Brad and Doug Balliett on Composing Fifty Trillion Molecular Geniuses

Doug (l.) and Brad (r.) Balliett

Doug (l.) and Brad (r.) Balliett

In 2017, The Cecilia Chorus of New York performed a newly commissioned piece, Oedipus the King, by the twin composers Brad and Doug Balliett, known as The Brothers Balliett. Click here to read about the making of that work.

Now they have collaborated on a new commission, Fifty Trillion Molecular Geniuses, with texts drawn from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book and TED Talk My Stroke of Insight.

The Brothers Balliett: As identical twins we are, like the two hemispheres of the brain which Dr. Taylor describes, also two halves of something. There’s something very complementary about our personalities, our interests, and about the way we approach life. It is part of what makes it so gratifying for us to collaborate. We have different strengths and different aesthetic priorities, and when we bring them together, hopefully we get the best of both.

Brad Balliett: Doug and I have been collaborating on pieces together our entire lives, ever since we could speak to each other, since the inception of our language. Actually, we had our own language first before we adopted English as our second language. Because it’s such a long and fruitful collaboration, we really enjoy trying out all the many varieties available to us, sort of like going to a collaboration supermarket and looking at all the collaboration fruits. For every project we want to taste a different fruit. With each project, we start off a different way. Sometimes Doug writes the melody and I’ll fill in harmony or the piano part. Or we’ll switch off movement by movement or section by section. We even tried once switching off bar by bar, which sounds like a horrifying idea but it worked better than I thought it would; it had this kind of pendulum swing from one moment to the next, very soothing, and it worked for that piece. We should try that again sometime!

Doug Balliett: For this piece we tried something different, something like bookends. Brad set the central stroke episode, Dr. Taylor’s actual experience, and I set the outer parts: the morning of the stroke, the right brain-left brain explanations and then the finale. We’re working on the orchestration now, and we will switch – I will turn Brad’s piano score into an orchestral part and he will do the same for mine. Click here to read full article.

Brad: I first encountered Dr. Taylor’s book about 8 years ago. First I saw the TED Talk. I was smitten with the expanding horizons of the story and the way that it made me reconsider everything about my brain. I got the book and loved that too. It was one of those things that kind of simmers in the back of your mind for a while: could this be a dramatic piece or some sort of musical piece? We were just waiting for the opportunity to see how it would come about.

Doug: The content is so interesting to begin with, and then the story is so dramatic and the idea of somebody who spent their life studying the brain and then not only has this bizarre opportunity, almost from God, to study a stroke from the inside, but to come equipped with all of those tools! What a unique way to go through something like that. Forgive the analogy, but it’s like you were a gorilla expert and you suffered a plane crash right into gorilla country, and because you were the gorilla expert you could immediately join their society and you were never in danger. It’s a little bit like that. She has this deep understanding of strokes, so when she suffered one herself, she was immediately able to identify it and knew what to do, but she could also revel in this new perspective on her very field of expertise. There is a lot of drama, interest, spirituality, and humanity in the story that makes it perfect for a vocal work.


BIOGRAPHY: Brad Balliett, Composer

Brad Balliett, described as “impressive” by The New Yorker, loves life as a musical omnivore, focusing equal parts of his diverse career on composing, playing bassoon, and teaching artistry.

Brad frequently performs with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and has performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Houston Symphony, New York City Ballet, and the International Contemporary Ensemble, and at the Marlboro, Tanglewood, and Newport Jazz festivals. He has performed as a soloist with the Houston Symphony and Johannesburg Symphony Orchestras.

As a composer, Brad has witnessed and participated in a steady stream of premieres of his orchestral, chamber, choral, opera, and incidental music. Recent commissions have come from Carnegie Hall, Metropolis Ensemble, and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra Wind Ensemble.

Brad is a member of the band/composer-collective Oracle Hysterical, and teaches history courses at Juilliard with his twin brother Doug.

As a teaching artist, Brad regularly leads composition and songwriting workshops in prisons, schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters. He is a faculty member at the Peabody Institute (Johns Hopkins University), the Juilliard School (Evening Division) and Musicambia (Sing Sing Correctional Facility). He loves birds and Shakespeare. For more about Brad Balliett, visit

BIOGRAPHY: Doug Balliett, Composer

Doug Balliett is a composer, instrumentalist, and poet based in New York City. The New York Times has described his poetry as “brilliant and witty” (Clytie and the Sun), his bass playing as “elegant” (Shawn Jaeger’s In Old Virginny), and his compositions as “vivid, emotive, with contemporary twists” (Actaeon). Popular new music blog I Care if You Listen has critiqued Mr. Balliett’s work as “weird in the best possible way” (A Gnostic Passion) and “light-hearted yet dark…it had the audience laughing one minute and in tears the next…” (Pyramus and Thisbe). He is professor of baroque bass and violone at the Juilliard School since 2017. With a constant stream of commissions, a podcast produced with his twin brother, and nearly 200 performances per year, Mr. Balliett has been identified as an important and active voice for his generation. Fore more about Doug Balliett, visit