A Good Problem to Have

(photo by Steve Charles for Wabash College)

Last Friday, Feb. 21, I had the enviable problem of needing to miss the performance of my newest work, 3 Phantasies for Cello and Piano, here in New York City in order to attend a performance of the same work on the same evening in Indiana. Both performances went splendidly–a beautiful performance in NYC by Kate Dillingham (Cello) and Wei-Chieh Lin (Piano), and a deeply touching and personal performance by my dear teacher Diane Norton  (Piano) and her colleague Kristen Strandberg (Cello) at a symposium on music and the liberal arts at Wabash College.

I was offered the opportunity to speak at the symposium as well as to have my new work performed. A portion of my comments follows:

Let’s begin with my process as a composer—and then I’ll ask Kristen and Diane to comment on how they came at the music I set before them. I always begin composing by asking 2 simple questions:

Wabash Professor Kristen Strandberg performs my “3 Phantasies” (photo by Kim Johnson for Wabash College)

ONE: “What is it that my collaborators want in a composition? (what do they like to play? what excites them about a new composition?) and TWO: “What is the story I want to tell?” By “story”, I don’t mean what narrative I want to write or what series of events I want to depict musically like some soundtrack to a movie. Definitely not a musical program. What I mean is why—and how—do I want to address the audience? What do I want them to hear and to know?

Sometimes, contemporary audiences ask composers “Why is your music so strange to my ear? Why is the music so different from what I hear from composers of other eras? Or from other styles of music?” My answer is always that living composers write music that tells a story of what it is like to live today—right now—in the 21st century, a time of great change and chaos; a time of upheaval and mixing and clashing into and around and through; a time of new possibilities and incomplete answers to confusing questions; and maybe, …even…, a time of hope and understanding, too. Contemporary composers want their music to tell—and their audiences to hear—those stories of living …right now.

Shortly after I arrived on the Wabash College campus in 1983, Diane’s first husband, beloved professor of music here at Wabash, and gifted composer, Frederic Enenbach died from an illness. I never got to take a lesson from professor Enenbach, but I met and spoke with him, and his love of music and of Wabash was contagious. Later, I began taking piano lessons from Diane. As I began to consider what the story of the second movement of my work should be about, I decided that I wanted to look back on the connections I had with Wabash and how Diane (and her late husband, too, through Diane) had influenced me as a composer.

Diane Norton plucks piano strings during the performance.
(photo by Steve Charles for Wabash College)

I asked Diane if there was a section or a motive from a piece of music written by Fred that I might use as the centerpiece of my new work’s 2nd movement. Diane sent me a vinyl album of a collection of Fred’s works. She told me to explore a particular piece of Fred’s called “Origins” where Fred had used an old American folk song called “Pretty Saro” as his centerpiece. I don’t even own a turntable anymore, so I took the album to a nearby sound engineer and had him make digital copies. I then sat and listened to Fred’s piece. It was beautiful. He used that old folksong without changing it at all. He simply had a female voice sing the original tune while he composed new and interesting sounds around it. The story of his piece seemed to me to be one of solitude and yearning for connection.

Piano teacher from my college days, Diane Norton. (photo by Kim Johnson for Wabash College)

This would be my piece’s story, too. This second movement is, on some level, about how Diane’s voice still calls me as a composer, how her words as a teacher, and her instruction as a fellow musician have remained with me even though I live in New York City and communicate with Diane only via email.

The lyrics to this old folk tune have solitude and connection at their core. And, part of my remarks have been about how a lone composer confronts a blank page and how musicians find their own way to a connection with other people—to composers, other performers, and to audiences.

Contrary to the image often portrayed in popular culture that artists only make art in the midst of challenges and painful circumstance—from tumultuous experiences—I think, rather, that most art comes from a different place. It comes from that moment of solitude and hope for connection, too–just like the lyrics of that folktune. Facing a blank page or an empty practice room, I think, brings a musician to his or her own story in ways that are unexpected and challenging—or even painful, sometimes. Because sitting there, alone–working and thinking about the story of your artwork–you get tossed back on yourself—your own story starts to speak from the shadow of your artwork and then starts to form a dialogue with it.

Your experiences and your thoughts—what you know and what you feel right at that moment—might be covered over by the act of doing and making your art, but you can never fully run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your memories and experiences—and you certainly can’t run from the material you’re working on, if you want to finish it or be ready to perform it in front of others! Deciding to write a piece of music or to practice and then perform a piece of music is a decision to tell your story along with the story of the music. It is a decision to be alone and to run into your own weaknesses (for me, my own laziness, my own lack of resolve to keep practicing until I’ve got the notes perfect or until I’ve written the melody just right). It’s a decision to confront those sides of your professional self that have never quite been as good as you hoped or imagined they would be.

Allen hugs his dear teacher, Diane Norton, after her performance. (photo by Steve Charles for Wabash College)

But then, you remember your whole story—how it also includes writing or playing that final chord and how it connected you with the players and the audience. My own story reminds me that music is a way through that solitary space. I work from that separate space so that I can share a new story with other artists—Diane and Kristen, tonight—who, I hope will add their story to mine and will leave their practice room to meet you, our audience. And now, maybe, your story will have a bit of our story, too.
Video of my remarks, the performance, and the question and answer period.

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