That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

In 2010, I was asked to compose a piece for Troy University (Troy, Alabama) by someone I had never met named Diane Orlofsky.  She was wonderfully kind and was very particular about the text she would like set for her choir.  The piece ended up being a mystical acapella setting with excerpts taken from St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354-386) 10th book of Confessions.  I enjoyed writing it and was granted the honor of joining them near the conclusion of their rehearsal process.  It wasn’t particularly easy, but Diane and her choir were doing a marvelous job bringing it to life.  Beyond our musical time together though, I was struck by something more in the atmosphere of the room and in Diane’s spirit — something that is hard to define, but deeply moving and powerful.

It is interesting to note that at the time, while living in Seattle, I was in a rather challenging period of life.  One morning I popped into Capital Hill’s Elliot Bay Bookstore, as I did often during my time there, and happened upon Wendell Berry’s 2005 collection of poetry entitled Given.  One particular poem struck me in a way that nearly no poem had before.  It spoke into my darkness at the time.  The miraculous truth of the words were as searing as the lighted sun it describes:

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
— Wendell Berry, from Given

What transcendent truth this is to know that walking toward the Light will most assuredly blind you and you must rely on faith alone to guide your steps!  What further and deeper truth it is that only when looking back will you see the blessings (lit by the very light you are walking towards) that have girded your heart and the joys that have sustained your spirit during pain, tribulation, or peace.  It is the unfortunate nature of man to find it difficult to simply be present or to “see” what should be seen, presently.  We are, in many cases, blind.  But Berry suggests here, that in reflection (looking back), one can see blessing and gain some courage to turn once again to the blinding Light that we can’t understand or fully know and press forward… ever forward.

These words were still brewing deep in my mind when I boarded the plane to Alabama that year.  While I was there, I remember sharing not only what I was currently going through in my life but also this poem with Diane during our time together.  It struck her in a similar way: like a bell, clear and bright on a distant hill.  And like a bell ringing, there was something that rang about those few days (and the students that were there I think could attest).   These times cannot be fabricated or chanced, only walked into and enjoyed.  There became an ‘agreement,’ by those present, upon many things: the richness of faith, meaning, sacrifice and service, excellence, and deep joy.  It was a profoundly encouraging time for me… and I hope for them as well.

____________________________________________

2016.

I received communication from Diane that she would like to collaborate on a new work for Troy’s Concert Chorale in honor of the 10th year, to be premiered in April of 2017.  I felt very honored and joyful to be asked.  My mind went immediately back to that Berry poem from 7 years ago.  What strange fulfillment it would be to compose a piece that, in looking back, would be the “the very light that blinded us shows us the way we came, along which blessings now appear, risen as if from sightlessness to sight…”  That became what I wanted for Diane, her students, and the alumni that sung with her at Troy over the last decade.

I chose not to pursue the Berry text as my textual foundation, so finding a perfect lyric for this moment was as challenging as it always is.  I found two or three that touched the ideas of reflection and looking back, but I struggled and strained.  One poem eventually leaped off the page to the forefront: Ridgely Torrence’s “Evensong.”  What I didn’t see, at the beginning, was how layered, rich and unfathomably deep this poem was.  Composing music to it helped me to eventually see.

Sometimes poems absolutely burn like a torch.

Beauty calls and gives no warning,
Shadows rise and wander on the day.
In the twilight, in the quiet evening,
We shall rise and smile and go away.
Over the flaming leaves
Freezes the sky.
It is the season grieves,
Not you, not I.
All our spring-times, all our summers,
We have kept the longing warm within.
Now we leave the after-comers
To attain the dreams we did not win.
O we have wakened, Sweet, and had our birth,
And that’s the end of earth;
And we have toiled and smiled and kept the light,
And that’s the end of night.
— Ridgely Torrence

After agreement from Diane on this text, I went forth to write a meaningful mixed acapella work.  Not too long into the process, she approached me with an interesting and enriching development: that this piece be composed not only for choir, but also for violoncello to be played by her excellent colleague Katerina Juraskova.  If I was apprehensive about it at first, it was not long before I knew that the addition of the cello would elevate this piece and poem to a more emotionally ‘charged’ place.  It would, fundamentally, become the tone-setter and dance partner to the choral instrument, sometimes pulling, sometimes gliding along while holding the hand of a transporting choir.

“Evensong,” when all is said and done, is true reflection.  It is seeing the past, as if rising from sightlessness to sight.  This is something I know quite well and realized long ago that when reflecting like that yes you see blessings, but you also see or remember many painful things.  We all refer to this simply as ‘life.’  I personally think that this ‘life’ is beautiful.  This beauty contains ugliness (pain, turmoil, tragedy, injustice).  It must, actually, because we are human.  …because we are broken.  I don’t find that this presence of “ugliness” necessarily eradicates beauty in the same fashion that light eradicates darkness, for example.  I find it to broaden the idea of beauty — strengthens it, making it more complex (and probably more trustworthy).  I tried to encapsulate a bit of that prismatic concept in the “beauty calling” opening cello line and initial text the choir sings.

Pages from Evensong - Full ScoreThe second half of Torrence’s poem is just unbelievable in what is nearly conversion language.  “O we have wakened, Sweet, and had our birth, And that’s the end of earth;” is stunning to say the least and pregnant with meaning.  There is a “big T-Truth” here to be seen, to be found — to be encountered.  In some ways the profundity of it is such that I dare not begin to speak to it, because I will ruin it’s crystalline beauty somehow.  It is followed immediately by “And we have toiled and smiled and kept the light, And that’s the end of night,” which is a remarkable hope-filled conclusion, no less filled with a knowing of this Truth mingled with the human condition.

Ultimately, I wanted this piece to honor what Diane and her singers have accomplished and experienced these last ten years.  I have seen first-hand the effect that a choral conductor can have on their singers when they, year after year, love them deeply.  It is life-altering, life-deepening, life-enriching.  It becomes legacy.  Ironically (in a similar fashion to the Berry poem), it is difficult to see this alteration, deepening, and enriching while in the moment.  Only when looking back upon the time will you see fully (or even partially) the love bestowed, grace granted, or labor done.  Those who love deeply ones in their care have indeed toiled and smiled and kept the light.  Through all spring-times and all summers, they have kept the longing deep within and what one will hope is that very light blaze forth like a fire into the darkness of our time, into the darkness of the hearts around us, even our own.

Pages from Evensong - Full Score-2

How does one speak to ten years?  How many faces seen, how many voices heard, how many hearts beating?  Ten years of joy, pain, laughter, smiles, disaster, and triumph.  Ten years of relationships, some but a breath, some rich and lasting.  Ten years of memories, some held on to by thread, some seared deep or scarred.

Ten years of singing.

Beauty continues to call us all without warning.  …And Troy University, with Diane Orlofsky will —
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

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the Morning of Eternity …Remembering Anna.

I remember getting woken abruptly by my parents at my Crookston home one night in February 1997.  Our landline had rung later than normal and it was for me.  Not a good sign.

I don’t remember who was on the other side of that call but I remember vividly the breathless feeling I felt when I heard that my 17 year old friend Brock Olson had died in a car accident that day.  I hadn’t even turned 18 myself yet, and it was the sort of ‘punch in the gut’ thing that is hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it …being broadsided by death while still young.  I hung up the phone and all there was an emptiness of thought.  Shock had struck like lightning.  Those first few minutes were actually the easiest minutes of the next few weeks and months in many ways.

You see, Brock was a friend to many, many people.  He was popular.  He was kind.  He was good at sports.  He was talented.  He was funny, and laughed a lot.  He was loved. He was loved by me.

I remember walking into school the next morning, after getting no sleep at all, to see the grief and mourning play out on countless faces.  Everyone had either found out or was finding out.  Ninth-graders that probably only caught glimpses of him in the halls were gathering and crying out.  Most people his age that knew him well weren’t there at all.  I remember having to attend a meeting of the administration and some teachers with a friend as student representatives, and to also see their twisted faces of grief and uncertainty was very difficult.

Death is soul-shaking.

__________________________________

As fate would have it, also in 1997, a girl was born named Anna to Hung Bui and Rachel Nguyen in Everett, Washington.  She grew up in the area into a beautiful, talented young lady who, like Brock, was loved by many.  She ended up attending Kamiak High School and graduated in 2015.  She developed a passion for singing there as a member of Nancy Duck-Jefferson’s wonderful choir program.  She was voted ‘Most Talented’ by her class and became a role model to younger students coming up in grades behind her.

She was loved.

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Anna Bui

On July 30, 2016, people that knew Anna experienced the devastating trauma that shakes the soul.  People that knew two boys named Jordan Ebner and Jake Long felt this trauma also.  These three died at the hands of a broken boy named Allen Ivanov, who walked into a Chennault Beach neighborhood house and shot them and also nearly killed a boy named Will Kramer as well.  Shock struck like lightning that night to a degree that is difficult to grasp or for anyone to really come to grips with.

The most poignant quote I came across about the aftermath of the incident was this by David Alcorta, “There are no words that can bring healing to this family right now.”  Truth be told, I can only begin to understand the full nature of that comment.  I have merely a taste of the situation, …only a small taste.  When I was 17, how could I possibly know fully what Marshall and Vicki Olson (or Brock’s sister Michelle) had to go through in reconciling their tragedy.  How could I possibly understand what Hung and Rachel (or Anna’s siblings) recently went through psychologically and spiritually to reconcile their tragedy?  I can’t.

And yet…

I received an email from Nancy last August stating, in part: “…Her name is Anna Bui.  You were her favorite composer. The Kamiak Choirs have loved performing your pieces and we would very much like for you to write a piece in honor of Anna.”  Very humbling to me (and deeply saddening).  I immediately knew what these folks may be feeling.  They were shattered.  I knew that I had to say yes, yet I also knew that what I was about to attempt was to be very difficult, if I was to attempt such a thing in truth.

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Mourning friends of the victims.

I found out through articles that Anna “had so much energy and a light about her that could just brighten up a room. If she was in the building, you could hear her laughter.”  “She cared so much about her friends and was so full of love. She had a huge heart.”  “She was the kindest and happiest soul.”  “She always had a smile on her face and a joke at the ready.”  Anna sounds like she was a wonderful human being doesn’t she?  How does one capture the nature of remembering one like her correctly with a choir piece?

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Mukilteo community grieving during the vigil honoring Bui, Long, and Ebner.

The text became (as usual), the most important part in how we do that.  Together, we ended up selecting Christina Rossetti’s powerful and transcendent poem, “Rest.”

O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.

I don’t, traditionally, like setting texts that are often used by other contemporary composers or ones from the past, and this poem was nearly immortally set to music by one of my favorites: Ralph Vaughan Williams.  So a major initial challenge for me was to eliminate the sounds of that wonderful piece from my mind and also to establish that I would not compare anything I ended up writing to it (which is difficult, because his setting is remarkable).  The good news was that, in my view, his setting wasn’t quite ‘right’ for this situation, so I wasn’t overly seduced by it.  You may hear it performed by Tenebrae and Nigel Short here if you would like:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2LV6qsdP_o 

My task became thus: attempt to somehow encapsulate, in a musical context, the ideas of pain, utter emptiness, passion, anger, confusion, memory, concepts of eternity and in this case (because of the text) … hope.  Needless to say, I struggled a lot to do that in a way that made sense to me, with the gravitas required.  But we had decided to have it be scored for mixed choir and piano, and the piano became (as in many of my scores) the scene-setting agent that balances the choir as an equal partner.  It also often becomes the director of drama and narrative.  I’ve always believed the piano is truly wonderful at capturing essences of emptiness and time, and I tried to use it that way in this piece.  I ended up doing so in 3 different ways, which are laid out immediately in the first 16 measures.  They insert themselves into the drama at different times throughout the rest of the piece, the second one (m6-11) painfully so, at times.

1-15 of Morning of Eternity

I also wanted to play around with general concepts of tonality in regards to being a little uncertain as to where ‘home’ is.  And when we get to our ‘home’ or tonic, will it be major or minor?  So we get bounced around a bit in our progressions with some surprises, which I thought was necessary in describing the path of grief, which has a confusing sense of not being grounded any more, as if knocked off balance.  …and things we thought were ‘home’ no longer feel quite the same.  The shifting I employed throughout also speaks to our individual notions of Eternity.  After we breathe our last, the morning of eternity for some, such as myself, is filled with Light, while for others it is questioned or filled with emptiness, even dread.

As in nearly all my pieces, this contains much melody, almost folk melody.  Lyricism, pacing, and narrative drama seem to be recognizable aspects of most of my choral works and it is found here also.  The ultimate goal is to work texture, ambience, melody, and cinema together to make the text three-dimensional to the listener.  Can we build something the audience, singers, and conductor ‘experience’ or ‘walk through’ the poem in some fashion rather than listen to some words dressed in beautiful garments of sound?

7-15 of Morning of EternityIt became a very powerful tool for me to constantly remind myself that this was a real person.  Anna was real — she breathed, she laughed, she loved, and she sang.  Jordan and Jake were real people.  Allen is a real (and broken) human being.  (We all are broken, are we not?)  Sometimes when composing, there is an ambiguity to the process, or ideology to speak to, not necessarily a beautiful, talented, and loved human being one is attempting to memorialize.  Her realness kept me insistent in continuing toward weight, gravity, and my original purpose and intent to drive into the pain, rather than speaking sideways about it.

The text itself was a true rudder for me in the process.  Lines such as “Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her, Silence more musical than any song;” are just remarkable if you spend more than one minute just glossing over it.  The more we think about these juxtapositions and paradoxes the more I think we glimpse truths about reality beyond our mortal coil.  There is a certain and distinct strangeness to it all, and it calls clearly and continually to me.

Nancy and her students at Kamiak in Washington are now walking down a complex road to remember, to heal, to grow in grace, hope, and love with this text.  As earth continues to lie more and more heavily upon Anna’s eyes, how can I express that I wish them joy?  How can I express that I wish them deep meaning and understanding of this we call life? …that I long for Anna’s family to somehow feel joy and peace and hope?  …to walk through grief fiercely grateful for the gift of knowing her even for a moment of time, for a year, for a decade, or for just a breath… — such is the relevance and importance of every human life.  For we all are, in the end (and beginning), created in the image of a King.

And so I remember Anna.

Until the morning of Eternity, Her rest will not begin nor end, but be…  And when she wakes, she will not think it long.

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Unearthing EWB: Sweeter Still

As we daily approach Christmas and lift the daily flaps on our Julekalenders, here is a few words on a little holiday piece that has had a very interesting life, filled with change, adaptations, and anomalies: Sweeter Still.

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

I was asked a long time ago (2004), one Minnesota summer, to compose a piece for the wedding of a college acquaintance, Marcus Aulie.  I was honored to have been asked.  It was to be sung by a gaggle of his friends who were recent members of The Bemidji Choir, from Bemidji State University.  This choir at that time was quite good, with members who went on to sing with prestigious professional choirs, so I felt like I could write whatever I would like.  I knew that it would receive at most 2 rehearsals though, with most of the singers rehearsing at home, so I didn’t want to overdo it.  I thought I would settle on something simple, but pleasing.  I had only been composing for a few years at this point as well, so I’m glad I didn’t try for something more.

I will say this plainly – it is difficult to find a meaningful poem to set for a wedding.  (At least for me, maybe other choral composers would say differently).  There are scriptural texts that speak of love, general love poems, but nothing I saw truly represented what I wanted to use for this opportunity.  I chose rather to break my now golden(ish) rule: write my own text.  I never recommend this to anyone who asks.  Perhaps only someone like Stephen Sondheim has proven that it could work for him with excellence.  In my youthful way (I knew no other), this I did: I wrote a fairly simple piece with my own simple lyrics that would honor my friend at his wedding.

It was a year or two later, when talking with Gunilla Luboff at Walton Music, that this piece took its first turn.  It was still fairly early on my composing career in 2006 and I treasured my relationship with Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe.  I often relied upon him and his series with Walton.  If I remember correctly, I was talking with Gunilla about getting more than one piece on the docket for 2007 (a common thing I sought for in those days), and she asked if I had anything for the holiday season, and I had to say no.  (I was transitioning to writing only commissions and hadn’t yet been asked to compose a holiday piece).  After the phone call I sat at my desk looking at my material and decided that this piece was maneuverable and had a melody that could suit the holiday season.  So I changed the words… again, heresy.  Absolute heresy, looking back upon it now.

https://www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=25124

It was published in 2007 as a “Holiday Carol” in the Jo-Michael Scheibe series with Walton Music.  In the end, it will have been only heard once in its true context with the text it was meant for.  Only those present that summer day in 2004 will have heard or sung the original.  There is a tinge of sadness about that, in that the importance and elevation of text is something I contend for quite seriously.

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

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Page from original manuscript, after word changes. (Notation errors included!)

This piece has is a very simple idea: memorable melody, simple homophonic choral accompaniment with slight deviation, and a traditional ABAB(coda) structure.  Sometimes simplicity works.

The lights shine brightly all over the town,
as Christmas bells toll for miles around,
the wind blowing gently, snow falling softly,
the stars brightly shining for you and for me.

And Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir,
and sweet is the warmth of the soft glow from a fire;
but sweeter still, is the joy when I see
the family round the Christmas tree.

Silently children dream, hearts full of love,
until they hear footsteps from up above.
They rush down the stairs hoping to see
the bright smile of Santa before he disappears.

And Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir,
and sweet is the warmth of the soft glow from a fire;
but sweeter still, is the joy when I see
the family round the Christmas tree.
— EWB

It was never meant to be difficult to sing or difficult to understand.  It was never meant to challenge taste.  It was never meant to excite or thrill.  It was always meant just to warm hearts and make people smile in its simplicity and texture.  It was meant to allow people to ‘feel’ the season.

I do not want to overstate something or make this piece more grandiose than it is, but I can mention a few things.
– If I would have known that it was meant to be a holiday piece, I may have composed it in F, not in G.  (I say this, because for some reason, not only is F blue to me, it also speaks of the Christmas season…not sure how to explain that).
– I would have written different lyrics today than I did when I was 27.  I do not completely regret the lyrics, but I think Chanticleer’s Joe Jennings was right to manipulate them slightly for their CD (and secretly, I like the changes he later made to the lyrics much better than the ones I initially wrote, especially when he changed ‘Santa’ to ‘St. Nick’ and ‘see’ to ‘spy’).
– Though it adds to the saccharine nature of the piece, I kind of wish I would have thought of the key change that Chanticleer later added as well.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

Sweeter Still walks a fine line between Christmas nonsense and true holiday nostalgia.  Dismissing the part about the children hoping to discover Santa delivering their presents, this piece does speak to a very real feeling that one gets during the darkest time of the year.  When the lights are on the Christmas tree after the sun sets with a hot chocolate in your hand… When the fire pops and crackles… When the laughter dies down… When you start to stare and your mind wanders to memories and smiles and joys and thankfulness… Well, then you really can start to know what this piece is embracing.

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– Viggo Johansen (1891)

What is most interesting to me about this piece is how it speaks about itself.  “Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir” is exactly what one is doing when you sing it.  Yet it acknowledges how it (itself) profoundly dims in comparison to the joy, reverence, and greater sweetness of a gathered family at home.  Yes, there will inevitably be a mess, oddness, and conflict…and laughter…it is family after all.  But it shines much brighter than the fire or the songs we sing.  It is a basic and whole idea.  And what tragedy that some know this feeling of family and will not be able to experience it this winter or in winters to come.  A great hope is that this grief will melt into the joy of memory and stinging nostalgia so many of us know and bear.  Perhaps the people with this experience know most of all how sweeter still is the joy of seeing the family around the Christmas tree.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENT

Sweeter Still has experienced much change and growth through the years, starting immediately after its publication.  I received one of the more interesting calls of my choral career soon after the piece was published from Joseph Jennings, the emeritus Artistic Director of San Fransisco’s Chanticleer.  After some laughs and small talk, he said that they wanted to add Sweeter Still to their new holiday album Let It Snow, but in doing so they would change some words, add a piano accompaniment, and add a key change….well now…how could I say no?…Of course I didn’t say no.  There was a frantic call to Walton, followed by the acceptance of a “Chanticleer” version, and then a long wait until the CD was released.  When I finally got to hear it, I understood what he meant all along and what the men of Chanticleer brought to the moment.  Oh, to hear my friends in the group sing this simple song!  Though the CD was not necessarily met with overall critical success, I was humbled and supremely grateful to be included.  I dearly thank you Joe.

In the years following, many have performed the published version, but others have made slight alterations or additions here and there depending upon their needs…with harp, with piano, with orchestra…  I will highlight here what Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe has done in that he has brought it with him from Miami to USC and continues to perform it year after year at their Winter Gala — yet it has evolved, changed, and has grown into something wonderful.  The link below is a most recent adaptation with a new orchestration by Kenneth Regan:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/2htvfae69yaj9d1/Sweeter%20Still.mp4?dl=0

And finally, a 2014 performance by USC Thornton choirs conducted by Dr. Jo-Michale Scheibe.

I wish a Merry Yuletide to all, and I hope you get a taste of what this piece speaks of.

Children of Cloud and Frost

This year in Trondheim,  Tove Ramlo-Ystad and the unmistakably excellent women’s vocal ensemble Cantus are celebrating their 30th year of singing.  With recent international tours, a 2016 Grammy-nominated album (Spes), as well as an upcoming album with Decca, they are fulfilling their role as one of the very best choirs in the world.  It is here in a cold Trondheim, at the cozy Dromedar Kaffebar, that I write to you.

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My friendship with Tove and Cantus has developed very much recently and resulted in a collaborative opportunity this fall.  As with most situations like this, the proper poem to use appeared out of the mist and I think it turned out to be perfect for these fair children of the frosty north.

Stand here by my side and turn, I pray,
On the lake below thy gentle eyes;
The clouds hang over it, heavy and gray,
and dark and silent the water lies;
And out of that frozen mist the snow
In wavering flakes begins to flow;
Flake after flake
They sink in the dark and silent lake.

See how in a living swarm they come
From the chambers beyond the misty veil;
Some hover awhile in the air, and some
Rush prone from the sky like summer hail.
All, dropping swiftly or settling slow,
Meet and are still in the depths below;
Flake after flake
Dissolved in the dark and silent lake.

Here delicate snow-stars, out of the cloud,
Come floating downward in airy play,
Like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd
That whiten by night the milky-way;
There broader and burlier masses fall;
The sullen water buries them all —
Flake after flake
All drowned in the dark and silent lake.

And some, as on tender wings they glide
From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake
Soon sinks in the dark and silent like.

Lo! while we are gazing, in swifter haste
Stream down the snows, till the air is white,
As, myriads by myriads madly chased,
They fling themselves from their shadowy height.
The fair, frail creatures of middle sky,
What speed they make, with their grave so nigh;
Flake after flake,
To lie in the dark and silent lake!

I see in thy gentle eyes a tear;
They turn to me in sorrowful thought;
Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear,
Who were for a time and now are not;
Like these fair children of cloud and frost,
That glisten for a moment and then are lost,
Flake after flake —
All lost in the dark and silent lake.

Yet look again, for the clouds divide;
A gleam of blue on the water lies;
And far away, on the mountain-side,
A sunbeam falls from the opening skies.
But the hurrying host that flew between
The cloud and the water, no more is seen;
Flake after flake,
At rest in the dark and silent lake.

— William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

brooklyn_museum_-_william_cullen_bryant_-_wyatt_eaton_-_overallThe words penned here fit in quite well with Bryant’s natural and spiritual milieu, most vividly seen in his landmark poem “Thanatopsis.”  His poetry is permeated with melancholy, tenderness, and a love of wilderness and nature.  The deep nostalgia that almost drips from the words as you read them to some critics has come across as sappy, yet to others appear as very wise and filled with meaning and heart.  Mary Mapes Dodge wrote in Schoolroom Poets, “You will admire more and more, as you grow older, the noble poems of this great and good man.”

In “The Snow Shower,” like his other poetry, he looks closely at an aspect of nature — in this case, the falling snow.  It is nearly impossible, I think, not to get entranced by the image he portrays, which really is like the entrancing character of looking at falling snow.  Can you picture it?  Do you remember that moment, when staring into the falling snow, where your mind and heart slowed and you felt a deeper…something?  Time slows and a panoply of memories race as the ‘fair, frail creatures of middle sky’ ‘come floating downward in airy play, like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd.’ I know this feeling well, and the result is captured excellently by Edgar Allen Poe, who said about Bryant’s poetry, “The impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness.”  Exactly.

One truly is moved when Bryant transitions to the last two stanzas.  In only two stanzas he takes a great sadness and points to something that can only be described as ‘hope.’  We understand why he took time to say things such as:

“…From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake…”

These snow flakes, when your eye looks beyond the transportive snow and focuses on the ‘other’ that is beyond, become people and memories.  There is both a great joy in this thought and great sadness.  “Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear, Who were for a time and now are not; Like these fair children of cloud and frost, That glisten for a moment and then are lost…” Regret… Love… Joy… Pain… Faith… Sorrow… Birth… Family… etc. all encompassed by a white dot flying and floating across the sky.

Yet.

Yet look again and what do you see?  It is very distant but it is there…. a sunbeam falls on the mountainside.  How beautiful!  How enrapturing that ray of light against the dark!  Oh what hope and joy the clouds divided to share with us (even if for only a moment) the light that is ever present that we currently cannot see.  It is there.  Night will assuredly soon be over.  Nox praecessit.

This is Life.

Cantus has had a very trying time as of late.  Their conductor of 30 years, Tove Ramlo-Ystad, lost her husband Tor Ystad this summer.  He was a very beloved man, and it was an absolutely devastating loss to all who knew him, and still has a palpable effect on their tender hearts — yet Cantus banded together and supported their conductor and her family with care, sympathy, and deep love.

When asked to compose a piece this year, I wanted to speak into this tragic pain with my piece in some way, and this poem became a deep and poignant way.  Tor became a ‘delicate, snow-star,’ one we behold and marvel, and in such haste it is gone – gone too soon.  I dearly wanted this piece to be the light on the mountainside, not just for my dear friend Tove and her family, but also for these strong women of Cantus.

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I was 7 years old when Cantus sang their first notes together.  What a marvel to imagine that little boy in Minnesota and the great joy he would feel when he finally would meet those fair children of cloud and frost.  For that is what the beautiful singers of Cantus are to me.

Happy 30th Birthday,

Eric

Unearthing EWB – Across The Fields

I think its safe to say I am what many would refer to as a bit of a Sentimentalist.  My dictionary says that a sentimentalist is one who indulges in excessive sentimentality.  Before we go on, lets make sure to distinguish this from the philosophical meaning of sentimentalism.  I’m not talking about the moral-sense theory of Hume or ethical instuitionism.  I am talking of a simplicity…I suppose a “Maudlin” view of the world.  It often comes across as a deep longing or yearning.  For what?  Who knows…  and that is exactly the point.

I again yield the floor to someone who has said it very well, Clive Staples Lewis.  This excerpt is taken from his masterful essay The Weight of Glory.  Sorry for the length, but it has everything to do with a great majority of my compositions.

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness.  I am almost committing an indecency.  I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when , in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.  We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.  We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the the mention of the name.  Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.  Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But all this is a cheat.  If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.  The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.  These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.  For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

I have often talked about a very particular feeling when I am digging into a piece with an ensemble.  It is a feeling that something special is at the tip of one’s fingers but just out of reach.  There is some shadowy veil between your heart and this truth.  It could even feel like you may remembering something that has never happened to you… or at least it feels like you are.  This is the feeling I increasing feel and put into my compositions.  This is what Across the Fields is built upon.

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

It is interesting that C.S. Lewis chose to reference Wordsworth and his Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.  I have used a bit of this poem before in There Was a Time for Michael Culloton’s Choral Arts Ensemble in Rochester, MN.  When asked by Dr. Geoffrey Boers to write something special for the University of Washington Chamber Singers, I was once again encased in a nostalgia and searched my sources for a poem in that vein.  It just so happened at the time that my parents were moving from the home of my youth in Crookston, Minnesota to the lakes region a bit further south.  Though I was happy for them, it was strange to wrestle with a sort of “loss of home.”  It was, even through all my undergraduate and graduate career my “home.”  I had a connection not so much with the house of my youth, but with the surrounding land.  I lived in the country with wide open Red River Valley farmland.  There were shallow streams with trees that followed them and arched over them with long, lazy arms.  And there were fields…  Fields of sugar beets, wheat, sunflowers, and the like.  Each had its color, its smell, its special feel, especially around autumn.  I think this is what I captured me immediately when I read the poem by Walter Crane:

Across the fields like swallows fly
Sweet thoughts and sad of days gone by;
From Life’s broad highway turned away,
Like children, Thought and Memory play
Nor heed Time’s scythe though grass by high.

Beneath the blue and shoreless sky
Time is but told when seedlings dry
By Love’s light breath are blown, like spray,
Across the fields.

Now comes the scent of fallen hay,
And flowers bestrew the foot-worn clay,
And summer breathes a passing sigh
As westward rolls the day’s gold eye,
And Time with Labor ends his day
Across the fields.

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Note: An EXCELLENT recording of this ensemble singing this piece can be found here:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tragic-Hero-Eric-William-Barnum/200574531792?sk=app_2405167945

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

I think I’ve been in a bit of a storytelling phase in my composition life, and this piece fits into that, with an arc and scope that has a narrative and drama to it.  I have wanted to show the macro-journey of the poem rather than just the overarching emotion or adhere to any construct or form.  In a way, the diegesis of the poem dictates what I choose to do.

In the case of Across the Fields, I certainly wanted the listener to sense the haunting feeling of an empty field filled with memory, so there is an quite a bit of playing with minor 6ths and the like in the key of G.  I had no problem choosing G.  As always, it is instinctual and it felt right.  Most of the time, when I write about trees or plants or nature, G is the key for me.

Once again, as I mentioned in some previous blogs, I used the slide when referencing Time.  In this case, the singers slide, ending on the ‘m’ of time creating some interesting textures.  Throughout, in fact, I wanted to do quite a bit of colorful things without being cheesy.  There is always a balance when doing effects I think.  One can definitely overdo it.  I hope I don’t.

Speaking to this, I originally had musical representations of children laughing with soloists.  I decided to cut it for the final version because it just wasn’t working for me by the end, and it is published without.  One can hear the original manuscript at the bottom of this post in the clip of Iowa State University’s performance at the North Central ACDA.

Shown above is the climax moment, the full meaning encased in the words:  And summer breathes a passing sigh.  In this moment I really wanted to give a glimpse of a rapturous and wonderful summer breathing its last and then lying peacefully to rest.  I still look and listen to this now and consider it one of my favorite moments I’ve written… and of course the alto and soprano are in parallel octaves again at the critical moment.  Always in my head nowadays.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

I felt an immediate connection and a knowing of these words by Walter Crane.  It hearkens exactly to what the longing that C.S. Lewis spoke of in Weight of Glory as well as in Suprised by Joy.  It hearkens to what I feel in my heart.  I imagined walking behind my house on Highway 14 south of Crookston while the golden and red leaves floated down to Burnham creek in the gentle breeze.  Beyond were fields of whatever the farmers had decided to plant that year, rotating as the land required.  Not intruded by human sounds and machines, it felt as if you could hear a bird call from a mile away. Walking out into those blesséd fields the sky became so big and the air so crisp and fresh with the smell of autumn.  It is the smell of cycle, of the ashes that must fall for spring to come forth like a phoenix.  It is the smell of bounty.  And it is a mystery.

It pulls me apart at the seams sometimes…this feeling.  How could I explain it to you other than that.  There are some that would give a knowing and gentle smile.  It is a joyful pain to know.

In closing here is an interesting performance that Iowa State University gave at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis under the direction of Dr. Jim Rodde.  He paired it with Cyrillus Kreek Psalm and if you listen carefully the wind blowing in the fields between the pieces.

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