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.
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.
Note: An EXCELLENT recording of this ensemble singing this piece can be found here:
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.