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.


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:

(…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.


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.


Unearthing EWB: The Sounding Sea

Being from the Red River Valley, I didn’t find a myself on the shore of the ocean very much.  I actually didn’t experience any ocean until I was in college.  Since then I have been to (and in) the Pacific, Atlantic, Carribean, and North Sea.  I know now there is magic in the oceans.  They are complex, violent, peaceful, full of colors, rhythms and sounds… and life.

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach–waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh

O listen to the sounding sea

O listen to the sounding sea
That beats on the remorseless shore,
O listen! for that sound will be
When our wild hearts shall beat no more.

O listen well and listen long!
For sitting folded close to me,
You could not hear a sweeter song
Than that hoarse murmur of the sea.

– George William Curtis (1824-1892)


It is interesting to firstly note that I chose this text for a commission from Iowa State University, director Dr. Jim Rodde.  I remember seeing this text, and strangely I knew immediately it was right.  Looking back, I’m not totally sure why.  These are Iowa students, and I am choosing a text about the sea….but I had this feeling (and I’ve learned to trust them).  This was shortly after I moved to Seattle, and when I sent Dr. Rodde the poem, he responded by saying something like, “wow, you must be really loving the northwest.”  Maybe true.  The Puget Sound is only a quick 7 minute drive, and I go there often.

They were chosen to perform at the National ACDA convention that year (2009), and I was fortunate that Dr. Rodde put it into an absolutely amazing program.  The students performed astonishingly well.  Sometimes groups perform at conventions like ACDA and you can almost feel an electricity in the room.  This was certainly the case, and I felt blessed to just have been there listening, but I was doubly blessed having a piece on the program.  Here is a video the performance:

(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

I normally don’t choose such short poems, especially for an a cappella piece, I guess for the reason that I’m not a huge fan of repeating text over and over again.  I do it from time to time yes, but with a text this short, to create the drama that I wanted to, there would have to be quite a bit of repetition.  This was an initial challenge, and one that I was worried about.  One way I attacked this is by using the words to create “sea sounding” elements, for example slides, whispers, and rhythms.

The Sounding Sea, original manuscript. Published with Walton Music

An interesting moment to focus on is the first time the text “for sitting folded close to me” is sung.  I wanted to capture a very particular image.  Early on in my time here in Seattle, I remember sitting on a large piece of driftwood at a beach with Danielle and staring at the sunset over Puget Sound and the Olympics.  It was chilly and I put my arm around her and pulled her close.  The alto’s sing a little slide on the word “me” that emulates that moment.  I also remember telling the Iowa State Singers about that before they took the stage in Oklahoma City.  I knew that moment (the length of the slide, what the slide was about, etc.) was a bit confusing.  But that is another magical thing about music.  They started to visualize it, to feel it happening, and then it clicked into place, and there was new life and meaning to something simple like the altos sliding up.  They were pulling in, drawing close to get warm.

This is a major goal of mine: to really try and have reasons for things, inject layers of meaning into everything.  Here is an honest statement from a composer:  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Sometimes you are just trying to get the job done.  I hope times like that are rare.  But sometimes the stars align and there is meaning everywhere.  …more wonderful meaning than you even meant to put there.  I hope this piece fits into that context.


The Sounding Sea really acts like a journey toward land from way out in the ocean, if you can imagine it.  It starts off pretty rough, with big waves, crashes and sprays.  The waves get a little smaller and your sail catches the wind.  You hear the thump of the waves hitting the hull with the stomps of the ensemble.  There is a big transition, as if your boat glides up onto the beach, and then instead of riding on the waves, you start watching them, looking at the soft rolls, listening to the ripples.  And you start sinking into the rhythm of the hoarse murmur of the sea as it comes in incessantly…indifferently.

…and there is peace.  …and you shut your eyes, and maybe the only thing you think to do is breathe and be thankful.


The Sounding Sea has received some amazing performances.  Here are two variations of very different choirs, making different sounds, choosing different things to bring forth.  It is so fun to see and hear the multifarious sounds of the sea.

University of Missouri – Columbia University Singers, conductor Dr. Paul Crabb.

The University of Houston Concert Chorale at the Choir of the World Competition in the 2009 Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, conductor Dr. Betsy Weber

Audition Colorée (Synesthesia)

One of my favorite conductors in the country is Dr. Jim Rodde at Iowa State University, and whenever we work together we often find ourselves having an interesting conductor-composer conversation.  Let’s say I had written a piece in G.  I would show up to the rehearsal and something would just feel different.  It of course would sound amazing (they always there), but there was just some thing that tickled at me…  Ok, ok, I’ll let the cat out of the bag, I do not suffer the pains of having perfect pitch.  They had just sang the piece in Gflat.  And that is just it.  I don’t think I am innately gifted enough to hear the minutia of wavelength change when the foundation of the piece is a half tone different.  But!  I know I could feel it, whether by singing and embodying the sound myself, or just sort of feeling it in the air.  So…I don’t think this is synesthesia per se, or close to the composers below, but it is fun to think about in regards to your own brain and how it works everyday – for some current studies have shown that around 1 in 23 people have some version of Synesthesia.  (By the way, the reason Dr. Rodde would do the piece in Gflat is because he believes quite strongly that it is inherently easier to keep in tune.  It is fun to think about.)

Synesthesia originates from the Greek syn (together) and aisthesis (perceive), and refers to the phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense modality gives rise to a sensation in another sense modality.  For instance, if a musical note or sound “looks” like a particular color one day, then it will always appear as that color to that person.  The study of this phenomenon has contributed to the debate on sense organization in our brains.  The common view (modularity thesis) holds that humans possess five distinct senses, independently functioning, whereas the unitary thesis contends that humans possess one integrated sense organ with five ‘sub-organs.’  In a similar way, it has also contributed to discussions on Wagner’s idea of Gesmtkunstwurk (Total Work of Art), which assumed a single Gestalt experience that both auditory and visual senses were attuned to.

Interest in synesthesia was around since classical Greece, where some argued that color, like pitch, could be considered a quality of music.  Pythagoras suggested that colors and sounds could be related, following mathmatical rules.  Much later in the 16th century, experiments on the phenomenon picked up.   Arcimboldo (well known for his vegetables and fruit portraits) translated a grey scale value system to color hues and persuaded a musician in the court of Rudolph II of Prague to install painted paper stips on his gravicembalo.  Issac Newton attempted to establish a system of color harmony related to a system of sound harmony (or an integration of the two systems) by assuming that musical and color harmonies are related by means of frequencies of light and sound waves.  As technology improved, so did the possibilities of experimentation.  A harpsichord called a clavecin oculaire was developed in 1720. A gas-lamp organ called a Pyrophone, which consisted of 13 foil-covered gas jets that lit crystal tubes was created in 1870.  The first “color organ” was invented in 1893.

Psychological experiments also were particularly prevalent in the 19th century.  George Sachs published the first study of audition colorée (color hearing) in 1812.  Both he and his sister reported perceiving colors when hearing numbers, days of the week, letters and musical tones.  Others followed, but perhaps most interesting was Lawrence Marks’ meta-analysis of 35 studies of 400 people in 1978.  He published findings that did not recognize a system of rules governing the connection between color-letter or color-number.  But!  The dimension of “brightness” can be evaluated [bright letters: ‘i’ and ‘e’ — dark letters: ‘o’ and ‘u’]

Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915)

Scriabin is probably the composer most people associate with synesthesia.  Alternatively, I associate him with having the best mustache in music history.  Anyway, this guy was crazy, and fascinating.  He believed in a doctrine of religious philosophy and mysticism based on a version of human enlightenment called Theosophy.  His attitude towards this theosophy affected all workings of his system of color-hearing and light-hearing.  He based his synesthetic compositions around color-key correspondences rather than color-note.  “…color underlines the tonality; it makes it more evident.”  He distinguished “spiritual” tonalities from “earthly” and “material” tonalities and ended up ascribing certain characteristics to colors.  (i.e. red = “color of Abaddon,” blue and violet = “colors of reason”)  He did not believe these were personal associations though.  “It cannot be personal, there must be a principle, must be oneness.  A freak of chance – is a ripple on the surface, and the essential must be common.”

Scriabin’s system is perhaps more complex than at first thinking.  He was, by the time of composing Prométhée practically outside the framework of Western Music’s major-minor tonal system.  This system, at the core, is based on the “complexity” of tonalities and colors.  Color “complexity” could be related to its place on the color spectrum (colors at the red end are ‘simpler’ than colors on the blue end).

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Messiaen regarded the terms “synesthesia” and “synesthete” with suspicion, yet he may have been the closest to a true synesthete of any recent composer.  His “seeing” of colors awakened the “inner vision,” conditioned by his mind and were clearer than those of Scriabin.  Claude Samuel said this: “Messiaen does not use the modes melodically, but as colors.  They are not harmonies in the classical sense of the word, nor are they even recognized chords.  They are colors, and their power springs ‘primarily from the impossibility of transpositions and also the color linked with this impossibility.  The two phenomena are simultaneous.'”

He wrote Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (Treatise of Rhythm, Color and Birdsong), in which he detailed descriptions of some colors of various chords.  These descriptions range from the simple (gold and brown) to the highly detailed (blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, stars of mauve).  He said, “I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this carpet meets the lighter coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn’t mix – natural colours created in the eye”

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s system had a spontaneous and natural character, and perhaps is more preferred to Scriabin’s because it is not as speculative or systematic.  Here is his:
Cmajor: white.
Gmajor: brownish-gold, light.
Dmajor: daylight, yellowish, royal.
Amajor: clear, pink.
Emajor: blue, sapphire, bright.
Bmajor: gloomy, dark blue with steel shine.
F#major: greyish-green.
Dbmajor: darkish, warm.
Abmajor: greyish-violet.
Ebmajor: dark, gloomy, grey-bluish.
Bbmajor: darkish.
Fmajor: green, clear (color of greenery).

There are other proposed synesthete composers:
– Jan Sibelius (1865-1957)
– César Franck (1822-1890)
– Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
– Pyotr Tchaikowsky (1840-1893)
– Franz Listz (1811-1886)
– Michael Torke (b. 1961)

Beyond question, there have been composers with this amazing and interesting genetic anomaly, and I feel quite confident that I am not a full on synesthete, although I have had distinct moments of “feeling” certain colors.  Christmas always feels Fmajor to me.  G always feels like plants (trees, grass, etc.)  Dflat is a warm, rich cloth.  These are examples.  That being said, I don’t use them prescriptively, although they are merely present in an organic way when I am composing.

I wonder if there is any way that this beautiful phenomenon could be used for the benefit of everyone.  Perhaps audition colorée is not the key, but “light-sound hearing” may be, which Scriabin actually thought was more important.  This may allow musicians to attain “effulgence” or “luminosity” in the music without real light.  Conductors already use light or dark metaphors and similes.  What are we talking about here? We are talking Timbre!  Timbre in German (klangfarbe) means: “color of sound!”  So perhaps there is a more easily recognizable mixing here: light and sound.  Another interesting possibility is mixing the sense of gravity and music.  Are there lightness/ heaviness/weightlessness properties in music?  Certainly.   ….interesting prospects.

Some further reading:

Berman, Greta. “Synesthesia and the Arts.” Leonardo, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1999), pp. 15-22.

Bernard, J. “Messiaen’s Synaesthesia, The Correspondence Between Colour and Sound     Structure in his Music.” Music Perception, Vol. I, No. 4 (1986), pp. 41-68.

Campen, Cretien van. “Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia.” Leonardo,     Vol. 32, No. 1 (1999), pp. 9-14.

Galeyev, B.M.  “Evolution of Gravitational Synesthesia in Music:  To Color and Light!”      Leonardo, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2003), pp. 129-134.

Galeyev, B.M. “Farewell Prometheus Readings:  Light-Music in the Former Soviet Union.” Leonardo, Vol. 27, No. 4 (1994), pp. 351-352.

Galeyev, B.M., & Vanechkina, I.L.  “Was Scriabin a Synesthete?” Leonardo, Vol. 34, No. 4     (2001), pp. 357-361.

Harrison, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. “Synaesthesia: An Account of Coloured Hearing.”     Leonardo, Vol. 27, No. 4 (1994), pp. 343-346.

Messiaen, O. Musique et couleur.  Paris: P. Belfond (1967), pp. 41-45.

Poast, Michael. “Color Music: Visual Color Notation for Musical Expression.” Leonardo, Vol.     33, No. 3 (2000), pp. 215-221.

Samuel, C. Entretiens avec Olivier messiaen.  Paris P. Belfond (1967), pp. 32-56.