I vividly remember the first time I ever consciously understood how inspiration functioned for me. I had been studying for 6 straight days. My eyes suffered the tunnel vision of sleep-deprivation and my body was crushed under a ceaseless caffeine buzz. But what I remember so intensely about that night isn’t what I was studying or why I felt so depressed—I don’t even remember what year it was, just that it was winter in Ithaca and upon leaving the library at 2 AM, I faced a 25-minute walk home, which made me angry at the world. But something amazing happened as soon as my face hit the frigid air. It had been snowing during my whole study session and through my blurry eyes the entire quad was radiantly white and crystalline, with more snowflakes spiraling gracefully and silently to the ground. Upon seeing this scene, my body filled with this incredible euphoria that was so strong that at first wondered if someone had slipped something into my coffee. I ran through the snow finding symbolism and superstition in everything around me…that my footprints were the first to break up the smoothness of the snow, that someone lost a glove for me to find. But I couldn’t tell if I was inspired by the situation or the timing of it or the caffeine. In any case, this month I was simply fascinated by the diverse sources of inspiration that drove composers and musicians to commit so much work to 41 new recordings of American music.
Art Yields Art
Since most Americans are required at least to square dance for a few weeks in school, it is no wonder that many composers hold a special place in their heart for folk music and tales. After all, despite criticism from the rest of the world, Americans do have a folk history rich with music, dance, and tales. Oh My Little Darling, a collection of field recordings of Southern Appalachian folk music, gives a good overview of one facet of our earthy musical roots, while Leonardo Balada‘s pair of one-act operas based on an American cowboy song and Richard Winslow’s “Variations on a Tune by Stephen Foster” (arranged for guitar on David Leisner‘s new disc) show how these tunes continue to elicit new art. Meanwhile, Gloria Coates‘ eighth symphony for voices and orchestra draws texts from Seneca, Winnebago, and Plains Indian songs, making use of another musical tradition in America’s history. Funk trumpeter and composer Greg Adams is more up to date on today’s pop world, also an important aspect of American culture, incorporating influences from more commercial music into his smooth arrangements of standards and original songs.
Other composers and players move outside U.S. borders to find motivation, for example drummer Guillermo Nojechowicz brings rhythms from South American dances to the music of Latin jazz combo El Eco and composer/guitarist Gyan Riley‘s first solo recording is a meditation on the nylon-string guitar’s presence in all kinds of world musics. Plus, on a unique recording of John Cage‘s orchestral music, 108 (for large ensemble) is played simultaneously with One9, for solo sho, a Japanese harmonic instrument.
While it makes sense, that folk music would inform today’s music, we cannot forget the influence that other art forms, particularly literature and theater, have too. For example, Ernst Toch, after escaping Hitler’s Germany, came to the United States and wrote two orchestral works based on beloved children’s stories and Irving Fine was enlisted to write tunes for a 1942 stage version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Theatrical tuba player William Roper takes it one step farther on Roper’s Darn! Yarns and improvises his own stories! Singer Carolyn Heafner found eight American composers who had set 28 Emily Dickinson poems, composer Edward Thomas based his American folk opera on Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, and the libretto for Sweethearts, with music by Victor Herbert, is a take on the old “princess-in-disguise” tale. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who struck off on her own after 20 years with Kronos, has created multimedia work taking off on current trends in the art world. And finally, inspired by a different kind of cultural institution—Sesame Street—Paul Lansky‘s Alphabet Book includes music about numbers and letters and animations on an enhanced CD.
Church music can be fun!
Considering that many people came to America to escape religious persecution, a lot of music is still created in response to spiritual practices, and in the midst of the holiday season, Music for Christmas by Conrad Susa, is a shining example. Furthermore, the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer and the University of Miami Wind Ensemble both engage in diverse programs of all-American music that have a few threads of religious insight like William Billings’ David’s Lamentation or James Syler’s choral/winds work Blue which uses a variety of texts including some from the Bible.
The Nonfiction Variety
While myths, literature, and Biblical stories seem to be a universal
ly inspiring lot, many composers prefer to address history and politics through their music. Whether depicting the Jewish experience of the past century, such as in Michael Horvit‘s oratorio The Mystic Flame, or creating a theatrical portrait of the great Civil War and political journalist Ambrose Bierce, like Rodney Waschka II‘s Saint Ambrose, the composers attempt to recreate the emotions they felt when hearing these stories from the past. James Cohn, on the other hand, is more preoccupied with current events, writing works such as Homage, a tone poem dedicated to a sick Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War.
Although James Cohn found current events of a grand scale inspiring, a lot of composers and musicians use their own personal experiences as fodder for their art. After the death of his son in the early ’60s, George Rochberg abandoned strict serialism for a freer form that allowed him to express his grief, which is apparent in dark works such as Black Sounds. Kathryn Mishell‘s Musical Voyages reflect inner voyages that she has taken as she experiences life and if part of your life experience includes “Cash, Ho’s, Rides, Kicks,” maybe you can identify with the eclectic men of The Hub, whose newest recording is titled Trucker.
Like me, many people find inspiration simply by walking outside. The profound aura of John Luther Adams‘ music always owes a little bit to his arctic surroundings in Alaska while the chorus of frogs that accompany Phil James and his shakuhachi on First Places celebrates the natural sounds of Missouri. Rochester-based musician Tommy Gravino opens one song with an ode to Monroe Avenue in his hometown on his new album Party of One while the singers of the Spivey Children’s Choir pay homage to their Homeland of Georgia. Andrew Imbrie‘s experience as a visiting professor in Chicago formed the inspiration of his “Chicago Bells” while electronic composer Frank Felice basks in the ambient noise of bustling sidewalk scenes on his latest record. Conceptual composer Alvin Lucier trumps them all by designing music that is meant for a particular space and one can hear his early explorations on Vespers and Other Early Works.
The Instrument is the Thing
Often, when asked to write a work for a specific player, composers need no more of a muse than the instrument itself. Oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld explores works by two composers that focus mainly on the oboe’s timbre and personality and flutist Kathleen Chastain rounds up an all-star list of composers each with a unique perception of the flute’s potential. Farther afield, jazz organist Tony Monaco makes it clear that what drives him musically is his indestructible love for the instrument and its history.
All You Need Is Music
Of course, there remain the hardcore musicians who need nothing more than the ideas surrounding music to create more music. Through a second volume of David Diamond‘s string quartets one can see how the neoclassical structure influenced his ideas about music and the chamber music of Julian Wachner shows how he separates elements out in order to fit them back together again. Meanwhile, Larry Polansky‘s Four-voice canons (the name says it all) claim no other motivation than purity of construction, facilitated by Polansky’s expertise with computer programming. The formal electro-acoustic music of Barry Schrader makes use of unyielding repetition to bring out the more subtle timbral qualities of sound, while Orlando Jacinto Garcia‘s chamber music also highlights more subtle structural qualities of sound through delicate, tiny changes in texture. And finally, the driving force in the duets performed from saxophonist Anthony Braxton and brass player Taylor Ho Bynum is simply a transcendence of musical limitations, seeking liberty through exploration and innovation.
The word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, which literally means to breathe in. It is no wonder then during that winter night in Ithaca, as soon as I took a breath of that cold, crisp air, I began to find beauty everywhere. Looking at the stories behind each of these recordings, it became clear to me that, in the most simple of circumstances, to breathe is to live and to live is to be inspired.