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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Elder

Music as Truth

On my homepage is the phrase “Music as truth.” Considering today’s polarization of realities and the subjective nature of truth in postmodern thinking, I'll elaborate on my usage of this word. Recently I’ve changed my bio to incorporate more of my compositional method, and in it my attempt to musically pursue truth. I use this set of phrases:

Truth into emotion. Emotion into music. Music into emotion. Emotion into truth.

This perspective—communicating objective truth through the human experience—is nothing new yet it seems an outlier in a modern music field which weighs compositions heavily on their surface elements of aesthetic and theme. The more I've grown as a choral musician, the less depth I've been able to see in modern choral music overall. Perhaps vocational pursuit is to blame: Composers are compelled to entice the publisher, whose appetite is tailored to the market, which has developed its diet from the publisher. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps us uneducated—we're drowning in shallow themes and reductive imitations of one another. Because young composers (myself included) are ubiquitously taught to identify their individuality, why not focus on what's most within reach? It's so much more difficult yet fundamental to learn not how to sound, but how to speak.

I try to avoid speculation on my own musical aesthetic because to me it is much more of a byproduct than a goal. This wasn't always the case: My earliest breakthrough choral works certainly retain stylistic similarities to the composers I most admired. I was a young composer striving towards originality but still focusing heavily on the surface element of sound, hence an experimentation with those sounds which most inspired me. (e.g. I knew certain sounds made me feel certain ways, but I could no more than clumsily attempt to recreate those reactions through imitating their sources.) Though it is a natural exercise we should work to overcome it, and as I've gradually become more comfortable with deeper layers I've simultaneously shed my reliance on crafting a clearly identifiable aesthetic. Just as I believe complex harmonies are most effective when they are the incidental result of linear motion (rather than intentional stacks of notes) a work's aesthetic is to me the most genuine when it is uniquely and organically tied to the message being conveyed (rather than a forced trademark or personal acoustic signature). Following this logic, the creative intent I now prefer nearly entirely avoids fixation on the surface level. Music, in my striving to understand it, is a universal language that conveys insight and recreates experiences. The surface levels are mere dialect. I've long sensed that, but through years of study I didn't know how to harness music on this deeper level:

Music shouldn't describe an emotion, rather it should elicit an emotional response in the listeners themselves.

It's like synthesizing true empathy: For example, in setting Seven Last Words from the Cross one shouldn't aim for eliciting sympathy for Jesus Christ's crucifixion—after all many listeners may not be interested in the narrative of this Christian story. Rather, one should attempt the much more elusive goal of placing that listener within Christ's own body to experience that betrayal for themselves. In this way every person, not just scholars or the religious, may understand the story more universally. If successful, one hasn't merely told the narrative; one has found the truth in that story—it now may relate to every listener.

If more music sought universal truths (no matter the story) the programming director could avoid the arduous surface fixation of "what texts to program" (i.e. "what verbal messages to convey") and move deeper to "what experiences to deliver." Imagine how much more exciting concerts could be if our musical standards were raised to this point. Rhetorical journeys are to be appreciated; emotional journeys are to be lived. This simple but profound change of goals could powerfully disrupt the shallow market cycle as we crave music with substance over music with style.

Anecdote: Eight years ago, after a choir tour concert, an audience member shared their past experience of cardiac arrest and resuscitation (psychologically speaking, a "near death experience") and related to me, still a graduate student and a little overwhelmed to hear it, that my new setting of Seven Last Words put them more viscerally back in that experience than anything ever had. It was a lesson I'd never forget—I had somehow succeeded in reaching beyond the musical plane. I had stumbled upon a way to convey what it is like to die. Since then I've traced a similar pattern in that concertgoers rarely tell me what they heard; they tell me what they felt.

To achieve this level of communication in music requires of the composer a constant far-field focus, chasing not what can be heard but that which can only be fleetingly intuited. If the far-field focus is held, the musical aesthetic often only becomes apparent after a work is completed—it is merely incidental. As with any short-sightedness, if creative focus is held on the surface aesthetic (as I posit is too often the case currently) its deeper message can’t be properly crafted. Put simply: All music has a sound, but only good music speaks a real language. In a concert hall there are at any time a multitude of lived experiences, of present moods, and of temperaments filling the seats. Good music can reach every single one of them with the same intuitive message. Finding how and on what level that message applies universally to each person is, to me, truth.

Every single historical work I can think of as powerful achieved that status by attuning to a larger human truth, not from any real aspect of its style or the applications of its composer's cultural background. One example: A personal favorite, Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, resonates with me not through its late-Romantic orchestrations or its dramatic themes—in fact no surface element that distinguishes Mahler's music at all—but because it manages, right at the end, to evoke the visceral awe its nickname suggests. It is beyond the music; far beneath any of the notes. The phenomenon could perhaps be described as those composers clumsily stumbling upon something more infinite than themselves. My own musical life is and will be fixated on this worthy but elusive pursuit. In works large and small I attempt to briefly ensnare this divinely communicative force and relate to my audience in a more profound way (even if for a second or a fleeting experience). Success therefore comes not in the grand applause of a definitive magnum opus or in the adoring press of a Grammy or Pulitzer, but in the countless brief, intimate moments of glowing exchanges with truly inspired listeners. Speaking truth is, in this way, much more about humility than hubris.

Objective truth by nature is universal. It doesn’t exist if contested. Therefore the word must be reserved for those few timeless things that diversity of thought and circumstance cannot fray. My search for truth is an attempt to reach everyone, across every difference, through my music. It is a vision of unification; not today's approach of changing hearts and minds to form a consensus but in meeting people where they exist, highlighting that which we have had in common all along. In the misplacement of this vital word tempers have been ignited as individual beliefs are violated and blows traded across the ideological divides. I have personally witnessed recent behaviors that are more animal than human. The emotional violence inspired by disagreement guides me all the more strongly in pursuit of those relatable commonalities that encourage generosity in our spirits. Just maybe, along this path we will at some point find one another again.

Truth is rare. Truth is everything.

Thanks for reading,


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