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.

concert_img_4925_chloelyle

Unearthing EWB – Dawn

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

The summer before I moved to Seattle in 2007 I decided to send a couple pieces to several choirs in the Northwest region, including choirs like Choral Arts, Opus7, and The Esoterics.  Now as most composers may tell you this generally is a bit of a gamble and often a waste, for conductors of fine ensembles are inundated with manuscripts from composers trying to find performances.  Most often, the scores sit on the conductor’s piano, glanced at, untouched, or skimmed and filed (maybe even in file 13).  So I knew this, but I took it to be an opportunity at minimum to get my name in the ear of these fine choirs and their conductors.

At the time, Choral Arts was transitioning between two fantastic conductors, Dr. Richard Sparks (currently at University of North-Texas) and Dr. Robert Bode (conservatory at University of Missouri, Kansas City).  My scores were of secondary importance to a choir during an important transition and they could have been lost in the shuffle, but somehow they made it Robert’s box and waited patiently for his perusal.

Richard Sparks, Robert Bode, Eric Barnum

I got a call in August of 2008 from Robert, who I hadn’t met, and we hit it off immediately.  He had a proposition (he wouldn’t say it was risky, but I would! and am still grateful to this day), for me to compose a short piece for their upcoming “Mornings Like This” album, set to a poem written by him.  I instantly said yes without even pondering.  It was an honor to be asked, but to be nearly guaranteed a spot on a professional recording on a label like Gothic is truly a gift for a young composer.  But, the caveat was he needed it quick.  How quick?  Lets just say quick.  He sent the poem on a Friday.

I sent the piece to him on Sunday afternoon.

I don’t mention this to boast about how quick I can compose a piece, but to share my deep belief in the inspirational quality of Robert’s poetry.  This was our first collaboration and we have done many others over recent years i.e. Healing Heart, Carol of the Angels, Conflagration.  Each time feels as though I am transcribing music already present in the text, not necessarily adding anything special of my own.  He and Thomas Hood (1799-1845) seem to be the poets most resonant to my heart.

In 2010, Dawn was chosen for one of Conspirare’s fantastic Carillon concerts by Craig Hella Johnson.  Craig and I subsequently published it through his series with G. Schirmer.  You can find it to order:  (HL.50490262)

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

From the door’s soft opening
And the day’s first sigh,
Filling the room,
I see before me
A life of doors,
One opening on another,
Doors upon doors,
And sighs upon sighs,
Rising in a tide of mornings,
Rising, until that final sigh,
And the last morning,
And the last holy breath,
Whispering “this…”

The instant I read the poem I thought Scandanavia.  Not sure why, and I usually don’t second guess my instincts.  So I attacked the poem with composers like Alfvén and Stenhammar as my guides.  I wanted to capture both the natural daylight breaking over the horizon, but also the existential idea a new day represents.  Though the existential element is more obvious in the text, I thought I could amplify it yet further by spending most of my time focusing on the light breaking forth idea.

I tried to do this in a couple of ways.  Immediately comes the obvious technique of starting with few voices and adding parts individually to create more and more color, culminating in the rich sonority of an F major chord (which I sometimes think of as the color blue).  The idea of light gradually coming is self-evident in the text “doors upon doors, sighs upon sighs”.  I choose to use this section of text as a spring board into the climax, not only with a repeating rising vocal line transferred from part to part, but also with harmonic tensions created from some unresolved suspensions.  All this resolves in a surprising minor climax, not major.  I think this gives the glory of each dawn a sense not of just joy, but also of mystery and longing.

The end of the piece essentially is an extension of an aleatoric technique I use from time to time.  In this particular piece the word “this” is repeated over and over again, overlapping in a cluster creating the imagery of a light.  Meanwhile a wavelike repeating figure is sung in the lower voices.  In total, one should get the feeling of light reflecting off the gentle waves of a body of water as the sun rises slowly above the horizon.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

I haven’t seen too many sunrises, to be honest.  Sunsets have been easier for a night-owl.  Sunrises are glorious things though when you do the work to get up early enough.  It always seems to be worth it ….maybe I should do it more often.  Dawn brings with it possibility.  A newness.  A cleanliness.  The return of the sun has a fresh warmth too it as we shield our eyes from the bright light.

Robert focuses particularly on the aspect of renewal and the possibilities a novel day always presents.  All things are a mystery as you look ahead, but with the rising sun, a special feeling often fills your heart:  hope.  It seems like this poem is a perfect answer to the famous Thomas Hardy poem of hope: Song of Hope.

O sweet To-morrow! –
After to-day
There will away
This sense of sorrow.
Then let us borrow
Hope, for a gleaming
Soon will be streaming,
Dimmed by no gray –
No gray!

While the winds wing us
Sighs from The Gone,
Nearer to dawn
Minute-beats bring us;
When there will sing us
Larks of a glory
Waiting our story
Further anon –
Anon!

Doff the black token,
Don the red shoon,
Right and retune
Viol-strings broken;
Null the words spoken
In speeches of rueing,
The night cloud is hueing,
To-morrow shines soon –
Shines soon!

The piece Dawn is the tomorrow Hardy speaks about.  It is today!  Today is here and with it brings something new with its unpredictable prism of possibilities.  Dawn also hints that this gift will continue if you choose it.  Hope is born anew each morning.  Mercies are new every morning, if we look to the light.  And when the light rises, it shines light on blessings all around us.

We travelers, walking toward the sun, can’t see

Ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessing 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

Composing Hermitage: Chateau Wingate

It rained last night, and it was beautiful.

I’ve done these composer retreats a couple times now, and I’ll admit I’ve been lucky.  To be honest, the term Hermitage is a bit of a misnomer here.  I suppose it is more like a blissful free-fall into being an artist, mostly due to the locations in which I have been granted time to compose.  This particular time I find myself at the home of Lorin and Susy Wingate on Bainbridge Island, across the Sound from Seattle.  They are traveling in quite a beautiful place themselves at the moment: Paris!  And I wish them as much Joy as they can possible handle.

To be at a place like this, surrounded by beauty, by peace and quiet, by trees, by birds and clean rain is a great Gift.  In some ways I think it opens doors to artistry and allows beauty to be engaged with, rather than simply observed or considered.  Wendell Berry talked about this in his 2004 essay Imagination in Place:

…I dont believe I am conscious of all the sources of my work.  I dislike learned talk about “the unconscious,” which always seems to imply that the very intelligent are able somehow to know what they do not know, but I mean only to acknowledge that much of what I have written has taken me by surprise.  What I know does not yield a full or adequate accounting for what I have imagined.  It seems to have been “given.”  My experience has taught me to believe in inspiration, about which I think nobody can speak with much authority.

Places like this “give.”  Give what?  Inspiration I suppose, not necessarily because of what they have, but what they don’t have. For me, that’s generally noise.  The noise of busy-ness, the noise of cars, of complexity, of confusion.  One can sit.  Sit and try desperately to listen.  I think in many ways I spend as much time “listening” to my surroundings as I do composing.  I hear birds and squirrels and crickets and raindrops and one of my favorite things: fluttering leaves.

I do have a great deal to work on as well and I have been looking forward to it.  Several choral pieces are already in the works and I am excited about each of them.  I continue to grow and expand my language, taking risks where need be, constantly coming back to the question, “Is this meaningful?”

I think I’m finding an easier answer to that question when I do this kind of escape-composing.  This escape to Solitude Keats talked of here:

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climg with me the steep, —
Nature’s observatory — whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let my thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Along with composing, there will be reading and thinking of course.  Here are few of selections I brought.

I hope.

I hope I read.

I hope I listen.

I hope I compose.

I hope I am “given” what I could never speak with any authority about.

I go among trees

I feel weird.

I think everyone does sometimes.  I hear though from some people that I seem to feel this way more than the “normal” amount.  It isn’t the kind of weird that is comical, nor is it the weird of dread.  It is very difficult to pinpoint, and the most notable sign is that I feel…well, strange.  There is a disconnection, a longing, a little heartache and yearning all mixed together.  There never seems to be a particular object in the physical world that this feeling points to.  I just feel out of balance…yet there is understanding…yet there is sadness.

I talk about trees a lot when I work with singers.  There are a couple reasons for this.  One is because of a movie called Phenomenon with John Travolta made in 1996.  It didn’t get reviewed very well and was not very popular, but besides a stunning soundtrack by perhaps the best film composer of the last 20 years, Thomas Newman, there were a couple scenes that seemed particularly important.  Here is a quote from George Malley (Travolta):

Now we were talking about a parnership.  Do you know what the largest living organism in the world is?  Ok, its a grove of aspen trees in Colorado…acres of aspens.  Ok, now, they thought they were disconnected, separate, but indeed they found out that they weren’t.  That there was one giant organism with the same root system.

For some reason that blew me away and instantly a choir appeared in my minds eye.  I imagined roots coming out of the feet of singers in an ensemble and spreading out in a similar way to these aspens.  Connections need to be made intentionally, subtly and what better than beneath the solid ground we stand on.

Later in the movie is one of my favorite scenes in cinema.  George Malley knows he is about to die and the woman he loves, Lace finds him on a hill and they spend some last moments together.  He asks her to show him how she would hold a newborn baby.  She does, and he says – but hold in a way to really comfort and solace (intentionally).  Her face, her body…everything changes.  (Thomas Newman captures this moment perfectly.  It couldn’t be done better than this.)  In the final scene in the movie she is sitting, weeping on a lonely porch and she looks up and sees the trees moving…moving in the same way a mother would hold a child.  …I had never thought about this before – and it changed everything.

Sometimes I tell singers in a choir to try and sing like a tree (there is a bit of a process to get there).  An interesting thing starts to happen if they are doing it fully.  They start to move in the same way as the trees described above.  There is a grace, a purpose, and an intention.  They are moving as an individual, but in that is connected at the roots to those around them.

Wendell Berry is a true rockstar of words.  In a way, I think he has captured the indescribable.  This poem, just one of many moments of genius:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

It makes me think of what it is really like to stop, watch the trees move, their “confused pattern,” their subtle way of rocking as if to music.  I think the way that Giselle Wyers set this poem for choir and piano is blesséd and Right.  I happened to be singing with this collection of unique souls, spreading their roots out beneath the ground.

So I feel strange, as if longing will rip my heart out.

You will find me among the trees.

I am listening for the song.