I had just finished composing a piece a week or so before the social distancing orders from the Governor were put in place. I usually take a week off from composing after finishing a piece because I feel like I’m in limbo-land, still ruminating on what I just completed and unsure what I am going to work on next. But in this time of world crisis the feeling of limbo-land lasted much longer. I, like everyone, am concerned about health and safety – not just my own, but of my family, my friends, my church, my colleagues, pretty much everyone I know, and am also wondering what the world is going to look like when this is all over – economically, politically, culturally. I wonder when my work, which was all cancelled except for a few online private lessons, will resume; I wonder if restrictions on gatherings will be lifted in time for me to hold a concert I had planned to have this summer featuring my own compositions. I picked up my son from college two months early, and I’ve been helping both my kids adjust to online classes and navigate through having to plan and apply for summer programs which may or may not take place. The future is rife with uncertainty.
It’s hard to compose in these times. I find it hard to compose when I am under stress, anyway. Being frazzled is the opposite of having plenty of mental space and relaxation for ideas to flow. I know that there are many composers who can use their composition to express the angst of difficult situations, but I am not one them, at least not now. I find myself more motivated by things I love.
But just because I am finding it hard to compose doesn’t mean I’m going to hang it up and take a break until it’s all over. When will that be, exactly? Though my collaborative piano work is over for the time being, and my teaching work is lessened, my composition work can continue. I do have the time. So, I got to work, hobbling along. I spoke a few times with one of my best friends, a writer, who asked me, “Are you getting any composing done?” “No,” I answered. The first time, I just wasn’t in the mental and emotional place to do it. The next time I said, “Well, I’m composing. But I’m not making progress.” You know those times when you set out to read a book and your eyes just see a blur of letters, unable to focus on a word? That’s what my work felt like. I was doing the compositional version of doodling, but no picture was emerging.
It’s not that I didn’t have an idea. I did. A few years ago, I began composing “Meditations” for solo piano, which I often work on in-between other projects. They are sacred pieces written as reflections on certain Scripture passages, and I incorporate some of my favorite hymns. For a while I have known that I wanted to write one using the hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, which is itself a setting of Psalm 23. What better time is there to write on Psalm 23, a well-known and beloved Psalm that many find comforting in a time of loss and confusion? I love this Psalm and I love this hymn, but I still found it hard to compose.
Eventually, fragments formed into something usable. But, try as I might, I felt confined to a very square box of mostly traditional harmony and four-measure phrases. In places, I succumbed to using parallel fifths and octaves. I couldn’t get rid of hammering chords in root position. In the middle section, I couldn’t avoid the pedaling B and the glaring augmented 2nd and raised 7th of the harmonic minor. I tried. All other harmonies sounded not just out of place or unusual, but garish. I tried lessening the octaves and using inversions. I tried getting rid of the parallel fifths. The music sounded too delicate and anemic. I spent a lot of time fighting with this piece and myself, asking “Why won’t you do something else?”
I talk a lot with writers. My husband’s work as a pastor involves a lot of writing. My best friend is a writer. One thing that we have all experienced is that sometimes we have to “let go” and allow the work tell us how its going to be. I do think I have to go through a process of figuring out whether the problem with a piece is me not taking enough risks in my composing, or if it is the piece trying to tell me something. I don’t want to give up too soon if I need to stretch my own creativity. But in this case, I needed to ask “why must the piece be this way?”
This is why: In a time of so much tumult, we crave stability. Those traditional harmonies are soothing. Those four measure phrases are predictable. Those fifths and octaves are strong like pilings. The middle section explores the uncertainty of the time by only hinting at the original melody through the use of the dark qualities of the harmonic minor and rhythmic ambiguity. The pedal B provides a constant foundation while the upper voice swirls about. The constant repetition of notes in the transitional sections express the persistence in hope and faith. The form of the piece brings us back to where we began, in peace and contentment. And so the piece communicates the message of Psalm 23. I encourage you to read the original, but as this piece incorporates the hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” I include the lyrics below which are a beautiful paraphrase of this psalm and a few other Scriptures.
The King of Love My Shepherd Is Lyrics by Henry Williams Baker Original music by John Bacchus Dyker The King of love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am His, And He is mine forever. Where streams of living water flow My ransomed soul He leadeth, And, where the verdant pastures grow, With food celestial feedeth. Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, But yet in love He sought me, And on His shoulder gently laid, And home rejoicing brought me. In death’s dark vale I fear no ill With Thee, dear Lord, beside me; Thy rod and staff my comfort still, Thy Cross before to guide me. Thou spread’st a table in my sight; Thy unction grace bestoweth; And oh, what transport of delight From Thy pure chalice floweth! And so through all the length of days Thy goodness faileth never; Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise Within Thy house forever.
To see the score, click here.