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Assembling an anthem, with assistance from Whitman

When my colleague Matthew Brown (the conductor of the American University symphony orchestra) and I first discussed the idea of a new work for the group, my first question was to know what else would be on the program. As far as my neuroses are concerned, it’s best to know well-ahead of time (if possible) what my new offering is going to be situated alongside. The reply: “The theme of the concert is ‘darkness to light’”, he said, “we’ll be performing Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and some Mendelssohn with the choir, and, of course, Brahms 1”. … is a great example of why I’ve learned to ask. Brahms, despite being continually unfashionable amidst music crowds both old and new, is a favorite composer of mine, and my estimation of the the First Symphony certainly echo’s biographer Jan Swafford’s sentiments:

The year he completed the First Symphony (1876) is the same year Wagner brought the titanic Der Ring des Nibelungen to the stage, in his own theatre at Bayreuth; [...] what Brahms achieved in the forty-four minutes of the C Minor Symphony rivals Wagner’s achievement in the twelve hours of the Ring. As in Beethoven’s Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies, Brahms’s First is a symbolic journey from darkness to light, from fatalistic uncertainty to apotheosis, from tragedy to joyous liberation. Yet in taking up that archetype Brahms finds fresh ways to realize it.

Moral of the story: the prospect of my short project now terrified me. How could I, in a meager five minutes, devise anything that would seem worthwhile alongside this mountain of profound compositional achievement?

And yes, five minutes was an appropriate length. The concert was already heavy-lifting for the orchestra with Brahms alone. Like most collegiate ensembles, the AU Symphony Orchestra rehearses regularly (twice a week) but our music program is small, and often community members and competent non-majors augment the forces alongside our gifted, intrepid music students - all of whom maintain very demanding academic schedules. Add on the choral works of Lauridsen and Mendelssohn, and the missing piece for a complete show = a short opener a la concert overture. Regardless, a *new* piece for the group would be a challenge, no matter the length.

On the other hand, the theme of the concert - darkness to light - instilled a sense of optimism in my creative imagination (...go figure). It was September - the beginning of the fall semester - and the conclusion of a long, arduous presidential campaign that saturated the collective consciousness was near. America had, as ever, been presented with some severe crises of spirit and identity, but there persisted an optimistic sense that some of these crises would relax come November’s election. I had hope for this future: the candidate I supported (not my ideal choice, but with enough shared values that I felt confident committing my vote to her) was, by all accounts, headed towards a historic success in the ballots. In the spirit of this optimism I started sketching the light of the piece - streaks of rhythmic fanfares and heralds - morsels of generative material that not only found natural unfolding in the coherence of the piece as it evolved, but rang bright and authentically reflected my spiritual (perhaps even patriotic?!) expectations of the weeks, months and years to come.

Then election day came. And the days and weeks after. Like so many people I know, I found it so difficult to cope with the reality into which we had been thrust. I come from a family of teachers, and we observed how the labor of punching into the “knowledge factory” for our daily shifts grew more arduous with each new, explosive headline. Every tweet, every thinkpiece, every social media exchange seems to draw lines in the sand with regard to truth, objectivity, facts, knowledge, self-awareness and self-reflection - the foundation upon which education exists. There’s nothing more existentially threatening to a composer than an environment where nobody seems interested in pausing to listen. This seeped into my creative imagination and caused corruption, as it did for numerous composer colleagues. It wasn’t merely writer’s block - it was worse. Suddenly the light of my work-in-progress, what once had seemed so logical and authentic, now seemed contrived, naïve, artificial. And, though it may have seemed the obvious time to devise such expressions, the darkness of the work wasn’t coming, either. It already existed all around me in such a way that to make more of it, to even describe or depict it, much less infuse it with commentary or observation, seemed at best superfluous, and at worse, self-centered and opportunistic. What ominous timbral combinations could honestly represent the concern I carried for students now in fear of an uncertain future - visa revocation, or worse? Could the hatred I felt for a leader who foisted dubious legislative initiatives upon the citizenry with haphazard, ill-informed abandon be captured in a series of severe sonic gestures? Was I even a viable voice for such concerns, given that my privilege exempted me from much of the impassive, sinister agenda that threatened (and continues to threaten) the marginalized, oppressed, less-fortunate voices not only across our country but throughout the world? Amidst this struggle, and the hard gestation of the piece therein (during which I was tossing seven or eight pages of sketches for every page I kept), I revisited Walt Whitman.

In the back of my copy of Whitman’s “Collected Poems and Prose”, I stumbled upon an essay titled “Democratic Vistas” and was instantly captivated. Writing in 1871 - only a few years prior to the premiere of Brahms 1, and amidst America’s ongoing reconstruction following the Civil War, Whitman laments the state of a slowly-, oddly-healing country, in tones that perhaps ring familiar today:

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable.

Yet, he matches this bleak depiction with a robust, sincere rationale for going forward: the future of America’s spirit lies in the forces inherent in new forms of literary expression. Whitman, a man who had see the harshest trials of our country firsthand, considered his mode of creativity - literature - as the very vehicle for a broken and disenfranchised nation to reassemble and find a common spirit:

When the present century closes, our population will be sixty or seventy millions. The Pacific will be ours, and the Atlantic mainly ours. There will be daily electric communication with every part of the globe. What an age! What a land! Where, elsewhere, one so great? The individuality of one nation must then, as always, lead the world. Can there be any doubt who the leader ought to be? Bear in mind, though, that nothing less than the mightiest original non-subordinated SOUL has ever really, gloriously led, or ever can lead. (This Soul -- its other name, in these Vistas, is LITERATURE.)

For Whitman, the creative endeavor is a means to a rich patriotic identity, and not a mere byproduct of it. It’s certainly a sentiment all too familiar to us via memes and motivational posters, but hearing it from Whitman, who bore witness to some of this land’s greatest tragedies and insisted upon the noble challenge of creation and its necessity all the same, proved more than just inspirational - it was an invitation. In a way, reading this unlocked a kind of “permission” my work was yearning for.

The piece started to take a confident shape: an abstract, fragmented opening - darkness borne not from defeat or pathos, but from uncertainty and volatile frustration; an ending that reaches a light of cautious optimism rather than unabashed jubilation. I was able to retain some of the early, “pre-election” material, now recast and splintered throughout the work, only appearing in a coherent, anthemic iteration in the last minutes of the piece. This ultimately earned the work a title that stuck: An Anthem Reassembled.

The difficult journey of bringing the piece to life lasted right up to the orchestra’s dress rehearsal, two days before the premiere. That morning, I got a text from Matthew Brown who was suddenly down with fever and the flu. He needed me to run the rehearsal that evening… meaning polishing my piece (no problem)... and Brahms as well!

Later that night, I was leading an orchestra whom I had only interfaced with as a group a few days prior (and with pen and notepad, not baton). I greeted them with “Well, it’s always odd when the second date turns serious!”, we laughed, and launched into our task. Despite the peculiar circumstances, they were on their game - playing with passion and nuance, and attentive to detail and quick-fixes as we tweaked the new work to fit the peculiarities of our small performing space. A few days later, at the premiere, they displayed the same bold, courageous artistry under a still-ailing maestro who, despite the odds, gave the work a powerful, dexterous premiere performance (which you can hear below). I admit to being somewhat self-conscious about having so much to say about such a short work (and am grateful you took the time to read this, which no doubt clocks in longer than listening to the thing itself). But, despite its brevity, the experience of writing An Anthem Reassembled turned out to be a very deep challenge for me - spiritually, aesthetically, and intellectually. And I find myself returning to the experience of writing it - and coming upon Whitman’s encouragement along the way, as I continue to compose through these summer months away from teaching. It’s still a taxing challenge nevertheless, and I’m sure I’m not alone there. As we all know, the reality of our current political landscape continues to serpentine from one unbelievable scenario to the next. America is a complicated, problematic place, and the constant noise of unrelenting partisan pageantry can drown out the signal of one’s creative wellspring - probably the intention of its design. This little offering for orchestra is my first effort to not let that noise surpass the legitimate, urgent, cogent, honest agency of what we as artists have to say. It’s a never-ending struggle, but I hope you can find inspiration to do the same, on any side of the holy triangle of composer-performer-listener.

Maybe start with Whitman. Or Brahms. Or whatever you like. Ars vincit omnia.

Program Note for the premiere performance: An Anthem Reassembled approaches the template of a concert overture in reverse. Rather than beginning with a clear theme, this short work for orchestra opens amidst fragments of fanfares and lyrical gestures heard in an abstract, mysterious sonic environment. These disparate segments build to form massive, tragic sonorities, which ignite a more deliberate,beat-based middle section focused on an ostinato rhythm. It is only in the final minutes of the work where the opening fragments recall to assemble(for the first and only time) into an intrepid, optimistic anthem for brass.The overall journey of the work moves from dark, divergent uncertainty,through focus and determination, to a confident and elated unity. Such a narrative takes inspiration from Walt Whitman's essay of 1871, titled "Democratic Vistas". Whitman, writing amidst the disillusionment and scattered sentiments of post-Civil War America, says "Far, far indeed stretch, in distance, our vistas! How much is still to be disentangled, freed!". This sobering, hopeful sentiment serves as an epigraph to "An Anthem Reassembled", here performed for the first time and dedicated to the American University Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Matthew Brown

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