A Place to Rest My Head

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The Flatirons, as seen from the University of Colorado campus. Courtesy of CU-Boulder.

 

Since 2007, I’ve done most of my composing, working, and living along Colorado’s Front Range – first Boulder, then a little town called Louisville, and now just outside downtown Denver. Each morning I wake up, and as I head to work at MSCD, I’m treated to a breathtaking view of the Denver skyline. Just beyond that are the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains, particularly amazing when the sun is just coming up in the East. These mountains run all along the Boulder/Denver/Fort Collins corridor, and no matter where you live in the Front Range they’re a part of the landscape. Even without mentioning the wonderful people, opportunities and weather that Colorado offers its inhabitants, this is a beautiful corner of the world.

Lately, I’ve been struggling to define my drive to compose, and to define my “style” (that word has always struck me as woefully inadequate, but that’s another story). One of the only constants in my ever-shifting explanation of my esthetic is the undeniable presence of geography and landscape in my music. Many of my pieces are meant to paint a landmark, or an outdoor scene, or an offhand image from my mental scrapbook. Those that don’t explicitly imply scenery include, for me, the makeup of a physical scene in their architecture and construction. I approach the task of composition as one of visualizing, creating imaginary scenes in exquisite detail and capturing that detail musically; this necessarily includes buildings, landscapes, sunrises, sunsets.

I’m far from the first artist, let alone the first composer, to derive artistic inspiration from his surroundings in explicit or implicit ways. Ernest Hemingway never could (or never tried to) divorce his work from the environment in which he worked; most of his most successful output is, ultimately, a retelling of his experiences away from the typewriter. The same could be said of William Butler Yeats and his colorful portrayals of Ireland in multiple costumes, or of Henri Matisse’s quintessentially Parisian art. More recently, a look at the films of Ang Lee or the music of Bright Sheng, Paul Rudy or John Luther Adams will reveal a community of living artists who are not only sensitive to, but inspired by places they live, work and love. So what happens, then, if you take such an artist out of his environment?

I’m currently in the final stages of applying for doctoral programs, and it’s been exactly as anticipated: a grueling, tumultuous process, full of anxiety, optimism and every emotion in between. After the marathon of applications, interviews and anticipation, the options before me are Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles, California. It’s been a taxing process thus far; but here, in the endgame, nothing has been more emotional than coming to grips with this reality: after five years of waking up every morning to see the Colorado mountains, I’ll be leaving them behind.

Emotional baggage aside, it’s a bit frightening to imagine what I’ve conceived as a key part of my muse no longer being accessible. Many composers (albeit not all composers) are creatures of routine; they write at the same time each day, they have the same pre-composition ritual, they have the same liquid in their oversize mug (mine is black coffee, in case you were wondering). Even those artists less bound to a schedule than that have their security blankets that help them to create at the highest level, be it a familiar painting on the wall or a familiar brand of cigarettes; those that don’t are, I’m convinced, in the minority. When the complex, unpredictable process of artistic meditation requires a controlled environment, a change in that environment must alter the process. Isn’t an artist whose background landscape is an integral part of his/her voice, then, beholden to that landscape? What happens when the backdrop is replaced?

It frightens and fascinates me, the implications that altering my surroundings will have for my music. Sea change or not, a new habitat necessarily means a small transformation in how one sees the world, and this must trickle down into esthetic. Countless artists have moved, of course, and for all sorts of reasons, and most of them have continued to create with great success; but it would be fascinating to study the trajectory of some of them and see whether the product or the process changed in response. If you’re a composer, or any other sort of artist, look around you. What do you see when you walk outside your door? Does it trickle into your art somehow? And if you’ve ever had to change locales, has it had an effect on how or what you create?

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3 Responses to A Place to Rest My Head

  1. Rusty Banks says:

    “It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.”

    from Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”

  2. I went on a bike ride today on the Front Range; I went up Hwy 36 and turned off on a road that led to a valley, a lake, and a view of the Flat Irons. The valley smelled and sounded like home, like North Dakota. I was riding a bike I received in North Dakota, when I was ten. So your post makes me think of how seeing and seeking out beauty makes connections in my life.

    Concerning the landscape of the Great Plains, many people say, “It’s flat.” Two blocks of color making up a skyline that dares your vision to reach its infinite distances could never be “flat” to me! Sweet smells of arid grasses and the dialogues of meadowlarks could never bore me. I spent a lot of time learning to love the familiar sights and sounds around me on the Great Plains.

    We all know that once you learn how to ride a bike, you never really forget how. In fact, the bike that is available might have a seat that is too low, a chain that is not efficient, even a front wheel and handlebars that are a little shaky. But, if I come across a bike, because I appreciate the freedom and joy that any bike ride gives me, I’m going to get on and ride it. For me, it carries past memories of freedom, of bike trails, of family, of that time far removed from “now.”

    And so it is with beauty. Seeking beauty is a skill we continue to cultivate all of our lives; we don’t forget how to find beauty. It doesn’t exist in only its present moment. It recalls past and familiar beauty with every present and new beauty. When I smell things that remind me of previous moments of beauty, they could never be separated from my present experience. For me, beauty connects; it unfolds into the future and recalls the past.

    There are certainly some places that hold more beauty; there are certainly bikes that one would prefer to ride. I am often surprised by which things hold the most beauty and which bikes I’d prefer to ride.

  3. dtemkin says:

    Your whole second paragraph really hits home for me. I especially understand the notion that “pieces are meant to paint a landmark, or an outdoor scene, or an offhand image from [a] mental scrapbook” and that “composition [is often a process] of visualizing, [and] creating imaginary scenes in exquisite detail and capturing that detail musically.” I guess the most important thing about this, to me, is the idea that the image could be real, or it could be imaginary, or perhaps even a combination of both; but somehow in that image there is an essence (no matter how large or small) so profound that it can spark a creative strand in me is as a composer, and that essence can become the impetus for an entire compositional outgrowth.

    As far as your school situation, I wish you the best of luck with your final decision. I think you’re going to thrive in any of the programs you end up choosing, and I hope you’ll let me know as soon as you do decide. My sincerest congratulations on all of the acceptances.

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