In the World

Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.


John Muir, 1902

John Muir’s words inspired the title of my latest piece, In the World, for string quartet and soprano. The piece was written for a commission resulting from the Hoefer Prize, generously granted to me by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I directed my attention to John Muir because of his connection to the Bay Area, and to California in general, since the work was to be composed for the SF Conservatory. Initially, I was attracted to his writings that chastised humanity for disrespecting and dismantling nature.

Then I came across the quote above, in addition to several beautiful writings overflowing with affection for nature, and I realized that the piece needed to express and promote nature itself, and our deep-rooted love for it. (As far as “political” issues go, I prefer to be pro-disposed than con-disposed, these days.)

The result is three meditations on nature, filtered through the lens of my experiences in national parks over the course of the past year. I visited three beautiful parks in that time-frame: Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, and Zion.

Atop Observation Point, Zion National Park

I found myself stumbling upon a serendipitous coincidence: this year marks the National Park Service’s 100 year anniversary, as it was formed on August 25, 1916. John Muir is considered the “Father of the National Parks,” as his preservation efforts helped to form Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mount Rainier National Parks. The NPS was formed two years after his death.

This couldn’t be more perfect! Three national park visits. A piece for the SF Conservatory. An attraction to Muir’s writings. Et voilà!

The first two movements are entitled ‘Joshua’ and ‘Zion,’ each functioning as reflections of my experiences in those parks. Both movements are entirely instrumental, and they are quite atmospheric in an attempt to be “in the world” and its surroundings.

The third movement, entitled ‘Muir,’ is a song for soprano, set to words by John Muir. As mentioned above, I decided to choose texts that convey a tenderness for nature. Here are the texts:

We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.

– June 9, 1872 letter to Miss Catharine Merrill, from New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley

Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.

– from My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

Muir’s prose is vivid and poetic, expressing both his zeal for nature, and a profound understanding of humanity and our connection to the natural world. In my mind, the most beautiful part of his message lies in this phrase: “He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creed and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.”

Not only is it good for the earth that we are stewards of nature, but it is also good for us to partake in it, as it transcends our divisions.

In the World receives its world-premiere performance on 4 December 2016 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with the Thalea String Quartet.

Recitals and Revelations

Yesterday afternoon, I presented an organ recital at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hollywood for the second concert of the St. Thomas Concert Series, currently in its inaugural season. This was a significant occasion for me because it was my very first solo organ recital.

It was a gigantic feat for me, as it was nearly 3 years ago that I began to pursue organ performance seriously, and the initial learning curve was very steep. I am proud to say that I’ve grown leaps and bounds since then, and while yesterday’s recital was not a technically perfect performance, it was a breakthrough for me, and I feel that I made some real music happen in the performance.

The title of the concert was “The Greats Greatly Grounded,” and I called it that because I had an idea to add an extra-musical dimension to the experience. I thought it would be fun and funny to read historical criticisms of the now-sanctioned “great” composers to add an element of lighthearted humor, just in case anyone might take the music too seriously. I found a good number of fantastic quotes, and it seemed that people really enjoyed this component of the recital, not only because it was amusing, but because it helped to ease into each consecutive work with a little “palette cleanser.”

I wanted these criticisms to be acted, read dramatically; but because I am totally incapable of doing that sort of thing competently, I asked my dear friend, and esteemed actor, Michael Ensign, to perform them for the crowd. He was absolutely wonderful, and I could tell that the audience was excited to see and hear what he was going to do and say with each reading. Thank you, Michael, for lending your talents and sharing them with us yesterday!

For the most part, the repertoire I played was chosen among works I have learned while serving as organist at St. Thomas, and only a few were chosen from the periphery. The program order was as follows:

Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, BWV 715, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Vesper Voluntaries, by Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572, by J.S. Bach

Le banquet celeste, by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)

Fanfare, Chorale, and Processional, by William Mathias (1934–1992)

Toccata from Symphony for Organ No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937)

The piece on the program that meant the most to me is the Bach Fantasia. I’d like to share a few thoughts on this work, and I appreciate the indulgence!

Bach…

While I know that there must be other music—art must always and forever reflect the present by being created in the present—it seems impossible, as a musician and composer myself, to recover from the deep experience of delving into a work by J.S. Bach. I know, that statement is a total cliché, but this particular cliché always lives up to what it claims. For me, Bach trivializes all other attempts at ‘music,’ and if music were to be an expression of ideals, then Bach’s is the most idealistic. His music, in my mind, is the ideal.

…and his Fantasia delivers.

The piece is anywhere from 8-11 minutes in duration—I’ve compared countless performances, and they all vary quite drastically—composed of three highly contrasting parts. The first is an unaccompanied single line (it could be played entirely by a solo clarinet), characterized by light flurry of 16th-note scales and arpeggios. Right before it seems that it will cadence on a ‘g’ after an ascending scale, the ‘f#’ indeed does lead to ‘g’, but as an elision into the next section, which suddenly bursts into a massive 5-part chorale.

This chorale is an intense fixation on something powerful. I have no idea what Bach was thinking when he wrote it, but it is so tremendously moving, filled with so much joy and pleasure, but, at the same time, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the way that the tension grows towards sensory overload.

As it begins, the chorale very suddenly imposes itself formally and texturally on the piece, like a gigantic anvil dropped from the sky, and it just goes on and on and on, intensifying with each and every note, suspension after suspension, dissonance after dissonance, modulation after modulation, always referring back to its original motive: a descending four-note scale figure.

The deeper tension of this chorale comes from the direction it moves in terms of its textural tessitura. While the motive descends, the apparatus on which the motive descends is ascending, pushing up and up and up, and failing each time until the chorale reaches a dominant pedal. At this moment, the chorale finally climbs to its apex, gloriously making its way to its final cadence, as the listener expect the most satisfying setup of a tonic chord in G major, and right before this chord is expected to sound, Bach slaps the listener with a terrifying and disturbing C# diminished 7th chord!

WHAT?!

After the exasperated, breathless fully diminished seventh chord shoves the chorale out of the way, the third section begins an harmonic and textural unravelling of the pressure-laden chorale with a virtuosic and elaborate cadenza: a hyper-active swirl, tonally ambiguous until it lands on a D pedal, as the manuals dizzily make their way to a well-earned final G major chord.

FINALLY!

Far beyond this paltry analysis, I cannot put into words the unique energy that this piece inherently possesses. While I performed it yesterday, at the apex of the chorale climax, my heart felt as though it was about to leap out of my chest. The feeling was both wonderful and terrifying, and I really have no other musical experience to compare it to. At the core of this work, there is a deep message that I do not understand and cannot articulate. All I can say is that this is a kind of art that is truly transcendent, and offers an experience from which I can only learn and grow as an artist and human being.

All I know is that I am so lucky not only to be able to hear this music, but also to play and experience it from within itself. Learning its intricacies and nuances only deepens the experience of the work.

That is why I chose this piece to be on the program. I wanted a reason to play it, and I also wanted to share it.

Thank you to everyone who came to yesterday’s recital, to members of the St. Thomas Choir who helped with odds-and-ends of the production, and for donating treats for the reception, and I am deeply grateful for the St. Thomas community for their perpetual outpouring of support for the music program, and for the love that they share equally with everyone in the parish.

A link to view a PDF file of the concert program is below:

Program: The Greats Greatly Grounded

Gone too soon

Tomorrow evening will be a special occasion at St. Thomas the Apostle, as the church solemnly celebrates All Souls’ Day with a Requiem Mass at 7:30pm. The choir, choirmaster, soloists, and I will join forces to enhance the occasion with Camille Saint-Saëns’ Messe de Requiem. Additionally, for the Offertory Anthem, I chose Lili Boulanger’s haunting final opus, Pie Jesu, sung by soprano, Andrea Fuentes.

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)I chose the Boulanger for a few reasons: 1. like Saint-Saëns, she was a French composer, 2. Lili and Camille knew each other, and 3. the piece is near-and-dear to me. It is a fascinating work, especially considering that as the 24-year-old Lili wrote it, she lay on her deathbed, dictating the piece to her sister Nadia.

Pie Jesu begins darkly with an anxious sense of trepidation, and, for the most part, stays there. At the end, the harmony lightens just in time for the “Amen,” providing, what some might consider, a resolution of the angst and fear of the preceding 3/4 of the piece.

The trajectory from darkness to light seems to make sense in a piece like this, as earthly fears and concerns come to a head when facing one’s own death, later released by the hope for an eternal life beyond the temporal. And I think that is precisely what Lili was hoping to express with this piece.

However, I don’t think the end is successful, and, as my ears hear it, there is something much more unsettling about the end, compared to the music that comes before it. The shift away from darkness is abrupt, even though the transition is smooth and elegant. It is a psychological interruption that creates a kind of dissonance with the rest of the piece. In my opinion, this effect is akin to a dissonant atonal piece suddenly shifting to consonant tonality. Sure, consonance is generally lovely, but it can be disconcerting and disturbing given a lengthy dissonant introduction.

I supposed that one might perceive the lightness of the end to be an affirmation of her faith, or the sudden shift may represent a foretaste of the peace of heaven. After all, Lili was a devout Catholic, so it would not be a stretch to presume that this piece serves to be an expression of her faith.

I, too, would argue that this piece is an expression of her faith, but not a confident one. Because there is a certain saccharine, artificial quality to the lightness of the end, I think it indicates that Lili wanted to believe in Heaven and the Resurrection of the Body, but was not firmly convinced it is so. The first 3/4 of the piece are not solely sad, they are horrified, even tortured. This is clearly the voice of a young woman terrified by her impending premature death, and by the uncertainty of what is to come. She wishes and hopes it is true, and she consequently forces it into the narrative of the piece, perhaps to make it true for herself.

This reminds me a bit of Mother Theresa’s diaries, released after her death, which reveal Mother Theresa’s doubts, and anguished hope, in her faith. As the Pie Jesu serves to be an autobiographical account of Lili’s experience on her deathbed, it, too, serves as a record of her own doubt and hope.

It seems a bit heavy to play such a dark piece at this special Mass. But, death is not a simple thing, and I believe that a Requiem Mass is the perfect spiritual place to explore the multidimensionality of living and dying.

I dedicate my services as organist tomorrow night to my piano teacher, Martha Holly, who I will forever hold in my heart.

And here is Lili Boulanger’s Pie Jesu: