Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beautiful Truths tonight live with guest star Hey! It's All Music!

THE OPENING ACT of of tonight's blog is "Hey! Its All Music!"

I AM A COMPOSER. To many this creates an instant image of either a wig wearing maniac or John Williams. Not so much the actual image of John Williams, just the idea of him as one of two living composers that are household-ish names. I like the term composer but to me it expresses a number of things besides "a maker of stuffy old music" or "movie music guy." A composer is a musical poet/artist, crafting soundscapes instead of words or paint. A composer can be (as I want to be) a songwriter or a psalmist, though not all songwriters or psalmists are composers. A composer can do movies or ballets or jazz symphonies or song cycles or even albums or ring tones. Critics impose any number of appellations to a composer's music, "minimalist" "new wave" "emo" "Quintessentially Modern American" etc. The important thing to me is that I am making music. As I have repeatedly stated, I want to draw on a vast palette of music means/styles/textures to achieve my expressive ends. No matter what kind of music those means are employed to create, "Hey, its all music!"

SO IT IS that I hope to be found writing songs that could be found on the radio, concertos that receive standing ovations in the concert halls, reverent works that invite the Holy Spirit to a religious service, or even rousing works that glorify the freedoms and principles on which America is founded. I want to make music for the people, music that is meant to be listened to by people who need music for specific and important functions in their lives. In each 'facet' of my work I want to apply the same artistic integrity, dedication to quality and wellspring of inspiration. For me it feels entirely natural to combine all these kinds of works into one portfolio and call the man who made them 'Composer.' Whether a love song or hymn, a symphony or a concept album, a jazz suite or an oratorio, there will always be behind it: Michael Wahlquist, Composer. No matter what the 'genre' of work I am creating, the same standards apply, especially moral standards. As a composer I have a purpose, and that brings us to tonight's main act.

LAST WEEKEND I was in Pittsburgh (a long way from Rexburg, Idaho where I live, or St. Petersburg, Russia, where I served my mission, but it does have a 'burg' suffix, so it must be destiny for me to live there. The random 'h' even echoes the random 'h' in my last name) with interviews at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. I particularly had a great time talking with composers Matthew Rosenblum and Eric Moe from the former and Nancy Galbraith and Leonardo Balada from the later. It was a wonderful experience and as different as the two schools are, I would love the opportunity to study at either. I'm also waiting to hear back from a few schools closer to home, in Utah.

A CURIOUS THING happened while speaking with Leonardo Balada. It has had me thinking ever since. He asked me about my time in Russia, whether it had been difficult, since they were mostly atheists. The question following was, "I'm an atheist, do you think I'm a bad person?" I have to admit, I was not expecting such a question, or really any questions about my faith, since I had only a 20 minute interview with these two composers at Carnegie Mellon, and since the discussion was supposed to focus on my portfolio of works. In any case, hopefully they got what they wanted from the interview, which did otherwise focus on my portfolio, influences, and education. Perhaps even my answer to his offhand question let them know that I am a composer of convictions. I told him that of course I respect all people no matter what they believe, and when it comes to music, I really appreciate it when a composer uses their music to express their philosophies or beliefs - how they feel about life. I then used the example of work of his, an "Agnostic Requiem" (by which title I might have guessed he would bring up my faith!) I'm really not worried that they will let my faith bias their decision. Nancy Galbraith, the other composer present, has plenty of religious music on record.

I REALLY BELIEVE that there is a lot of Truth, Beauty, and Wisdom that comes from people of all or no faith. I enjoy a good Requiem or even a Mass or Passion, even though I can't agree with every part of they message they contain. I enjoy a good love song, because if there is one way that almost everyone in the world glimpses the Divine it is by being in love and creating families. I love a well constructed jazz solo or violin concerto, because there is something inherently glorious in the act of musical expression and creation.

NOT EVERY composer/music-maker sets out with such a determination to express their beliefs and views of life through their music. I intend to be one of those composers who does. There is a such a vacuum of works that portray, endorse, promote and glorify the things that I believe in and for which I stand. One of the central tenets of my faith is that I 'seek after' things that are 'virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy'. I feel a sense of obligation to make sure that my music stands up for Truth and Beauty, that it is virtuous, lovely, and indisputably praiseworthy. There is so much music out there taking up people's attention and lives with things that either don't matter that much or even are harmful. I regard it as my duty as a composer, as a music maker and therefore entertainer, to make sure I stand in opposition to such things, as a one holding up a light and standard.

SO IN my love songs you will see a portrayal of the ideal of love and family life that I believe in. In my reverent music for church you will find conveyed as clearly and beautifully as possible the eternal truths on which I found my life. In my more classical works intended for the concert hall you will hear principles of Order and Beauty, you will find symbolism of concepts of faith and truth. To me it is all music, and it all expresses something about how I feel about life. I intend to be an active influence for good in the life of any person who hears my music. There is so much other music demanding our attention, I don't want to submit anything to the world that doesn't live up to these ideals.

I AM A COMPOSER. I want to make a variety of music, but I want it all to matter to the discerning listener. I know it can matter to someone because my music will embody, exemplify and exalt the things that matter to me. Those are the things of love, of family and eternity and gospel truths that I know will bless anyone who embraces them. So even if a person only ever hears a nocturne from me, or a love song, they will have heard something that is striving for true beauty and beautiful truths.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Starving Composer For Sale

Last night I listened to the State of the Union Address from President Obama. This being my composing blog, I won't remark on how I feel about the President or his policies. Let me say just two things that relate to my life as a composer.

I pray for Obama, literally - he is the one who is at the head of the nation, whether or not my vote was for him. I pray that his influence will be for good and help keep America the country it should be. In Rexburg, Idaho there may not be a lot I can do to support our nation, but I believe praying for our leaders is one valid way. It certainly won't hurt to ask that they have the courage, moral integrity, and even flashes of divine inspiration to do the right things for our nation. Just like I believe in the National Endowment for the Arts slogan "a great nation deserves great art," I believe that our great nation deserves great leaders, and those leaders deserve our prayers and support to help them be great.

The second thing I want to confess is that I actually broke down and wept, sobbing in my hands, when the President spoke of education reform. It isn't that the programs proposed will immediately effect me - they deal with leniency on loans and increase of Pell grants, etc. What particularly got to me was when he said why they are doing these changes, "Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college." That touched me deep down at the core of what is going on in my life right now.

I got into college with the desire to make music. Over the course of my first year, that desire transformed solidly into composing. However, I found that BYU-Idaho didn't offer a degree in composing. After some thought and talks with my professors, I settled on Jazz Studies as 'the next best thing' and as a stepping stone to a later, graduate degree in composing. I also believed (and still do) that performance experience, I mean actually making music, is essential for a composer to understand how to write effectively. So, besides a two year break serving a mission for the LDS Church in St. Petersburg, Russia, I completed my degree in just four years. I even took classes in the summer sessions to keep this goal. Part of my rush to complete was the simple desire to move on: since BYU-Idaho didn't offer a degree in composition, I wanted to get my Jazz Studies degree and move on to a more focused education in composition. The other reason that I wanted to finish my degree in the traditional four years (unusual for a music student at BYU-I or many universities) is that I had committed to getting it in that time. The semester after I got back from my mission, I was offered a part time job teaching seminary. It was a great blessing. The generous compensation helped me get through school with relatively little dept. The job also offered the prospect of a career, if I were one of the lucky few who was chosen at the end of student teaching to get accepted full time. All they wanted in terms of educational experience was a degree, it didn't matter in what. I chose to stick to the degree I had already chosen, Jazz Studies, knowing that I could complete its requirements soonest. So it was that I committed to graduating in April 2009 so that I would be available for hire within about a two year period from the time my student teaching employment began. I stuck with it, even though it became increasingly apparent that not only was jazz not what I wanted as a career but even as it became more of a burden to pursue increased composing opportunities amidst increased demands from the jazz department. Pressure in the seminary program increased also as the time of hiring approached. I was visited in the classroom and interviewed by representatives from the regional offices and even Salt Lake.

Amidst all of this the economy collapsed. The LDS Church, ever quick to make fast the ship in the storm, as it were, initiated a hiring freeze that meant only a handful of student teachers (among hundreds church-wide) would be offered full-time jobs. That, among other factors, soon put an end to my hopes of having a stable career right out of college that would allow me to pursue composing on the side. Although it was difficult to be told 'no' I still interpreted this blow as a loving Father's way of saying, "I have something else in store for you!" It was still with a heavy heart I turned over my student teaching positions for the final trimester to teachers who still had a shot at being hired. I dedicated myself to finishing my studies as planned and moving on to plan B: immediately pursuing an education in composition. So in April of 2009 I 'graduated' from BYU-Idaho. However, it wasn't until the completion of my senior recital in July that I actually received my diploma. With a jazz band tour to California looming and suddenly out of the job, my wife and I took over a small managing position for a few girls' housing units on the corner of campus. While this provided no income, we had a place to stay. During the summer months I made the biggest mistake of my life, I think, and didn't actively look for a job until after my senior recital. The months and money slipped away as I practiced, composed, and began to get ready for grad school.

Finally I took up a job at a call center, part time. It is the kind of work that would have been just fine as a busy college student needing a small amount of income, but with a diploma in my hand, and wife and child to support, and high hopes, it was a bitter-sweet experience to have the job. I have been unable to find more work since, with the exception of a few grueling weeks in the fall driving trucks for the potato harvest. Several eateries in Rexburg have gone under, stable employers like the grocery store haven't hired in months. My wife Qait and I have had to move in with my parents. I can't even say how grateful I am for my parents doing this, or how difficult it is to be a married college graduate living at home again. Not only is it demoralizing and embarrassing, it seems to have taken the wind out of my sails. The only thing I managed to accomplish all fall semester (besides potatoes) was to compose a piece for harp, arrange my prelude and fugue, rework my string quartet, and chose and apply to universities. That was a huge process, don't get me wrong. But I wish I could have done it alongside a full time job, and I wish I could have done still more. Technically, I should have applied a year ago so that I could already be in grad school, but a year ago I was just trying to graduate and get hired to teach seminary. In a lot of ways this has felt like a low point of my life. When my car broke down, I had to borrow my grandma's car, since she couldn't drive right after her stroke, and I could in no way afford to replace my car. My wife doesn't have a place to call her own, it has been difficult to see her go through this. I rely on the generosity of my parents for nearly all that we have, from phones to car insurance to food. I am grateful and I feel awful.

It was a ray of light last week when I got to go to Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon University called me out for an interview, saying my portfolio had received positive faculty feedback. University of Pittsburgh was kind enough to also accommodate meeting with me on the same trip, and so I had a fantastic weekend dreaming of what it could be like to continue my studies and launch my career in such world-class institutions and such a well-connected location. However, the trip burned through some of the last savings I had from the potato job.

Maybe it is my fault for not getting a degree in engineering or financing or high school teaching or something else that is useful 'right out of the box.' I know that besides being a benefit to and advancement of our culture, my degree in Jazz Studies and pursuit of a degree in Composition offers little that is of immediate value to society or the economy. But I chose this path, and swore myself to it, at a time when I thought our culture, our economy and nation could support and use some of the 'higher things'. This economic crisis has already ended one potential career for me. Even though my degree can't even get me a burger-flipping job, I am determined to make it work. I have to admit my heart would be broken if I didn't get into any of the schools I applied to (three of seven have already said no, thank you, good luck), but I will continue to compose, to pursue this dream that I can make music needed by our society, my religion, and our culture. I suppose plan C would involve getting more specialized training in something useful like paper-filing or even a teaching certificate for high-school level. Plan D would involve joining the armed forces, who respect the fact that I got a degree, and would start me at a higher rate of pay for it.

So it was that I broke down (and quickly looked around to see that none of my sisters was looking over my shoulder) when Obama, the President of the United States, reaffirmed what I have been feeling for months: That no one should go broke because they chose to go to college, or in other words: education should matter. It is no use for me to wish that my professors would have talked me out of my degree, or complaining that they didn't prepare me for a career. This isn't their fault. I am the one who rushed to graduate like a good boy, knowing that Jazz Studies was a performance degree and that I am not a jazz performer at heart. So I hope to find 'salvation' in more education, and not only that, but the relative stability that comes from being a student, the professional opportunities that come from it, and hopefully someday, a stable career doing exactly what I've always wanted to do: teach and make music. In both of those pursuits I can hopefully give back to a society I am praying will help me get through this without making me feel like I can never pay back the debt, financial and otherwise.

It probably isn't chance that I just answered the phone to hear my dad tell me, "you are a good boy, a great boy." I am glad he still thinks so. I also hope that I can hear him someday call me a great man.