There has always been a healthy debate as to whether art should exist purely without explanation from the artist. My take is that it is the artist’s prerogative as to how much explicit meaning he or she is willing to build into the work, no matter what it actually meant for them or what they were inspired by. This piece, for example, contains no ambiguity. It communicates very specific things about myself and my father, to a degree that I don’t even know if it can be considered absolute music. In light of this, and of my new foray into the composition world, I would like to share with you the process of how I created Elegy, which I fittingly finished one year after his death.
It actually started before he died. I would spend hours and hours playing the piano at my parent’s house. Even after I moved out, I would make some time to doodle on that magnificent baby grand in the living room whenever I visited. And on one of those days, I was doing just that…not playing anything in particular, just goofing off. And then I stumbled upon a motif:
I knew instantly that I had to develop this into a piece. But the other cool thing about that moment was that my father wandered into the room while I was experimenting with overlaying other arpeggiated triads with this idea (which eventually led me to the creation of the major seventh chord that is pretty much the foundation of the piece):
I remember telling him how excited I was about it and that I feel like I could take it somewhere interesting, especially because the chord seemed so emotionally ambiguous. But I really didn’t know what I had.
At any rate, I quickly recorded what I had assembled so far and moved on. A couple of weeks passed, and I find myself watching my father collapse on the stage mid-performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue…at once a horrifying and beautiful event. The shock and denial of that night lasted for quite a while – I can’t say how long exactly – and I had a difficult time allowing my grief to surface. There was, however, one way that would never fail (aside from listening to his recordings of Respighi), which will become relevant later on. What is important now is that I rarely even touched a keyboard for several weeks. But one day, when I was in the kind of pain that is just there to stay for the rest of the night no matter what you do, I sat down at my piano and played this motif again. I realized that it perfectly described my desire to reach out to him, to connect with him once more even though it wasn’t possible. And then I said to myself that this…this would be Dad’s song. It would be a tribute to this great man that I desperately wanted more time with. So I developed a melody out of that motif and gave the left hand the archetypal “tolling bells” sound with the above chord as the base. Then, a half-cadence with a fermata…
…which led to a contrapuntal “B” section with a different idea at its heart: the Dies Irae. The Dies Irae is actually a very old Gregorian Chant depicting the Day of Judgment, where the saved are delivered and the damned cast into eternal flame. This is one of the oldest recorded melodies in European history and was eventually incorporated into the Roman Catholic Mass. It has now become the biggest in-joke for musicologists and composers and is probably the most prolific single musical idea that can be found:
It usually shows up to indicate doom, death, danger or other pleasant things. And it is everywhere – movies, tv shows, classical music, even pop music. What’s that? Will I do a post on the Dies Irae at some point? Why, here it is.
One of the things Dad and I did to bond was to see which one of us could catch the Dies Irae first when we were watching a movie or listening to a new piece of music. And of course, he would show me in whatever score he was working on at the time. It just came to symbolize (for me at least) the extraordinary passion he had for the study of music and music history, and it rubbed off on me. It was a gateway for me to start geeking out just like my old man about meaningful allusions and common themes between pieces. That combined with the original meaning of the chant made this a pretty perfect idea to incorporate into Elegy.
Now, this B section basically gets more and more thundering and furious. This sort of captures the temper he had, but also served to express my own anger at his death. The climax of this part is what I like to call the “Chopin” bar, because it’s heavily based on a bar from Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 that had a similar mood and also happened to be a piece I was working on extensively when I was using the piano at his house (so much so that he’d occasionally get tired of hearing it :p).
From there, the tolling bells and the anger and the fury die down until we’re left with a beautiful variation of the A melody, this time in the parallel key of F Major. It was a struggle for a while to come up with an A’ section, until I realized that so far I had focused on the negative or at best bittersweet emotions surrounding his life and death. So within this sweet, tender variation I modeled the left hand part after Brian’s Tune, one of the few pieces he ever wrote:
This turned out as beautiful as I had hoped. No fancy chords, no breakneck-tempos or psycho rips…just a simple melody imbued with the bond we had and all of the good memories that we shared. After the first statement, the voicing gets a little thicker while maintaining simplicity. Then, what is almost an additional variation on the original motif, there is a sizable buildup which I would call the climax of the whole piece. This was a perfect setup for the next section, which is actually based on a cue from a television show that was already a naturally descending musical idea.
Ever heard of the Twilight Zone with Rod Sterling? This became one of my favorite TV Shows of all time over the course of the last few years. And there was one day when I found dad in an existential crisis. He didn’t think he had contributed anything to the world. This was obviously complete nonsense, and rather than trying to convince him with words, I played him an episode from the third season, called “The Changing of the Guard.” It is the story of an old college professor (which my Dad was for a number of years before he was semi-retired) who is forced to retire. This sparks a similar crisis for the main character, Professor Fowler. He wanders off with a revolver and is about to commit suicide next to a statue on school grounds with this significant quote:
…when he hears the school bells go off. Confused as to why this would happen during winter break, he investigates and finds his way into his classroom…where he finds all of the students he taught over the years who died. They all come up to him, one-by-one, and tell him that the heroic deeds they accomplished for humanity that cost them their lives were because of him, because he left them something powerful that was at their elbow in that moment of truth. This was the thing I mentioned earlier that never failed to bring my grief and emotions to the surface. I still can’t watch the damn thing without tearing up something fierce. It was a miracle that I was able to listen to this particular cue enough times to capture the chord progression:
Obviously it wasn’t directly plagiarized…I adapted it to fit the meter and tweaked the progression a bit. But it was definitely heavily borrowed. Composition is just as much about paying tribute to the works that mean something to you, that you admire, as it is finding your own unique voice.
Finally, there is another searching, longing statement of the naked motif, and we’re back to the tolling 7th chords in the left hand. This time, however, the melody in the right hand is the Dies Irae, simply stated. To me, this section is the acceptance of the death, a call that takes me back into reality…as though the motif was another “I need you to help guide me” statement, and this section is the answer: “…but you are dead, and I will have to go on without you.” But even so, I couldn’t end the piece with an authentic cadence. It was too easy, too bright, too unrealistic. I wanted to also convey that in spite of how I’ve moved on, you never truly move on from a loss like this. For me, the desire to see him one last time, to share with him my accomplishments and nerdy remarks, will always be with me.
I personally can’t believe it took me a full year to write this piece. But at the same time, it was born in pain…in an existential crisis the likes of which I have never faced before. And of course, with a full time job and other part-time responsibilities on the plate, you don’t always have time to sit down and indulge your muse. Besides, I really couldn’t be more proud of the result. I used to think that I didn’t have the skill to compose when really I did…I just didn’t realize that good compositions come from inspiration…from life. And here is a celebration of life, as well as the acknowledgement of death. Elegy is available for download in the Compositions section of the website, with a recording of myself playing it soon to follow. Please, download and enjoy, especially if you knew him.