalis, commonly known as foxglove, has been used for centuries as a heart “tonic.”  Potency varies greatly; too much foxglove can cause disturbances in yellow/green color perception, blurred vision, and blue halos around lights.  Some of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings are thought to have been influenced by foxglove toxicity. Digoxin, one of several drugs in digitalis, is still used to treat congestive heart failure.

6. The Opium Wars, Abridged: Papaver somniferum has been cultivated for thousands of years.  Society’s conflicted attitudes about profiteering and prohibition became the focus of British and Chinese conflict in the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860). Morphine and other components of opium are considered to be the best analgesic substances known to humankind.

7. Reprise

ABOUT THE ELECTRONICS: More than 100 electronic cues were prepared by the composer for this piece. They used a wide spectrum of analog and digital synthesis methodologies: subtractice, additive, granular, wavetable, etc. and were triggered live during the above performance using a bundled QLab file. In three instances, original source material was provided by Freesound artists: axiyee (satan’s calliope © 2009), Iwan Gabovitch (ghostly whispering ©2013) and miastodzwiekow (Poland Plac Bernardynski ©2009). The score and bundled QLab file are available from the composer.