WRITING SONGS OF ASCENT
(February 22nd, 2015)
Songs of Ascent was conceived three years ago when I happened to look up my grandmother's favorite psalm, #121 ("I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.") In small print beneath the psalm title, I saw (in my King James bible) the phrase "a song of degrees." Consulting my New Jerusalem translation, that little phrase revealed itself as "a song of ascents." Wow, good title, I thought: "Songs of Ascent."
I learned that the "songs of ascent" (#120 through #134) were pilgrimage psalms for festival gatherings at the temple in Jerusalem. And it soon became clear that, as a set, they could form a psalm cycle that would be a great project for my composer residency with the LA Master Chorale.
Practical contingencies deferred Songs of Ascent's premiere to 2015, but I did some early work on "my grandma's psalm" (#121) and on psalm 122 (“I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.' ”)
The sentiments in Psalm 122 have been close to my heart for many years. I grew up Church of the Brethren – which, sharing a similar heritage as the Mennonite church – has a living four-part singing tradition. The first time I went to our denomination's Annual Conference was the year I graduated from high school. I vividly remember the first evening, wanting to hurry into the main hall before worship so as to not miss the opening hymn singing. In those years, before praise music had made some of its incursions, it was still mostly a cappella singing. How wonderful it is to sing with thousands of skilled part-singers! It was my first time to sing hymns in that way, and I was so excited. “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.” Yes, I was!
Despite this early inspiration with psalms 121 and 122, none of the other psalms jumped out at me with immediate material. It wouldn't be till after the completion of my other projects for the LA Master Chorale (Plath Songs and Inscapes) that the time finally came to work on Songs of Ascent in earnest.
But last June, as I resumed my work with these pilgrimage psalms, I discovered a bit more what the Bible has to impart of Jerusalem’s bloody history – which of course was sobering, considering that at that point, I was still trying to be “glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.' " Grappling with Jerusalem’s “karma," I got to thinking, why would I want to go there?
That question became a metaphor for my creative block working on this piece: “Why would I want to go there?” "Why would I want to perpetuate religion?" Religion, which has divided us for millennia, and will seemingly continue to do so, indefinitely? Why would a thoughtful 21st century person want to write an overtly religious work, in this plural, post-modern age? Coming from one of the historic “peace” churches (Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren), I was all the more vexed by this question. How do we get beyond our religious divisions to find peace? How can Jerusalem, a city of two peoples and three faiths, find peace?
At the same time I was drawn to read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. By the end of Jeremy Irons’ narration of the book-on-tape (listened to on summer travels), I was taking in the full point the author was making: the impossibility of escape from one’s roots, from one’s family, from one’s religion. But cast in the light of this novel, this was a defeat. And I felt defeated too. I can’t beat it (religion), and I can’t join it. Help!
Somehow early in the fall I turned a corner in my relationship to my religious roots, and with it, my psychological resistance to writing Songs of Ascent. The turn was unexpected, and based on hymn singing. I had gotten to thinking about my mother’s singing of hymns while she did dishes, or other chores. I made up a new melody for “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and hummed it (as an experiment, actually) during daily chores. Wow, who needs a psychiatrist when you can just sing a hymn and lead yourself out of the dark shadows back into peace of mind? I discovered that our ancestors gave us the tools we’d need for neural re-wiring and psychological repair: hymns.
Around this same time, we went to see Cicely Tyson in “A Trip to Bountiful.” Her character was always singing hymns around the house – “Blessed Assurance”, for one. As she sang, the entire audience around me, including many wonderful African American ladies, sang with her. Harmony in the rows of the Ahmanson Theater in downtown LA! A blessed confirmation of this good turning of the corner.
Eventually I realized that I had been harboring an unthought-through notion that if we just all left our religions behind we’d be able to meet each other in peace. But I began to think differently: it's not realistic to expect people to leave their religions behind. But peace is still possible, when, looking deeply into the wisdom of their own traditions, people of each faith find universal truths there, the perception of which will lead them to act in kindness and generosity and love, both locally and globally.
Mental blocks removed, and deadline looming, work moved into high gear: eight additional psalms were chosen, and an arc based on the movement from estrangement to reconciliation, and from anticipation to arrival was found. I got my great-grandfather's violin repaired in order to work out string parts, and I had fun writing for harps for the first time.
One realizes anew with each big project the staggering amount of details and steps involved in bringing a large piece into completion. As I write now, I can breathe a sigh of relief that we're in rehearsals now -- the piece is complete, the full score is safely in Grant Gershon's hands, the instrumental parts have been delivered (thanks to the wonderful copyist I worked with), the choral scores have been engraved and copied, all 120 of them. Soloists are being coached, phrases are being polished, tickets are being bought!
This long pilgrimage, this long slow ascent will come to its end on March 8th, with the premiere of Songs of Ascent at Walt Disney Concert Hall amidst the raised voices of my wonderful colleages of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. I can only imagine what I will feel as the choir begins to sing "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord."
WHAT I LEARNED FROM BEETHOVEN (December 19th, 2013)
This fall I decided to play through all of the Beethoven piano sonatas. There are 32, and consist of several movements each. My plan was to play through one a day after going through my scales and my obligatory Bach prelude and fugue. In reality, I wasn't able to practice every day, and some sonatas I tackled over several days. So, it took me about two months to go through them, from mid-October through mid-December -- about 600 pages of music in all.
Me being me, I went backwards, starting with his late sonatas, don't ask me why. Some of those final sonatas are like battles to get through, as Beethoven's OCD flares in all its glory, and the rhythmic spaces between the notes get filled in by smaller and smaller note-values as the movement progresses. So much ink on those pages. The earlier sonatas don't get quite as carried away, but that sense of possibility -- "the notes that lurk within the notes" -- is still there in even the earliest sonatas.
That's the biggest impact on me: learning Beethoven's sense of the rhythmic space inside the larger beats. The subdivisions within the subdivisions. Apart from the miracle of Beethoven's continual success at coming up with great musical ideas, cool gestures, and grand, inexorably unfolding melodies (and, of course, his mastery at developing all of these) -- this is the frontier that most caught my attention during this endeavor.
You see it especially in the slow movements, where a slow quarter note makes room for a huge range of rhythmic variety, as the beat's subdivisions are combined in various ways: 8ths, 16ths, 32nds, and even 64th notes. It's like looking at a water drop through a magnifying glass, and finding SO MUCH LIFE within something that seemed so singular and small. Yes, one quarter note can contain worlds.
I remember a performance of the Beethoven 9th at the Holiday Bowl under Leonard Slatkin a few summers back. I was struck at how slowly he took the slow movement, but then was...captivated. The slow pace allowed so many of Beethoven's details to emerge. Just like the rare monkish days when I purposely try to walk slowly about the house -- and suddenly seem to notice all kinds of things that are lost to me at a usual pace.
I have found my own playing very much affected by a greater sense of the subdivisions within the beats. At church, where I often improvise preludes, offertories, and postludes on various tunes, I have found myself making different choices than before. Often now there's more "subtext" beneath the melody, with some motivic gesture set up that divides the beat in a more complex way.
One of the best things about this is that my playing has more rhythmic integrity. It's not nearly as possible to rush when you're busy attending to the subdivisions of the beat. And even in music that is simpler, without lots of "excavation" of the space between notes, there's still a sense of the subdivisions that wait there in potentiality. So, one doesn't rush, as one might have before, because of the sense of those untapped but nonetheless "alive" subdivisions.
If you had asked me two months ago what aspect of Beethoven's composition would have impacted me the most through an immersion in his sonatas, I probably would have named his development of his musical themes. I'm quite sure I wouldn't have said "oh, Beethoven's attunement to the potentiality of rhythmic subdivisions." And I certainly wouldn't have guessed that the slow movements would have taught me the most of all about his rhythmic sense, since one stereotypically thinks of the fast movements as being the most rhythmic.
I'm hoping that this is a permanent "upload" into my musical being -- an increased respect for and awareness of the integrity of each beat, and the rhythmic "atoms" that comprise it. I've always said that one of the things I would most want to do in "heaven" is to sit down with the great composers in turn and ask them what they were going for in their music, what aspects they cared the most about -- what made them tick. Well, the conversation I've been having for the last two months has been admittedly one-sided, as Beethoven has done all the talking. But maybe he told me what I needed to hear.
HOBBIT TIME, ELF TIME, DWARF TIME….MY LIFE-CHANGING NEW SCHEDULE (November, 13th, 2013)
So this summer I was driving home from a long-enough vacation. How do I know it was long enough? Because I wanted to get home and work! I was driving along, and having relished nearly a month of "freedom," had this startling insight (at least to me): freedom isn't freedom if you're not doing worthwhile things with your time.
As one who has the luxury/pitfall of having largely unstructured days, I know how easy it is for the whole day to "go somewhere" and you don't know where. I have also tended to have an "all or nothing" approach to life -- doing what I "feel like" most of the time. The plus side: I put 110% of energy/enthusiasm into the things I get to. The down side: what if I never get to some of the really important things?
I got to thinking maybe I can do this like the Benedictines. But when I got home and looked up their schedule, with 3 am prayer times, etc., I decided to do my own schedule brainstorming. I was sitting there with a 11 x 17 paper and time Block A from 8:45 to 10:10, and then a 10 minute break, and then Block B...when Ryan walked by and said "No, this is not going to work." He looked at some of the things I wanted time for, like gardening and flowers, and said "Why don't you just start off each day with a couple hours of 'hobbit time'?"
I was instantly hooked. Yes, "hobbit time" would be 2 hours for the daily get-the-day-started chores -- feeding the birds and squirrels, watering the garden(s), weeding, pruning, making oatmeal and tea for me, other domestic-y, family-y things.
Then would come a few hours of "elf time" which I decided to define as "elevating time." Time for me to work on my own skills and edification. So, since mid-August when this all started, most days I have practiced piano for at least an hour, doing a complete scale regimen every day, along with sight-reading a randomly-chosen Bach prelude and fugue. Then I work on whatever repertoire I am currently attempting to "conquer." Thus far I've done all of Bach's English Suites and Goldberg Variations, Schumann's Abegg Variations, and am currently working backwards through all of Beethoven's piano sonatas. My fingers are so happy, and I am so happy.
After piano, I do voice! I'm almost kicking myself that it has taken me this long to figure out what steady application makes possible. Vocal breakthroughs that I "could have", "should have" had long ago finally are showing up naturally, gradually. Because I'm working every day.
After a lunch break -- and time for errands, or a brief computer check for any urgent emails -- it is "dwarf time." This is the time that most composers try hard to avoid. Facing the blank page, the unknown. I chose to designate this for "dwarf time" because it's when you enter into the dark of the "mine" and hope to strike gold. You just chip away. It's work. And eventually from the faceless rock, you fashion beauty. (Sometimes I remove myself to my church sanctuary, where there are less distractions.)
Since mid-August when this experiment began, I have written two Robert Burns settings for the Young Men's Ensemble of the LA Children's Chorus, two new carol settings for the LA Master Chorale's carols concerts this December, one and a half new original anthems for church, a long-awaited accompaniment for a Herbert Howells hymn arrangement, an a cappella arrangement of "His Eye is On the Sparrow," and extensive groundwork on my big Master Chorale composition project for this year, based on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Obviously compared to the prolific "greats" in the history of music, these accomplishments are tiny. But for me, steady output without procrastination is a very new thing. No nights of lost sleep, but yet, the music's getting written!
Finally, at the end of the afternoon, I turn on the computer (unless I was inputting music notation for a piece). I finally figured out that this was the culprit. If it goes on in the morning, it can devour the day. Click leads on to click, tangent begets tangent, and soon all will to do anything else disappears. So, "human time" -- when I correspond with humans, schedule church meetings, pay bills, send out invoices, check email, and yes, briefly check out HuffingtonPost and maybe Facebook -- gets its hour or two.
It is hard to exaggerate how different, and how much better I feel about my life since I switched over to this new ordering of the day. I feel in control, calmer, more peaceful. I know that I am spending my time doing what is most valuable to me, and that is a great way to have healthy self-esteem and to be really productive on top of it.
One thing I have mentioned to people since this all began, is that when it comes to regaining health and wholeness in one's life, there's no way to really talk about it unless you bring up toxicity. What is poisoning you? What habits and behaviors leak life from your life? I discovered that my relationship with my computer was my poison point. It ate up my days and my evenings when I let it. If I stayed up too late, then I started the next day tired and deflated. A designated time and purpose for my computer time has kept it from taking over my life.
A few years back I had come up with the idea of pretending to hire a staff to help me do all the things I needed to do. There was Donovan the gardener, and Esther the head housemaid, etc. etc. (The only problem, of course, was that I had to play each role.) I didn't know it at the time, but I was on the right track. What I did need was a division of labor. But what I didn't know was that I needed a division of time, a schedule, a routine! I have always been the most anti-routine person. In fact, I had a well-worn statement: To me, routine is death. Wow, was I wrong. I've finally learned that routine can be life! Because my routine is filled with the things I love to do. I love gardening, I love practicing piano and practicing voice. My mornings are filled with the things that give me life. It's my breathing in.
Then in the afternoons, I "breathe out." Having "filled up my cup" I dive into my projects and my commitments to the community. It isn't always fun and easy, but it's always worthwhile. I have a routine, and it's not death. It's life.
I'm my own gardener. I figured out what the weeds were in my garden, and I pulled them. I started giving myself big doses of water and sunshine, filling my life with things that made me grow. And, like a well-tended plant, it's not magic or rocket science -- it's simply the nature of a healthy plant to grow and to bear fruit. Hobbit time, elf time, dwarf time, human time. Sounds like freedom to me.
WRITING "PLATH SONGS"
(June 5th, 2013)
My "guru" Edgar Cayce had a term for God that I like: The Creative Forces. Usually when someone says they feel "close to God" at such-and-such a time, I have no idea what they mean. But maybe if they said they feel "close to the Creative Forces" I'd know exactly what they mean.
Toward the end of my work on "Plath Songs", there was an afternoon when I went to my church sanctuary for a change, to avoid interruption, and perhaps more importantly, to have SPACE to project creatively into. And to have a 7-foot grand piano to spread my 11x17-inch paper out on.
I was working on the as-of-yet-unconceived final stanza of the gorgeous poem "Blackberrying" when things sort of took off, and ideas started flying. I was drawing barlines and spelling out notes and counts as fast as I could, and I ripped through about 15 sheets of 11x17 paper in a single stream of work. It felt like my limbs were stretched out all the way, like I was sky-diving (something I would NEVER EVER do, by the way), catching wind like a sail. Or, more accurately, like I was a sail, but permeable enough that the wind could blow right through me. The piece just took off and I followed as fast as I could.
The closest I've ever felt to that feeling was playing Widor's Toccata on the organ, when your hands are going 90 miles an hour with sixteenth notes, and your feet are trumpeting out tremendous bass octaves in the pedal. You literally feel like you're flying, as all four of your limbs are spread out, transmuted, dissolved, spent into the power of sound.
This felt very similar, but with the added dimension of a clear sense of openness: Your core is open, with no protection, no crossed arms, nothing between your vulnerable center and all that is.
How can power and powerlessness seem so close to the same thing?
I'm sure that Plath, despite her moments of suffering, also had moments like this, if the inspiration embedded in her words was strong to invoke for me what might as well be called The Wind, or The Creative Forces, or God.
Or was I actually feeling, through the power of art, what she felt on the day that inspired these words: "From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me, slapping its phantom laundry in my face. These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salted. I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me to the hills' northern face, and the face is orange rock that looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space of white and pewter lights and a din like silversmiths beating and beating at an intractable metal."?