Scenes from a Future Memory

Chapter 19: Music

2012-05-12 03:05:29 UTC by

Claire was exhausted, but it was finished. The scores were printed and bound, the recordings pressed to CDs and the musicians paid. The whole process took so much out of her. She had always envied those students for whom compositions seemed to come smoothly, for whom the next choice was always obvious. No piece of hers had ever existed before it was written; the music did not lie in wait in her head, anxious to escape and make sound in the world. For Claire, inspiration came in the form of tiny fragments which then required laborious gestation and coaxing, or in the shape of large overarching concepts for which every detail and relationship had to be created. She worked slowly, hunched over the piano for hours, trying out chords, gestures and rhythms, and keeping track of all her options, just in case some greater logic would reveal itself days from now. It wasn't that she lacked ideas or didn't know how to handle them, but that for her, the development of an idea was a painstaking process of elimination in which every possibility required a fair trial and every shade of expression deserved a chance. The result was a musical style of great personal expressivity, a style that had long since gone out of style among "serious" composers. Her pieces exhibited none of the hubris-driven ascetic restraint of other twenty-year-old composers. In fact, her propensity for rigorous self-examination of her own process tended to reveal the intensity of her emotional life. Through the long weeks of a larger piece's gestation, the ebb and flow of her days and nights was sure to creep in, even if the piece's original idea was one of austerity and even-handedness.

The first of the pieces was a violin concerto, the first movement of which she had started in her second semester of college, shortly after meeting Geoff, with the energy of their mutual enthusiasm for life buzzing in her mind. The solo part was intended for the skilled hands of Su Yin, then first violinist of the college orchestra. However, one late April night an over-worked delivery truck driver took a left turn into the campus too fast and too hard, running over the driver's side corner of Su's car. The fresh pizzas sitting on the passenger seat were completely unharmed, but Su lost her left arm and was paralyzed from the waist down.  After she was released from the hospital, she returned home to Korea, and Claire set aside the concerto, intending never to complete it out of respect for a fellow musician's tragedy. A year and a half after the accident, however, Claire received an email from Su. She was doing well, and had enrolled in a college in Seoul and had taken up the trumpet, which could be held well enough with one hand. She also encouraged Claire to complete the concerto, saying that though her own life as a musician had been irrevocably altered, it was not over, and suggesting that though the trajectory of the concerto would necessarily be different, it should still get the chance to exist.

Thus, the buoyant vivacity of the first movement, with its coloratura solo lines and motoric orchestral rotations, gave way to a second movement of tortured reminiscence and regret. The violin sawed away at dragging double stops, while an extended trumpet solo questioned the primacy of the violin's performance space and simultaneously mourned overshadowing it. Claire always knew that the trumpet solo's length, simplicity and sempre stridendo character was the weakest point of the entire piece, but once it was written, she was never able to alter it, for its role as an expression of personal grief, fear and the wrenching of a strange shade of victory from an astounding defeat.

The third and final movement of the concerto was written during the budding of her inexplicable but unnervingly strong feelings for Paul. As Claire struggled within herself to understand this attraction and the wild dreams and daydreams it gave her, the final movement of her concerto struggled to regain the buoyancy and levity of the first movement, which by then seemed so long ago, even though it had not yet ever been performed. The violin part seemed to drag a little, as she continually worried whether or not anyone she knew would be able to play it. In the end, it was the orchestral part that defied the skills of the student orchestra, with its hypnotic interlocking rhythms and abrupt changes in texture. And while Paul was certainly heavy on her mind these days, the expression of those feelings was primarily reserved for her song cycle.

Claire's cycle of 6 songs for high voice and piano, on some of the shorter poems of James Merrill, was a unique component of her compositional output in that it was written in a relatively compressed amount of time - a short four weeks just before the start of her senior year. Furthermore, it was her most private work, as she only showed it to her professor after having completed a full draft of all the songs. She listened to his suggestions, and used about a third of them. Though she had originally imagined the songs for a tenor, on her portfolio recording they were sung by Marie Black, who was not the school's "best" soprano by judgment of the faculty, but by far the most open-minded with regard to tackling new repertoire. For this reason, Claire felt comfortable working with Marie and was able to communicate with her regarding her vision for the pieces. Paul played the piano on that recording, though the significance of that act was lost upon him.

The last of the songs drew the greatest number of criticisms from her advisor, nearly all of which she rejected. Rebelliously spurning every indication toward restraint, she gave in to her personal inclination for songfulness, both in choice of poem and in a setting that drew heavily on the rapidly flowing, yet lyrically logical chromatic mediants of Strauss. The poem, "A Renewal," had been sitting hand-copied on a loose sheet of paper in her journal since shortly after the twilight on the lake with Paul, when he had held her while the world burned around them:

        Having used every subterfuge
        To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
        Now I see no way but a clean break.
        I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.
        You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
        A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
        We sit, watching. When I next speak
        Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.
                        (James Merrill)

Debates over its anachronistic style aside, it was a good piece of music, and Claire helped Marie in finding all the lush Romanticism it contained. Paul however, she felt less comfortable coaching, and left to his own devices, he was unable to find the gateway to its sense of feeling and movement, and played it far too tightly. Though the song continued to exist in Claire's mind as a clear expression of her own conflicted desires, the recording that went out with her graduate school applications sounded like it was the song itself that was conflicted.

The "Cardinal Directions" for Pierrot plus percussion were by far her strongest, from an academic standpoint, and were the stronghold of her portfolio. It was over these pieces that she had labored for hours in close consultation with her advisor, striving for an innovative and creatively urgent usage of a well-traveled instrumentation scheme. Given her experience with the process of writing the violin concerto, she had a tendency to want to treat this smaller ensemble like an entire orchestra, which had the effect of flattening the texture. In an orchestral setting, this allows for the balancing and shifting of the various instrumental textures, but in the Pierrot context, starts to sound too much like a band with not enough players. Because of this challenge, these 4 pieces, a total of 15 minutes of music, provided the greatest single contribution to Claire's education as a composer. It was through them that she learned to hear closely into each instrument's individual sound, and weave those sounds together into an articulate and colorful timbral tapestry. Strangely, she was able to treat these pieces with a kind of emotional discipline that allowed them to celebrate her moments of inner logic and balance. To her advisor, the pieces were entirely abstract, but to those who knew her deeply, "North" expressed the Claire who meditated on the length of a winter's night; "South," the one who loved the bright day and those with her in it; "East," the one who longed for love as deep as her own, and "West," the one who would wander forever to find that love.