Indiana Jones and the Sanctum of Wisdom

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on April 23, 2015 @ 3:17 pm



I changed my applied area of study to composition after one unnoteworthy (pun intended) semester as a saxophone major. I was tasked by my mentor, Professor Robert Beadell, to compose something for the student composer recital that spring. I decided to write a piece for tenor voice and piano.

The search for a text was a journey. I wanted to find a text that was unfamiliar, or written by an author who was relatively unknown. I considered asking a friend to compose a text for me, but decided to simply start exploring.

For whatever reason I am a research addict and, prior to the internet, that required me to head to the library. I was most at home in the Keene Memorial Library in Fremont since I had spent the better part of my childhood summers there avoiding the heat and humidity of June and July. I devoured the variety of reading materials contained within and, quite frankly, enjoyed viewing the displays of the “human form,” in photography and art books inside that climate controlled sanctuary. Forgive me. My curiosity apparently knows no bounds.

I began my research by grabbing a large pile of books from the poetry section and started exploring. I felt like Indiana Jones dodging literary pitfalls and linguistic snares. This treasure hunt was, like many, one in which the existence of the prize was expected, but not guaranteed. I would simply have to double-check that I was still donning my trademark fedora and press on.

The heavy, dust-covered anthologies received my initial attention. I labored through page after page of classic ballads, sonnets and rhymes. I was even willing to give haiku a chance. Nothing spoke to me. I wasn’t looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but I couldn’t settle for a bottle cap discovered with a metal detector either. I spent a long weekend hunkered down in my favorite Fremont hot spot and wondered if I should beckon the spirit of Hazel M. Keene, after whom the library was named, to aid me on my quest.

Without fanfare I came across a thin, unassuming, “modern” collection of poetry. I can’t remember the title of the book now, but I remember the moment I found my Golden Idol, “A Progress Without Trumpets.” As a musician, I adored the title of the poem, but thought the author’s name was too pedestrian. Leroy Smith Jr? Smith? SMITH? It’s about as bad as Schmit. Then I read his work.

A Progress Without Trumpets by Leroy Smith Jr.
“Summer died one morning while we slept and we were in autumn before we missed her.
And recalled with that affection which is remorse for half-indifference towards the dead we loved.
We were in autumn and a skin of ice taunted our blood and broke while we remembered stock-scented, sultry noons and summer’s eyes warming our own to sleep where paradise mused in the sea-voiced leaves.
And so we slumbered past knells for spring and nod.
Now the autumn dies.”

Adventure complete! I photocopied the page from the book and headed back to Lincoln, Raiders of the Ark theme playing in my head, satisfied. The song came together very quickly and I was fortunate to have a wonderful young man, now my good friend, Scott Herr premiere it.

A few years ago I went back to the Keene Memorial Library to find that book. The librarians and I searched diligently. It has never been found. I contacted Mr. Smith’s widow to learn more. She said all his works are in the archives at Penn State University. Maybe someday Indiana Jones will visit State College, Pa.

Here is the premiere of “A Progress Without Trumpets.” It was the first time I heard one of my original compositions. Thanks for letting me share.…/ew…/a_progress_without_trumpets.mp3

Beautiful Gifts

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on April 20, 2015 @ 7:00 am


I recently had the pleasure of judging a composition contest sponsored by the Lincoln Music Teachers Association. This was the first time I had judged a contest of this sort. All of the adjudicating I had done up to this point was for performance-based contests. A composition contest was a new experience. It was a joy.

When I received the compositions, a stack of over forty scores and recordings, I admit I was a bit overwhelmed. That’s a lot of music! However, once I got into the mindset for evaluating, it was quite enjoyable.

A composition contest is a strange thing. Rating different pieces of art is a seemingly unavailing undertaking. There are two areas of evaluation: the quality of construction and the value of the work. Certainly one can be objective about the construction, the understanding and application of music theory, and the way in which a piece is crafted, but as far as its objective worth, that is much more difficult.

Obviously, we all have different likes and dislikes. Attempting to encourage everyone to agree on any one thing is a futile endeavor. It is not simply a matter that some folks are trying to be disagreeable, but the undeniable fact that humans are all wired differently. We experience the world individually and one’s reality is impacted by the events of one’s life. I might like steak and you might prefer kale. (We can argue the objective superiority of steak at another time.) Ten judges could look at the same forty pieces of music and come up with ten different sets of results. While they might find some commonalities, especially with regard to construction, what they personally value or “like” about each piece would arguably be different.

Beauty or meaningfulness is, undoubtedly, in the eye and ear of the beholder. These students created many different types of pieces in a variety of genres. Each was beautiful in its own way. Each piece was meaningful in its own way. Even pieces that were dissonant or disjointed embodied a certain beauty. I found beauty in the fact that children composed most of the works. It was beautiful to see and hear their efforts and to know that they were sharing a part of themselves with an audience.

At the awards concert, I was able to sit and listen to the contestants perform their works and I finally put faces to the anonymous compositions I had evaluated. It was a delight. When I was given the opportunity to speak, I felt it was important to acknowledge a few points.

First, the greatest value of the contest is not the place they finished or the award they won, but the fact that the contest provides students a time, a date and a venue for which to write. It can be difficult to write with no imminent performance scheduled. It is discouraging to write something and leave it in a drawer to gather dust. A live performance is an invaluable gift for a composer.

Second, it is important to thank the teachers and parents, because they invest a great deal of time, energy and money into the endeavors of their students. A friend recently reminded me that they’ve never met a middle-aged person who has ever said they were happy they quit music. Thank you parents and teachers for your encouragement and persistence. Encouragement is another priceless gift.

Third, it is important to thank the students for writing. It is easy to look at world events and find ugliness. It is not difficult to become discouraged and frustrated with the news on TV and to view the world through a negative filter. People who create art, however, make their lives and the lives of others richer, and they add beauty to the world. The world needs more beauty and I am grateful to the students who composed these pieces, because they did their part to make the world a better, more beautiful place. Thank you for this treasured gift.

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

-Leonard Bernstein

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace