For a class: what am I passionate about?

It is easy for me to identify that about which I am passionate, but surprisingly difficult to write about it. I am a composer, percussionist, and guitarist, on top of being just plain fanatical about music in general. I am told that, as a young child, I used to climb on top of my parents’ stereo and dance whenever it was on. I took piano lessons for a few years before I got a drum-set for Christmas when I was 10. Soon afterward I took up guitar, and started a band with my brother and a friend. We played some pretty serious thrash metal, with the kind of “turn-or-burn” apocalyptic evangelistic lyrics one might expect from a group of over-zealous Bible Belt 15-year-olds. Nonetheless, the music got better and better until our friend took off to college. Soon afterward I joined another band that he had started, more of a progressive rock thing which we all thought we’d be in for the long haul. When I went to college, I started taking a couple of music classes, with the intention of becoming a better guitarist. By the end of my freshman year the band had split up, but I was hooked on music theory and for the first time began to listen to “classical” music.

I had been the biggest Iron Maiden fan you’d want to meet, and thought that rock was the pinnacle of musical art. Sure, I played in the high school orchestra, but never really paid attention to the music so much. Studying music, first Brahms pricked my ears with the pathos-laden slow movement from his Third Symphony. Then it was Mozart’s 40th. But it was in hearing Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky that I was finally reeled in. I found in them a whole new musical world, but with a distant connection to my rock & roll past by way of its primitive impulse and elemental rhythmic force. I listened to Stravinsky almost exclusively for the entire summer, and when I began my second year I was truly converted.

That’s nearly ten years ago. I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in music composition now, and have written more for string quartet or orchestra than for guitar. My music is published and performed and commissioned and all of that good stuff. Yet I maintain a love for a wide range of musical styles: I focus on new composed music mostly, but I love jazz, I still rock out to Black Sabbath, I dig modern rock and old country and electronica and folk… I’m fairly omnivorous, I love it all. If, however, I were to try to say what it is in music that so holds me… well, I don’t know exactly how to approach that. It is many things all at the same time, and yet there is an overarching love of the art of music that is hard to put into words.

Perhaps from a pragmatic point of view, music is what I do best. It’s almost the only thing I’m good at, and certainly the only thing at which I really excel. I have been told by many people that I am a gifted musician, and have sometimes felt that way myself, and in the interest of stewardship I pursue it as a career. I used to think that meant “rock star.” Now I imagine it’s much more likely to mean “university professor.” Either way, it uses the gifts I have, hopefully to further God’s kingdom.

Yet beyond mere pragmatism or faithfulness, there is a deeper goodness to music that holds me enthralled. The Greeks spoke of the “music of the spheres,” that natural logic and coherence and interplay between all that existed, moving together in a symphony of inaudible yet cosmic consequence. That sense permeates all of creation—there is music in it all. How sweet, then, when that order and harmony become audible, when a composer puts pen to paper to draw up instructions for a new creation. It is the Big Bang blown afresh. It is a dream of a new universe, populated by both the strange and the familiar, the new and the old. It is colors borrowed from the dreams of others to form new lines, new shapes, new physics. It is imagining the other, exploded upward into whole worlds like a tiny spindle of a fractal set. Music mirrors creation, and as a composer I image my Creator, and in doing so I am brought closer to feeling the joy of creating, the sheer exhilaration of “Let there be…”

Notes and words

So I sat down in earnest today to compose, working on the Mass setting I mentioned a couple of posts back. I had a few loose sketches and ideas already, and am quite pleased that tonight I was able to complete two versions of the Kyrie (I know, I know: there are three words in it; all the same…). I also got a good start on the Gloria, confirmed which text I’m using (the 1962 English translation of the Tridentine Mass), and hammered out my harmonic scheme for the work overall. I’m happy, given my nervousness over the project due to my lack of time to compose regularly… I was afraid I was too rusty to get anything done. Earnest Newman’s famous quotation comes to mind: “The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working.” Not that I’d call myself a great composer, but it really is in getting to work that the “art” of it comes. I guess that’s why people call it “artwork.”

The idea behind this Mass, by the way, is new for me. I’m attempting to involve the congregation in the music without overwhelming them. I tend to like dissonance and rhythmic complexity and such, so this takes a very intentional approach from me to make happen. So far, so good, I think. Rather than writing for a large ensemble (as is strangely typical of Masses, despite most churches having an organ at best), the accompaniment I’m using is a single melodic line, playable on any instrument capable of the notes–so organ, flute, violin, guitar, bassoon, accordion, xylophone… whatever is available. The text is sung (thus far, at least) in a call-and-response manner, heavy on the repetition for the non-music-readers, between a cantor/choir/soloist and the congregation/choir. I’m going to be regularly running it past non-composer types to make sure I’m not imagining some super-musical church congregation, but even if it did end up largely out of reach for most non-musicians, it will certainly be easily accessible for choirs.

I’m just glad to be getting my hands dirty with the music again…

A Spring Break pick-me-up

Well, I got a rather nice email today from my publisher HoneyRock, of a review of my Marimba Fantasy by one Tom Morgan (whom I don't know) to be published in the April issue of Percussive Notes magazine. It's a good many times better than I would have expected any review for something of mine to be, so I thought I would share it for those interested. Check it:

This difficult and rewarding unaccompanied solo for five-octave marimba is written in a contemporary atonal or neo-tonal style with much rhythmic variation and complexity. The opening section (in 11/16) begins in octaves but is soon off in a playful romp that covers the entire range of the instrument. The texture is often one or two voices, punctuated by four-note chords. Interspersed are counter melodies and passages in contrary motion, with shifting rhythmic patterns and changing meters.

The piece eventually settles into a dance-like mood shifting between 5/8, 6/8 and 4/8, but this is shortlived. A monophonic, more free and legato section follows that soon returns to material similar to the opening. The most difficult part of the piece is probably the slower section, which requires the player to use a "mandolin roll" with the left hand, performing a rolled glissando while the right hand plays a choral as a one-handed roll on top. This moves to a more traditional rolled choral marked "majestic and broad."

The solo concludes with another fast sixteenth-note passage, climaxing with angular melodic patterns and a crescendo to fff. This is a monumental work requiring much musical and technical skill. It is destined to become a standard in the solo marimba literature.