Even when we don’t want to hear, we hear. And everything we hear ends up in our music, either directly or reactively.
Now I’ll back off of the grand generalization to say I really don’t know what composers do, I only know what I do. In my case, it seems like everything I hear sits in my brain waiting to re-emerge in a composition. I frequently hear things as pure sonic outline – ie, sounds for their own sake — even when there is specific information being conveyed, eg people telling me how they spent their weekend, and I nod as I break down what they are saying into patterns of pitch and rhythm.
I’m off to Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks for the premiere of Cool Night, performed by the University of Utah Philharmonia, Robert Baldwin, Music Director, with vocal soloists Geoffrey Friedley, Julie Wright-Costa, Kirsten Gunlogson and Mary Ann Dresher. There is also an actor involved, though I don’t yet know his name.
Cool Night is an audacious piece. It imagines Florestan and Eusebius, Robert Schumann’s fictional alter egos, in a verbal joust over the composer’s deathbed, and culminates in a setting of Heinrich Heine’s Der Tod das ist die Kühle Nacht – for which I’ve written my own second stanza. Florestan is performed by a combination of tenor and actor – almost as if he were two persons within himself, arguing with one another – and Eusebius is a trio of soprano, mezzo and alto – although the tenor sings with them from time to time to make a quartet. In other words, though this was never my intention, I’ve made this piece pretty difficult for the listener to follow as narrative, which is unusual for me: I usually like to make my line of argument as clear as possible. Sometimes, though, clarity is not what is seems.
In 1886, Barbara Klosheim Beaumont – my grandmother – was born, a few months after her parents had completed an arduous voyage across the Atlantic seeking opportunities in the New World, a voyage through which they lost their only son. Barbara died in 1986, a few months short of her hundredth birthday, and the consensus of those who knew her well was that her hard life – twice widowed by age 44, raising a family on her own during the Depression, attending both her sons’ funerals – didn’t make her the most cheerful person. I remember, as a very young child, frequent entreaties to hush, hush when she was in the house. As a teen, visiting her in a nursing home, I watched and listened as her mind gradually disintegrated. By the end, only my mother claimed to understand what she was saying, and the rest of us were tempted to question my mother’s sanity for making that claim.
In Cool Night, Florestan and Eusebius have to come to grips with their creator’s demise, then struggle to understand their existence and find a way to continue in his absence. The listener is given the option of taking their dialogue at face value, though it also makes sense to hear it as a far-ranging hallucination that takes place entirely within Robert Schumann’s mind. An excerpt of the text:
F: When the dance concludes, I will remove my mask and reveal who I really am.
E: Who you are! You will remove one mask and find another.
F: That may be so, that may be so. But the mask will come off, and then another, and another.
E: You have more masks than time.
F: Yes, I have more masks than time. But they will come off, not to reveal, but to revel in the removal. I will be verb, not noun. I will be action. I will be masks removing, one by one.
E: You will be masks removing. You will be me.
F: You? No, we are not the same. I am verb, you are noun.
E: I am noun, you are verb. But we are the same. We shed the chrysalis, only to find another.
F: And another.
E: And another. Together, we are half as much.
F: Yes, together, we are half as much. And yet, apart, we are nothing. We hear nothing in the cool night.
While working on Cool Night, it took me a long time to come up with the right sound world for Eusebius. As I said above, his lines are sung by a trio of soprano, mezzo and alto. I chose that approach to emphasize the more ephemeral, otherworldly nature of his character. But the vocal trio somehow wasn’t enough. I also wanted the character to sound deranged, in a tender, helpless way. I kept singing the words “Cool night,” which is a recurrent phrase in the piece, over and over again, trying them different ways. Then one day I sang them in a stammering ululation, “Coo-loo-loo-loo-loo-lool Ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-night,” and I had my answer. The result sounded sweetly crazed. I applied that same undulating vocalization throughout the piece, almost every time Eusebius sings, and it fit beautifully into the world I was trying to create.
A few months later, I had a sudden realization that the sound I was creating for Eusebius was already familiar to me as the melancholy babbling my grandmother was reduced to in her final years. How clearly the sound comes back to me, from close to four decades past, as she would tremble helplessly in her chair and make mournful attempts at communication, repeating the same syllable over and over again in a quivering voice.
Which brings me back to where I began this post. As an adolescent, my grandmother’s senile speech was agonizing to listen to; I shrank away inside, even while I tried to make a show of standing firm.
But the composer in me was storing away that sonic information, reimagining it as a thing of beauty, waiting for the right opportunity to put it to use.
So maybe my mother wasn’t so far off when she told us she could understand what my grandmother was saying. All depends on how you are listening.