Contrapuntal love

Another gem from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. Very Begbian, and fitting for a blog shooting to be about faith and music (emphases in bold are mine, links thrown in for your edification):

“Dear Eberhard,
Once again this letter is intended only for you…. I must say to begin with that everything that you told me has moved me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking of it all day yesterday and had a restless night; I’m infinitely grateful to you for it; for it was a confirmation of our friendship, and moreover reawakens the spirit for life and for battle, and makes it stubborn, clear and hard. But I can’t completely escape the feeling that there is a tension in you which you can’t get rid of completely, and so I would like to help you as a brother. Accept it as it is intended. If a man loves, he wants to live, to live above all, and hates everything that represents a threat to his life. You hate the recollection of the last weeks, you hate the blue sky, because it reminds you of them, you hate the planes, etc. You want to live with Renate and be happy, and you have a good right to that. And indeed you must live, for the sake of Renate and the little – and also the big – Dietrich. You haven’t the right to speak as your chief did recently. On the contrary, you couldn’t be responsible for that at all. Sometime you must argue it out with him quite quietly; it is obvious what is necessary, but you mustn’t act as a result of any personal emotion. There’s always a danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there (see 7.6). It’s a good thing that the book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are ‘undivided and yet distinct’, in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me till after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I’m driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. Perhaps a good deal will be easier to bear in these days together, and possibly also in the days ahead when you’re separated. Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come again with all its dangers, but rely on the cantus firmus. – I don’t know whether I’ve made myself clear now, but one so seldom speaks of such things…” [20 May 1944, from Tegel Prison; the rest of the letter is lost]

New news

I’m getting slow on the updates, here. Sorry ’bout that.

Obviously, T and I survived Arts Fest two weeks back. It was a success, a good time in general although rather stressful at the time (especially with both of us sick all week).  Of particular note was the use of the Mass I wrote last summer in the mid-week chapel service.  It was the first performance of any of my music here at Fuller, and was well received.  Now that things have quieted down, I’m thinking I might ask the choir about doing it once more for a recording.

We’re pretty much done with Art Concerns work now, just wrapping up the year. We threw a “thank you” party on Friday for all those who helped out over Arts Fest, which was also fun. We used to throw parties all the time back in Michigan, and entertaining in our home has got to be a favorite thing of ours. Now we’re thinking one more this summer before we leave for other (possibly greener) shores.

What of those other shores? Well, that’s the “news” part up there. Last week, on my birthday, I got the letter informing me that I have been accepted to Ball State University’s doctoral program in composition! To say that it was welcome news would be something of an understatement. We’ve been praying for some direction for next year for a while now, as we’re nearing the end of the program here at Fuller with no open options for what comes next… until now, when suddenly we do.

I’m still waiting to hear from one other program (Catholic University of America, in D.C.), and I’ll need to know about what aid is available at either one before I can think about registration. I’m also waiting on a teaching job to which I applied two weeks ago. Northwestern College (in northwest Iowa, not Chicago) has an opening in music theory, percussion, and music technology–all three of them things which I have taught in the past. I don’t know what the likelihood is of getting the job, since they would prefer a doctorate (which I don’t yet have), and my classroom teaching experience is mainly in the technology part above. I’ve taught all three in high school age music camps, and tutored theory college students while I was in grad school, but only for music tech have I taught in a college classroom setting. Sooooo… I don’t know. It would be fantastic for many reasons, but for now I’ll just have to wait and see.

Finally, without going into too much detail, my thesis is proceeding nicely.  As you may recall, I am setting the De Profundis (Psalm 130 in Latin) for an ensemble of vocal trio, wind trio, string trio, rock trio, and piano.  I tend to write very long text settings (long phrases, lots of repetition, and so on), so with the roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of the text I have set I am probably nearing the ten minute mark.  It will be a pretty good sized chunk of work, and I’m very pleased with how it is taking shape thus far.  Here’s hoping for a performance this summer after it’s done.

More later.

Notes

A few thoughts before bed…

  • I was reminded tonight that the middle movement of Barber’s Piano Concerto just might be the most beautiful piece of music ever written. Ever.
  • Similarly, the last movement of said concerto sits darn near the top of the list of full-on rock-and-roll classical music.
  • Somehow I stumbled across http://www.antonwebern.com tonight, where I found several downloadable recordings. Webern was perhaps the most perfect composer since Bach. Or Mozart. When you have some time for careful listening, do yourself a favor and go listen (it’s free!). Maybe start with the Sechs Stucke (Op.6), that was my first foray into Webern back in college. Don’t be deterred: listen, listen, and listen again. It is pure crystalline perfection, the most concentrated musical thought ever produced. There is no indulgence in ego, only the most ascetic purity.
  • I’m sort of rediscovering Schoenberg. Well, that’s a dumb statement. I guess I’m once again thinking and reading about him. I need to find a good biography, I find him absolutely fascinating. Stravinsky was so much more immediately likeable, both musically and personally, but sometimes I think Schoenberg was a better composer, even if poorly understood (still).
  • I’m also listening through a new recording of Ligeti’s piano etudes, by Fredrik Ullen. They are such amazing pieces, and Ullen’s is a remarkably musical recording (and sometimes approaches inhuman technique). I’ve only listened to book one and Coloana Infinita from book two right now, but I can say for certain that this recording has absolutely replaced the rather lackluster Idil Biret recording from Naxos–the only recording I had up until now. Now I really really want the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording, which is supposed to be “the definitive” (which might be a useless designation were Aimard not supposedly Ligeti’s own favorite pianist). I certainly have loved every recording he’s made of Messiaen’s music (that I’ve heard, at least).
  • I’m going to bed, this is ridiculous.

Back to it

Almost a month since last post. Oops.

Classes for the spring quarter started today, in which I’ll be continuing my thesis work and taking two classes: Ethics of Bonhoeffer (with the mighty Glen Stassen), and Hebrew Prophets. Tracy and I are taking the Bonhoeffer together, as well as the thesis cohort (which meets seldom and informally). Last quarter I took my first pass/fail class, which took a bit of pressure off during a particularly stressful couple of months, and I’m repeating the formula this quarter with the Prophets class. Normally I’m a perfectionist about class work and such, so I’ll probably end up doing the same work as I would for a grade… still, it’s a nice load off.

And I’ll need it this quarter! Late in April, the Arts Concerns Committee (which Tracy and I chair together) holds its annual Arts Festival, a week-long series of events, art galleries, and so on. It’s a mountain of work to organize, but it’s also very rewarding to see come together.

More to the point, I’m supposed to finish my thesis this quarter (although I have a potential grace period into the summer, I’d prefer not to take it). I keep promising to write about that, and then not doing so. The idea for the thesis project in this program is to begin integrating the theology we’ve studied with the art which we theoretically already practice. For me, obviously, that’s music. So my project is a fairly large-scale setting of the De Profundis–Psalm 130 in the English Bible. I had initially wanted to interject settings of poetry between the stanzas of the Psalm, but suitable public-domain lament poetry is nearly impossible to find, so I scrapped that plan. That turns out to be a good thing, because it would have been that much more work to try to finish on time. Maybe later I’ll explain the theological grounding of the work beyond the sacred text. There’s a lot more, really, and it ties in with classes I’ve taken here.

The setting is a new experience for me. I’ve set text, but not in Latin. That’s not such a big deal, though. The bigger deal is my instrumentation, for piano and four trios: voice trio (SAT), string trio, wind trio (flute, clarinet, horn), and rock trio (guitar, bass, drumset). I’ve never composed anything for rock instrumentation, although I’ve written songs within a band structure. I’m attempting to avoid falling into writing rock music for “classical” instruments, or vice versa–a problem I always had with Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” work, wherein he claimed to be fusing classical and jazz, but in my opinion actually ended up with one of two results: jazz played by an orchestra, or an incongruous pastiche of casual-sounding swing and dissonant orchestral moments. I’m sure some people would have my head over that. So be it, but I’ve never liked his music.

At any rate, I’m attempting to balance the two worlds, although it is primarily a contemporary composed work. I haven’t gotten close to as much work done on it as I would have liked to at this point, however, and it will be a challenge to keep up with my own timeline for completion. Getting it performed is another task. I know people for almost every instrument here, but getting them all in the same room enough times to rehearse and perform might be a challenge. When we did “In C” last year I had the same problem, but as long as people knew what they were doing it didn’t particularly matter which instruments showed up for a rehearsal. This one’s a bit different.

I’m also back to it on the doctoral program front. Because my time was so tight in the fall, I cut back my list of intended applications from nine to three, and applied to the three for which I had the most work done and was able to complete. Having not gotten into any of those three, I went back to my list of possible schools to see what deadlines I might not have missed. There weren’t many, but there were a couple, and I added a couple more by looking around again. So I now have applications in to Ball State University in Indiana and Catholic University of America in D.C. These might be followed by University of Arizona, but they don’t seem too communicative over there. West Virginia University is another possibility, but although I haven’t missed their deadline (there is none), I believe their grad spots in composition are filled at this point. Too bad, it looks like a good program.

That’s my update. Other things are going along to one degree or another. We had spring break last week, and drove up the coast to just south of Big Sur, looked at the ocean, saw a bunch of seals, some otters, and a couple whale spouts, and then drove back.  Tracy posted some pics.  It was nice, but too short (as breaks tend to be). I can’t wait to graduate and get out of here, SoCal is not my bag.

Update: a step back, some steps forward

I’ve not been keeping up on blogging lately, either writing or reading. For shame! I suppose my online activities take a distant… something-eth… place to things such as homework, family, and sanity (in short supply of late). At the same time, I did strongly imply an update on my activities a couple of posts back, and the few of you who read this might actually want to read that update. Sadly, this is not it. But it is a different update!

I received an email from my publisher recently, informing me of a couple of upcoming performances. My Concerto for Marimba and Chamber Orchestra, which has not previously been performed, will receive two performances this spring in Pennsylvania (both in the reduced version for soloist, two pianos, and three percussionists). Sadly I will not be attending either of them, seeing as how I live in California, am a full-time student, and have somewhere in the neighborhood of ZERO dollars for plane tickets. Feel like donating some money to the cause? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

The first performance will be by Richard Lee Bono, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Rich is a senior music ed major, and will be performing the concerto on his recital at the end of March. He emailed me to introduce himself and ask if I had anything to say–and got perhaps a longer response than he bargained for! It was interesting to go through the score and remember what I was thinking when I wrote the concerto, which was nearly four years ago now. Perhaps more interesting yet was recounting the theological content built only half-consciously into the structure of the work. With eyes and language gained over the past two years, I was better able to articulate it than I would have been able to during the composing process itself–some encouragement in the artistic wasteland of a full time theological education!

The second performance, in early April, will be by Frank Kumor, professor of percussion at Kutztown University. I keep intending to write Dr. Kumor an email and introduce myself, say hello and such, but have not yet done so. I am particularly excited about this performance given Kumor’s long experience as a performer, and commitment to new music. There is apparently potential for a further (very significant) performance coming out of this as well, but I’ll save that for the future to see if it materializes.

I also talked to my friend and former percussion teacher Judy Moonert today. She was excited to hear about these performances, especially since the concerto is dedicated to her and she has not had the time to perform it (Judy keeps busy by playing in three professional ensembles, one of which frequently plays in NYC, on top of her position as professor of percussion at Western Michigan University… she’s a busy lady). But she did premiere my marimba quartet, Momentia/Minutia, with her percussion ensemble in 2005, then performed it again in 2006, and apparently there is a possibility for another performance late this year… also one which I will wait to see what happens before getting too excited about. I should be getting recordings of the previous performances soon, to which I am looking forward.

I miss percussion. I miss performing. I’ve been listening to a bit of percussion music lately, but it’s unfortunately difficult to find very much that’s really exciting musically. Composers tend either to be intimidated by writing for percussion (so they don’t), or to write really “typecast” music–high on bombast and exciting rhythms, low on musical content. It’s too bad, and it’s a big reason why I’ve written as much percussion music as I have, despite the fear of being typecast myself as a niche composer. But I love the instruments, and I write well for them because I’ve spent so much time as a performer myself, so in many ways it is a very natural fit. I was looking over some sketches I had for a piano work recently, and realized that they are perhaps even better fitted for marimba… so who knows, there may be something new in the works soon.

That’s a long post of stuff you’re probably not all that interested in. But it feels really good to write it. To be able to write it. It’s nice to feel like a composer, not a theologian. I can’t wait to be back in a music program (God willing).

Actually coming soon: an update on what I am currently composing, why, how, and what I intend to do about it! (Plus: minutiae of my life). For now you’ll just have to wait…

Concert review

Saturday night I went with a few Fuller folk to a concert at the Armory Center here in Pasadena. Southwest Chamber Music performed Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute (holy fluttertonguing, Batman!), Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu, and a premiere by a composer I didn’t know, James Newton. The evening was topped off beautifully by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5. Very nice programming, and beautifully performed.

James Newton’s piece was the Credo from his recently completed Latin Mass. We made it to the pre-concert talk, where he was interviewed by the music director for 40 minutes or so. Mr. Newton himself is a virtuoso flautist, as well as a jazz and “classical” composer. He talked quite a bit about Takemitsu, who was something of the glue for the pairing of Newton with Bach (the Berio was supposed to be another Takemitsu for which the music never arrived). Apparently Takemitsu was a huge fan of Duke Ellington, and both of them were formative influences on Mr. Newton himself. Olivier Messiaen’s music served as another inspiration for the Credo, in both his densely colorful harmonic language and in his faith.

The Credo itself was very good, although our seats were uncomfortably close to the baritone soloist, which meant that, at points, I heard a lot of voice and not a lot of ensemble (which consisted of flute, clarinet, string trio, contrabass, piano, and vibraphone). Especially during the instrumental sections, however, Newton had a fine sense of the ensemble; wonderful interplay and pairing of instruments. I hope a recording is released so I can hear it again, but properly balanced.

During the pre-concert talk, he spoke at length of the role of his own religious faith in writing the Latin Mass. Given the hostility (or at best, the apathy) toward Christianity found in many artistic circles, his openness was a bit daring, and more than a few audience members squirmed their ways through it. I was in heaven: here’s a brilliant musician living in two musical worlds, describing how Thomas Merton and Messiaen both so elevated the Mass as union of the believer with God that it became everything to him in both his life and his music. (Interesting side note: Newton himself is not Catholic, although to hear him talk one could be forgiven for expecting him to convert any day now).  I spoke with him briefly before the concert began, told him where I am and what I’m working on, and arranged to correspond in the future about music and faith and how they fit together. I’m kind of excited about that.

I guess that’s not much of a concert review. The concert was very good; the harpsichordist was absurdly good. I’ve heard the SWCM play before, and hopefully will again soon (William Kraft and Stravinsky next month!). Up next: just what exactly I am up to lately…

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…”