I cannot even describe how thrilling it was to be able to write, copy, rehearse and conduct my own piece with good players under me. I have had the odd chance to conduct before, but this was something totally different. I felt so much more comfortable up there than I ever have before, and I believe it is because I already knew the music so intimately by the time I was finished writing it that it was basically the equivalent of studying it for months on end. And conducting really seems to be about knowledge and the comfort and confidence that follows (at least for me).
I’d like to go into a bit of detail regarding the piece. The inspiration was primarily derived from this particular quote that I stumbled upon when my father’s death was still somewhat fresh in my mind:
There is a greater darkness than the one we fight; it is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities; it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.
The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.
And so you will notice that the piece starts off rather aimless, even unsettling. And then gradually, through some turmoil and labor, we emerge serene and content in the knowledge that this pain and struggle has transformed us for the better. It has shaped our identity into something new, unique and still ever-changing. I am living this transformation as we speak…as we all are. Growth is an undeniably painful experience at times. And I just found it so profound that I drew inspiration from it. Even the primary motif, which eventually evolves into these happy, tonal forms:
Starts out as this:
Astute researchers will be able to figure out how this motif is musically linked to the quote above. 😛 But one thing you notice immediately is that it really doesn’t have a tonal center. That usually gives the listener a sense of unease, which is exactly what I was going for in the opening minutes of the piece. You’re not really supposed to know where it’s going. That is the feeling I wanted to capture, the “soul that has lost its way.” Combine that with a somewhat modified nod to the descending chromatic triplet motif representing hell in several symphonies, such as Liszt’s Dante Symphony:
And Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony:
…and you have (hopefully) a pretty eerie little section. Then, suddenly, the brass comes in with a violent stab, and the strings roll in with full-on Mahlerian pain.
It slowly dies away, until we’re left with a single, solitary double bass note that builds into a fury. This fury tries and fails to build itself into a fully-formed musical idea, but only manages to morph into a few short-lived variations of the original motif before begrudgingly dying away with Strauss-like ripples in the strings. This signifies the anger and struggle that comes from realizing you are lost and trying to correct everything all at once…and of course failing. And by Strauss-like ripples, I mean it’s pretty much a direct quote from the final moments of Don Juan, which famously ends with the hero being utterly defeated:
Then we have a true English Horn solo. With a few brief exceptions, every other player is dead silent. This is the point at which we spend some time completely alone, simply introspecting and disallowing any external influences to distract us from our journey within. Things are calmer, start to make a little more sense. This brings us to the most serene, placid piece of music I’ve ever written.
There is peace and contentment found in making sure your course is correct, but also realizing that you don’t have to strain yourself by following it single-minded. Life is also about taking time to experience the little things that you never, theoretically, have time for. This calm section ultimately builds into a contented, springy little 6/8 section meant to represent those stretches in life where you feel that everything is locking into place…where you have everything balanced exceedingly well. You know, the honeymoon period before life smacks you down a little and throws something else onto your plate. It swells into a triumphant climax that finally brings us to the warm and satisfying conclusion.
I am very pleased with how this piece turned out, but perhaps the thing that I’m most proud of is that it took me significantly less time to create than my first piece, which was only four minutes long and for solo piano. And I am also proud of the fact that when I was facing a nearing deadline and my muse was screaming “make this ending thicker in the orchestration and more impressive!”, I managed to put it in its place and say “no, I have a deadline, and a simple ending is good enough.” Turns out, it was actually a more fitting end to what I had already written anyway, and more importantly it allowed me to finish in time to get parts out to the players and have a score for rehearsal. Valuable lesson learned the easy way, for once: reaching for the stars is a great thing to do, but there is a time and place for it, and it’s not mere hours before your piece is due.
The other thing I learned is the limitation of the pedal harp. Amusingly, this is something that I did not know in spite of my experience in ensembles. I was frantically reading through my orchestration book and only arrived at the pedal harp section after I had written the first four-ish minutes of Moments (in which the Harp plays a rather large role). To my dismay, I learned that this lovely passage:
was rather difficult to play and I feared it impossible. It is, after all, a very strange chord progression. However, my fears were soon allayed by the amazing harpist Don Hilsberg. He re-worked some of the accidentals and gave me a lesson or two on the harp to help me in my future writings. Big thanks to that guy!
I hope you were able to attend the performance and see it live. But if not, here is the full recording! Parts and score are available upon request. 🙂