It was not until late in college that I realized a connection between what I consume aurally with what I produce musically. I began to realize this as a composer. I noticed that my music would inevitably be influenced by the music I grew up listening to and the harmonic language I had been accustomed to hearing. This initially disturbed me greatly, as I was unable to compose in an organic, creative method of pure self-expression, but have come to realize that my musical identity is connected to the music of my youth, and by realizing that I can choose to embrace it, or begin to move away from it. In college I began to listen to more “serious” music, and I have noticed that even though I still play and listen to all kinds of music, my study of classical music has influenced how I play piano, sing in ensembles, and even how I play contemporary worship music.
It is difficult to imagine or remember my first aural experiences, but perhaps common for most people, the sound of my parents’ voices comes to mind. Growing up in church, the first musical experiences I had were in worship singing praise songs and hearing choirs. In addition to live music, sounds from movies and television are imprinted in my aural memory. I remember watching Disney movies and learning to play the songs on the piano, and enjoying the Disney “sing-along” videos. When I was 5 I began piano lessons, to which I owe a great deal of my musical development. Because of the early start, I have always had a “good ear” when it comes to pitch and melody, and found elementary music classes to be rather easy. I found ear training exercises in my piano lessons simple and obvious, and quickly advanced to more difficult material. I hated practicing, but my mom reminds me I loved “composing” my own songs and discovering what melodies I could make on the piano. Though I never wrote anything down, I hope to someday recapture this childhood fascination with sound and melody.
Today my most impressive aural experiences are becoming increasingly diverse. At the core of my transcendental musical experiences is Bach. I have been overwhelmed with a sense of peace in playing and studying Bach’s Fugue in Ab from Well Tempered Clavier book 1; I have been moved to tears filled with a sense of comfort while riding my bike listening to a recording of O Jesu Christ Meins Lebens Licht; While rehearsing the St. Matthew Passion, I remember shivers up my spine and the hair standing up on the back of my neck from the soprano (boy-chorus) melody in the first movement on the chorale tune. Amidst the dense choral and instrumental counterpoint and pulsing bass line (depicting the impending suffering and “heartbeat” of Jesus’s passion) the simple unadorned chorale tune O Lamm Gottes pierced through my ears and into my soul. I understood that despite chaos happening all around, God is sovereign. The passion, crucifixion, and resurrection were in His plan from the beginning.
Besides Bach, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus has reduced me to tears. In its simple, elegantly stunning beauty, I find again assurance of God’s sovereignty. I’ve struggled to find the exact words to explain my feelings about that short piece, but perhaps words are not always necessary in describing music.
When listening to 20th century classical music, I have also had metaphysical aural experiences. At a concert by the Emerson String Quartet, amidst the usual string quartet fare of Mozart, Beethoven, and Fauré was Webern’s (in)famous 6 bagatelles for string quartet. Having studied post-tonal theory and serialism, I understood these pieces intellectually, but had not found any connection with them beyond that. Before that concert I respected the composer but was fine with leaving my feelings there. Looking at the program, I rolled my eyes and wondered how the audience would receive Webern. When the 6 bagatelles began, I was instantly enthralled by the mystery and my perspective of music was immediately re-oriented. Webern challenged my conceptions of what “beauty” was. Set against the backdrop of traditional ‘romantic’ or programmatic music I began to understand that beauty in music was more than just nice melodies and pretty chords. Webern taught me that fascination I had as a child with sound.
Another 20th century work that deeply impacted me is Messiaen’s Quartet pour le fin du temps. Similar to my Webern experience, I went into the concert with a pre-conceived opinion of the piece that I knew to be 20th century and therefore difficult to digest. It was a student performance during a summer program for music composition and conducting I attended, so on top of the in-accessibility of Messiaen was my prejudice against ‘student’ performers. During the 7th and final movement of the piece, ‘Louange a L’Immortalite de Jesus / Praise to the immortality of Jesus’, I remember hearing the long sustained notes of the violin climbing gradually to its highest tessitura paint the picture of Jesus on earth ascending to the Father. In the repeated pianissimo chords in the piano I heard the infinite and immortal nature of Jesus. The final forte resolution and agreement of violin and piano near the end of paint the picture of heaven. Again, words here somehow fail to describe the experience fully. Give it a listen!
EDIT: Thanks to the fact that I live in the 21st century, I have found a video recording of this very performance of the Messiaen I was talking about. I contacted my friend Aubrey, who played the violin part that changed my life, and she kindly allowed me to share it here. She says:
It is wonderful to hear from you. I would be honored to have you post that recording of Messiaen to your blog. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I’m so grateful I got to share it with such incredible musicians and dear friends