Wednesday, March 4, 2009

BYU-Idaho Hymn Festival

Tonight I had the wonderful opportunity to hear my latest hymn "A Sacred Pause" sung at the BYU-Idaho Hymn Festival. It was a spiritual experience. Musically I suggested the 'pause' referenced in the title of the hymn by inserting an instrumental interlude between the second and third verses. There was a beautiful reverence there as we waited, then all came in for the quiet climax of that last verse.

After the concert one of the other hymn composers asked me how I achieved such a unique sound with my hymn. I've been thinking about the answer to that and here are a few thoughts:

Do you ever just sit down at the piano (or your instrument) and just play with the sounds possible? Do you ever just try different chords and let them just ring? Do you ever just play around with a single thought until you find the best side of it? My hymn came off in just a few hours working time because I have put in a lot of time doing just those things. So it was when I sat down the first time to explore musical ideas how to set the text. I tried going dozens of different places with the melody and harmony, and much of it simply flowed as I listened to the sounds and explored the places they could go.

One of the simplest questions I asked over and over again was - What if that inner voice didn't double that note - what if it hit a seventh, sixth, or ninth? Part of the distinct sound of my hymn came from that sort of thinking.

Another thought - I was half-trying to create a sort of modal sound to my hymn. Many of the harmonies would be perhaps odd to analyze, or to pigeonhole as a traditional numeric progression, but all the notes either fit in D Major (Ionian) or D Mixolydian, with the exception of the occasional Bb/A# functioning in different ways. The use of modes in a hymn actually goes back to the roots (in a modern way!) of sacred music.

Dr. Kerr was a great help in reminding me of one important but often neglected principle of composition. He sent me back to the drawing board on a few things that just needed to be different. The funny thing was that with nearly every spot he pointed out I had already known there was a weakness. (In one case though, he thought I should completely change the harmony. The A# leading into the chorus was approached by an awkward augmented second- Yeah for music lingo! He thought I should just change it to the modal A natural, but I reworked the whole section leading up to the note to make it work. I think you'll agree that the A# just needs to be there to move forward into the chorus.) The point is, that while a musical idea may be inspired, I've found the most 'inspired' moments come after the initial 'inspiration'.

Finally, a thought on the fact that my hymn doesn't keep Theory 101 voice-leading rules. Guess what - those 'rules' were meant to create good sounding music, but they are not the only way to create good sounding music. That isn't to say that in composing my hymn I didn't pay careful attention to how the voices were moving and what the relationship of that movement was. I even tried to make each voice easily singable. I was not trying to 'rebel' or 'breaking rules because they are meant to be broken' - I was simply creating music. I kept all the rules I imposed on myself in the context of composing a singable four-part hymn setting.

I wonder what will happen in the church now that the 1985 hymnbook is here to stay - what about all the thousands of great LDS hymns written since then? Is there any way to collect the best of them and distribute them to a wider audience, even if they were just sung in homes or as musical numbers and not as congregational numbers? There is a much deeper need in the church for more 'sacred' music than for more 'LDS inspirational'. What do you think are solutions to this dilemma?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where the Love Began

I don't intend to tell about my whole personal history with music here in one entry. But maybe I can provide a few vignettes that illustrate how I came to know that I had to be a composer.

I've played piano since the second grade, mostly hymns with some easy classical. By high school I'd taken up the clarinets (mostly alto and bass). It was in high school that I started playing jazz piano, which led me to my first improvisations on the piano and my first songs written. (My first song with words was for a girl, it made her break up with me, that is a whole different story.) By the end of high school as my family moved to Rexburg I knew that I was going to study and eventually create music.

That summer after high school proved to be a turning point.

After graduating I was sure that I wanted to start a band, in which I would play piano and write songs and hopefully find somebody who could sing better than me. The most influential bands on me at that point were Elton John (and Something Corporate and Ben Folds, both punk/emo Elton John wannabees.), emo bands like Dashboard Confessional and Brand New, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears, who had a certain sort of complexity to their music that I admired. I was just sure that if I just spent that summer writing music, that by the end of it I would be ready to get a band together that year at BYU-Idaho before my mission.

All in all, rather naive, optimistic, and in retrospect, fully plausible. Thank goodness my influences have changed since then!

Something interrupted my plans, however, and resulted in me being saved from sudden young fame. Her name was reality, and she and I still don't get along.

That summer after high school my family was moving to Rexburg. My father was there building a house my friend Ryan Spackman lovingly dubbed, "The Great and Spacious Building." Every day we drove up from Pocatello, an hour and a half drive, to work all day on the house, returning in the evening. Although I got exposed to a lot of classic rock radio (I still don't like the eighties!) I didn't get any songwriting done at all. Nothing. My time was either spent building, driving, or sleeping. My plans to write a great emo masterpiece that would solidify my eternal spot amongst the captains of emo were thwarted and how!

One day I had as it were my Faustian conversation with the devil. It is a conversation that, I think, is repeated with musicians of all levels in all times and places. The evil one has a sinister interest in controlling those who entertain. The conversation went on in my mind as I was building the house one day and went something like this:

"So you like music, right?"

"Yes, very much."

"You want to get rich and famous?"

"I think so. I think mostly I want to express my feelings. I want other people to hear my music and relate."

"Right, right - you want to feel accepted by them, understood...You could do it, you know. Be famous, I mean. Make music. Be heard."

"Yeah, I think I can do it. Building this house has put my plans on hold."

"Hmm, I see that. But this house will be built soon, you'll be going to classes, and then soon onto your mission. What if you just stunk it up in school? Write your music. Find your band. Don't worry about getting ready for a mission, you're ready now...and if it needs to be postponed a little while you get your name out, that will be for the better, right...?"

I can't really do that deceiver's invitation justice with my little recreation. Those weren't the exact things 'said' or the exact things I was enticed to do. I can't even confirm that the conversation was anything other than in my head. I do know, however, that I realized at that time, that the lifestyle I thought I wanted was not really what I wanted to pursue. The 'sacrifices' of more important things I would be required to make would be too much. I thought again and again that summer about that conversation, and I realized that I wanted nothing to do with the devil's plan for musical success.

It was around that time that the phrase came to me, that has influenced my musical growth more than any other single thought.
"If you want to write good music,
you've got to listen to better music.
If you want to write great music,
you've got to listen to the best music.
If you want to write the greatest music,
you've got to listen to God." -me, circa 2003
It was at that time, as we moved temporarily to the little Rock House in Rexburg, that I first sought out classical music. In the the 6 years since then, I have become convinced of the two points driven home to me that summer. First, the devil wants musicians to be successful in a way that destroys them in all the ways that truly matter. Second, listening to, learning from, and being inspired by the best music and by divine whisperings is the best way to learn how to write truly great music.

I remember dozing off one day on the floor of my room in Rexburg, a dozen CDs of classical music from the library on the floor around me, another dozen CDs from my collection in the trash bin. It seemed to me in my sleep that I was surround by the eager figures of long-gone composers. Wagner, Chopin and others in the shadowy background seemed to be encouraging my new path. Whether or not that was just a hopeful dream or something more, I've known ever since that it was my calling to create music.

What experiences in your life have led you to love music?

A Composer Is...

I couldn't resist - here is another early Red Book entry:

A Composer is a master Listener. Other Listeners find expression in the music of others, but for the Composer this is not enough. He listens, and wants to create his own. He listens, and hears music that could be. He listens, hearing something closer to the essence of music than has been captured before, then he strives, struggles, to express to others what he has heard, bringing to them a piece of the divine inspiration, carefully crafted, because although he is a master Listener, he can only hear shadows of the eternal fabric of music, and express them in whatever way he can best. Lesser Listeners hear what he has done and in turn create a lesser fragment...

Okay, here are a few modern (March 1, 2009) thoughts on the above:

I have since come to appreciate more and more the amount of effort, skill and craftsmanship required to bring even the smallest 'piece of the divine inspiration' to life. Rereading this entry made me think of the four and half years since then - I have learned so much about music, I have heard the music of hundreds of composers. Still, as I said then, "this is not enough." I feel now more than ever the need to create my own. Nothing that has gone before...satisfies what I need from music? ...expresses what I want to express in music? ...creates music just the way I long to hear it created? This seems to be the norm for composers...there is simply a deep-rooted urge to create my own music, no matter how similar to existing music or how groundbreaking it will be. It is like a constant hunger. At times when I'm not composing much (like this busy school year) I am constantly looking for new music, new composers, hoping to find something that quenches some part of that musical thirst. But until I write my own, nothing is enough. The best effect I can hope for from any other music is that it will inspire me even more in how to write my own.

A composer is...a frustrated listener until he can listen to his own music.

The other day I had that opportunity: I walked into the Snow (music) building on campus at BYU-Idaho and heard my recently composed hymn being sung down the hall by the 100+ member University Choir that will perform my hymn next Wednesday at the Hymn Festival here. I tell you, the experience of unexpectedly hearing my own music coming from someone else is one I intend to repeat in my life as much as possible.

What else do you think a composer is?

From the Archives

From a journal entry in the old Red Book, October 25th, 2004:

I have been living in Russia for two weeks, in St. Petersburg...[one day] we were walking along the [canal] Reki Moiki, with all of the beautiful buildings, doing our work on the way to serve in the Hermitage [Museum]. Suddenly, there it was - one of those rare moments when pure, inspired music is given, straight in the soul. We walked along for a few moments, and I simply enjoyed the view. It didn't take long, however, until I realized there was music going that I hadn't put there, and as soon as I thought that, it fled. I continued to play with the music in my mind, it became a terrible romantic era concerto as we walked into the square in front of the Winter Palace, and into its lofty pillared corridors.

Moments like that are rare, and sweet.

It happens differently sometimes, perhaps I will only have begun playing [in my mind] with a snatch of something I heard somewhere, and it becomes a great musical moment; or when I discover something new to me on the piano as I improvise.

All of these are just little flickers of the eternal essence of music being manifest.

[That mention of the 'essence of music' is a reference to Feruccio Bossini's essay by the same name, much of which resonated with me. Its seems as though Bossini is contending that composers don't create music, but rather capture it from the vast eternal 'essence of music.' So this vintage entry shows how even then (at the tender age of 19!) I was sensing cracks in that veil, little scenes like walking into the Palace Square. Here is another lesson about music and inspiration, recorded in the same journal entry:]

As we waited for dinner to cook today, I sat listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on cassette. I realized after several minutes that my thoughts were looking into a familiar window, and the distinct thought came something like this, "Well, now that I'm here I can expect some Inspired thoughts to come." Then I realized, that was it! I'd received those inspirations before but never recognized what it was that had brought them on - Inspired music! It is a spiritual thing, in perhaps a way in which only truly inspired music can bring.

In what ways have you felt the inspiration of music?