Music Can be a Counterbalance to Hard Times

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy. And in times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.  It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance.

Written By

Debra Kaye

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.  On 9/11 after the attacks, I walked among the droves of people in the middle of avenues normally packed with cars and got safely home. I thought of my day. I’d been on my way to a 9:30 a.m. workshop at the Foundation Center.  It was sunny and pleasant. When I got to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street, everyone had stopped and was looking downtown trying to figure out what was happening.  We really didn’t know yet.  The rest is history.

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.

Like most of us, I was glued to the TV that night.  It was hard to watch, hard not to. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t fathom it. I knew we were in for big changes, that the 21st century had just begun.  I went to the piano. Playing slow chords along with the news I felt my original connection to music, comfort, and wisdom, a balm for the soul.  There was something reassuring in that.

In 2012, the night that Hurricane Sandy approached. I listened to the changing weather predictions and felt like a sitting duck. Once I realized I’d be alright, I took to worrying about others. During this vigil, I went to the piano again; TV news was on low and was slow to change, but alerts would be known.

Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to our doorsteps; friends and loved ones were uprooted.  The storm approached at night, and I improvised the beginning of what turned into a solo piano piece called While We Were Sleeping. The music’s overall shape is a crescendo-diminuendo, though random acts of chaos surge and dissipate, the storm gathers and subsides. In the beginning, the notation is classically specified. As the piece progresses it becomes more of a graphic score, at times alternating between these two modes. Particularly in the more graphic, improvisatory sections, I hope to elicit an intuitive “heat of the moment” response from the performer.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.  After the loss of my father, I wanted to find expression for what I felt; it seemed there were no words for it.  The vocal expression of an infant conveys its meaning, the timbre of the voice before words. Thinking about this was the impetus for And So It Begins for tenor, sax, and string quintet.

If this were a story, loss and regeneration would be the themes. Imagining grief as a processional, the incarnate dissolves into the ethereal, a heart-beat pizzicato becomes a time-ticking drum beat.  The final movement brings regeneration through a series of dances.

I allowed my process to be more intuitive than ever, taking the first idea that came to me and developing it.  Sensing my way, low tones stir in the tenor sax, seeking to rise, strings join in.  Allowing chance to play a role, while listening to the MIDI playback, a bird sang a tone that harmonized so well, I wrote it in. Sometimes even a typo turned out to be a usable gift—while transposing a passage to use it as a sequence, I accidentally made it a step higher than intended and I liked it! A descending third dropped into the saxophone part, and I realized it was the whistling motif familiar from childhood when he’d call us from play.

A photo of a tea bag containing the words "Listen and you will develop intuition"

Before I knew what the words meant, I remember being aware of the rise and fall, the varying intensities, and patterns of sound of the human voice, and knowing that these sounds carried a meaning that I was intensely curious to understand. Later, in my teens, I similarly listened to the muffled voices of my parents and grandparents behind closed doors.  I couldn’t understand a word, but their tone was foreboding.

An old spinet was in my room. I closed the door, went to the piano and tried out something new for me at age sixteen.  I took out manuscript paper and lined it up in four parts for a string quartet.  Life went on, but these phrases haunted me through college and into my adult life. In 1988, I fleshed out that initial sketch into a movement, but returned again in 2015 to bring the music to full expression as a four-movement work. My initial sketch became the second movement of my first string quartet. That slow second movement is the heart of this work. Its theme reappears in varied guises in the journey of the piece. I found metaphoric connections for the music in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. The titles of the movements are inspired by the light and dark shadings of his poetic imagery. As in the body of Lorca’s work, motifs recur, reinterpreted in echoing variation throughout the four movements.

Composing is usually a long-term project for me, but sometimes I struggle with returning to a piece if it seems at odds with the climate around me. I’d started a flute and piano piece in early 2016. A fantasy seemed apropos, a wedding gift from flutist Carl Gutowski to his niece. But after the election, it became hard to conjure this feeling, this expression of love, so in opposition to the political/social climate of the time.  How could I rally myself to it? Why was it important?  Journaling helped me find an answer.

After the election it became hard to conjure love, but strong bonds of love deserve celebration.

Strong bonds of love deserve celebration. Hope and optimism in the face of many unknowns can carry us through the struggles, both personally and culturally. It’s important to continue our lives as we mean to live them, celebrating our American freedoms, becoming more aware of how precious they are and how worthy of our energies it is to protect them.   We need to stoke the fires of love and hope within—raising our energy, hopefully not just to preach to the choir, but to find some common ground.

The sky on a bright day.

So I composed a series of variations for flute and piano that fall out of synch at times but are always linked to one another in harmonious partnership. The piece is in a loose rondo form to convey the enduring nature of a bond through the ever-returning theme of love. As with the individuals whose marriage inspired this piece, flute and piano are equal partners. Their relationship flows between discussion, duet, argument, and canonic imitation, each voice having the chance to be leader and follower.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance, to dream the impossible dream and find a new way, not to be locked into the present trajectory or momentum, to know that something else is possible, even though we have to traipse through the unknown to get there.  We don’t always know the way, but we keep trying until we find it.  It’s the role of the arts to inspire persistence.  With creativity there’s always hope.  Art speaks truth to power. We need art more than ever now.  These are some of the things I’ve learned through my life in music.