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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Elder

Heights and Depths

I. In Theory

Where is the violence in choral music? Where is the savagery?

I believe both that Man is inherently evil and that he is created in the image of God. Rather than calling it an incompatible blend of Hobbes and Rousseau, I prefer to think of the former describing our inevitable failings and the latter depicting our worthwhile aspirations. Much music has been focused on our pursuit of the divine—disproportionately, in my ever-dawning opinion. In creating music that connects deeply we must take on the tremendous responsibility of accurately depicting the human experience, warts and all.

I had to acknowledge this myself; as a younger artist I channeled a much more selective idealism. It is the pervasive idea that defines our idiom—that the world out there is savage therefore we in here are charged with providing its panacea. Concert programs in the choral community have long been dominated by such themes. Why do we steer away from confronting the animal side of ourselves? While plenty of music exists on themes of violence, so much of it grants the pious luxury of a horrorstruck witness's perspective, or maybe if it delves deep enough, the suffering of victims themselves. Its weakness is its insistence on allowing the listener perpetual righteousness. What about music placing the audience as the perpetrator, the offender, the monster, and guiding us together through the dark shadows of our psyche? We all have evil within us. To pretend otherwise is to ignore one glaring half of our authentic experience in a real world. Having the courage to channel it embraces the honest personality. Rather than suppressing rage and whitewashing aggression I ever more frequently strive to add these elements into my musical expressions when I want to reach more profound depths. To truly deliver peace you must summon fear. To best show gentleness you must evoke brutality.

As painter Bob Ross often said, "You need the dark in order to show the light."

The human experience is ugly, inside and out, yet we constantly seek to project something cleaner. In doing so we rob ourselves of complexity, of nuance, and most importantly, of balance. For me this perceived imbalance has resulted in an insidious cognitive dissonance. Publicly I've followed the requests of commissioning directors and publishers and pursued the emotions of hope, love, and joy through much of my music, yet a private, starved part of me has suffered from an ever-darkening pessimism. In the past two years it's grown so dire that the tension has nearly killed me. This cognitive dissonance—trumpeting humanity's bright side while daily facing the horrors of its evil nature—has riven my youthful idealism, with side effects of chronic insomnia and an unquenchable, sometimes self-destructive anger. Our world has darkened in recent years, and not, as I've learned at great cost, because of the bogeymen of conservative populism so many progressive artists love to vilify. Rather it has been in the creeping ways these righteous peacegivers have unknowingly surrendered their own humanity while flaying their straw men. As the crisis perpetuates I have found sanitized idealism too naive. Many musicians would ratchet up themes of peace and hope in their offerings, but as they ignore their own culpability their rosy settings of Teasdale and Rossetti wilt in my ears and in my heart, and their attempts to spirit away the weary psyche fall flat. In reality the world of sunshine and stars, of flowers and birdsong, of faith and hope, is also the world of world wars, of perverted religions, of murderous mobs. Of history repeating its horrors before our tightly-shut eyes. The more I've aged, the more this reality has changed me. At twenty-three years old I wrote Three Nocturnes and at thirty-three I wrote Absalom. Through that decade the facade has crumbled, allowing reality to stare out of the page vividly and hideously.

This has served as a valuable journey towards embracing a more real depiction of human life. As I witness our collective descent I more clearly acknowledge that true beauty cannot be found in a terrarium like it can in the savage wild. Retreating further into our monasteries will not afford us the ability to reach out and touch the lowest crevasses of the human soul. As I've pondered those existing musical works that to me evoke the deepest healing, I've realized they also often contain the most profound horror. It is this realization that inspired me to begin adding more profound dissonance—of both aesthetic and rhetoric—into my work. Instead of hiding my own animal nature I've begun to channel it, spilling my fears onto the page to frighten my audience. Most importantly, I've attempted to accomplish this by becoming more true to my strengths: Though the choral idiom's musical aims disproportionately favor the feminine nurturer, I've sought to awaken my artistically-dormant masculine traits and begin, where appropriate, to employ gestures of force and aggression in my art. While this isn't called for in all works, in the deepest ones it's desperately needed. Modern musicology may reel at the toxicity of Beethoven but, with increasing revelation, I find it vital. It doesn't overwhelm beauty in music—it poignantly highlights it.

II. In Practice

Enter Illumine. A couple years ago I was commissioned for a choral-orchestral program; a rare treat in today's budget-strained environment. Equally enticing was the opportunity to become acquainted with the commissioner's chosen texts by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. Themed on "light" to pair with Morten Lauridsen's radiant Lux Aeterna in both theme and orchestration, I set to work on two contrasting Tagore poems I intended to weave into one statement:

1. "Light"

Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetning light!

Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the center of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth. The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge upon the crest of the waves of light. The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion.

Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without measure. The heaven's river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.

2. "Lamp of Love"

Light, oh where is the light? Kindle it with the burning fire of desire! There is the lamp but never a flicker of a flame—is such thy fate, my heart? Ah, death were better by far for thee! Misery knocks at thy door, and her message is that thy lord is wakeful, and he calls thee to thy love-tryst through the darkness of night. The sky is overcast with clouds and the rain is ceaseless. I know not what this is that stirs in me—I know not its meaning. A moment's flash of lightning drags down a deeper gloom on my sight, and my heart gropes for the path to where the music of the night calls me. Light, oh where is the light? Kindle it with the burning fire of desire! It thunders and the wind rushes screaming through the void. The night is black as a black stone.

Let not the hours pass by in the dark. Kindle the lamp of love with thy life.

In my program notes I write: "In an overarching theme of light, Tagore describes an ecstatic vision of it in his first poem, only to dive into a chasm of despair in the second as light is sought, but not found. The way these two poems work together (an unintended combination in their original publications) paints a poignant tapestry mirroring the unending struggle of humanity. Especially in today's world, as darkness encroaches from all directions, humans look for light but, in failing to find it, constantly fight against despair. Tagore's words seem to outline an idealistic worship of pure, radiant light, and then strip bare the most honest, bleak diagnoses of its absence in so much of the world. But humans seem unable to let go of one belief throughout their shared cultural history in art: The light of hope, however frail, is unextinguishable. Tagore seems to harbor this belief himself as the final lines emerge Phoenix-like from the bleakest darkness, "Let not the hours pass by in the dark. Kindle the lamp of love with thy life." This musical setting seeks humbly to uplift the purity of Tagore's mystical visions; the darkest dark and the lightest light, and everything of life in between."

Tagore's texts awakened in me a clarity of light and dark that encouraged some of my first explorations of how, in order to show real beauty, one should create true horror. It's hard to properly explain what I felt had been missing—there was a depth of dissonance I realized was lacking in my work; my evocations of violence were too passive, lacking agency. I began to consider challenging my audience. Scrawled in my sketchbook are some of my musings on Tagore's two poems:

Light — the day

Lamp of Love — the night

Inverses — light and its after-image

(night — as a hollow bastardization of the light?)

NOT romantic night.

Bleak night.

"Lamp of Love" Light is an

almost-mocking, gruesome version

of the original 'Light' motive.

In exploring Tagore I began to deepen my view of art's possible spectrums. I realized that music needn't merely heal; sometimes, to the same goal, it could hurt. For example, Illumine was the first time I seriously explored the bitonal major/minor triad, not to simply depart from or expand upon the major and minor keys, but to sneer at them. It is this intent that makes all the difference. It is not about the dissonance itself—I've written about why aesthetic isn't as important as rhetoric—rather, I speak here of using aggression. And in this, as I sketched Illumine, a floodgate was opened—a third option apart from the dichotomy of choosing between love and loss, comfort and grief: Force. Brutality. I began to see everywhere the glaring lack of this powerful agency in musical narrative.

Searching through music history this isn't a remotely novel concept. Here in our postmodern era, however, we have emotionally retreated into such a coddled state that aggression of any sort seems to be labeled as toxic. We so often err in believing the world happens to us, rather than us happening to the world, and it comes out in our passive, pacifist musical language. It's particularly apparent in choral music, where a dependence upon inspiring poetry seems to function as its weakness. In Jungian terms the music is becoming over-feminized as, everywhere we turn, healthy masculine expression is suppressed into crisis. Thus, only half-accessible, our modern spectrum of musical expression is so much narrower than it once was. We are collectively weaker for it.

I now choose not to abide by these standards, but to fly in the face of them. And Illumine was one of my first departure points. For example, elsewhere I evoke a suggestion of Tagore's darkness as rape (more specifically, marital rape), setting the lines "Misery knocks at thy door, and her message is that thy lord is wakeful, and he calls thee to thy love-tryst through the darkness of night." It is as if Tagore suggests his darkness of thought is physically (self-)violating. In my sketches I've jotted:

brass punctuated, other sustained —


"Misery..." ...wakeful"

And he calls ...night" (crescendo marked)

"orch(estra) begins creeping, crawling, seething"

In reality this is a short musical moment, defined by a few brief orchestral devices depicting knocks, footsteps, and an almost slithering dread. My intent to evoke a subtle trauma response in the listener, however, is crucial. I cannot allow my audience the safety of a righteously objecting observer. I must force them to live the experience, to justify it. To do so is unsettling, frightening...and valuable, because from this is spawned Illumine's most quietly sublime moment with the lines "I know not what this is that stirs in me—I know not its meaning." It is a humble crux of the piece and occurs almost exactly at the golden section. What would that revelatory moment be in the listener's psyche if they weren't so raw from the experience before it?

Put another way, perhaps to truly feel reborn one must first feel dead.

These types of harshness are both intentional and unapologetic. As the modern age becomes defined by trigger warnings and safe spaces, and by music that soothes our vulnerabilities but less and less challenges our strengths, these are the depths we must visit if we are to deliver the full breadth of the human experience. And the way I see it, only in this may music deeply heal.

A brief aside: These dissonances mustn't be measured against the comparable and relatively common harmonic clashes in post-tonal music. That genre is by definition free of the consonance that defines dissonance, and its sounds are much more exclusively mathematically- or aesthetically-derived. In the tonal context which employs its rhetoric through the emotive elements of tension and release, the use of these sounds is infinitely more aggressive.

Below is a sketch of the vocal lines at my climactic setting of Tagore's line "It thunders and the wind rushes screaming through the void. The night is black as a black stone." in which I employ parallel (C to E-flat) major/minor triads at fortississimo (fff ) to evoke a hideous depravity. The orchestra here wanes to a minimum, and supporting none of the dissonant tones—therefore the chorus is left to create the tension entirely by itself in a sense of profound isolation. This is in fact the apex of desperation in the work, preceding a surprise reveal of hope at the very end—but before that redemption, I imagine the soul in such torment as a body being utterly torn limb from limb—a total, catastrophic despair. I recall crafting this passage with the revelation that I hadn't ever quite reached so far towards attempting to bewilder my audience, and to disturb them.

These horrendous perversions are absolutely vital to set up the profound event at its conclusion. Tagore, at the end of "Lamp of Love," adds the following lines:

"Let not the hours pass by in the dark. Kindle the lamp of love with thy life."

I still recall my surprise at these lines in my first analyses. Amid such despair and such desolation, Tagore miraculously reveals the still-burning, quiet flame that is the hope-faith-love trinity of our divine souls. The miracle isn't in their existing, it is in their persistence through the encroaching horrors all around. My ending of Illumine humbly seeks to capture this revelatory moment.

III. In Summary

The world is a savage place.

I do not contest that our audiences thirst for hope and for a soothing balm to the world around. They enter the concert hall searching for meaning, or as a wise colleague once said, sometimes not even aware of what they so desperately seek. Music can comfort, and we musicians are charged with this noble task. I answer the call with works such as Serenity, Dona Nobis Pacem, Lullaby, and literally dozens more. These are the Heights.

The world is a savage place, and we in it are savages.

The best medicine doesn't merely treat the pain. Sometimes music may be a balm, but elsewhere are audiences desperately seeking something more profound. All the peace- and unity-themed works in the world cannot truly touch the pained soul quite like a work that honestly acknowledges that soul's torment. The deepest music cannot exist solely as an escape from brutality. It is vital that we incorporate these real elements into our messages that they may remain grounded in the true human experience. And we composers must be our truest selves, the animal along with the divine. These are the Depths.

In these together, I believe, is the language of the soul.

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