The Muse

A composer gets asked how they compose.  It is one of those inevitable facts of life.  Unfortunately the questioner is never really asking “how” one composes, though.  That, in and of itself, may be answerable and thus a sigh of relief would come to the composer, followed by a tedious relation of their style and/or craft.  But…the truth is, the question is usually really about  what happens “before” the composer composes.  What is the composer listening to when she throws her ear to the sky, or closes his eyes to hear the previously unknown.  It is a strange, mysterious land filled with clouds and shadows.

Is there a muse?

Whenever I am asked this question, I usually fumble about and struggle to really capture something that would be considered sensible, or understandable to the compositional layperson.  In the right group of people, I’ve even said the words, “I’m guessing, for the most part.”   Now, ok, that’s not true, but I have to admit sometimes it feels that way.  I find it just a little bit consoling to know my predecessors have felt this in their own fashion.

Here is a very, very interesting look at Arvo Pärt, who is describing just a single phrase of his Für Alina.  I chuckle sometimes, because of how he is enraptured even by single notes!  I know this feeling sometimes … well, take a look and watch his face, his hands, and listen to his voice.  This is a composer at work!

Such a beautiful vision:

…so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.

A great joy here is that only Arvo Pärt composes like Arvo Pärt.  What a sigh of relief!  Certainly many composers take as much painful care as he does.  Certainly many composers tightly tie metaphysics to the sounds.  Certainly many composers are consummate craftsmen.  But thank goodness for voice, and style and subtleties of ear, desire, and longing.

I recently came across some of the interviews Arthur Abell gave between 1890 and 1917 with composers.  Here are a few selections on their ideas regarding this idea (from Talks with Great Composers).

“We composers are projectors of the infinite into the finite.” – Edvard Grieg

“My most beautiful melodies have come to me in dreams.” – Max Bruch


“There are other was of communing with God besides attending Mass and confessions.  When I am composing I feel that He is close to me and approves of what I am doing.” – Giacomo Puccini

“I have very definite impressions while in that trance-like condition, which is the prerequisite of all true creative effort.  I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity to do so.” – Richard Wagner.


“When in my most inspired moods, I have definite compelling visions, involving a higher selfhood.  I feel at such moments that I am tapping the source of Infinite and Eternal energy from which you and I and all things proceed.” – Richard Strauss

“When I compose, I feel that I am appropriating that same spirit to which Jesus so often referred.”  – Johannes Brahms.

Here is another compelling quote, given by Elliot Carter, when accepting the 1983 Edward McDowell medal.

“I have a feeling that somehow there are these shadowy things behind me, these compositions, which are in a way not me, myself; really, they deserve the medal and not me.


They have this strange life; I’m not sure that I invented them.  These strange beings began to come to mind and gradually somehow insisted on being written in their strange and unusual way, difficult to some people, and profoundly exciting to others.  I was just sort of something that wrote them down, because they were telling me they had to be done this way and they were rather trying and sometimes difficult and demanding.  And sometimes they did things I have never done before and made me do things that bothered me and upset me and sometimes excited me – and puzzled me, too, sometimes.”

The words I relate to the most are these:

“I was just sort of something that wrote them down, because they were telling me they had to be done this way….”

I know this feeling so well.  So the muse is not so obvious.  It is shady and often indescribable.  Blathering about obscurities seems to be the best way to describe the process of music inspiration and transfiguration.  For the most part, I share much in common with the quote from Brahms above, and agree fully with his intent.  But to explain it beyond this glimmer, this shadow, this murkiness ….  maybe it will always be asking too much.

It takes a ‘pure fool’ to penetrate the fogs of reductionist scholarship and perceive the miracle which is there for all to see.

The Sound of the Earth Moving

I made a tweet awhile back that said this:

I feel like I hear the world turning whenever I listen to Arvo Part’s “Da Pacem Domine.” Slowly, so slowly moves the inevitability of love.

In case you are unfamiliar with the work, here it is:

The first time I heard this piece was at the National ACDA Convention in Chicago.  The Latvian Youth choir Kamēr, directed by Māris Sirmais, sang this about as perfectly as an ensemble could I think.  I was transfixed (that’s the best word I can use).  To be transfixed means “to become motionless with horror, wonder, or astonishment.”  It could also mean to be “pierced with a sharp implement or weapon,” and in some ways, i sure felt like I was.  As we all know, live music can fill the room with a magic, an electricy, but even as I listen to the youtube version of this piece, sung – probably perfectly – by the Hilliard Ensemble, I still feel the same transfixing effects (though perhaps muted just a little).

I’m not quite sure how he does it, but I feel like Pärt captures a concept like “inevitability” with this piece.  Metaphysically, I’m not quite sure of the end, nor do I know how far it is in the future, but I know there is one, and I know there is a purpose (and there always has been one).  I feel it so strongly, starting with the entrance of the third voice, and like flood waters it comes, and it comes, unceasing.  How is it possible to feel like you are watching a video clip in slow motion and in time-lapse?  Both are happening here I think.  Even the end has a bit of a paradox.  It is an ending.  But is it?

There are a couple of amazing comments worth sharing that I found with the Hilliard Ensemble video:

…A composer with a fine sense of equilibrium of feelings. European music tends to rationalize feelings, for the supremacy of ideas. This music is a sense’s tranquillizer. It is much more sensitive than medieval polyphony, no longer silencing the listener just for the sake of a doctrine. It surpasses Satie’s minimalism by surpassing its pathological melancholy. Music finally reached maturity: it works with silence and emptiness without depressing or irritating itself.

and –

The music has tremendous emotional depth. For me it creates feelings of peace, sadness, humility, fragile beauty, and the infinite.

and –

I just stopped what I was doing and sat at my desk for five minutes with tears in my eyes.

Yes…I know the feeling!

Ultimately, the simplicity of this piece of art is what captures my spirit and holds it tight.  And I listen.  And as I do, it seems like the noise of the car-filled streets and the coffee shops and the grocery stores and the meaningless conversations and the television and the….  well, you know.  And what remains?  Something quite simple (although, as all Good things, paradoxically complex), that the earth moves, it has moved, and it will move – and there is a purpose, has been a purpose, and there always will be a purpose.  This simplicity is something often lost on us in our hyper-real world.  The band Keane said this:

Oh simple thing where have you gone
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

Sometimes it worth it to do something simple, like listening to the inevitable movement of the earth.  Slowly, so slowly it moves.  It is Love that moves it!  As Dante Alighieri said in Paradiso:

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.