A talk given by Pamela at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ottawa, April 21, 2019. She also presented two songs she had written, accompanied by clarinet and piano. Click song titles to see videos of the two songs on this website:
Where does the Song come from, such beauty in my ear?
I would sing its melody, sing it very clear.
Where does the song go to when it has been sung?
It’s carried home, back to the source of everyone.
Everyone is a singer, every singer has a song.
Singing our true story, other hearts can sing along.
Every voice has its magic When its time has come to sing!
Let us make the rafters ring!
So where does the song come from, the music and the words? And how does it grow into a finished piece of music?
An anthroposophical artist friend, upon hearing I liked to compose said, “Oh, that means you must hear the music of the spheres?” The what, I asked? He ignored my ignorance.
It’s been said that the ideas are out there circulating and if it comes to you, snatch it and make it yours, because if you don’t another will take it up. And once, having let an idea go, I encountered a song written around the same time by someone else that closely caught the essence of what I would have written. Hmm. Is that what is meant by the music of the spheres? Is it something in the collective unconscious?
I decided to ask some old friends for their thoughts:
Bob Schumann said,
“In order to compose, all you need to do is remember a tune that nobody else has thought of.”
Hmm. Dear Luddy van B.:
“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”
“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.”
My experience is that many of my songs have come out of feelings I have needed to explore, and the songwriting process opens up that opportunity to discover myself through my self-expression. Other songs have come out of meditation or to address the needs of a group I am working with at the time.
Most of my music has been with words, but at times words are limiting. I am not alone with that experience.
“Music begins where the possibilities of language end.”
“There are no words, it’s only music there.”
“Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words.”
“Even if, in one or other of them, I had a particular word or words in mind, I would not tell anyone, because the same word means different things to different people. Only the songs say the same thing, arouse the same feeling, in everyone – a feeling that can’t be expressed in words.”
I like to think that we are each a diamond. When we allow the divine light to shine through us, we create our songs. No two diamonds are exactly the same. So, no two people will ever come up with the exact same song. Themes may be universal, but if we come from our own story, the music will be unique and nuanced.
I have a song exploring this diamond concept, written in a mystical moment. Reading it to my writers’ group, only one person “got” it. But when I sang it, they felt it.
I once found myself alone at the piano in the choir room at All Saints Cathedral in Halifax, where I was singing. Lining the walls were portraits of the various music directors of the past and present. I started improvising at the piano, just letting my fingers roam the keys, pouring out my soul. Then I looked at one of the portraits, and my fingers changed their pattern. I turned to the next picture, and again my fingers moved with different harmonies and rhythms. This was cool. In music therapy, we might call it empathic playing. But I’d never had the experience with a portrait, before. Each little improvisation had a unique flavor. Though I didn’t know the musicians’ music or personalities, I was able to get some sense of them through what came through my fingers.
Music, soul and emotion are so connected.
“I adore art… when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.”
“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.”
So how to write music. Evidently there is an emotional component that must be there. Then we must act on it.
“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.”
Ha, he was a organist and had someone else working the billows! And he was not a wind player.
Goethe, the philosopher and wordsmith whose ideas and wisdom was shaking Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and whose poetry inspired many composers, wrote
“Courage is the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success.” “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred…unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
Schubert, who was highly inspired by Goethe, and from the age of 17 used his poetry for over 60 songs, wrote,
“No one understands another’s grief, no one understands another’s joy… My music is the product of my talent and my misery. And that which I have written in my greatest distress is what the world seems to like best.” – there he’s saying that each person’s expression of their own inner world and emotional experience is unique and valued. Again he wrote, “My compositions spring from my sorrows. Those that give the world the greatest delight, were born out of my deepest griefs.”
So, never give up on the power of your emotions, and know that the struggle to communicate your inner world is something of value, and the universe will respond.
Schubert also speaks of music’s transformative power.
“When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it was transformed for me into love.”
Sounds like something of the healing path, of ex-pressing – moving out of the sorrow to allow love to enter.
We can only really compose out of our authenticity, our sense of connectedness at the time we write. Schubert said,
“I never force myself to be devout except when I feel so inspired, and never compose hymns of prayers unless I feel within me real and true devotion.”
That’s it for the Big Wigs… literally.
Phew. By the time Schubert died at 31, he had composed more than 640 songs plus symphonies, operas, chamber works, over 1500 works. At 31, I was just getting started.
I wrote my first song at age 11 or 12, perhaps inspired by a book of Longfellow’s poetry I had found dating from 1895. I loved to read it out loud and let the words whirl around in my mouth. My poetry throughout my teen years was mostly expressions of heartbreak and teen angst.
At university, I was introduced to Goethe’s poem “Heiden Roselein” in my German class. And loved it though I didn’t wake up to the metaphoric meaning of it until my 30s, through someone’s illuminating comments. Also, back in university, my French prof introduced us to the French philosophical poets – Baudelaire and Rambeau – deep stuff when you understand the language, but at times unfathomable to one who was wanting to learn how to have a conversation – and I stopped writing my poetry because I was comparing myself to them, and it was so totally out of my league.
Then a few years later, I went to my first folk festival, and heard songs of a North Dakota man, Chuck Suky, who sang of going home to the farm for haying time, and country dances, and I realized I can write like that. And that’s when my songs started coming forward. What did the Big Wigs say? It starts with connecting with your own story, and then pressing a few notes on the piano. Or as writers say, moving your pen on the page….or choosing a color of crayon. Just do something then the universe will kick in and support your action.
So, at times words come to me, and at other times, looking through other peoples’ poetry I may find a verse that resonates with me; that speaks to some part of my life experience.
Mory Ghomshei and I met about 24 years ago at the Vancouver Unitarian church between Oak and Cambie, some of you know it. There was a congregational meeting after a service, and with our tea cups in hand we went in to see what was going on. There was some issue within the congregation and they were going around giving people a chance to speak to it. After a little while, I turned to him and whispered, “they’re forgetting about the soul of the Church.” He said, “Yes, they are.” And we left and started planning a service to nurture the group soul, a service that would draw on the gift of Sufi storytelling that was part of his heritage and my acting, music, and presentation skills.
Mory Ghomshei is a Sufi wisdom holder and teacher from Iran. His father was a highly esteemed poet and scholar, and his siblings continue the teaching in Iran and Europe. He has been focusing his teaching in the west over many years, mostly, but not exclusively, within the Iranian community. At the time, he was teaching a group of English speakers working with an epic poem by Attar, called the Conference of the Birds. He invited me to join the group, and we discovered a meeting of minds and the spirit. He rewrote part of the story of the Conference of the Birds for us to use in the service. A few years later, he put that story together with some others to produce a little book, called Paradise Never Lost. One of these stories, called “Passion,” has several poems and he invited me to try my hand at setting music to his poems for the event of his book launching. And so I did. Two songs, “Light Has a Shadow” and “The Food of Lovers” were performed at the launching, by me with my guitar. I proceeded to arrange them for voice with cello and violin, and clarinet and French horn, for other events. I love the story. There is magic in it. And the story and songs, served to inspire me and helped me to find hope in one of the darkest times of my life. Around the time of the launching, I had also started working on two other poems, and have long wanted to complete them, and one day maybe to do a whole musical story telling show with this. The opportunity to lead this service, focusing on creativity, prompted me to take up the other two poems and get to work, and here we are.
To write music for these poems, meant re-reading the story, falling in love with it again, and re-connecting with the characters, finding sympathy and empathy for each, which could help me to be their voice – like an actor playing all the parts. Each poem has a purpose, something to express on behalf of the character who is saying it, whether the Prince, the Princess or the narrator in the case of the other two songs. Each poem was read out loud many times, so I could get the flow and rhythm of the words, listen for pieces of melody, and feel how to shape the structure of the song. In both cases, I felt something more was needed in terms of poetry, and I am grateful that Mory was open to working with me on it, and accepting some suggestions. Goethe, apparently, did not like people messing with his poems, not even repeating a line. But then he was an accomplished poet writing in his native language with a firm grasp of rhyme and metre. English was Mory’s third language and poetry was not his profession. And these days free verse is common, and it is not so easy to compose to. I was a fledgling composer, and he was a fledgling poet in English.
Once the melodies for the songs were composed, and chords chosen with my guitar, I started listening to the songs in my head, imagining how the clarinet and piano might be used. Schubert had such a way with his piano accompaniments. Where other composers wrote the piano part to be a harmonic accompaniment to the melody, he wrote his to be an equal partner in telling the story within the poem, like a tonal illustration. For example, “Ich hort ein Bachlein rauschen, voll aus dem Felsen Quell.” The singer is walking by a stream and asking, “Is this my path?” Here the piano plays quickly flowing notes that imitate a river or stream.
In the case of my songs, I had a sense of Joe’s abilities on the piano, and my time and piano limitations, and decided that at this time the piano would be safe in his capable hands, as the harmonic holder, giving some texture and rhythm, and trusting his ability to come up with his part guided by my chords, suggestions and the other parts.
I gave the clarinet has a couple of roles. It offers a melody for the introductions, and counter melodies to contrast and complement the singing voice, and fill in spaces when the voice is not singing. Sometimes, though, I want it to support the vocal part, and then it plays a close harmony or in unison with the voice. The next piece, “Come Dance with Me,” is a song the Princess sings to the Prince in the garden before she tells him her story. Here at times the clarinet has the Prince’s voice. You will hear the singer and clarinet alternating – as if one calls out and the other hears and sings back from a distance, until they come together in harmony. Listen for the relationship in the two voices.
There is so much more I could say, but the time has come to wind down. Before I close with another quote, if you remember the music used in the prelude, Vivaldi’s “Spring” from the Four Seasons, he has the violins making the sounds of bird calls. Did anyone hear that? Often in music, images are expressed through the voicings of instruments. The music in the postlude, is Copland’s “Hoe Down” from his Rodeo Suite. As you listen to it, what images come to your mind? What might he have been thinking of as he wrote the music? What feelings come up in you? Does it remind you of anything?
Now to close:…. a quote by contemporary film maker, poet, writer Suzy Kassem:
“We are all beautiful instruments of God. He created many notes in music so that we would not be stuck playing the same song. Be music always. Keep changing the keys, tones, pitch, and volume of each of the songs you create along your journey and play on. Nobody will ever reach ultimate perfection in this lifetime, but trying to achieve it is a full-time job. Start now and don’t stop. Make your book of life a musical. Never abandon obligations, but have fun leaving behind a colorful legacy. Never allow anybody to be the composer of your own destiny. Take control of your life, and never allow limitations implanted by society, tell you how your music is supposed to sound — or how your book is supposed to be written.”