Nick tells us more about what to expect this weekend at Symphony Number One's season finale concert. Tickets available at symphonynumber.one/eternity.
The question I most often get in regards to Approaching Eternity, is how one deals with composing a piece of its length. It doesn’t take much research to find that a piece combining the medium of a large chamber symphony with the breadth of an hour-long swath of time is a rarity in this period of music composition. It’s no fault of the composer here – many factors outside of the composer’s control (mostly economic) have contributed to the unfortunate and gaping hole in the repertoire that we now have, but now is the time to fill that space. But regardless, the composer of the 21st century isn’t normally expected to fulfill a commission like this, so how do we all go about it? Below are my thoughts and techniques that led to Approaching Eternity, in the hope that it may serve as something of a roadmap (or a cheat sheet) on the ways to tackle a piece of this scope.
When Jordan Smith and I finalized the approximate date of Approaching Eternity’s premiere back in 2015, I immediately got to work. However, no notes were written, no melodies derived, no harmonies dictated. I had about two years ahead of me to complete this, which at first seemed to be an exorbitant luxury, yet has now turned to a blessing of the highest order. Herein lies my first tip: give yourself time. No matter how fast of a composer you are, if you haven’t tackled something past the half hour mark, you need a long time. Your music deserves that much. My first step was done entirely in my head. I needed to figure out the shape of the piece, both overall and in its individual sections. I drew pictures, made graphs, and wrote paragraphs describing what each section would do, what it would accomplish within the narrative of the piece, and how it contributed to the macrocosmic vision of Approaching Eternity as a whole. I soon knew what the large-scale arc of the piece would be. I likened it to the one thing that I know the most yet the least about: life itself. Christopher Rouse stated that all music is autobiographical, which I certainly agree with to a certain extent, but I wanted to take this concept to near Straussian levels.
Approaching Eternity took its shape from how I understood life to be in my own general naïveté. The earlier sections are definitely borne from my own experiences, but the later sections are drawn from my extrapolations of how I perceive that life will go. As I was figuring out the general arc of the piece, I drew out seven major sections that delineated the piece and ultimately represented life events that we all for better or worse go through at some point or another. With the autobiographical sense of the piece firmly in place, I did what I so often do with a new piece, and sought out inspiration to give me a unifying factor to tie each section, and ultimately the piece as a whole around. I found these muse-like kernels in every artistic avenue of my life, from cinema to visual art, poetry to literature. Even popular music came into play to help me anchor my music.
With these artistic models in place, I could finally put pen to staff paper. Motives soon followed, and I slipped them into the graphs and trajectories I’d formulated months before as I began to write through the piece from the beginning. An important thing for me is making sure that my models remain models – your material controls your piece first, not the model you’ve created for it to reside in. If you need to stray away from the path you’ve created, there is no need to worry. In fact, I find myself getting more concerned if I don’t deviate from the plan I’ve made.
The longest piece I had written prior to Approaching Eternity was my piano quintet Carried by the Sky. While it’s still a substantial piece clocking in at half an hour, once I hit minute thirty-one in Approaching Eternity, I could feel myself slowing down. However, it wasn’t out of not knowing what to do. I found myself overanalyzing every note that I put down as I journeyed into what was (for me) untrodden ground. I forced myself to find meaning in every dot I wrote, placing it within a gesture, and placing that gesture within some sort of narrative to serve the piece. In an odd sort of way, I found the music after minute thirty the most rewarding to write, to the point that when I did finally reach that elusive double bar line, over one thousand measures and two years removed from where I started. I discovered a newfound artistic confidence that has drastically changed the way I write ever since. I feel ten times the composer I was when I first set out to write Approaching Eternity. It is all the more rewarding to see it brought to life with a cadre of dedicated musicians and good friends.
Concerts take place this weekend at historic Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Friday and Saturday Night at 8:00 PM. Join us.