On Wings of Song

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I have been composing music since I was in high school.  One of my high school music theory teachers encouraged me to compose a few short pieces for the senior chorus, and it was fun to get the positive responses from teachers and fellow students after the performances.   I also had fun in Alan Abel’s percussion ensemble at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, and I was again encouraged to write for the ensemble.

NEXUS was also very encouraging.  We all began composing our own works, partly out of necessity since the body of repertoire for percussion quintet was so small when we started out on our musical  journey.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, when I was with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, there were also frequent opportunities to perform my own orchestra compositions and arrangements, some of which were later arranged for NEXUS to be played as unaccompanied solo ensemble pieces or with orchestra accompaniment.  The practice of multiple uses for musical compositions is hundreds of years old in the history of western (European) classical music.  It was really only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the idea of unalterably fixing compositions came about – largely through the growing influence of the music publishing industry, and the increasing power of conductor/authorities.

Interestingly, as the power of publishers and conductors is challenged by the digital free flow of ideas (authority) there is a rekindled interest among composers, out of necessity, in using re-workings of compositions in order to maximize performance possibilities.

Two of my compositions, “In Ancient Temple Gardens” and “Kebjar-Bali” were originally conceived as pieces for percussion soloist with chamber orchestra, and were later arranged for NEXUS, either with orchestra or unaccompanied.  The first performances of both pieces were with the Rochester Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Fetler.

So, it came as a bit of a surprise when, a few months ago after years of not seeing him, I ran into David Fetler at a Rochester Philharmonic rehearsal in the Eastman Theatre.  In our conversation David mentioned that he is putting together a program for next season featuring a children’s chorus and narrator.  I immediately told him about “Wright’s Lessons” and later sent him a score.  He telephoned me a few days afterward and said that although he liked it, he was already committed to an orchestra consisting of strings, one flute and one percussion for the children’s chorus program.  David said he would like to do something with poetry – maybe that of Walt Whitman or Carl Sandberg.  Then he asked if I would be interested in composing something new, and after another few days of considering what I might do, I said “yes.”

The process of creating a new piece began with a day in the Eastman School’s Sibley Library, where I scanned the shelves for Walt Whitman’s works in the hope that something would jump out and touch me.  Eventually it did.  In scanning Whitman’s prose I noticed a work titled “Specimen Days” which first appeared in 1882 within a volume entitled “Specimen Days & Collect”, published in Philadelphia, and written in 1881 largely out of notes, sketches, and essays from various stages of the poet’s life beginning at around the time of the American Civil War.    Several chapters in the volume are devoted to Whitman’s reflections about birds and nature, and this was just what I was looking for.

The next step was to spend more time in the Sibley Library researching old English folk songs having birds as a subject.  I wanted to use three or four songs as material for the children’s chorus, while the Whitman prose would be ideal for a narration to connect the songs and provide a coherent unity.  I found plenty of songs, so my problem was to choose which ones.  After spending a few days of listening to them using my (nonexistent) piano technique, I eventually selected four: 1) “The Birds’ Courting Song”;  2) “The Birds In Spring”;  3) “The Cuckoo”; and 4) “Rise, Rise, Thou Merry Lark.”

Then, I decided that I would compose original music for the opening, transition and closing sections to tie the four bird songs together.  With all of the basics in place I began working on my electronic keyboard and computer.  The normal struggles occurred over every note and every word, not to mention the ever-present computer anomalies, which conspired to produce a very maddening kind of frustration.  For example, even though I have learned through painful experience that it is wise to “save” the work on the computer regularly, nevertheless on one occasion, the passionate focus to integrate one musical idea lasted for almost an hour, while outside, completely out of my awareness, storm clouds gathered.  Suddenly a bolt of lightning flashed outside and the power went down, along with my computer and the last hour of work.  With this kind of judgment by nature, I guess my passionate idea wasn’t so great after all.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, on July 15, 2009 I had a finished first draft of the score.  The final draft of the score, with corrections of typing errors, etc. was finished on July 17.

The piece will be called, “On Wings of Song.”  The title simply occurred to me as I awoke that morning.  I realized that I had been mulling over a rhyme in my half-asleep-half-awake subconsciousness prior to getting out of bed:

With wings of song the birds inspire:                                                                                                          Their melodies soar ever higher.                                                                                                                    Now I too want to sing along                                                                                                                         And soar with birds on wings of song.

The 12-minute work will be performed by the Rochester Chamber Orchestra and the Bach Children’s Choir next season.  David Fetler will be conducting. Simon Pontin, a local public radio personality will be narrating.  I will be in the audience.


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