Monthly Archives: October 2015

Melody and Myth

[First published in Broad Street Review, 27 Oct 2015.]


Feral rooster on Kauai (jaybergesen via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The sound a rooster makes is the sound a basement door makes when it is earnestly trying to open, and the sound a car makes when it is vainly trying to stop, just before the crash. It is jackals at night. It is the soul abandoning all hope as it enters in, it is Goofy tobogganing recklessly down the Alps, it is Pentheus being rent limb from limb by the Bacchanals — it is all these and more, but since there is now a rooster living near us, I can tell you with precision that the one sound a rooster does not make is “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”

Another myth is that the rooster is the herald of the dawn. Oh, he announces 3am and calls our attention to 4am, and is pleased to let us know when it is 7:13am; he sends out alerts an hour before noon and 47 minutes after midnight and every blessèd time in between. He may even crow at dawn, truth be told, but as the cry is only one among a series of updates, dawn has long since been emptied of meaning: the message is not “Here is dawn,” but “Here is a rooster.”

We live under myths. I was taught in grade school that people feared Columbus would fall off the edge of the earth. I was taught in college that music has three parts: rhythm, melody, harmony. But no people ever believed that the world was flat (least of all people with boats and oceans; “flat-earthers” were a fiction invented in the 19th century), and music has only one part.

That part is melody. It is melody first, melody last, and only melody.

Yeah, but . . .

Some say that rhythm, the segmenting of time into smaller bits of time, is a part. But we always experience time as bits of time. Bits of time are not music. Some say that harmony is a part, but harmony is just two tunes, or tunes layered, or tunes echoed. Rhythm is a tune tapping its foot, and harmony is a tune stroking its chin.

Then there’s what some call melody, which is what I call the tune:

This is the opening of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is the top line, so is easily heard, and it is good and beautiful, so is easily recognized. Here it is, below, with another voice added (actually, the accompaniment boiled down to one voice):

The top line by itself is recognizable as the Barber, and the bottom line by itself probably isn’t, but it doesn’t change the fact that we experience and remember all of this — and more — as the Adagio.

Attention to detail

Tune, rhythm, and harmony are indeed parts of music, but they are not the parts. They also have sub-parts. The top line has its own rhythm; we could divide those black notes into groups of four, two, three, or a mix. The bottom line is an exquisite voyage of durations, just as much in rhythmic counterpoint with the top as it is in harmony (waiting for that third arrow to land is one of Barber’s genius moments). The best music has this attention to detail in bottom and middle lines just as much as in the tune.

But there are even more parts than tune, rhythm, harmony. There are high and low, loud and soft, and instrument choice, for example. Meter itself (the 4/2 at the beginning of the examples) is more than an instruction, it’s a silent beat that’s as much a part of the music as what we hear. Then there’s the psychic counterpoint of what we hear against what we remember having heard, against what we are expecting to hear. There are phrases, breaths, movements, time-outs.

All of these together, and more, are the Adagio, and all together they are more than parts. They become one overarchingmelody that drives the tune, the rhythm, the harmony, and everything else.

The ultimate source

The fact is, the deeper we hear, the more parts we find. The parts either drive the music forward (which is what good music does) or stop it (which is what bad music does). Whether it’s Barber or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or Milton Babbitt, all the innumerable parts — including main tune (wherever it is), rhythms (micro- and macro-), sublimated or attenuated tunes (harmonies), textures, memories, colors, expectations — all flow from the grand melody.

All the parts are one melody. Composers construct them together as one melody and guide our attention by one melody. Our ears hear from top to bottom to arrow to middle to back again. That path is the melody beckoning and beguiling us and carrying all the parts as one. Music is the art of sound moving through time. Melody is what drives it.

River and flow

If it seems that I’m equating music with melody, I suppose you could say that, with only the difference that music is the thing and melody is the drive. There is no edge between melody and another part; melody is the only part. There is the river, and there is the flow. There is the ocean, in fact, and composers always knew that while they could bump into land and stop, they would never fall off the edge of the world, because there is no edge. “Here is a rooster,” says the rooster, and the rooster keeps no time, as I have found. Dawn or no, there is just the rooster.

The Last Theme You’d Expect for This Movie


Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 26 Oct 2015.]

It’s an unlikely choice of music for this movie, but WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at how The Deer Hunter theme came into existence, and why it still haunts us almost 40 years later.

The violence in this Vietnam War film is noteworthy even among war films, and is controversial for a depiction of something no one has said they have ever witnessed: a scene where North Vietnamese soldiers force prisoners to play Russian roulette.

But traversing the worlds from a hard-scrabble Pennsylvania town and its surrounding mountains to the jungles and urban warrens of Southeast Asia, The Deer Hunter is, to many, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Its theme music, however, is about the last thing you’d expect.

English film composer Stanley Myers scored The Walking Stick in 1970, and guitarist John Williams convinced him to work up one bit of it for him. That tune, called Cavatina, became, in 1978, The Deer Hunter theme.

It is as piercing now as it was in the years following the war. Set against type, set against the struggle of brutality, incomprehension, loss, and inklings of love, it is a bittersweet plea of longing. It is also, somehow, comforting.

Stanley Myers wrote music for more than 70 films. His theme to The Deer Hunter is an astonishing moment of cinematic brilliance.




Agnus Dei reviews

AgnusDeip3Still floating from the exquisite first performance of Agnus Dei by Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Symphony in C, conducted by MC’s new director, Paul Rardin. Turns out, on a day of many concerts in Philadelphia, many with new music, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns reviewed ours.

(My notes on Agnus Dei are here.)

Stearns writes that the Agnus Dei is “so personal” and correctly notes that my “tendency toward saturated harmonies was scaled back in favor of something leaner and more visceral.” He thinks it might be a bit long, and finishes by saying that “it’s an important addition to Smith’s output.”

One phrase in his review especially interested me, because it points up something other people have walked around, in conversations about Agnus Dei and other works of mine, that “the piece’s harmonic ambiguity suggested uncertain faith.”

I say that it does no such thing. But I may be in the minority, so let me explain.

One benefit of reading the lives of the saints, and indeed, the biblical books of the prophets, let alone many of the Psalms, is that those who are the most spiritually attuned are often wracked by doubt, pain, anger, and the many other emotions or states those of us who are not so spiritually attuned consider unspiritual or faithless or as those which draw us away from God. But if we are serious about taking those generally accepted as spiritual models to be, in fact, models, the conclusion can only be that we do not lose our faith when under these emotions or in these states. The spiritual person uses these times to dig deeper, to draw even closer to God.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

In this Agnus Dei I took the cry for mercy to be a real cry, I took the repetition of the lines to really mean something. I took this to be a process that would be long, long enough to be slightly uncomfortable, even (though any performance can be a couple of ticks slower or faster), long enough so that when we arrive, finally, at dona nobis pacem it would be an arrival made the more real for the reality of the journey.

But don’t take this as special pleading on my part. That can all be true and the piece still too long! Although I think it’s just right. I have some regrets about my own pieces, but not about the length of this one, which comes in at around 13 minutes, give or take.

There was another good review in an independent and seemingly unedited blog here.

A couple of conductors told me they thought this Agnus Dei would do quite well performed right in its proper place in the incomplete Mozart Mass. Wouldn’t that be something?


This Song Changed the Course of Music


detail, Schubertiade, Julius Schmid, 1897

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 19 Oct 2015]

Two hundred one years ago this week, Franz Schubert wrote a song that would alter the course of music history. “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” is an unassuming title for Schubert’s first masterpiece and the start of an entire genre of music.

Alone, Gretchen gazes from her spinning wheel. It spins, it clicks, the foot pedal goes up and down, all without stopping. She despairs over the love she has lost, and she will not be consoled. She knows that the peace once in her heart she will never find again.

Franz Schubert found Goethe’s poem in Faust, published just a few years earlier. In “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” his first setting of Goethe, Schubert not only found his calling, he founded an entire type of composition, the art song. He would compose more than 600 of them in his 31 short years.

There had been songs before, of course. But art songs—in particular, German Lieder—were new. Not drawn from opera, they were self-contained concert dramas for voice and piano, setting poems steeped in romantic philosophy. They place the self-aware, if flawed, individual against nature or society, where it shines in all its glory—or despair.

Deceptively simple, Schubert’s harmonic agitation and melodic rage reflect Gretchen’s turmoil, while the wheel inexorably turns.

Schubert’s emotional knowledge staggers in its maturity. He had been composing songs for four years before this one. Gretchen am Spinnrade changed the course of music. Schubert was 17.

Agnus Dei


Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Paul Rardin, Artistic Director. Completed 24 August 2015. Premiered 18 October 2015, The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Symphony in C, conducted by Paul Rardin.

For choir and orchestra; duration, 15 minutes
2 Oboes
2 Bassoons
2 F Horns
2 Bb Trumpets
Timpani (2)
S.A.T.B. Choir
Also available with piano accompaniment

For his first concert as the new artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Paul Rardin asked me to compose an Agnus Dei. The Mozart Great Mass in C Minor would also be performed on this concert, as well as Mendelssohn’s Psalm 43, Psalm 98, and Psalm 100. My composition was to complement Mozart’s Mass, one of his last works and which he left unfinished without an Agnus Dei.

Over the years composers have taken on this daunting task, swiftly voicing their assurance that they were not intending to “complete” Mozart’s work in any way. I follow in their steps. Nevertheless I was surprised by how much of Mozart’s spirit, as dimly realized by me, came into play.

I do not possess the desire to copy another’s style, but I have found that summoning a sense of a Zeitgeist is intriguing. I have done that in my Vespers (Lutheran Renaissance), The Nobility of Women (Baroque), and other works in whole or in part. Felix Mendelssohn did this very thing in his Reformation Symphony. For me, I find that certain aspects of an era or a composer suggest themselves, I’m sure in no exhaustive or even reasonable way, and that the piece comes together around those aspects.

So there are features of the Classical style in this Agnus Dei. I treated the forces as efficiently as possible, as I admire that greatly in Mozart. The rhythms are simple, the harmonies and textures change slowly, lines are relatively spare, and except in one place for the choral basses, the voices are never divided. I have aimed for lyricism in everything. Also, I took Paul Rardin’s excellent suggestion to highlight the flute/oboe/bassoon trio that Mozart used in his “Et incarnatus“ movement.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

In this five-minute video I talk about some of what went into my thinking while composing Agnus Dei:

Video Interview on Agnus Dei

Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia interviews me about Agnus Dei, which they commissioned to complement the Mozart Great Mass in C Minor. The premiere, with Symphony in C, is Sunday, October 18th at 4 pm at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

I talk—which I seem only able to do while using my hands a lot—about listening/not listening to Mozart, the challenge of making three lines (two of which are the same, the third of which is mostly the same) last 10–15 minutes, and my helplessness at the piano.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, and a Song for the Ages

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 5 Oct 2015]

coltranehartmanTwo Englishmen, Guy Wood and Robert Mellin, slipped it into the Great American Songbook just before it closed, just as rock rolled over sophistication. It begins from below, a slowly twisting Roman candle of a tune, and explodes in the top range of the singer, as the eyes of onlookers reflect the glory of what songs once were.

Sinatra recorded “My One and Only Love” right away, in 1953, but ten years later John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman made it a landmark of an age.

Coltrane’s tenor saxophone sounds as if it’s made of something not of this world, and yet it is uncannily apt. Every note is a discovery, every phrase an experiment that comes out exactly right.

Johnny Hartman sings the way every man wishes to sing—an everyman standing up in a room suddenly silent—sounding like a man, but a man who breaks his heart open, and yours. And just when he sounds like anybody, that voice turns into one in ten million.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman spread their mystic charms, especially in the high ranges of their low instruments. In “My One and Only Love” they made a song for the ages. Remember what songs once were.