peroration, noun—1) A long speech characterized by lofty and often pompous language; 2) Rhetoric. The concluding part of a speech or discourse, in which the speaker or writer recapitulates the principal points and urges them with greater earnestness and force.
A few weeks ago I decided to quit music—at least for a little while—and focus on writing. This is partly because music is so much work, with so little pay-off in the end, aside from the satisfaction of a job well done. You spend countless hours working out ideas, getting it down on paper (or on computer, in my case), formatting, writing parts, getting the harmonies and dissonances just right.
At the age of 11 I heard the Brandenburg Concerto No.1 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis for the first time, and the hearing ignited something of a fire in my brain, and a passion for early music—and for Bach. There was something utterly enthralling in the interplay between the notes, the instruments and the musicians. I was terrible with mathematics, but this was immediately intelligible, and I set to work from that day studying any early music I could get my hands on—but most of all Bach. I began to write music of my own, copying my favorite composers.
Then midway through high school I discovered Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the discovery that other harmonies existed besides tertian created something of a Cambrian explosion in my mind. I started devouring 20th Century music—Berg, Adams, Britten, Ligeti, Prokofiev, Argento, Reich, Babbitt (who I discovered in the course of a music listening contest through his piece Philomel and loved it despite everyone else hating it). In college I garnered a reputation for writing fascinating but largely unplayable music—at least as far as my classmates were concerned.
A third turning point came when I discovered John Tavener, rediscovered Arvo Pärt, and encountered Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. It was during the first semester of my junior year, and it moved me in ways that the 20th Century composers had not, but hearkened back to that first experience I had with Bach. The culmination of my “Tallis” period came with the first listening of Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. In the minimalists I heard the kind of simplicity that I’d been unconsciously longing for. Contemporary music had been driving me to keep moving, to keep innovating, to delve into deeper layers of complexity.
Once I began writing for my friends, I realized that writing music had to be about more than just exhibiting. I wanted to write music that they could perform, that I was proud of, but that spoke to people. So much of 20th Century music is just noise and experimenting. I wanted to do something bigger than that.
In many ways, my musical journey mirrored my spiritual journey. During high school I was becoming more involved in church and church life, and studying theology in an attempt to find god. Or whatever it was that I thought I was doing. In reality I was probably running from my increasingly present gay sexuality, burying myself in work so as not to deal with that whole complex of issues.
Around the time that I hit the “Tallis” period, I also started falling away from Evangelical Christianity and focusing more on finding orthodoxy and returning the original spirit of Christianity. I was becoming attracted to the ancient writings of the contemplatives—but something still wasn’t quite right.
Near the end of my college career, I was taking fewer theology courses and contemplating life outside of a conservative Christian college. Life wasn’t as simple as it has always been portrayed. Yes, life was a spiritual battle, but the closer I got to “real life,” the less certain I felt of what I had been taught all my life. The church I grew up in had a rigorous Christian education program, from birth through adult. But all that was seeming more abstract and less applicable. It was fine to have a belief—but what use was it? Even in the more “progressive” circles that I was finding myself in, it just seemed like a lot of talk, and a lot of mental gymnastics to deal with things like the nature of evil, the reality of suffering, and the seeming silence of god in the midst of all of it.
And paramount in all of this was the growing reality that I was gay, and was going to have to accept that fact sooner or later.
With music, it feels as though I’ve been spinning my wheels trying to get enough speed to jump over whatever hurdles seem to be between me and the audience. Or to just be heard. And even when people listen, they never seem quite sure what to make of it. It’s either too complicated, or not structured enough, or not coherent enough. And it’s just so much work.
Then I look at my most “successful” pieces to date—Annunciation, The Prayer of Saint Francis, the final movement of my trumpet sonata. All of these are relatively simple, with none of the hallmarks of striving that mark my more complicated pieces. What it seems to be is a stripping away of layers of pretense and getting down to saying what I truly mean. This was the case with my spiritual life, when I finally admitted that I didn’t truly believe in god. This was the case with my sexual life, when I finally admitted that I wasn’t straight.
The struggle came in clearing away what I wished that I was, and the expectations of what everyone else thought I should be (or what I thought they thought I should be), and trying to just be me, without all the frippery and the showcasing. I’m still not over it.
If I do write more music, it will be what I want to write. Not what I should write.
Anything you do,
Let it come from you.
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.