[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]
This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.
No, they never tell you this part about composing.
Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.
From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.
Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.
Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.
George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.
When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.
The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.
As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.
And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.
A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.
You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…
A Mighty Fortress.
Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhh, dahhh, dahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.
A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.