Almost three weeks into this Composer Blog, I guess I better say something about the music I’m working on.
I typically have three pieces in the cooker at any given point: one in rough draft, one in a messy, half-baked state, and one getting some finishing touches. This multi-task approach began during my student days when I noticed that the completion of every piece was followed by a state of depression which made starting the next piece unthinkable. Many creative artists have remarked on this pattern: there is an exhilaration that comes with the conclusion of a new work which is often followed by an emotional letdown.
I resented riding on this roller coaster. I felt like I wasn’t getting as much done as I could have been — the effort involved in climbing into each new piece was exhausting. So I started the habit of beginning each new work well before its predecessor was completed.
I’ve imagined this process as standing ankle-deep, waist-deep, and up-to-my-neck deep all at once.
Each stage has its own rewards and drudgery, so when I find myself, say, gasping for breath in the up-to-my-neck piece, I’ll switch to the ankle-deep piece and find plenty of fresh air to satisfy my lungs. If that begins to run dry, I switch to the waist-deep piece, and so on. The point is, I never stop making progress somewhere.
So right now I’m working on three pieces. The one near completion is a quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano. It’s in three movements: Gathering, Congregation and Scattering. Through it, I’ve been trying to come to grips with the emotional arc I felt (many of us felt) as this past November 2nd approached, arrived and passed.
We can describe an emotional arc in words, but a musical trajectory can be so much more complex and multifaceted. So, for example, it is easy for me to say that my emotional arc last fall was excitement and anticipation followed by shock followed by despair. But when I explored that internal journey through music, I found things were, indeed, much more complex than I had realized.
The second movement, Congregation, takes its inspiration from a passage in Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman (1701).
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The Devil always builds a chapel there;
And “˜twill be found, upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
These lines provided me with a clear enough framework for the music, although the results did give me a few surprises along the way. But what was truly puzzling was the last movement, which I expected to have a clear relationship to my current emotional state. Instead, I found the music had shades of comedy — it was almost light-hearted.
But surely that wasn’t an accurate representation of how I felt after the election! Like fifty-five million others, I was stunned by the results, desperate for an explanation, and terrified of the direction we were heading in.
And yet I had written this music that exuded sparkle and a twisted joie de vivre. Over the last two months, I have frequently decided I would discard this third movement and start over with something that was more in keeping with how I understood my mood.
But music has the power to speak the truth, even when we can’t completely understand what it is saying. I had to believe that the music I had written was saying more than I was capable of saying in any other way.
Over the course of the 1930s, more and more European compositions featured passages with nightmarish march rhythms. You don’t find these passages in American music of the time. They are frightening, grotesque, and they speak an emotional truth that was not generally recognized at the time. It is almost as if something was in the air that could not be put into words, but could not be kept out of the music.
So my quartet will premiere in Paris this May with a brief, puzzling final movement called, I think all too accurately, Scattering.