Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ethan McGrath discusses his "Fantasia on Sacred Harp Tunes"

The following is an interview of sorts for the student newspaper at Southern Adventist University, regarding the forthcoming premiere of my orchestral "Fantasia on Sacred Harp Tunes." The initials C. S. belong to Cheyenne Silvers, the student reporter asking the questions; the initials E. M. belong to yours truly.

     C. S.
Why did you write this piece?


     E. M.
For several years now, I’ve written mostly choral music. That’s partly because there seem to be more performance opportunities available for choral works than for just about anything else. But when I went to UT Chattanooga to study composition in 2012, my teacher suggested that I do more instrumental projects to “round out” my portfolio. In a way, the “Fantasia” was the culmination of my composition degree; it was the last project I worked on at UTC, and represents a significant milestone in my compositional output—a synthesis of so many different things I learned during my college years and before.

     C. S.
What was your inspiration for it?

     E. M.
For years now I’ve been fascinated with the shape-note singing traditions of 19th-century America. (In the written score, these songs utilize noteheads of various shapes—part of a system designed to help the common people learn to sight-sing more proficiently). The Sacred Harp is the title of perhaps the most famous shape-note hymnal. The music is unpretentious, unapologetically rustic, and imbued with a homespun simplicity of spirit that reflects the ideals of the people that first created and sung these songs. It’s a uniquely American heritage to which I’ve sought, with admitted nationalism, to pay homage in my new orchestral work.

Another source of inspiration was the concept of Gebrauchsmusik—that is, music intended to serve a practical function or to “fill a void.” One of my former professors, J. Bruce Ashton (who plays viola in the SAU Orchestra), once told me that there is a lack of good orchestral music that can be performed in church without controversy. This is part of the reason I decided to employ hymn tunes in a work that I hope is equally appropriate in the church and the concert hall.

     C. S.
What do you want the audience to gain from your piece?

     E. M.
Amid the chaos of 21st century America, it sometimes behooves us to be reminded of simpler times, simpler art from our past. Simple things are often the most beautiful. It’s in this spirit that I hope to draw attention to the often-neglected shape-note songs, and illustrate how those old tunes are still relevant in the 21st century. We live in an age in which there seems to be “nothing new under the sun,” therefore many composers, including myself in this case, are digging up treasures from the past. When re-expressed through a given composer’s idiosyncratic lens, past treasures can essentially become new again. So the old shape-note songs are relevant in terms of the possibilities they present as source material for new American compositions. I hope the audience likes the tunes and likes hearing them in the context of a cultivated art form. If they do, I think it will be advantageous to use a similar avenue in the future to create renewed interest in America’s musical heritage.

     C. S.
Why choose Southern's Orchestra to play it for the first time? 

     E. M.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing the conductor, Laurie Redmer Minner, for many years, as well as several of the current orchestra members. Mrs. Minner mentioned to me several months ago that she would love to have the orchestra play something of mine. It’s a composer’s dream to hear that. It gave me the motivation to finish the “Fantasia” over the summer.

Mrs. Minner and the SAU Orchestra have played an important role in my musical development. I’ve attended their concerts often, ever since I was 13 years old. So it was a great honor and a dream-come-true to perform with the orchestra in 2013 as part of the annual concerto competition. It’s an equally exciting dream-come-true to have them perform my new orchestral composition.

Mrs. Minner is very supportive of local composers, and I am grateful. In addition to my work, she has performed orchestral music by UTC composition professors Jonathan McNair and Mario Abril, as well as SAU’s own J. Bruce Ashton.

     C. S.
When did you go to Southern?

     E. M.
I attended Southern for my freshman and sophomore years, beginning in fall 2010. I transferred to UTC in 2012 to complete my degree, since I wanted to obtain a degree in composition (not offered at Southern).

     C. S.
What instruments do you play?

     E. M.
I play piano and organ. I also took viola lessons during high school, and have long been fond of that instrument—one that is often underappreciated. (The violists in the SAU orchestra have told me they are pretty excited that they get a play a significant role in my composition).

     C. S.
Did you play in the Orchestra while you were a student? If so, what instrument?


     E. M.
I did not play in the orchestra during college. Unfortunately, I don’t play any orchestral instruments at the collegiate level. There’s a part of me that wants to get back into viola if I can find the time.

     C. S.
Will you attend the concert performance on Sunday, October 5th?

     E. M.
Before my composition had been scheduled for the October 5 performance, I had been accepted and had committed to attending Alice Parker’s composition workshop in Massachusetts. Since the workshop begins on October 5, I will, unfortunately, not be able to attend the performance that day. However, I will happily be in attendance when the orchestra plays my work for services at the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church on October 4, and am greatly looking forward to it.


     C. S.
If so, what are you looking for in the performance?


     E. M.
It can be a little scary sometimes to let my compositions out of my studio and “into the real world.” I’m always curious to see if the things I’ve concocted on paper translate precisely into the sounds I was envisioning. In this case, thankfully, I have the advantage of attending rehearsals, so I don’t expect to be surprised at the performances. The orchestra is doing a terrific job of bringing my vision to life, and I am deeply grateful. One of the biggest things the composition needs in performance is what I like to call “vim and vigor,” and my colleagues in the SAU orchestra have an abundance of it. They seem to like the composition. That makes me happy, and gives me hope that the audience will like it too. It’s going to be a great performance.

     C. S.
If there is anything else you would like to add, for students to know about your success as a composer or advice for any student, please feel free to elaborate


     E. M.
People are often hesitant to try composing, because they fear that they won’t be any good at it, or they are overwhelmed at the prospect, or intimidated by the standard set by great composers of the past. That was how I felt for a long time, so I didn’t compose hardly anything. But, finally, I couldn’t take it anymore; I just had to compose. The things I wrote at first were terrible, admittedly, but I kept writing. That’s really the big secret to composing (and, I suspect, just about anything in life). So I suppose the best advice I can offer to students interested in composition is this: You’ve just got to do it. If you go into it with an open mind, taking note of what works and what doesn’t work along the way, you will learn fast.

The biggest way to aid the process is to listen to music of the great composers often—and I mean really listen. We all hear a lot of music, all around us, practically all the time, but we often don’t really take the time to listen intently. So listen to recordings with the score in front of you, taking note all along the way of what the composer wrote on the page to achieve the sounds you hear. I really believe I have learned more from doing that than anything else.

Another big component to learning how to compose effective music is to get as many performances as you possibly can. The best place to start may be among your friends. Write music for your friends to play or sing; people love the novelty of having music composed specifically for them. When they play or sing it, you will learn much. Take note of the things that work and don’t work; ask your friends for advice on what works well for their respective instruments. They’ll be flattered that you care enough to ask them, and they often have good advice to offer.

Even if you don’t want to become a career composer, trying your hand at the craft will open your mind and help you to view the works of the masters in a whole new light—it can give you a brand new appreciation for the music you perform, because you will be able to identify with the composers who wrote it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Perhaps Love...


The other day, I was listening to John Denver while driving down I-24. Midway through the song “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” I noticed that I was subconsciously driving about 10 miles per hour slower than usual, and felt perfectly content doing so. It occurred to me that I had inadvertently stumbled across the best possible illustration of John’s genius. He had a rare gift for underlining the beauty of simple things, and thus drawing listeners into the world of each song. It is simply difficult to feel stressed and in a hurry while listening to a song like “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” or "Hey, It's Good to Be Back Home Again."



What's even more remarkable is his inexplicable knack for making his audience feel like he cared about them. I've often bemoaned that the public seems to be concerned primarily with shallow things: they want a show with lots of fireworks—the bigger, the louder, the faster, the better. But, in truth, people may think they want a show, but as soon as you look them in the eye and sing with sincerity, "If I had a song that I could sing for you, / I’d sing a song to make you feel this way," suddenly extravagance and virtuosity don’t seem so important anymore, and they’ll listen to you sing your sweet, simple songs for hours. Whether they realize it or not, people don't really want a show; they want love. Perhaps we seek after extravagance as a means of distracting ourselves from the pain of feeling unloved. I believe John must have understood that, even if only subconsciously, and that understanding was one big secret of his success.

The essence of John Denver's craft is embodied in lines from another song of his: "Perhaps love is like a window, perhaps an open door / It invites you to come closer, it wants to show you more.” Take a look at the video below, and note what he says by way of introduction: "I wrote this song for you; I want you to know that." Artists, regardless of their specific fields, can learn a lot from this approach. 

I'm reading Dale Carnegie, and finding the principles under every rock, it seems.



Monday, May 5, 2014

In Defense of Rebecca Black...

Some thoughts on the phenomenon of negative fame


As though it were some sort of catastrophic event, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard it—“It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday…” It was the Spring of 2011, and I was sitting in a classroom at Southern Adventist University with a friend of mine. As we were waiting for class to begin, my classmate, with characteristic vehemence, expressed his almost incredulous disbelief and amusement at a terrible little song by a young teenager—a video of which had, for no apparent reason, just gone viral on YouTube. Pulling it up on his laptop, he insisted that I watch it. And the rest is history…

For all the “buzz” that song has created, I don’t think I have heard one good thing about it from anyone. The criticism has died down some in the three years that have elapsed since its explosive introduction into cyberspace, but even now it finds its place in the arsenal of those who wish to irritate their friends with its repetitive strains. It’s a surefire way to generate some groans—“It’s Friday, Friday!” And that underlines the irony of the situation: the great fame the song has attained seems almost entirely negative. In other words, Rebecca Black is rich and famous not because people like her and her song, but because they don’t. YouTube statistics further underline this. As of May 5, 2014, the official “Friday” music video was up to 67,529,086 total views and its 361,061 “likes” were completely outweighed by a staggering 1,336,308 “dislikes.” Something is very wrong here, and the absurdity of all this is likely indicative of some serious underlying societal issues.

The greatest of these issues is the general public’s inability to “Let it Go” (as has recently been illustrated by all the covers and parodies of songs from a certain Disney movie). If it’s really all that bad you’d think people could’ve just ignored it and moved on to bigger and better things. But the sad truth is we tend to exalt in the negative—there is a part of our inner being that enjoys making fun of things. How else do we account for the age-old problem of childhood bullying? Our world is full of people that long for attention and recognition, and sometimes people resort to making fun of others as a slightly sadistic means of increasing their own sense of self-worth. A 2011 interview on ABC News shows Rebecca Black reading hateful criticism online. Outside of the predictable opinion that “Friday” is the “worst song in the world” and Rebecca Black is a terrible singer, people have told her that she is fat and ugly. Worse yet, she has received death threats. What is our world coming to?

I suspect another reason for the song’s negative fame is that people are easily swayed by popular opinion. If all their friends say it’s bad, they say it’s bad; if the media says it’s bad, they say it’s bad (i.e. if every news station but Fox tells America that Republicans are antiquarians, the democrats somehow stay in office). In this case, it may have had more to do with the former: peer pressure. A lot of people probably made fun of Rebecca and her song just because nearly everyone else was doing it. Some people just don’t think for themselves.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the most obvious reason people have for disliking the song—that it simply is bad. Yet unless there were some universal standard by which the song could be judged as worse than all the other bad songs out there, its “badness” alone does not account for its fame. And can we really say that Rebecca Black is a bad singer? I don’t enjoy listening to her, but since she was only 13 years old when “Friday” went viral on YouTube, I suggest that we cut her some slack. She’s just a teenybopper.

Concerning the song itself, before watching the ABC interview, I was unaware of a couple of important details that are often overlooked: Rebecca Black’s mother payed an organization called the ARK Music Factory $4000 to produce the recording and music video—and write the song. In other words, Rebecca Black did not even write the “worst song in the world,” professional songwriters from the ARK Music Factory did. The word “factory” here caught my attention, the implication being that music is a product to be “cranked out” and sold with the primary purpose of making money. In fact, ARK apparently specializes in “teen pop”; Rebecca Black is merely the most successful of many teenagers they have promoted. The songwriters, Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson, clearly knew what they were doing when they wrote “Friday.” As repetitive and irritating as it is, it’s catchy; as much as people hate it, they can’t get it out of their minds. This brings to mind something I once heard Alice Parker say: “Good music empowers us; commercialized music seeks to exert power over us.” That it has done, and it has made Rebecca Black, Clarence Jey, and Patrice Wilson very rich.

Clearly, if people could have just ignored it as the silly, trifling song it is, it would have been better for everyone, including Rebecca Black. No matter how calm and collected she acts on TV, the excessive ridicule is bound to have taken an emotional toll on the teenager. Kids don’t need to be famous; that kind of attention does them harm. Justin Bieber is certainly a case in point. That is why I disapprove of organizations like ARK—a “factory” that’s out to sell you music. Do they really care about the kids they promote? I doubt it. The real oxymoron here, from all outward appearances, is that the harshest critics of Rebecca Black and “Friday” have unwittingly promulgated the very commodity they so vehemently deride. We live in strange times.