Happy to be a part of the Tokens Show season opener again. I’ve spent most of the week writing string and harp parts for the show (Jenny & Tyler’s cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence,” was especially fun, as was their song “Faint Not”), and am awfully glad to join Host Lee Camp and Music Director Jeff Taylor in putting together this music.
This week has been all about Mahler. I first heard his 3rd Symphony in 2009, performed by the New York Philharmonic, and between the opening theme played by 9 French horns and the off-stage trumpet solo in the 3rd movement, and the breathtakingly gorgeous beginning of the 6th movement, it became an immediate favorite and one I return to frequently. So when the Nashville Symphony announced they were closing their current concert season by performing the 3rd, I blocked off some time and dug out my Mahler books and scores. So far I’ve heard 5 hours of rehearsal and 2 of the performances, and I’m going back tonight to hear the final performance. Ah, Mahler…
One more look back at 2015: In addition to all the projects I was lucky enough to work on for others throughout the year, I took advantage of down time between projects to focus on some of my own passions.
I read a lot of poetry these days, and for a couple years have wanted to find time to set a couple of my favorites to music. I decided to start with this one, by the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I sketched out the orchestration as I was writing the melody, deciding pretty early on to use the Lydian mode (think of a major scale, but with a raised 4th, so the piece started in E-flat, which meant “A” was natural, and gave me the chance to use the tritone–E-flat to A–in almost every phrase). The instrumentation stayed the same from the first sketches: flute, English horn, bass clarinet, French horn, harp, and a full string section.
In June, for a Nashville Composer Collective concert, I conducted a 22-piece orchestra comprised of some of Nashville’s best musicians for the premier, with my friend Sarah Masen singing. The audio is up on Soundcloud, and an iPhone-recorded video on Youtube (the Soundcloud version was recorded with good mics set up above the orchestra).
I recently heard the term “combinatory play” for the first time. Albert Einstein came up with it to describe his creative process, and how his many interests helped his scientific work. Maria Popova, over at Brain Pickings, points out that “Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.” While working on setting the Rumi poem I was also ruminating over ideas for an essay about cynicism, and I found that focusing on writing the essay for a couple hours meant that my brain came up with new ideas and colors to try in the musical composition.
I’m thankful to the folks over at Art House America for publishing the piece that came out of those hours of scribbling, An Antidote for Cynicism. Here’s an excerpt (click the title to read the full essay).
In her poem “Possibilities,” Nobel prize winner Wisława Szymborska declares: “I prefer myself liking people / to myself loving humanity.” I like that better than what I learned growing up. I find it much more hopeful. My childish conceptions of others and how I was expected to treat them fell apart as I grew older and met people outside of the small world I grew up in. These were people I genuinely liked and wanted to be around, people I even hoped to be like as I grew older, and the boxes I had been taught to put them in no longer fit.
I’m reminded of a passage from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (the book I name whenever I find myself in conversations about favorite titles). He wrote this in a 1926 journal entry from Detroit where he served as a pastor for thirteen years before joining the faculty of Union Seminary in New York City. Writing amid the upheaval and mistreatment of workers that accompanied Henry Ford and his assembly lines, he had ample opportunity to become ever more jaded and cynical, joining his fellow Detroit ministers in abstract declarations of their love — and God’s love — for the masses while keeping their distance from the people. Instead, he dug in. He chose intimate knowledge over abstraction:
“Cynics sometimes insinuate that you can love people only if you don’t know them too well; that a too intimate contact with the foibles and idiosyncrasies of men will tempt one to be a misanthrope. I have not found it so. I save myself from cynicism by knowing individuals, and knowing them intimately.”
…When I was a child, I lived in fear. Now that I’m a man, I’m learning — slowly, it sometimes seems — how to act out of love; love for my friend, love for my neighbor, love for myself. Love grounded in particulars, freed from the burden of empty rhetoric. Love that honors the dignity and complexity of every person I meet.
The last couple of months have been packed with a lot of good work. A partial list of work done for December concerts:
Michael Card’s New Hope Born Christmas Tour
I wrote four choir arrangements for this tour, a fun full-circle moment for me as I toured with Mike a decade ago as part of his tech crew. He performed in the USA, Enniskillen Northern Ireland, Inverness, London, and Budapest, with local choirs joining him and music director Jeff Taylor in each city.
Did the music prep for orchestrators Kristin Wilkinson, Larry Paxton, and Buddy Skipper again this year, for artists including Jewel, Charles Kelley, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles, Darius Rucker, Brian Setzer, and Michael W. Smith.
This concert at the University of Alabama in Huntsville featured the band Act of Congress with members of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, Huntsville Community Chorus, and the U.S. Army Materiel Command Band. Don Hart was the orchestrator, and I did the music prep.
Hosanna! Church’s annual Christmas Concert with the Minnesota Orchestra and a 300+ voice choir
I did the music prep for several new arrangements and orchestrations written by Carl Marsh, including a mini-suite from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker that involved entering 14,000+ notes into Finale (giving me the chance to make it through a couple audiobooks while I worked).
I had fun writing this string quintet arrangement for The Secret Sisters last month. After Lee Camp, host of Tokens, called and asked me to write it, I pulled out my score for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to puruse over lunch and a little waltz section snuck into the last chorus. Here’s The Secret Sisters performing Tomorrow Will Be Kinder (which was featured on the The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond) for Tokens’ annual Thanksgiving at the Ryman show.
I’m excited to have a new piece on the program for this Sunday’s Nashville Composer Collective concert, a setting of a favorite poem by 13th century Persian poet Rumi for voice and chamber orchestra. Over the last couple of years, I’ve immersed myself in the world of choral music, studying pieces like Samuel Barber’s “Prayers of Kierkegaard” and “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Mahler’s song cycles, Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” Henryk Górecki’s choral works, and contemporary composers like Eric Whitacre and Rob Mathes (Rob’s album Orchestral Songs is in frequent rotation at my house). Just last weekend the Nashville Symphony performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a brilliant, moving work that combines a large orchestra, choir, soprano soloist, and off-stage children’s choir singing the traditional requiem text in Latin, with two male soloists singing the poetry of Wilfred Owen, accompanied by a small chamber orchestra; I ordered a copy of the score as soon as I got home. “Hundreds of Ways” is my first attempt at contributing to this genre.
When I first started working on my piece, I was listening to Sarah Masen’s recent projects, A History of Lights and Shadows and The Trying Mark, and kept hearing her voice singing the melody I was writing, so I asked her if she would do me the honor of performing it and she generously agreed. She’ll be accompanied by 17 string players, flute, English horn, bass clarinet, French horn, and harp.
The concert is this Sunday afternoon, June 7th, at 3:00 in Lipscomb University’s Ward Hall. Admission is free (although a suggested donation of $5 would be appreciated to help cover the costs of the piano tuning, etc.) and the program looks like it will be a lot of fun: one other vocal piece by a composer new to Nashville, Cristina Spinei, a jazzy setting of a traditional Chinese folk tune for piano trio by Carl Marsh, a piano/violin duet by John Darnall, and more. I’d love to see you there!
When I first showed Trey the score, he handed me his phone and asked me to take a picture of him showing it off to post on Instagram.
One of the fun projects I did music prep for last year was Trey Anastasio’s symphony tour, working with Nashville orchestrator Don Hart. Trey performed in Portland with the Oregon Symphony on a Tuesday night, the Seattle Symphony on Thursday, and then closed out the L.A. Philharmonic’s summer concert series at the Hollywood Bowl two weeks later.
At the end of Trey’s first rehearsal with the Seattle Symphony the day before the show, he told me the story of how the intro to the Phish song Wilson came to be played for the Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson when he walks into the stadium, and asked if I could write it out for the orchestra so he could include it in the encore. So while drinking my coffee the next morning, I looked up a couple videos to see how it went, created the orchestral parts, and passed it out at the rehearsal. And then this happened.
Evolution of an orchestration: start out with a pencil and a stack of blank score paper, input the mostly-written orchestration into Finale, finish orchestration, edit and lay out parts and score, print approximately 350 pages of music (two sets of parts-one for the Cincinnati Pops, one for the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra), and FedEx the parts overnight to the orchestras. Lastly, if possible, attend the concert, and sit there wishing the sound guy would turn the band down so you can hear the orchestra a little better.
I wrote string arrangements for a couple tracks on Luna’s debut EP earlier this year, and she recently shot a music video at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for one of those songs, Bleed You Dry — fitting, as the song opens with a quote from Moonlight Sonata.