Tag: extra-musical inspiration

Music Can be a Counterbalance to Hard Times

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.

Music and a Sense of Place

Have you ever been arrested by sound—music, a bird call or even a siren?  You might even notice, in an Ivesian sort of way, the polymetric pulse of a city or the rhythm of footsteps on the stairs (and their canon with your own). These rhythms say something about the life that created them. How different they’d be in Bali.

A sense of place can be the impetus for a piece, motion can be the catalyst.  Beethoven often took long walks, I imagine both to clear his head and to stir his thoughts.  When I walk down the streets of New York City, I’ll sometimes find myself humming a bass line vamp that accompanies my pace and mood. It’s unconscious at first.  The soundscape around me fits on this grid, often in syncopated counterpoint.  The movement suggests music by its weight, duration, tempo, direction and rhythmic patterns. Everything is part of the music.

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen”

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen” and earlier this year I wrote a piece for electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit and a pre-recorded audio track titled Citi-zen.

The recording that accompanies the piece is my vocal improv with the New York City night, vamping and riffing into my phone’s recording app as I walk down Broadway at a tempo of about 100 to the quarter note, responding to the sounds I hear around me. In the course of my walk, a bus whooshes by, a dog yaps, sirens wail, there’s theater talk, a trumpet plays across the street.  Live instruments play along in a game of hide and seek/cover and reveal. The recording is unedited; I wanted it to express a natural occurrence, the polymetric counterpoint of life.

The recording gave me the form of the piece.  I wanted to do a five-minute piece, and so I stopped recording when the time was up. But I felt it needed something more, so I started recording again for another minute. Near the end of that coda a woman shouts, “It’s a full moon!”  That was the ending I needed!  It happened to have been October 4, the Harvest Moon, 10-4, the old ham radio code for “got it!”  I welcome the random occurrence, the synchronicity, improvising with life, making the best of what’s come before as best I can.

My current work in progress is The Universe of Grand Central for any solo instrument and a two-minute cellphone video with improvised commentary, filmed during “off-peak” hours in Grand Central Station.  A solo instrumentalist plays along with the video. We begin with a view of the ceiling, the cosmos in all its astrological glory.  Following the arching windows, the viewer descends into the hall and its inhabitants, and follows them in their crossings through the Grand Hall, their individuality more pronounced in this quiet hour, after the herds have already passed.

The ceiling of Grand Central Terminal

Sometimes a place can affect the music more indirectly.  I lived for a time in the mountains of Northern California.  The wide open spaces and majestic beauty filled me with a sense of reverence. The “emptiness” of the wilderness provoked a fullness, the stillness roused my inner life.  As I wrote, I looked to the mountains. Did the music ring true?  Sympathetic vibrations between saxophone and piano evoke this resonance.

Sometimes a place can affect music more indirectly and the desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst.

The desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst. The Beauty Way for soprano, tenor, and bass viols (2009) is inspired by my residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.  In Taos, 8000 feet above sea level, closer to the heavens, I observed the mercurial play of light and shadow and experienced a sense of wonder that I never wanted to forget. Time slowed down. I was off the clock; there was only morning, afternoon, and night.  I was in the Timeless Zone.

I was fascinated by the place. It’s a cultural crossroads of Native American, Mexican, and Spanish influences, and then in the 20th century, the artists colonized it.

Debra Kaye in the desert

There, for the first time, I had the opportunity to walk on one of the few places in the United States that is still nominally acknowledged as “Native” land, and which is also completely off the electric grid.  With beauty all around me, a Navajo blessing came to mind.  You may have heard it.

Now I Walk In Beauty

Now I walk in beauty
Beauty is before me
Beauty is behind me
Above and below me

Returning to New York City was culture shock at first. Walking through crowded Harlem streets, I could envelop myself in the aura of those summer walks by singing the Navajo tune.  I was soon discovered. Through the sirens and screeching cars, I heard a man singing a gospel version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We smiled at each other, each continuing our song.  Integrating these experiences (and these tunes) became the impetus for the piece.

I later found that the beauty way is described as a feeling of joy, bliss, and safety, a state of grace.  There are no battles with people, nature, or our own nature. It recognizes those times when we are in harmony with all that is.

The Native melody is very similar to the traditional English round, Hey Ho Nobody Home, and I wondered if these tunes had ever met and influenced each other.  It seemed interesting that the words of the two songs seem to be opposites and represent a positive and negative aspect.

The Beauty Way is in rondo form. It begins with the original Navajo tune in canon. The B section is a fantasy on the original material that leads to a darker aspect and the return of the Beauty theme in combination with Hey Ho Nobody Home.  Next, again, there is a development section, but this time it leads to a more positive aspect, culminating when the Beauty theme returns, this time in combination with This Little Light of Mine.  The goal of the piece is to establish the feeling of the beauty way, to fall out of harmony and to find the way back.

Mentor, Me—Beyond Musical Mentorship

This is the second in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

Early on in Plato’s Republic, Socrates’s young interlocutor Glaucon asks, “Is there not such a [class of] goods … which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results?” My undergraduate political science professor, Vickie Sullivan, answers Glaucon’s question in the affirmative: she recently told me that for her, mentorship is “both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.”

Vickie Sullivan sitting in front of her desk which has open books on it.

Vickie Sullivan

Mentorship is both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.

Though Sullivan was a popular professor at Tufts University, particularly well known in the political science and classics departments (both of which she’s chaired), and an important mentor to some of my closest friends, I didn’t experience a class with her until the fourth year of my five-year double degree program between Tufts and NEC. I enrolled in Sullivan’s fall Western Political Thought seminar, a survey of ancient to early modern philosophy, starting with Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, spending generous time on Plato / Socrates’s Apology, Symposium and Republic, and wrapping things up with Machiavelli’s Prince. I was in it for the Plato.

But quickly I was in it for the Sullivan. Her lectures on the Symposium are still among the most memorable, intriguing, and personally valuable lessons of my education. If you don’t know the Symposium, it’s basically a story about a drinking game in which Socrates and his groupies—an aristocrat, a doctor, a lawyer, a comic playwright, and a tragic poet—compete to give the best speech in praise of Eros, the god of Love and the Beautiful, all the while getting more and more plastered. Aside from being wildly entertaining, the Symposium addresses such lofty themes as sex, beauty, the meaning of love, truth, the material versus the ideal, and the ever-complex layers of the human experience.

According to my own biased take, this dialogue is fundamentally about art: why we make it, why we need it, and why it is an endlessly fulfilling pursuit. In Sullivan’s lecture on Socrates’s climactic speech about Eros, she suggests that he depicts Eros (beauty) as an entity of constant in-between-ness and becoming. Beauty is the ascent up the ladder of love for what is to love for what ought to be— a ladder whose steps climb infinitely towards something unattainable that we pursue regardless. This reading resonated with my own reasons for art making that I’d never been able to articulate. For me, music is about creating and re-imagining how the world ought to be. Though material means—pencil, paper, hollowed-out pieces of wood—the musician transforms something real (symbols on a page, vibrations of a bowed string) into something ideal. Like Socrates’s Eros, music is always in a state of becoming. This inherent instability makes it beautiful. Sullivan, in her own pedagogical artfulness, acted as an intermediary between me and Plato, so that I could find personal significance in the texts she taught.

An illustration depicting a description in Plato's Symposium

Her goal of teaching students “to try to take texts really seriously and gain an appreciation of how they were written and can be read” and “of the necessity and possibility of continual improvement” was consequential to my musical studies. During the next two years as her student, TA, and eventually, her collaborator, Sullivan’s guidance in critical reading and thinking made me a more critical musician.  Having a mentor figure outside of music was also really grounding: it reminded me that my art and the skills I need to make it didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Music is about creating and reimagining how the world ought to be.

Observing her teach also made me think about cultivating an audience in music. I often viewed Sullivan’s lectures and seminar discussions as her way of creating a fresh and enthusiastic readership for the texts she loved. Especially as a TA for Western Political Thought, I watched students enter the lecture hall shrugging at this required course for their major, and within the week passionately debating Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue. Sullivan created audiences not by watering down esoteric material, but by diving headfirst into it, inviting and trusting her students to as well. She was concerned with clarity rather than accessibility. She challenged her students to search for nuance and to find the words to articulate it rather than settling for black-and-white explanations. Sullivan taught me that trusting an audience to be open to new experiences is empowering, not cumbersome. I hope to invite listeners into the music I love by being unapologetic to and trustful of my audience.

The vast majority of Sullivan’s students will not go on to pursue graduate degrees in political science or careers that echo her own. Many might never reopen Plato’s Symposium after their midterm exam. But, they will have gained an experience of studying something in depth. This is a gift that can never be taken away from them.

Sullivan’s Glaucon-inspired teaching philosophy has put my approach to classroom teaching in healthy perspective in several respects. First, most of my classroom students will not become professional musicians, but they can become curious music lovers and engaged listeners. To me, this is the “good for what comes from” teaching music. Second, and more importantly, studying and listening to music in depth is an experience “good in and of itself” that merits no further rationalization or objective. At conservatory there’s this assumption that everyone is going to be a professional musician and one trains to achieve that goal. Sullivan showed by example that rigorous training can be good in and of itself, and this made learning music satisfying even if I had days or weeks or long stretches of time when I thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the whole composer thing.

Undoubtedly, Sullivan’s role in the classroom is very different from Kati Agócs’s role as a studio teacher (whom I wrote about last week). When I recently asked Agócs for some of her opinions on teaching, she immediately drew the distinction between studio and classroom teaching. Indeed, Agócs lessons had a set of expectations hinged on the assumption that I was training to be a professional composer, while Sullivan was almost always communicating to a broad range of personalities and interests. The assumption of my commitment to music was an important social contract in my studio lessons: Agócs treated my work seriously because she was invested in my development towards the particular vocation I sought for myself. There was a material goal to our working together, whether it was a finished score or my long-term career trajectory. My contract with Sullivan was very different: to be an engaged and curious learner.

Observing Sullivan teach political science made me think about cultivating an audience in music.

Yet, both likened mentorship to parenting: When I asked her about navigating the issue of teacher/student boundaries in a conservatory culture where these relationships can be quite intimate, Agócs told me that “it is a little like parenting. Children value boundaries because they make them feel secure, best for learning, then they are always challenging and testing them. The boundaries shift and change as the relationship develops.” Similarly, Sullivan described mentorship as a “kind of intellectual family” in which the mentor “is in a position to model professional behavior, setting an example, sort of like parenting. You’re really trying to focus on the development of that individual and you’re not getting anything out of it except that satisfaction of seeing that student develop.”