Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Becoming Music

For many, 2016 cannot end soon enough. While the last twelve months have been widely considered an extraordinarily tumultuous period of time, has this year really been worse than others in recent memory? Why do so many feel that way? The year certainly saw its share of natural disasters and the continued ugliness of injustice and violence around the world. Sadly, it’s hard to single out 2016 as noteworthy in this respect. These things occur far too often to be unique to any one year. Maybe the feeling that 2016 was somehow more disruptive than most years can be traced to significant world events such as the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union as well as Donald Trump’s improbable victory in a very contentious American presidential election. It is safe to say these were events that very few thought even remotely possible this time last year. 

Pierre Boulez: Became music on Jan. 5, 2016
However, I personally don't believe natural disasters, injustice, violence, or even massive tectonic shifts on the geopolitical stage have fueled the sense that 2016 is a year somehow different than most in recent memory. Rather, it is the perception that an inordinate number of extraordinary persons have left us this year. While the world mourns many important figures from the world of politics, science and sports who died in 2016, it is the loss of an artist that we feel almost personally. As a musician, I can’t help but remember how I felt when I heard that David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen and Prince had each passed. Each news bulletin seemed to be like a punch in the gut. More than that, this kind of sad news seems to keep recurring in rapid succession. To prove the point, since I began working on this blog post, singer George Michael and Hollywood legend Carrie Fisher both passed within days of each other. 

Steven Stucky: Became music on Feb. 14, 2016
Since all art enters our senses in deep and personal ways, the loss of an artist can sometimes hurt more than even the loss of an important world figure. Artistic creation is a deep and abiding solace during the endless cycle of tumult in our world. It stands against the grain as an essential act of creation amid a world that seems determined at times to destroy itself. Therefore, the loss of so many great musicians, as well as important artists from other disciplines (including author Harper Lee, playwright Peter Shaffer, and actors Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, and the aforementioned Carrie Fisher among many others), seems to overshadow the news stories of the year. This concentration of artistic loss in 2016 is why I believe so many look forward to turning the calendar page and rebooting in a few days.

Leslie Bassett: Became music on
Feb. 4, 2016
The community of contemporary classical music is, unfortunately, not immune to loss. While much of the world mourns the passing of beloved celebrity icons, those of us who compose art music find ourselves reeling from what also seems to us to be the passing of an inordinate number of extraordinary composers. A quick look on the internet brings up a stunning list of significant composers who died in 2016: Pierre Boulez (January 5), Leslie Bassett (February 4), Steven Stucky (February 14), Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (March 14), Einojuhani Rautavaara (July 27), Pauline Oliveros (November 24) and Karel Husa (December 14) among many others. The list doesn’t read so much like a roster of names as it does a catalogue of some of the most important and influential composers of the 20th and 21st Centuries. 

It is probably too soon to truly calculate the abiding
Pauline Oliveros: Became music on Nov. 24, 2016
significance of these composers and how their legacy will impact future generations. This is something better suited to music scholars and an endeavor that will certainly take many years to unpack. Sifting among the dying embers of 2016 however, I am just left with two simple thoughts. While seemingly unrelated, 2016 has given these thoughts a special connection and significance for me. 

Karel Husa: Became music on Dec. 14, 2016
The first is a memory associated with the great composer Karel Husa. He is the only composer among the luminaries who have passed in 2016 with whom I had a meaningful interaction. It wasn’t even a long personal association. Sometime in the early 1990s, Husa was in residence as a guest composer at the Cleveland Institute of Music where I was working on my DMA. As a grad assistant, it was my job to drive guest composers and performing artists around the city as well as back and forth from the airport. After his residency, I drove Husa back to the airport as was my duty. However, it was no simple obligation. The short period of time spent in the car with Husa was a joyful experience. He was very warm and engaging while we traveled; asking me questions about myself and at least appearing to take a very real interest in my responses. When the time came for him to leave my beaten up old Honda Civic, he thanked me for the ride as if I had provided some sort of extraordinary service and told me that if I ever needed anything from him, to please contact him anytime. He then reached into a bag and pulled out a signed copy of the score to his third string quartet and gave it to me as a keepsake. I will never forget his generous spirit and kindness. 

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies:
Became music on Mar. 14, 2016
The second thought I have as 2016 draws to a close is a quote from a popular cable television show. In the HBO science-fiction series Westworld, Anthony Hopkins portrays the character of Dr. Robert Ford, one of the geniuses behind the creation of a futuristic theme park populated by life-like androids. I’m a sucker for good science-fiction shows and enjoyed the first season run of Westworld. However, there is a quote that the character says on the final episode of the season that I find most relevant considering the important composers who have recently left this earth. At one point near the end of the episode, Dr. Ford says, “"Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died. They simply became music.” There is some debate online whether this is an originally scripted line or an actual quote from another source. For me, it doesn't matter. The quote deeply resonates with me and is how I think about the recent losses of Boulez, Bassett, Stucky, Maxwell Davies, Rautavaara, Oliveros and, of course, Husa. 

Einojuhani Rautavaara:
Became music on Jul. 27, 2016
As I contemplate these seemingly disparate ideas, it occurs to me that more than even becoming music, the imprint of kindness upon another sojourner on this planet is the most significant of legacies. There are two lessons that 2016 can teach me if I will simply pay attention. First, I must remember to always be as genuinely kind as Karel Husa. Secondly, I must continue to work hard at creating - rather than destroying - so that I may be transformed into something as beautiful as music instead of being hard-hearted and becoming just another cog in a selfish world.  

If I can take these two lessons to heart, maybe 2016 will not have been such a bad year after all.