At the Abyss

Reflections on tumult, tentativeness, and tenacity.


(piano, marimba, vibraphone, metal percussion).
Total duration ca. 14 minutes (2003)
Published by Activist Music (ASCAP).
Commissioned in 2003 by Teresa McCollough.
Three movement work. 39 pages (score), 8.5" x 11".


Premiered in April 2003 in San Francisco, CA.
by Teresa McCollough, piano,
Luanne Warner, marimba and vibraphone,
and Peggy Benkeser, percussion

Recorded by Teresa McCollough, piano,
Tom Burritt, marimba and vibraphone,
and Peggy Benkeser, percussion.



Hammers & Sticks

At the Abyss is featured on the Innova Recordings CD, Music for Hammers & Sticks (innova 630). Click CD for more info.

Listed as one of the Sequenza21 10 Best CDs of 2005.

Notes from the Kelp

At the Abyss is featured on the 2007 Innova Recordings CD, Notes from the Kelp (innova 683). Click CD for more info.









Hear Alex discuss the making of At the Abyss, in this ASCAP Audio Portrait interview (2:52):


hear hear


View a page and hear music clips
of any of the three movements:

1. Observe
view score
2. Reflect
view score

3. Act

view score



Purchase this score

Score and parts available from Activist Music:
$40.00, print; $28.00 digital.


During the time I composed this piece, October 2002, too many sad, threatening and violent events throughout the world offered proof of the terminal fragility of humans and of our planet. Politically. Ecologically. Ethically. I titled this piece At the Abyss because as members of a species which remains too savage for its ultimate group survival, we're staring directly into a huge crevasse that is our future. We are poised to plummet to its depths if we do not act accordingly.


The three movements are "Observe," "Reflect," and "Act".... akin to my three-step approach to life in general. In this instance, I'm observing the world, and stepping back to reflect on it in grief while accepting that there's only so much that will change. Finally, I realize that the least one can do is... act. In one way or another.



DOWNLOAD the password-protected perusal score and audio files for AT THE ABYSS (email Alex to obtain the access code):

1. Observe (6:43)
2. Reflect (4:26)

3. Act (2:52)

Perusal score

Download the perusal score



Alex Shapiro sometimes makes an abstract drawing of what the music sounds like in her head, prior to putting the notes down on a scorepad.


Here's the initial sketch of the opening to the first movement of "At the Abyss," "Observe", that later became bars 1-29:


"Observe" sktech


The music that matches the sketch:



Winner of the 2003 Best Original Composition award from the international music fraternity Mu Phi Epsilon.



Featured in the American Music Center's catalog of works composed in response to September 11, 2001. Click here for info.



"Act," the final movement of Alex Shapiro's three-part suite "At the Abyss," has a freneticism and spontaneity to it that is usually associated with jazz improv, but as far as I can see—Alex features a healthy portion of the score on her website—everything in this trio for piano and two percussionists is completely written out. Further proof of how simpatico pianist Teresa McCollough is with her percussionist cohorts Peggy Benkeser and Tom Burritt on this innova CD. I heard them pull this off live at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall last season and that gig left me wishing I could hear it again and again. Now I can!"

— Frank J. Oteri, American Music Center



"This recital, consisting of music for percussion and piano opens with Alex Shapiro’s wonderfully descriptive At the Abyss. It is the longest work on the program, and is reflective of the composer’s concerns for current social issues including politics and ecology. Well constructed, and full of interesting sounds, the work reminded me of some of the more creative film scoring that I have heard. This is music that conjures images in the mind, and the joy of it all is that those images will vary from listener to listener."

— Kevin Sutton, MusicWeb International



"...a spiky, exhilarating, energetic kind of music with a tremendous range of textures and dynamics.

— Joe McLellan, Classical Music Critic Emeritus of The Washington Post, for



"This musical reaction to the many sad and violent events occurring throughout the world is scored for piano, with Thomas Burritt playing marimba and vibraphone and Peggy Benkeser playing percussion. The second movement in particular is striking. The mood is very compelling, and Shapiro skillfully uses keyboard percussion intertwined with the piano and bowed crotales and cymbals throughout. The third movement is a workout for the marimba and vibes as they take the lead much of the time. This very intense movement is based on a recurring complex melodic figure that is relentless. It finally builds to an exciting climax. This piece will be an excellent addition to any percussion concert.... "At the Abyss" should be considered by any percussionists looking for great literature to perform."

— Tom Morgan, Percussive Notes



"Three reflections on the present state of our species and its relation to our planet are the substance of “At The Abyss”; a work scored for piano, marimba, vibraphone, and percussion. The three named, complexly contrapuntal movements are, “Observe”, “Reflect”, and “Act”. The first is mad as hell, and the second and third, determined not to take it any more."

— A.C. Douglas, Sounds & Fury



Mov't 1: Observe, page 1  
Observe, page 5
Observe, page 2  
Observe, page 3 ("Ka-boom" at end of sketch is fff in bar 29)  
Mov't 2. Reflect, page 2  
Reflect, page 2
Mov't 3. Act, page 9  
Act, page 9

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