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.

____

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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Unearthing EWB: Afternoon on a Hill

I’ve decided to start unveiling a bit of my intentions and thoughts about pieces that I have written in the past, mostly to be a resource to those that seek it, but perhaps also to be a tool in the discovery of myself.  I doubt there will be anything substantially profound in these examinations, but it may answer some questions the performer(s) and conductors may have along the way.

Afternoon on a Hill

I will be the gladdest thing
     Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
     And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
     With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
     And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
     Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
     And then start down!

– Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

This piece was a commission for the 2007 Minnesota All-State mixed ensemble.  Dr. Craig Arnold, the wonderful and recent choral professor at Luther College was conducting that year and it was our first opportunity to work together.  We had never met, and didn’t until the performance actually, although we connected before the rehearsal process to flush out and clarify some intent.

Here is that original performance (and premiere):

I think they did a fantastic job with a brand new piece of music, and I couldn’t be happier with the premiere.  Thanks to the singers, the pianist, and of course Dr. Arnold.

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

I think this piece was, most importantly an experiment in what the role of the piano, could be, or should be in an accompanied choral piece.  Up until this point in 2007, a great majority of my choral works had been a cappella.  I think it was part of the commission to be accompanied with piano, so I took it as a challenge to be creative.  I had the desire to have a piano part not be just outlining harmony, nor be so complicated as to steal any energy from the ensemble.  It is hard to pin down exactly my feelings about the use of piano, but I definitely desired to create a unique style specific, and recognizable as me.

Looking back, I know now that one of the most important aspects of that style is using the piano to create the momentary universe.  It establishes the metaphysical parameters and the emotional context of the piece…yet my hope is always that it somehow contains the many layers of meaning in the text all at the same time.  For example in Afternoon on a Hill I wanted the piano to capture both the delight and wonder at the unsurpassed beauty of nature AND the deep and painful understanding of transience…that we are human.  Together, in my opinion, these come together to form a great misunderstood emotion:  Joy.  This paradoxical idea is expertly described by C.S. Lewis in his moving book, Suprised by Joy, I highly recommend it.  On a very basic level though, to return to the point, with this piece I began to look at aleatory and different types of repetitive elements to do this “creation” of the musical world.

I think this is also one of the first pieces where I started to truly enjoy and employ parallel octaves, which are now a staple of my style.  My love of this came directly from the score of the movie The Red ViolinThe main theme, which is heard throughout, was played slowly in octaves on the violin, and to me it was the most haunting and powerful sound:  the melody had almost a ghosting effect when paralleled by a lower tone.  The first, specific time this happens in Afternoon is in m27 with the soprano and alto ‘bursting forth’ out of the texture with the main motif, and all they can sing is “Ah!” for there are no words when the world is this amazingly beautiful.  I think making the melody paralleled in the tenor part of the dramatic climax “I will touch a hundred flowers” makes it seem quite strong, instead of using them to fill out harmonies or create more color.

I think another interesting thing to note about this piece is the slide used to outline the text “and the grass rise.”  This has also become a bit of a staple of my style.  In a piece called Elysium in which there is quite a bit of sliding around, that I wrote for VocalEssence that same year, I called it “Liquid Music.”  It may be a misnomer in a way, because rather than having to do with texture, I think that it has more to do with time.  I think the best way to describe how I feel about it is my way of describing what it would look like if painted:

This is from Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.  In 1982, Dawn Ades wrote, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order.”  The look of them on the canvas truly is the physical manifestation of what is happening in the music when I use them.  Time is somehow bending, or melting.   I have used it even recently in such pieces as Across the Fields and The Sounding Sea, and certainly there are subtle variations in the micro meaning when affiliated with the text, but on the macro level, the slides are time-related.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

Examination of the pocket-watches above actually is an open door into how I feel about the meaning of this poem.  I didn’t want to focus on the pastoral sensibilities it possesses.  There were a couple ideas of greater intrigue to me: transience, transformation, and nostalgia.  (This is primarily the reason for the minor 6th pervading the piece).  The first words are so poignant.  St. Millay answers the question: What would a person who is the gladdest thing under the sun act like?  Well, they would touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.  They would look and watch.  To start with, this is the essence of fully engaging without being falling prey to a consumerism.  It also allows Time.  Time to sit, time to be quiet and allow….there is no rush, no scurry and scamper.  (…allowing time to allow…huh, never thought of that before today.)  In fact, so much time passes, that twilight soon descends.  It also allows a peace free from worry, free from the assailing arrows of self-esteem culture.

There are quite a few musical metaphors of transition of day to night in the closing bars of the piece, and I suppose on some levels it leaves one with an ominous sense.  My wife Danielle really disliked the ending of the piece for quite some time after I showed her the piece.  She is a beautiful and light spirit, who wants the hilltop scene to never end!  Something about this poem kept speaking to me of something more, something dramatic that takes place after the experience…or could take place if you allowed it.  An understanding, an unraveling of some greater truth.

It is: JOY.

I have to reference C.S. Lewis again here, he captures it perfectly in Suprised by Joy :  “…Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.  Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.  Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief.  But then it is the kind we want.  I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”  This must be the reason I composed m68-69 this way!  But look how fleeting it is.  Only one measure.  Lewis agrees with this notion of our fleeting ability to hold on to Joy.  We have no power over it, it comes sometimes only fleetingly, and with it comes layers upon layers of meaning and substance to make one weep.

In conclusion, here is another performance performed by the University of Washington Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. Geoffrey Boers.  I truly like this performance (though the film is captured by a phone, so the quality is not quite 100%).  So many subtleties are ‘just right’ to me – the tempos, intent, etc.  This doesn’t mean that the infinite varieties of performances aren’t as powerful or fantastic, so explore and create!