A tone poem inspired by William Kennedy’s portrayal of the famous New York gangster Legs Diamond in his novel Legs.

Duration: 13’ 

Year of completion: 2004

Orchestra: 2222 hrp 3perc timp strings

Commissioned by the Albany Symphony and premiered in November of 2004.

Audio Excerpt:

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Program Note:

Eyeball High was commissioned by David Allan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra and premiered in the Troy Savings Bank on the 19th of November 2004. The composition is a tone poem based on William Kennedy’s depiction of the notorious prohibition era New York gangster Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond in his novel Legs.

In his life, Diamond deserted the army, was a hijacker, bootlegged liquor, survived at least 3 shootings and 17 bullets, and became a celebrity of legendary status beloved by both the public and the press. Eventually, he was murdered by multiple shots to the head. His killers were never discovered. 

Kennedy sets the stage for his work about Diamond with a chilling prefatory quote from Eugene Ionesco: People like killers. And if one feels sympathy for the victims it’s by way of thanking them for letting themselves be killed. From here, the book spins a story about human attraction to violence, and specifically, to one violent man. The characters close to Diamond, although sometimes possibly repulsed, are mostly followers, attracted by the brutal charisma of their leader.

The title Eyeball High comes from a moment in the book when the narrator of the story, a lawyer working for Jack named Marcus Gorman, first gets a taste of the thrill of violence. Jack offers for him to shoot a machinegun. Initially, Marcus is hesitant and restrained about handling a weapon of mass destruction, but after he first fires the ‘Tommy,’ Marcus does not want to let go of it. Enrapt by the excitement of the experience, Marcus becomes further enchanted by the opportunity to vicariously experience brutality through Jack. In response to the first shots from the gun, Jack says, “Got him. Eyeball high.” After Marcus’s success shooting the gun, Jack asks, “How the hell did you do that?” To which Marcus replies, “It’s all a matter of the eyeball.”

Musically, Eyeball High portrays the dual attraction and brutality of the Legs Diamond character. It depicts the setting of the nightclubs and speakeasies (often set through the sounds of 20s Ragtime), and it realizes the violent and powerfully evocative energy of Kennedy’s story. It is a work with a crazed and aggressive edge that is simultaneously exciting and possibly disturbing. Depicted in the music is the “rattling, stammering, splattering of violent death.” One specific musical illusion that listeners will note is the sound of the ‘Tommy’ gun (symbolized by the ratchet in the percussion section) at the point of the first climax of the piece. Hopeful, Eyeball High provides a window for reflection on humanity’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion to brutality.

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