The Little Stream Sings

I recently had the pleasure of joining, via Skype, a rehearsal of the Penn State Concert Choir, directed by Christopher Kiver. They’re performing “The Little Stream Sings”, an unaccompanied SATB piece from my “Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music” project, in upcoming concerts.

“Tell us a little about the piece,” Dr. Kiver said.

I knew the question was coming, and I complied by fumbling through a few thoughts, probably too self-aware of my voice booming through classroom speakers 2,000 miles away. But as I’ve re-read the poem in the days since, and thought of the students I had the pleasure of “meeting,” I’ve wished I had better expressed what this poem has meant to me.

So, in my usual mode of finding the clever rejoinder a day late, I’m now prepared to say a little about the piece, which I’ve written as a letter. First, here is the poem:

The little stream sings
in the crease of the hill.
It is the water of life. It knows
nothing of death, nothing.
And this is the morning
of Christ’s resurrection.
The tomb is empty. There is
no death. Death is our illusion,
our wish to belong only
to ourselves, which is our freedom
to kill one another.
From this sleep may we too
rise, as out of the dark grave.

Berry, Wendell. “Sabbaths 2003, IV.” Given: New Poems. 2005. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard. 

Dear Friends,

At some point, each of us realizes the gravity of moral agency, which is to say the fact that we each can—and do—make choices that affect other people. And this includes the possibility that we will hurt them, that we might “kill one another.”

That’s a jarring image, isn’t it?

The fact that we are free to act, not just to be acted upon, is a profound and true lesson, one that I hope will sink deep into you as you sing.

Regardless of your religious leanings (if any), regardless of whether you entertain the idea of the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus or prefer to think of this as a metaphor from literature, don’t let the poem be lost on you: this text invites us first to consider death (of a certain kind) as a human fabrication, and second, to rise above employing our agency to perpetuate this “innovation.”

How can anyone read a text like this so soon after a mass killing, such as occurred recently in Las Vegas, and not feel deeply anguished?

Education, which is what we’re up to, can be defined as the proper ordering of our affections (our loyalties, ambitions, desires). To live rightly as social creatures, we must elevate our commitment to neighborly love and forgiveness and carefully, deliberately subordinate our natural desires for power, convenience, and gain. The hierarchy of our affections will ultimately determine the course of our lives; happiness ensues from ordering our affections properly.

(To believe that something is proper implies also believing in a difference between right and wrong. While that isn’t always a popular theme in secular education, you will want to wrestle with the grand ideas of right and wrong, and commit yourself to live “aright,” if you want to chart a course to purpose and meaning.)

Do you hear this as a sermon? It isn’t necessarily a religious idea, though religious and philosophical traditions concern themselves with creating roadmaps for navigating this kind of life terrain. For example, this is the Tao (Path) and Te (Virtue) of Taoism. However, if this is a sermon, then it’s a sermon in favor of the arts and humanities too!

What I’ve learned about practicing an art (composing, in my case) is that it can teach me to hear a quiet voice within me, my own “little stream.” My inner compass points towards beauty and harmony. It reminds me that I don’t “belong only / to [myself] …”

Practicing the art of singing can help each of us locate that quiet inner voice and learn to follow it. This little stream runs along the path that leads us to become our best selves, which is the same path that results from ordering our affections properly. Simultaneously, our study of the humanities helps us to learn vicariously through the stories of others. We become more fully human, more capable of proceeding on our paths with clarity and compassion, as we internalize these stories.

One of the gifts of a university education is the chance to immerse ourselves in the arts and humanities. If you’re majoring in the arts or humanities, don’t be discouraged when people ask, “what are you going to do with that?” “I’m learning to be my best self in a world that needs me, that’s what!” If you’re majoring in engineering or business (as Dr. Kiver says many of you are), then remember that a prerequisite to using the powerful tools of your trade is learning about the proper (read: restrained) use of power.

One of the gifts of life is that learning doesn’t stop at graduation. Regardless of your declared major, remember that your true discipline of study will be self-discipline, which is inherently interdisciplinary and as broad as your life experiences. Learning to hear and follow the best voice within you, your own little stream, will ensure a rich and useful path in years to come—something to be proud of.

Wendell Berry writes:

“There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. … It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”* (My emphasis.)

Ultimately, I’ve said very little about this piece of music, and I suppose that’s on purpose. In musical terms, I hope it can speak for itself. You can be the judge of that. But I’ve spoken about the music within the music, the little stream that draws me back to my own quiet inner voice and nudges me forward. I hope that you’ll navigate the inevitable obstructions of life by listening to the little stream singing within you, that you’ll rise from our illusions of death, and lift others along the way.

Warmly yours,
Andrew Maxfield

* Excerpted from “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms.” Standing by Words: Essays. 2011. Counterpoint Press.

Something New (Novi? Novum?) for Voces Novae

I’m delighted and grateful to announce that I’ve received a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition. Thanks to this opportunity, I’ll be writing a three-part work for choir and small chamber ensemble, which will be premiered in November 2018 by maestro Frank A. Heller, III and my lovely friends of Voces Novae in Louisville, Kentucky. My deepest thanks to all involved. Now, let the fun begin!

Voces Novae 2013 premiere of selections from my “Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music” project

One Household, High and Low

I’m happy to announce that Santa Barbara Music Publishing Inc. has published my choral piece, “One Household, High and Low.” Wendell Berry wrote the text, and I wrote the music in the style of the Sacred Harp / Shape Note / Fasola tradition. In fact, part of the opening phrase is derived from the Sacred Harp tune, “Wondrous Love.”

From the SBMP website: “. . . this one really cooks. The melody lies in the tenor, and can be doubled at the octave as can the soprano part, thereby creating a delightful six parts. The Wendell Berry text ends ‘and all the earth shall sing. May it be so!”

Get copies for yourself or your choir now: Purchase sheet music here.

HEY! If you purchase a copy or write a review on the SBMP website, please let me know. I’d love to send you a recording of the piece as a thank-you!

Contributing

My uncle once surprised me by telling me that farmers don’t grow crops. “Farmers grow soil,” he explained. “Soil grows crops.”

I’m three generations away from my own family’s subsistence farming, and so the idea was news to me. But I began to see in my uncle’s point of view the important theme of contributing.

Read the rest on my Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music project blog.

Investing in Karma

I’m sure there are small-minded, selfish, nasty composers in the world. I’m probably one of them more often than I realize! But lately I’ve benefitted from encounters with a number of composers whose considerable talents and accomplishments seem to be matched only by their warmth, kindness, and generosity. Naming names feels inappropriate, but here are a few snapshots:

  • The Chair of Composition at a major west-coast university, who made time to listen to my music and review my scores. He treated a stranger like a friend, provided constructive criticism, and was a terrific sounding board. Why? Just because I asked.
  • A retired distinguished professor of choral studies, who has spent several hours meticulously examining my recent choral pieces. He’s careful to ask questions that cause me to learn and intuit my own path forward, candid and straightforward, and deeply kind. I asked if I could pay him for lessons. “Pay it forward,” he said.
  • A busy, happening, young (i.e., my age!) L.A. composer who has made time on several occasions to provide advice and encouragement. He seems to assume that there’s enough opportunity in the world for everyone and is quick to offer connections and open doors. Why? Because he was grateful for breaks extended to him along the way.
  • A distinguished British composer who, at a recent convention, introduced me as a peer and made efforts to connect me to many of his colleagues and to his publisher. Why? Because he feels it’s part of his job as a composer to nurture others.

Perhaps being a little glib, I’ve printed the following notice in several of my album projects: “Unauthorized duplication, while convenient, isn’t very neighborly. Invest in art.”

Neighborliness cuts to the center of it, doesn’t it? In encounters large and small, I’ve met acquaintances who have treated me like friends, and now we’ve become “neighbors” in a creative community. I think that implies a certain kind of mutual necessity and a willingness to come to one another’s aid.

Investing in art—maybe that means “investing in karma” by paying forward small kindnesses when opportunities arise, and seeing a world that only grows bigger when we open doors for others.

I’m not sure artists can produce art in the long run without these boosts along the way.

Raveling, Unraveling

I’m working on an orchestral piece, an overture. When I first committed to the project, I was awash with excitement and ideas. But next I felt overwhelmed by the blank canvas. It wasn’t writer’s block. Instead, I was like a mosquito at a nudist camp: seeing opportunity everywhere but having no idea where to start.

I realized that I was trying to solve too many problems at once and had too few constraints. Duration, structure, harmonic language, orchestration, vibe, etc. Everything was up for grabs, which meant I actually had too much freedom. I remembered something that Igor Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self… the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

I returned to my blank canvas. Which constraints would I impose? For no special reason, I thought of the Ravel string quartet in F major. That’s a piece I’ve loved since I was a teenager. (Last year, my wife and I invited a string quartet to perform the piece in our house. I sat about four feet from the violist. I had never appreciated all of the internal lines and motivic ingenuity of the piece before hearing it so intimately.)

Simply because of my love for Ravel’s work, I decided to pattern my orchestral piece after the Quartet’s fourth movement. (Not to mention “vif et agité” sounds like me most days.) I like his method of developing melodic cells, making something big out of something little. I like the way he sculpts the energy of the movement. I like hearing rich chromaticism as an embellishment of tall harmonies. So, I analyzed the movement, made notes about the aspects I wanted to emulate, and all of the sudden a path forward opened up.

Initially, I felt a little sheepish for deriving so much information and inspiration from Ravel. But yesterday morning, I was listening to the Sequentia recording of Hildegarde von Bingen’s “Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite” while editing a choral score and it hit me: hey, wait!, that’s the central melody of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body.” (Of course, he discloses as much in his program notes, which I read today.) So, maybe there’s nothing totally new in music, anyway.

Raveling? Unraveling? One way or the other, here we go!

Hooray for a clear idea

I’m a learner. It’s what I do for fun, and sometimes I think I’m good at it. This morning I’m studying A Geometry of Music by Dmitri Tymoczko. (Reading one section per morning with a five-day learning week should get me to the end in about 24 weeks…) 

Dmitri just gave me a clearer way of formally understanding something that has made sense to my ears for a long time. The idea is that inversionally related chords sound similar, and visually they share a reflective relationship. 

This is useful to me because I keep hunting for ways to stretch my grasp of harmony and extent myself into the extended common practice, away from strict functionality where I think I know the ropes better. 

Now, time to review (relearn?) orchestral percussion in my Adler. 

Very Sketchy

I’m starting a new orchestral piece, a 4-7-minute concert opener. I guess you’d call it an overture. My dictionary just told me “overture” means “an introduction to something more substantial.” I have no idea what of more substance this overture should lead to (that feels more existential than it probably should), but perhaps I’ll find out by writing.

And—as an aside—I should confess that writing for orchestra is one of the most thrilling, most exciting thought experiments for me. Nothing makes me smile more than trying to wrap my head around sounds like this.

My new habit is to begin each project with a meditation on what I want to learn from doing it. So far, I know I’d like to work on orchestrating long diminuendo and crescendo passages with deliberate expansion and contraction of pitch ranges.

I’d like to broaden my vocabulary with orchestrating accents via adding/subtracting instruments, register shifts, and color changes.

I’d like to create a thrilling rhythmic ride for the listener, which results from a full but playable use of the percussion (and good choreography).

I’d like to write an explosive orchestral swell. (I have an example from Christopher Rouse’s flute concerto fresh in my ears.)

And … I’d like to play with hocketing. For fun.

Is all of this too much to ask? I guess I’ll find out.

Incidental Music

For the last few days, in between other things, I’ve been writing some incidental music for a new play, written and to be directed by a friend of mine. He requested several short cues, each with a different mood. I’m trying to channel Vince Guaraldi and I’m looking forward to a recording session with a great drummer.

Usually I write slowly and obsess about each successive simultaneity of what I write, but this time I’m going for speed and flow. And fun. Fun matters more than I usually remember!

I’m also trying to work away from a piano keyboard as much as possible so as to change the mental balance of powers. Since the music needs to be idiomatic (dare I say “groovy”) on the piano too, I’ll end up at the piano—but not until after I have some solid conceptual, structural, and rhythmic sketches.

The most important ideas

I met composer Francis Pott at the ACDA national convention a few years ago. He’s a kind soul and now a good friend. I keep rereading a recent interview of his, especially the response I’ve shared below.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Francis: “Too complex to address in any detail. In summary: patience, optimism, commitment and determination; gratitude for opportunities and kindnesses; consideration for others; willingness to learn from perceived setbacks and turn them to good account for the future; thoroughness and self-discipline; modesty, backed by quiet confidence that your best compositional efforts can ‘do their own talking’ and do not need obnoxious blowing of one’s own trumpet; willingness to be charitable to colleagues in the profession (this may involve intuiting when they themselves feel insecure or uncertain of their ground); a core belief in the importance of communicating what one has been given to feel and perceive; a polished ability to speak in public and, if it arises, onstage; the willingness to be an ambassador for the profession and a good human advertisement for it.”

Words to live by. Read the rest here:

https://meettheartist.site/2016/12/07/francis-pott-composer-pianist/

And learn more about Francis and his music here:

http://www.francispott.com/index.html