Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whitman, the Missouri River, 'Shenandoah', and the Creative Process

I'd brought Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" with me to my residency at Playa back in January (actually it was a collection of all his poems plus selected prose, but the final edition of 'Leaves of Grass' was his entire collection of poetry, as he added to it his entire life) and spent some time reading through some of the poems.  I first became interested in Whitman's poetry after singing in the choir for Ralph Vaughan Williams's 'Sea Symphony' (Symphony No. 1) while a freshman in college (see the videos below), whose texts are all Whitman poems.  I absolutely fell in love with the work (it is still one of my 'desert island' works) and its incredibly perfect marriage of text and music, and have wanted to dig into Whitman's work more ever since.

I was also hoping to find a poem or two that I might set to music as a song (or 'art song', although I don't really like that term as it seems to imply that 'popular' or folk songs are not art) as I was looking to write some again and would prefer to not deal with copyrights (as all of Whitman's works are in the public domain).  I found this little poem that I thought would be perfect, called "Others May Praise What They Like":

Others may praise what they like;
But I, from the banks of the running Missouri, praise nothing in art or aught else,
Till it has well inhaled the atmosphere of this river, also the western prairie-scent,
And exudes it all again. 

Looking down the Missouri from the Nebraska side
I thought it would work for a few reasons: I liked it, I was (and still am) obsessed with the American folk song 'Shenandoah' (A brief aside: Since I attended a beautifully moving recital of American songs by the amazing Thomas Hampson as part of his Song of America Project with the Library of Congress, I have been very inspired to explore American song and understand how deeply it is a reflection of being American and the American experience, and how I came to learn so many songs by simply being a child in America.  I highly recommend checking out this project, just check out this great cowboy song I discovered through it called "Hell in Texas"!  I also found a great CD for $4 at Newbury Comics of Thomas Hampson singing only settings of Walt Whitman just before I left for Playa. What a great find!) which famously mentions "the wide Missouri", and I would soon be heading to the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City, Nebraska, which is set right on that very river.  I thought I would wait until I could 'inhale the atmosphere of the river' myself before I set it to music.  It would be perfect!

Looking up the Missouri from the Nebraska side
I've been here in Nebraska City for six weeks now and I've been down to the river a bunch of times, dipped my hands in and washed my face, even brought my Ipod to hear Hampson sing 'Shenandoah' while staring 'across the wide Missouri,' while nearly being brought to tears.

(Another aside: There are many different verses that have been collected over the years for 'Shenandoah' and it is of unknown origin, as I learned from the Song of American Project page on it.  Some verses seem to speak of a pioneer's longing for his old home in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia that he left to go west, others of a Confederate soldier in the civil war longing for the same region, and still others of a Missouri River traveler who fell in love with the daughter of an Indian chief named 'Shenandoah'.  Nebraska City is on the west side of the river, so I was singing it east towards Iowa and the east coast I'd left behind, making it the song really personal to me.  Yet, I made an amazing discovery just a week or two ago, that just about 30 miles across the river in Iowa lies...Shenandoah, Iowa!  Might this be the true [or one of the true], Shenandoah[s]?  I'd love to think so, [and songwriter Richard Thompson suggests it is as well] and I'm going to drive through and visit it on my way back home.)

Looking east from the Nebraska side to Iowa.  Shenandoah, IA is just 30 miles beyond those trees.
And so, I've been here for six weeks, yet I haven't been able to write a single note for setting this poem!  I've tried a bit (although it's certainly not the only thing I've done here, I've spent most of my time writing a Piano Concerto) but have gotten nowhere!  What's wrong with me? I've set poems before and been happy with how they've turned out!

Looking west at Nebraska from the Iowa side
Then, just a couple of days ago, I received an email from the people at Playa asking me some questions about how the environment there during the residency there has influenced my music, specifically whether the wind "entered" my music or whether the vast landscape is evident in the music I wrote.  As I was thinking about these questions, I came to a realization: I am very rarely conscious of how non-musical influences effect the music I create, and I am usually not conscious of the musical influences either.  I know there are composers who see a beautiful landscape, or a painting, or have some sort of moving experience and it is absorbed and, instantly or over time, they create a musical response or depiction of it.  But I really am not one of those.  I know that everything I see, hear, learn, experience, etc. in life is constantly mixing and helping to form and shape my own musical style/voice every day (and, even more importantly, of course, who I am as a person and human), but so much of this process I am not even conscious of.  Just taking music, for instance, I do have plenty of instances in my pieces where I can tell you "I learned that from Charles Ives," or "that's definitely a bit Puccini-influenced" etc.  Those things I am conscious of, but those moments, in proportion to my total compositional output, probably only consitute a tiny fraction.  All the music I hear, and have ever heard, enters my brain and mixes and mingles with each other.  Surely, some music moves me more than others and constitutes a larger portion of this mental slosh, but even music I don't particularly like is in there, and there are even instances where I am conscious of the influence of music I don't even like (of course I do like the music I have created from that influence though!  My first criteria for composing music is that I must like it.  After all, I am going to be listening to it more than any other person in the world [in most cases, although I'd love someone to prove me wrong!])

Nearly all of the music I have written has been written because of a musical impulse or inspiration rather than something outside of music.  For instance, I have written music because I heard a piece that I consequently fell in love with and wanted to create something similar, or I found a cool musical idea through improvising (which is the ultimate way to squeeze that 'mental slosh' I was talking about) that I wanted to explore further, or I came upon a theme or musical idea that someone else came up with or used.  For example, the Piano Concerto I'm currently writing is all about my relationship with Mozart's music.  There have been times when I fitted music with something extra-musical, for instance the texts I have set to music in choral works and songs, or to the idea of "spinning" in my "Waltzing Dervish" for Wind (powered) Ensemble, but these are not as clear-cut as simply being inspired by the text or wind turbines.  With 'Waltzing Dervish', it was the motion of Viennese waltz dancers and the musical style that accompanies it (as well as the circular motion of a conductor's hand when conducting a fast waltz in one beat), specifically that music's mood and joyful feeling, that I sought to portray.  The connection with the extra-musical idea, the motion of spinning which extended to dancing and dervishes and wind turbines and clean energy, was already made for me.  With setting texts, it is much more a process of trial and error, trying to find what music fits with the mood of the piece overall (I do believe that if there is one thing that music can express fairly concretely, it is a mood, as opposed to an emotion or other 'meaning', but that's a whole other discussion).  Sometimes it's easier and sometimes harder.  Then there are also cases where after writing the music I realize "oh, that fits really well with [insert non-musical idea here]."

I realize now that I've been trying to force myself to be inspired by something.  I've enjoyed writing songs in the past and thought it had been long enough to end my song-'fast' (I've had other songs as well I've been trying to write in the past couple months, but they haven't really been working out either, except for one rare case where I had the music written but could find no text to fit with it, so I wrote a text myself to fit with the mood and form of the music.)  I believe I do usually work better when I let the music come and don't try to fit it into something that I am not inspired by (yet), whether non-musical or musical (for example, if I was trying to write variations on a theme that I don't care for or see potential in).  

Another view from the Nebraska side
That being said, I am going to keep working on trying to write this song, but instead of thinking "Why won't this music reveal itself to me!!" I'll try to think "If the music doesn't come to me, that is fine.  I'm just going to enjoy this poem and this river and Let it Be."  (I hope there aren't people out there thinking "I was thinking of commissioning Keane to compose a piece about X, but now I don't want to force him to be inspired by something."  If this is what you are thinking, then we can discuss the potential parameters of a commission, I'm flexible!)  Maybe I will be able to respond musically to things in a more direct and conscious way in the future, but for now I think I've brought to the surface just another piece of the giant iceberg that is my creative process, which of course is part of the even larger iceberg of my subconscious.

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