Sunday, November 2, 2014

Finding True Beauty

I feel I must ask again with President Spencer W. Kimball, where is that Beethoven and Brahms among us? Anyone, irrespective of religion, race, or time, who has such mastery of their musical language as to produce truly sublime works of art?

I believe I am beginning to see more clearly the purpose behind all of this. I used to believe in a key, a secret if you will, that the great masters could use to create beautiful music. That somehow upon my search I would be able to unlock what they had. But I had all the music that I wanted in front of me, and I couldn't figure it out. It has to be in the chords, or the chromaticism, or the colors, or perhaps a combination. But even with all of that laid in front of my face, there really wasn't a reason why the end result should be beautiful. I looked at the music, and it looked like any other old piece of music.

As I continue my search for the purpose of music, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the ultimate goal of music is indeed to be beautiful. Beautiful; this is not to be confused with pretty, or cool, or relaxing. These other descriptions fall under subjective aesthetic judgment, suggesting that this beauty can change with time or perspective. I speak here of true beauty. This is beauty on a whole different level, that withstands the test of all time and people.

But how can there possibly be true beauty?

It's hard to say. True beauty is rare, extremely rare. This skill cannot be taught by anyone in this world. I would venture to say that of all those composers whom we know that wrote enjoyable music, only a small handful of those pieces they wrote are truly beautiful. To the hearer, this music cannot grow old, but neither did its beauty have to be forced; that kind of beauty is relative. True beauty can be recognized by any, the educated and the uneducated, the poor and the rich, and will remain so no matter how much a person studies and learns the techniques and materials of music, only because this beauty has no human explanation. Read through the score you will, analyze the form you will, the harmony, the counterpoint, and thoughts pouring through the performers' minds as this music is played. The answers still won't be there.

But yet it can be recognized! There is great power that lies in the "simplice e bella" Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. There is something truly moving about Sergei Rachmaninoff's or Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2. These pieces are not pretty. They are profoundly beautiful, in the same way beauty in a person is not found in a Tinder photo, but in the living, breathing miracle of that person. The lives of these pieces are immortal.

I am not asking for perfectionism. I am asking for truth. I want the composers of today to have hope. This world is lacking in truly beautiful music. There is plenty of good-sounding music, a skill which can be taught and copied by anyone. You can go and create this music and still make the world a better place. But true beauty; I believe it can yet be made, by truly seeking what is good and sharing it, changing people's lives forever.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Pianist Gratis

Here's my proposition. I want to come play the piano with you. For free, as a friend.

I can't remember how long it has been since I've been here in music school. Specialization has required that I fill a very controlled niche in the school where I belong. In fact it's been so long that upon returning home from my mission, I had nearly forgotten why I loved music in the first place, and I've only just remembered.

The first and foremost aspect that I have loved about being a musician is being a collaborative pianist.

There are many reasons behind this. It is not that I enjoy following or being followed, although I usually resort to the former, but it brings to the table the true meaning of musicianship: real people, flaws and all, think and speak together on a higher level. There are also reasons behind the lack of calls I have received as of late to do this work, the primary being that I am not currently in the piano studio taking lessons. I understand that being a red flag for many of you, considering all of the possible piano majors you could collaborate with. But there really are so many anyway, how would you know which ones to try out? Can you even call them up and ask to try them out?

A beloved memory of mine is once being called into a local vocal studio to sightread accompaniment for all of the students in preparation for their performance at a national competition. They sang everything from Mozart to Hammerstein. I refused to look at the pieces prior, because the notes on the page are music to me, and the energy that comes from transforming it into reality is incorruptible. It will pull you forward no matter how tired you are, because it is music that you are creating at full force. I will perhaps note that I was neglected to be paid for this gig. But that actually mattered little to me, as my hobby had become a cherished, useful thing for them to enjoy.

I was at a loss after returning from my mission because I had forgotten where to find the music. The sheets of notes I was reading didn't seem to contain music. How strange it seems to me, that rush didn't return even after I had given a good listen to piano, orchestral, and chamber repertoire. It was choral music. It was the sound of harmony created by nothing but people and their God-given gifts. This is expression on a higher level, one that can be shared by all people. After that the basics began to flow again. The sounds of a French ballad sounded so sweet that only a few days prior that seemed nothing but an arrayed set of pitches. I now enjoy music of every instrumentation and genre. This energy is flowing back to me because it is what I have been doing for a lifetime.

So how do you know I'm not just a guy that plays the organ at church?

"I have never met such a young student able to play such difficult music without even having to blink an eye! His sightreading skills are magnificent and his technique and dedication are the best I've seen. I highly recommend Josh--he is talented and really a joy to work with. He is easygoing, professional, and a fantastic accompanist! He is one of the best."

- Jennifer Berry, Choral Director at Frederick County Public Schools

I'm not doing this for gigs. I'm doing this for me. I speak to you on a professional level, but this is something that I feel I must volunteer. Don't dare be afraid to ask for my help! I am here to serve whether in the practice room or the recital hall. I understand that you may ask for a piano major to accompany you. Piano majors accompany me. That's wonderful! I will be there when they cannot, I will play through your music with you to give you the bigger picture. I will be there for when you practice and need some advice. It will only help, and that is the only way I will allow it to be. Although I believe that all college pianists are drastically underpaid, that's never what I wanted for myself. I need this to be part of my lifestyle, and I'm not willing to let go of it again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Coming To Terms With Music Composition

There are some answers that have stared you in the face from the very beginning of your search, but sounded so simple that you dismissed them. The questions that have fueled my search in the world of music — for what can define beauty, what is music, and what purpose does it serve? — have often led me to form unsatisfactory answers along the lines of "it depends". Liberality and open-mindedness: I do not belittle these things, though they are what propelled me as I underwent the mental changes necessary to modify my taste and theories in music, and lived without a strict set of rules. Not the rules presented by common practice tonality, but in a wider sense, rules that could universally govern music as it has been heard since the beginning of time. As I attached myself to this school of "musical agnosticism", I would dive more deeply into the sounds of what I believed to be historically significant musics of all kinds in the late twentieth century, in search of reason, or some principle or another that could support what these people who fascinated me were writing, justifying my progression in this field of study.

Perhaps had I not first gained a testimony of the solid principles regarding my faith in God, I may have recently simply dropped my faith in all things, seeing no solution to such philosophical questions. I know that may be unfair, considering that perhaps all people at one time or another have also asked these and that is reason enough to believe that the answers do not exist. However, I know that some things are concrete, of science, mathematics, and nature. There is beauty enough in these true things that give me hope for the future.

Things that emanate hope, love, and faith. Music and sound with identity, neither plain nor ridiculous. Music that holds within it life. These traits would do well in every new composition.

Can the modern composer begin his studies without feeling that we currently live in a time of such absolute freedom and lawlessness, that beauty is simply perception? Where is the standard for beauty and passion? Perhaps there is not a decisive line, but stand back and see if there is not a threshold that can be exceeded. Can randomness, atonality, and experimentation be used other than to signify randomness, atonality, or experimentation? One listening to these unimaginative forms would without difficulty point them out. We live in a "century of death" as Bernstein declared, in which the underground world of classical music pushes itself further and further out of sight. The populace should not have to turn to film score compositions to find new creations with life. They alone do not hold the key to greater music. A new century is still on the rise. Time grows ripe for music to experience a true rebirth.

I think anyone wishing to pursue this course of study already knows the answers to the most simple questions. Any success can only come with passion and self-discipline, and with or without the aid of fellow peers and professors, nothing else will bring about results. You will find that, just as with everything else, music cannot be taught. It must be developed, through rigorous self-discipline, diligent effort, and earnest and sincere practice.

"Oh, how our world needs statesmen! And we ask again with George Bernard Shaw, 'Why not?' We have the raw material, we have the facilities, we can excel in training. We have the spiritual climate. We must train statesmen, not demagogues; men of integrity, not weaklings who for a mess of pottage will sell their birthright. We must develop these precious youth to know the art of statesmanship, to know people and conditions, to know situations and problems, but men who will be trained so thoroughly in the arts of their future work and in the basic honesties and integrities and spiritual concepts that there will be no compromise of principle." [ref]

Had I not personally investigated the matter? Had I not once been convinced that the truth was somewhere on the earth? I wondered time after time, as I sat there in nearly empty recital halls reserved for concerts of new music, where was this wealth of wisdom that could fuel such innovation. I have seen and heard enough for my own tastes to toy with the works of the philosophies of modernism. Therein have I found so many examples of beauty, smothered in twentieth-century stipulation for free originality. I know that my views are disputable, as I was once one who would argue against such. I cannot say that I know more than anyone. But I am not afraid to say that I believe that this world deserves something more.

I want you to give me a master of melody and color, one who can weave themes of fine personality, detail, and development. Each new creation born as the most beautiful spirit of its time, that will leave no eye dry. Every note filled with power to justify its existence. With love, always, as an essential ingredient. A true master; there are some who qualify, but there must be more. Who will take up this mantle?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Truth Will Set You Free

And just like that, my two years are up.

Allow me a moment to think that to myself one more time. Two years; every moment spent in dedication to the service of God. I cannot even begin to touch on the immensity of what has happened to me and to those with whom I was able to interact. I have simply been so incredibly blessed by this experience. I could not have known how it would have changed me. I know every returned missionary has experienced this, but still nothing could have prepared me for that startling morning when I awoke the day after I had arrived home. And there they were, free for me to use. A phone capable of data, the Internet at my grasp, music and film, casual outfits, and all the time of the world without constraint. Oh how much I could not stand the thought that these things were once again mine to have.

"Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness."

It amazes me how much I did not understand this scripture before. And how little of it I still comprehend. The Lord truly spoke these words to the prophet Joseph Smith as he and his friends suffered for nine months in Liberty Jail. The prophet went on to write, "It seems to me my heart will always be more tender after this than ever it was before." Periods of challenges faced my companions and me but were always accompanied with stronger love, greater wisdom, and a closeness to God that I cherished. A greater closeness to God allows us to gain better relationships with others, as our hearts become as His is.

God really does have a way of teaching us by giving us the experience we need. Some doctrines must be put to action before they are known. He just knows us. But He extends His trust towards us as we perform our little acts of faith. I have learned for myself that we have the power to change our given situations once we can change our eyes. I have learned that we are so mightily blessed each and every day with the tender mercies of the Lord. How can we find these things, if at not first with the change in the way we see? And perhaps even more important, how can we truly be happy, if we do not first experience a change of heart?

I reckon that our hearts are somewhere there along the spectrum. The Lord requires it all. And we find so many treasures when our hearts are set upon the things of eternal nature. Let this be woven into your chosen shade of life. I reckon that a greater study of the Savior can help us each in our endeavor to use His Atonement to bring about that change. Frequent prayer and scripture study. Once we find the treasure within these little acts of faith, life cannot be lived without them. There is still so, so much that can be learned from consistent study of the word of God.

My friends, I know that this gospel is true. I have witnessed too much of this reality to question it. God truly does live. I love my Savior, Jesus Christ. I know that all men are free to believe what they may, but I cannot promise you any greater joy than that which I have felt, that you can receive for yourself. If you have any questions at all, I invite you to ask them. There are missionaries in every corner of the world, and I invite you to meet with them, yes, any and all of you. They will bring with them a spirit and a message that will bring you what you seek.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wind Symphony Tour

I wrote a blurb about touring Europe with the BYU Wind Symphony on my family's blog, so head on over there to read about it. Overall it was a fantastic experience. I only we could have stayed in one place for longer! But I'm glad we saw every place that we did, because there were so many sights. And seeing YSAs and faithful families on other continents was an inspiration to me; it was amazing to meet all these people from other cultures. Now I'm back in Provo on my second day missing four wisdom teeth, and so far I feel no pain or swelling coming on - knock on wood! The funny thing was leaving right after winter semester and returning in the middle of spring semester: this campus is empty! But it's been fun running into old friends at different times. I'm glad not everyone's left. But soon I will go home... just one more week. Oh, the excitement of traveling.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How Do You Evaluate A Year?

Okay, there are still finals left for this semester - the majority for which I am terrified - but I'm afraid that there won't be much time to write anything afterward and I feel like I should reflect on the changes I've made over my first year in college. It will all be a rush: after finals, I need to hurry up and move out, rehearse with the Wind Symphony for a few days, ship off to tour Europe for three weeks, fly back here to get my wisdom teeth yanked, return home for a month, then say goodbye so I can fly back to the MTC in Provo by July 5. After that the remainder of two years I will be serving my mission in Australia, and for that period of time it is unlikely that this blog will even be updated. But enough about my immediate future.

I remember when I first posted about arriving here in Utah. It was kind of like it is now - excitement, anxiety for the future. The complications of moving around so much! Here I was, not knowing anybody, expecting to eventually be able to become familiar with the place and lots of people. Then there was band camp. What a hot, dry, exhausting week. I made really good friends in band, especially with the members of my section, my skin became black and I drank more water than I ever could have imagined. This is some strange new climate I've (almost) gotten accustomed to! But truly marching band was one of the keys to my existence last semester. It was the reason my roommates hardly ever saw me; the football games, rehearsals, socials, and variety show were kind of the highlights of the semester.

Oh the roommates. What can I say? That indeed first impressions are often wrong. They know I thought I lived with weirdos when I first moved in. How judgmental could I be? I couldn't have picked a better bunch to room with, not on the entire campus. They've become my best friends here and I love just sitting around talking with them about anything, even the dumbest things. I've probably lost a few IQ points in the process. We lived in Snow Hall last semester until it got torn down. God bless. But then we were rewarded with Building 26 of the luxurious new apartments in New Heritage. It's practically so easy to live here that time's really flown by so quickly.

I've gone off on composing adventures. Late nights - that's when the ideas came to me. Pulled way too many all-nighters in relation to this. Even though my output was small, I've gained a lot of experience and insight in my own writing. I probably learned a lot more in Music Theory and Ear Training than I think I have, because at least something's changed. And my struggle with new music continues until today. Even if I was aware of the strange things in modern music when I was in high school, I still wasn't prepared for the ways it would hit me in college. Especially when taking Music Composition and being assigned to write in new styles that I would never attempt on my own. These things brought many, many questions into my head about the entire purpose of music. But I have enjoyed the new music concerts. I was lucky (and wise) enough to attend as many as I could and broaden my musical tastes. I was lucky to attend any concert actually. I've loved stalking BYU Arts for events that I could go to and see all the concerts, recitals, and shows. It's one of those gems of living so near the HFAC.

It's in the HFAC that I built the majority of my web of relationships. People see me there all the time; it is my second home. You do meet the most amazing people there. I've seen talent that has driven me to a point of jealousy that had become rage. I've met other people with startlingly similar interests as me. And for some of the friends I've made there, quickly or slowly, I hold so much love and respect. I still don't understand how they can be both so talented and have such strong testimonies at the same time... it's like they're so perfect. Of course this is impressive when it comes to science and engineering, but good musicianship speaks to me on a personal level.

Other random memories. Getting mission papers done in secret. Clarinet fest (unsuccessful all-nighters). Bishop setting us up on dates. Being the toe for the independence half-time show. Hearing that great rendition of 'Colors of the Wind' for the first time. Variety shows. Mission calls. Music civ exams. Seeing my siblings (rarely) and getting Yogurtland. Juries. Frosted rocks. The sloth video. Hiking the Y at night. Home teaching woes, and triumphs. Quoting Mulan. Belting H2$ at 2AM. Por que no funciona la red? From Cumorah's Hill rehearsals. Baconators. The power of tunnel singing. Seeing old friends on campus. Standing in the Drive-thru at Wendy's. Music (and instruments) falling apart onstage. Joseph Alessi, Catharine Hartig, and Bill Smith. VanDoren, Mitchell Lurie, and Rico! Terrible Chinese food. American Heritage lectures. Stop it! My roommates' laughs. Last-minute hires. And basically going to every concert possible.

So, looking back. I know I skipped a ton, but you can't keep track of everything. If one thing has changed about me, what would that be? I feel that college that been a truly humbling experience for me, to learn about myself, to learn about God. I've learned a ton in such a short amount of time, and I expect to learn much more in the coming years. But using this experience as a way to wipe my slate clean and adapt to a new environment has allowed me to change my attitude toward life. I've been given the chance to make myself whatever I wanted to be out here, and I've chosen to be happy with the conditions I chose. This has been a wonderful year, and I'm going to miss anyone that I don't see for a while. It's almost time to say goodbye; I've said a few already. This is one amazing school and I couldn't be more grateful for the gifts and opportunities I've gotten because of it.

Let us all press on!