25 March 2010

Return to Emotion

Of the Passion, a friend in Colorado asks:

What was it like, emotionally speaking, writing music to underscore this event?

Emotionally rich; finding the right ‘tone’ for the music was a process of reflecting on Good Friday devotions in years past. My setting was not going to be heart-on-sleeve dramatization; but I did think about the plainchant Passion setting which had been in use at St Paul’s for some 4-5 years prior . . . and while I appreciate the musical ‘detachment’ of singing the text of the Passion story to a plainchant Psalm-tone — and I was well content to utilize that musical method and dynamic in part of my own setting — the character of the traditional Psalm-tone we had been using is in major-ish mode, Lydian in bits as I recall, and one of my immediate thoughts was to compose my own Psalm-tone in the more ‘keening’ Phrygian mode.

It’s not a very technical thing to say about the composition, nor does it offer a clear answer to the emotional question, but in some ways the overarching determinative musical factor for my Passion, was musical memory of a different component of the traditional Good Friday service at St Paul’s: the plainchant Psalm-tone to which we would sing Psalm 22 for the stripping of the altar at the service’s end.

Emotionally, I did not need to micro-manage the narrative; that was an aspect which I simply knew I should find ready as I got to that measure in the score, you might say. Compositionally on the ‘granular’ scale, I felt that I would discover the right materials as I was embarked. Compositionally from the architectural angle, I felt directly ready for most of the task, as I knew that I wanted to start out with a Psalm-tone (whose ‘base form’ I composed almost in a breath), that I would drive toward a Nuhro-like method for the Crucifixion, and that in between I would employ ‘wrong-note-Monteverdi’ polyphony for select passages, in a manner I had well explored in the Nunc dimittis which I had composed for the 2006 Evening Service in D. With those ‘structural supports’ established, I expected that I could manage fairly improvisationally . . . and that if I just found the time to work, the work of composition would about perform itself.

As with many a piece I’ve written, I did some of the creative work on the bus ride to or from work, and if anything, in the case of the Passion, I found it even easier than usual to ‘zone in’ on the task. Most of the chant and organum and polyphony modules of the first part, I had in place from ‘commuter composing’, when I set the task aside in (I think) August. I was well ahead of schedule, and there was another composition or arrangement, or two, which wanted attention sooner. Even so, the Passion must have been ‘slow-cooking’ in the back of my mind.

When in January 2008 I was vacationing, visiting friends in Florida, the environment was perfect. My friends were most hospitable, and gave me plenty of space to do as I liked, and when I liked; the weather was clement – clement even for Daytona Beach at that season, and so, in comparison to Boston in January, perfectly paradisal; and my musical mind was, simply, ready to be focused entirely on the task of writing out the remainder of the Passion. Although in my thinking before the trip, I had budgeted on the first full day in Florida as non-work, recuperative time, in the event, my spirit was already refreshed, and before the first day was done, I had finished up the chant section entirely, and I was now waiting at the foot of the cross at Golgotha.

Again, I did not especially concentrate on the emotional aspect, that was a matter of memory, and musically, I knew what tools I had selected for that passage . . . it wasn’t nose-to-the-grindstone, nor was it unimpeded outflow: it was something in between, looking at the palette, and knowing when I had found the right color, and sometimes, the slightly additional effort of blending two paints together for the right hue.

Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

When I got to this point, I had not really considered what I should do musically. The texture and the harmonies (or, the almost game-like means by which I arrived at the harmonies) just came to me at the time when I needed to write this passage . . . and yet, it feels to me as if all the piece before was written in order to arrive at this. The Burial, too, emerged as a kind of improvisation (months before, I had probably thought no more sophisticatedly than that, I would continue to do ‘something like’ the Crucifixion passage — but of course, if I had done simply that, it would have grown wearisome, I should think). So for me, in the writing, there was a special immediacy in my awareness of the task as I was fulfilling it, which I think has made something of an imprint on the music itself; and the music always feels fresh to me when I hear it, because I remember how it did not occur to me, until practically when I needed to set it to paper.

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