Sunday, October 29, 2017

On Beethoven, Yosemite, and Pebbles in a Creek

This is the script for a “lecture-recital” I offered at Southern Adventist University on May 25, 2014. I had often said that nature was a source of inspiration for me as a composer, but I’d never thought about how to articulate what I meant by that. In 2013, while I was still an undergraduate at UT Chattanooga, the University PR department wanted to interview me and write an article about my “successes” as a composer. One of the questions they asked me was this: “The bio on your website says that you’re inspired by nature; what do you mean by that?” As I always do when I don’t know what to say, I turned to my trusted friends, Messrs. Hemming and Hawing, who never fail to buy me a least a few seconds to come up with an answer. Unfortunately, I discovered that I needed a lot more than a few seconds this time. In the end, it took about a year for me to formulate it in my mind. The PR department had long since written the article and moved on to more interesting subjects, so I booked a local recital hall and offered my conclusions to anyone who would come listen.

A caveat, if I may: the term “lecture,” which I used to refer to this event in 2014, tends to suggest something rather academic and scholarly; this talk was neither of those. It was simply a lighthearted, sometimes tongue-in-cheek expression of my personal way of thinking about the composition process. I do hope that my sophomoric analogies can be excused; I took entirely too much delight in cooking them up and taking them too far.


[Beethoven’s “Für Elise” performed]

What is it about that work, and Beethoven’s music in general, that has so captivated the world? Leonard Bernstein provided the most convincing answer we are likely to find, though it ironically isn’t much of an answer. Still, it’s about as good as we can do: “Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven.”[1] So what is Bernstein really saying here? Why is Beethoven so peerlessly captivating, so enduring, so un-ignorable? We don’t know. He just is.

In fact, one could list many reasons why Beethoven’s music shouldn’t be interesting. In fact, leading up to the above statement about Beethoven’s “rightness,” Bernstein himself cited all sorts of reasons: his melodies are often dull, his harmonies consist almost entirely of “the three or four most common chords in western music,”[2] his vocal music makes completely unreasonable demands on the singers, he tends to go on and on, etc. One can make a convincing case for Beethoven’s mediocrity on paper, but somehow when we actually hear the music, the argument melts away. That’s because Beethoven understood that manmade rules, techniques, theories, and rhetoric can only get us so far. They are merely a means to an end, and if they get in the way of nature, it is time to dispense with them. There is a higher order. In essence, Beethoven has earned (from many people) the title “greatest composer who ever lived” not because of his melodies, harmonies, forms, etc., but because of his intuition.

When Bernstein said “you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant,” he may have been underlining a difficulty every composer faces when writing music: what to do next. Often the most terrifying part of the composition process is the very beginning—the blank sheet of paper. It’s really hard to think of a good idea. But even after the first idea is scribbled down, we scarcely have time to breathe a self-congratulatory sigh of relief before the question comes again: “What now?” There are still infinite possibilities. It’s a little like the feeling of being on the cereal aisle at the supermarket. How on earth do you decide which cereal to buy? But with composition it’s even worse: it’s as though the cereal aisle is so long that you can’t see the end of it. Now, when you’re on the cereal aisle, you can choose to buy any and as much cereal as you wish. However, if you are concerned at all about health, there are probably only a few cereals that you actually should buy. In essence, there are only a few “right” cereals, and these are the natural ones. Indeed, you may have to search high and low to find them, especially in our proverbial aisle of infinite length. And so it is with music: there are infinite possibilities, but there are very few “right” ones. What sets Beethoven apart, then, is that he managed to find the organic bran flakes in the infinite isle of Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs—every time.

While this scenario may sound discouraging, it is much better than wandering down the aisle aimlessly. At least we can have a purpose: I am going to find the bran flakes if it’s the last thing I do. With perseverance, they can be found. And this is perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Beethoven on writing effective music: While there are infinite musical possibilities, there are very few right ones, and the right ones are the most natural ones.[3]

Folk Song as Inspiration

Now, even when a composer thinks he has finished a composition, he may sit back in comfortable pride to listen to the fruits of his labor—but the warm, fuzzy feelings are often mitigated by his intrusive intuition that says, “something is not right about this.” Alice Parker references a stream at her New England farm as a metaphorical ideal for her music. She wants her music to flow naturally, uninterrupted by hiccups. A composer can sit down and write a piece that makes wonderful sense on paper, but when he hears it, a good composer knows when something is not right. Maybe a couple of extra measures need to be inserted after bar 26, maybe a dot should be added to the soprano quarter note in measure 30, maybe the last chord should be held a trifle longer. Sometimes the minutest details can make a huge difference in the way a work is perceived. When the composer senses that something is not quite right, sometimes it is no small trick to find the problem and fix it. Why? Because it takes intuition. There are no magic formulas. Beethoven agonized over his scores, making corrections over and over again and scattering splotches of ink across the page.[4]

Yet in light of all the effort I put into making my compositions “flow,” I find myself more than a little envious when I consider the effortless flow of a good folksong. What could be more beautiful than a tune like the English “O Waly Waly” (“The Water is Wide”) or a spiritual like “Give Me Jesus”? Since folksongs usually do not have a known composer and have been handed down from generation to generation, they have been unconsciously crafted by the intuition of the generations of people who have sung them. Perhaps these enduring melodies start out like a rough stone that is cast into a stream. As the waters carry it along over miles and miles its rough edges are gradually smoothed. When it finally comes to rest it is no longer the rough stone it once was, but round, smooth, and sometimes almost polished. The folksong is created by natural processes over a long period of time and therefore feels natural, or right.

On the other hand, the 21st-century composer who has to have a new piece done to meet a deadline in two weeks finds himself forced to engage in a fairly unnatural process. He has to take the ruff, jagged rock and make it round, smooth, and polished without the help of the river or a long period of time. Not only that, but he has to come up with his own rock to begin with. All too often the end result of his labors is still a rough rock, but some are so skilled that they can produce a stone so perfectly round, smooth, and polished that it fairly gleams. Others, unsatisfied with even this, go to the extreme of dying the stone a psychedelic color and dusting it with glitter. So we have three common outcomes: the rough stone, the perfect stone, and the gaudy stone. Unfortunately, none of these are ideal. If our ideal is to make a craft appear and feel at least somewhat natural, this eliminates the latter two options as being so unnatural that they seem fake and thus inhuman in effect. As for the first option, while a rough rock is perfectly natural, if we both start and end with a rough rock, the exercise was pointless—we might as well have stayed in bed. As is so often the case, the best ground is the middle ground, but it is hard to find at times. In an age when we are surrounded by, and perpetually bombarded with, the unnatural it is difficult to imitate nature in any kind of organic way. Our natural intuition has been weakened.

In order to find this hallowed middle ground of art that is both crafted and “natural” in effect, many composers have turned to folksong for inspiration. A notable example is the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of my biggest role models. He was not only a composer but also a collector of folksongs. In other words, he went out into the countryside and listened to the farmers and shepherds, people of the land, singing their songs, and wrote down what he heard. Thus the essence of English folksong seems to have seeped into his inner being; his compositions, even those that do not quote folk music directly, seem to organically embody the spirit of English folk music. “Organically” is the keyword here; I use it to refer to music that feels unforced, uncontrived—music that flows like Alice Parker’s stream. By way of example, I will now play a seldom-heard piano work by Vaughan Williams—a real rarity, as Vaughan Williams wrote very little piano music (in fact, this may even be a Chattanooga premiere).[5]

[Vaughan Williams’ Suite of Six Short Pieces performed]

Inspiration from Nature Itself

Folksong is music of the land—a reflection of a rustic, simpler, more natural life than most of us now lead. Folksongs are shaped by many factors, including the customs, traditions, and folkways of the people who create and sing them, and Bernstein has suggested that the music of folksongs is derived from the unique sounds of the language of the words to which they are wedded.[6] I also believe that much folksong reflects the natural beauty of the land itself. It is not surprising that the sweeping melodic curves and effortless flow of “Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy”) originated with a people whose soul was rooted in the undulating hills and smooth-flowing streams of Ireland’s County Derry (it is certainly difficult to imagine such music coming from a harsh polar region). I therefore suggest, mystical and impractical as it may sound, that composers can turn not only to the music of the land (folksong) for inspiration, but also to the very land itself.

Beethoven himself was a great lover of nature and spent countless hours taking walks in the countryside. Time spent in quiet observation of an unspoiled natural environment can do more to instill in an artist a sense of natural intuition than any amount of book learning. In nature, we can observe the way everything works together—“in harmony.” When something is taken out of its natural environment, things go awry. When a foreign species is introduced into an environment in which it does not belong, things go awry. This is the balance of nature. This concept can also be applied to music: To add or remove an element from a Beethoven work is to diminish its beauty and its symbiotic functionality.

This is equally true of Brahms, also a great lover of nature, whose late piano works are so tightly integrated that the smallest of details are of upmost importance. Each of those pieces is like a wayside flower: it seems simple on the surface, but, the closer we examine it, the more layers of intricate beauty we find. It’s mindboggling. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that “
Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:29). Let’s take an example from the famous Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2. Here’s the opening motive:

This is like the glue—or the DNA, if you will—that holds the composition together. We find it in various forms all through the piece, expounded upon in long melodic lines like this:
…or hidden away in the background like this:
…or wearing a disguise such as this:
The uppermost voice here is an inversion of the opening motif—in other words an upside-down version of it. The other notes here are significant too, which becomes clear when we unpack this onto three staves, revealing the inner imitation:
Yes, all of the above is derived from that simple opening motive, and this is only scratching the surface; there are many, many more examples that could illustrate the immense complexity of this music. And yet it outwardly seems simple, unadorned, and profoundly right, like the roadside daisy.

[Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2 performed]

Given that composers like Brahms seemed to reflect principles of nature in their music, it is interesting to note that people often respond to music in the same way they respond to nature. For instance, an early visitor to the Yosemite Valley wrote this of his experience:

"It has been said that ‘it is not easy to describe in words the precise impressions which great objects make upon us.’ I cannot describe how completely I realized this truth. None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley, can even imagine the feeling with which I looked upon the view that was there presented. The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley—light as gossamer—and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. The obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion."[7]

Likewise, how often has it been said that we cannot with words explain the effect great music has on us? Try as we might, we’re almost always at a loss. To quote Bernstein again: “We bumble. We imitate the scientific method in our attempts to explain magic phenomena by fact, forces, mass, energy. But we simply can’t explain human reaction to these phenomena. Science can ‘explain’ thunderstorms, but can it ‘explain’ the fear with which people react to them?” Or, using the example of Yosemite, geology can explain how that valley came to be, but can it explain the awe, “the peculiar sensation” that people feel when the see it? Bernstein continues: “But some people have ‘explained’ the glory of a thunderstorm—now and then, with varying degrees of success—and such people are called poets. Only artists can explain magic; only art can substitute for nature.”[8]

This is probably not exactly what Bernstein had in mind when he said that, but it begs the question: Though I may not be able to explain in words the feeling of being in the Yosemite Valley, could I replicate at least some inkling of that particular emotion in a musical composition? I think so. To be clear, I am not suggesting anything as hokey as writing music that sounds like Half Dome looks or creating a sonic equivalent of El Capitan; I am merely out to express the emotion I felt when I was there. In fact, if I do my job well, I will not have to give my composition a silly extra-musical title like “Yosemite Symphony” (tempting though it be). Even if I called it “Music in E-flat” I would still have a better shot at invoking in my listeners the feelings of exaltation I had in Yosemite than if I just used words. They don’t even have to know that it was Yosemite that induced those feelings in me unless I feel that it would benefit them to know that. I am not trying to invoke Yosemite; I am trying to reproduce the feeling I had when I was there.

That seems to be more or less what Beethoven was trying to do with his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral” Symphony. Though he did use extra-musical titles like “Awakening of Happy Thoughts Upon Arriving in the Countryside” and “Scene by the Brook,” he said that the Symphony was an “expression of feelings rather than depiction.”[9] In other words, it was apparently Beethoven’s attempt to musically embody the feelings induced in him by the wonders of the countryside—rather than an effort to “paint” the countryside with notes. So perhaps we can be so daring as to suggest that by listening to the Symphony we can feel at least a shade of the particular emotions Beethoven himself experienced while wandering in the countryside

The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was also a great lover of nature. “He was deeply patriotic and loved not only the folk-songs and poetry of Scandinavia but even the very scenery. He delighted to go boating on the fjords, or make excursions into the country, whether during the brief but flowering Northern summer or during the long snowbound winters with their dark and stormy days.”[10] Thus the essence of the countryside was subsumed into the composer and flowed out in an abundance of lovely, quintessentially Norwegian music. As with Beethoven’s Symphony, I like to think that Grieg’s music, over a century after his death, can transmit to us not the beauty of Norway directly, but what the beauty of Norway meant to the composer—how it made him feel. I admit that there’s no way to be certain about any this, but I get excited at the thought that maybe music can cross time, oceans, and cultural barriers to make us feel an emotion that somebody felt over 100 years ago—something that was so special that he took the time and effort to preserve it in a musical form so that we here, today, could feel it too. Call me a helpless romantic; I’ll take that label.

[Grieg’s Nocturne, Op. 54, No. 9 performed]

To return to my silly analogy from the beginning, this all goes back to trying to find the organic bran flakes on the seemingly infinite isle of Cocoa Puffs and Captain Crunch—of trying to get at what’s most natural. I’m sure composers have many ways of coming at this; I have discussed some of these, as I see them, inasmuch as I believe such discussion sheds light on the possible reasons that some music endures the test of time and some doesn’t—why some music has depth and some doesn’t. I once heard Alice Parker say that “good music empowers us; commercialized music seeks to exert power over us.” The music of Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, et al. can empower us in much the same way that nature itself can empower us. And I believe that artists who learn the lessons of nature become pupils of the Supreme Artist, although some have entered his school unknowingly. They can learn from no greater fount of wisdom.

But all too often we are satisfied with Fruit Loops…

[1] Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 29.
[2] Ibid, 25.
[3] I did not mean to suggest a morality of music—that some styles are inherently “right” and some “wrong”—but was referring to the decisions a composer makes in the composition process, where there are very few options that are “right” in the sense that they feel like the natural outworking of the composer’s initial musical idea(s).
[4] For an example from the Symphony No. 6, see “Ludwig van Beethoven (1779-1827),” British Library, (accessed October 27, 2017).
[5] Vaughan Williams’ Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano remains obscure, but there is also a version for string orchestra (arranged by the composer), bearing the title Charterhouse Suite, which is more widely known.
[6] Leonard Bernstein, Young People’s Concerts (1962; repr., New York: Anchor Books, 1992), 166-171.
[7] Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, “Yosemite 1851,” in First to the Parklands, ed. Jeffrey Eling (Santa Barbara, CA: The Narrative Press, 2003), 143-151.
[8] Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 13.
[9] Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980), 538
[10] This quotation is from the introductory comments (author not specified) for Edvard Grieg, “Nocturne in C Major,” 1891, Op. 54, No. 4 (Cincinnati, OH: The Willis Music Company, 1942).

Thursday, October 5, 2017

On 'Sad' Music...

Occasionally an encounter with a member of the musical public leaves me feeling that I'm very out of touch with the way many people perceive music. On one such occasion an elderly gentlemen told me that he has ceased listening to the local classical station because they play nothing but “sad music.” I was a little surprised at this. Mozart, Haydn? Really?  He proceeded to ask me, “Did the great composers have a lot of sadness in their lives?” I hesitated, not sure how to answer such a broad question. Interrupting my hemming and hawing, he continued: “I’ve got enough sadness in my life as it is. I don’t need music adding to it. I listen to the gospel station now.”

I didn’t know what to say to him. It was one of those moments that make me doubt the flowery, idealistic rhetoric I’ve been using about music in recent years—about how it can bring us together, make the world a better place, make us more tolerant, egalitarian, what have you. It also makes me doubt a line that I once used in a bio about myself: “Ethan seeks to write music that will break down barriers between people and have the potential to convey a depth of meaning to anyone who hears it.” Anyone? That’s saying an awful lot; perhaps I’ve given myself too much to live up to. What stings is that, though I can’t prove it, I’m virtually positive that if my music were widely known enough to be played on classical radio, the chap mentioned above would have dismissed it along with all the rest. If Beethoven doesn’t cut the mustard, than I surely don’t.

This all begs the question: Is it really possible to know how other people perceive music? To some extent, yes, based on what they say about it and how they act when they hear it. But we can’t know in any kind of detailed way—not short of actually becoming somebody else. That’s a little sad because, as a composer, I’m dying to know how other people hear my music. Now, we are often told that there is one way to know when music has struck a chord (pardon the metaphor) that resounds on a seemingly universal level—something that does seem to convey meaning to just about everybody. And that’s time. The passage of time—generally a lot of it—is the only way to know which of the vast number of musical darts thrown at the wall resonate with the human psyche well enough to stick. That’s why names like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms remain with us today, while most of their rivals have faded into obscurity.

But here’s the problem: the names that have “stuck” are the composers whose music is being played on classical radio today—and therefore it’s the music that my elderly friend dismisses as “sad” and changes the channel. And we can be sure that he isn’t the only one to search the airwaves for sunnier sounds. How do we account for this?

I don’t think I can answer that, but I would like to offer a bit of speculation. Let me start out with a confession: I very rarely listen to classical radio either. Why not? For starters, I never know what’s going to be playing when I hit the “on” button. The chances that it’s going to be something that fits where I am and what I’m doing at the moment are pretty slim. Is The Rite of Spring something that I really want to hear while careening down I-75 when I’m late to work? It’s like dropping the needle on a record with no label on it. It could be Mozart, it could be Mark O’Connor. And am I really capable of taking in something as complex as, say, Bach’s Mass in B Minor while answering emails? And even if I stop what I’m doing and give it the attention it deserves, do I really want to start it halfway through the ‘Credo’? And what are the odds that a random Tuesday morning at 9:13am will find me mentally prepared for something so rich, so profound as that Mass? When you get transported to heaven in such a fiery chariot as that, it’s very difficult to come back down and go about the day’s mundane tasks when it’s over.

So I can in some ways resonate with the guy who has changed his radio loyalties. But how about this word “sad”? Is all of this music really sad? To go back to the Bach example, I don’t think anyone would argue that the ‘Crucifixus’ is about as sad as it gets. But isn’t it just as likely that our friend would turn his radio on during the explosively jubilant ‘Et resurrexit’—something he would apparently dismiss with all the rest of the “sad” music? Perhaps the problem, then, is one of terms: maybe he uses the blanket term “sad” because he doesn’t understand the music—he’s not given any context, he doesn’t understand the words, where the music came from or where its going, what the music is “about,” and maybe not even who wrote it. It goes by in a blur of profundity, and he intuitively feels that he was supposed to get something out of it, but somehow didn’t. Perhaps that translates as sadness, I don’t know.

The ideal solution, however, is not necessarily to throw up one’s hands and change the channel to a station that’s playing “Happy Rhythm.” The ideal solution, unfortunately, takes a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. You’ve got to know in advance that while Bach’s Goldberg Variations might prove to be nice background music while you’re painting your house, his St. Matthew Passion is probably not. And you’re probably not going to get anything out of the latter if you don’t know the plot it follows and if you don’t put some effort into understanding what Bach was trying to accomplish with the music he clothed it in. It doesn’t necessarily require musical training, just some time and effort.

If we find the motivation to get to know great music, we can be in a position to decide what sort of music our souls need at any given time. So I very rarely turn on the radio, and I very rarely bother with background music. I want to choose what I listen to and really concentrate on it, giving it the attention that I hope people will give to my compositions. (It always burns me up when I’m at a party or something and someone says, “Play us one of your compositions,” and then proceeds to keep chatting with her friends as I comply with her request). We mustn’t let all our encounters with music be happenstantial or we will more than likely have a shallow musical experience.

But suppose for a moment that my elderly friend was accurate in his use of terms; suppose that the station really did play nothing but the most devastatingly tragic music Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff had to offer—or, indeed, nothing but ‘Crucifixuses.’ What then? Would our friend be justified in saying, “I’ve got enough sadness in my life as it is” and “I don’t need music adding to it”? Perhaps so. We need balance; we need music that will lift our spirits. But this makes me wonder: Are we sometimes afraid of music that will awaken the grief inside us? Music or no music, the sadness is there in all of us. Some people have more sadness than others, but we all carry grief—over family members or friends who have died, over betrayal or abuse we’ve experienced, over unrequited love, our own failures, the death of past dreams. It’s impossible to get rid of it all, yet society seems to frown on those who openly express it—especially if those people are men. So we learn to hide it.  We stuff it, we ignore it, we pretend it’s not there.

But we find that it’s very hard to pretend it’s not there when we hear, say, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies. They fracture the thin façade that’s holding our inner grief at bay. These are some of the composers who threw darts that stuck; they’ve stood the test of time. Why? They were able to poor into their music a depth of emotion that was, for them, very personal, and yet the passing years have proved it to also be very far reaching: something that gets at the heart of shared human experience. When we listen to the music and let it affect us, we realize that these composers, in giving voice to their own sadness, seemed, miraculously, to be giving voice to ours as well. It’s when we’re willing to open that door, when we stop stuffing it, that healing can begin. I believe very strongly that music can aid that process.

Several years ago a high school choir was slated to sing one of my compositions at an afternoon concert. When I arrived I was told that the concert had been cancelled. One of the students from the high school had died that morning in an accident, and his classmates, shell-shocked, were too upset to sing. I resonated with their grief, but I had to wonder if they had thought through that decision. It seemed to me that they had denied themselves the best coping mechanism I know of: singing. And they weren’t slated to sing a bunch of silly stuff. It was a concert that I believe could have been profoundly healing if they hadn’t been afraid to go ahead with it.

It’s at moments of unexpected tragedy that music has the potential to be most powerful, because it is at these moments that people can no longer pretend that “everything’s fine” like they usually do. At such times, people often say that there are “no words”; indeed, little or nothing can be said that doesn’t seem hollow. But what if the words are given the wings of song? Does “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” seem hollow in the most tragic of times? I think not. A song like that is like a bottomless receptacle for the tears of mankind. We just have to have the courage to sing. We have to have the courage to take music out of its background role and let it help us cope with what life throws at us—let it be a companion on the road to wholeness.