Sunday, October 4, 2015

As my Sister Returns from the Mission Field

My sister comes home from her mission tomorrow from Sydney, Australia. I haven't seen her since I left for mine on July 5, 2012. We've exchanged many emails, several photos, and seven short phone calls. One of those calls was the day she had flown into the Sydney airport, where she ran into my mission president and his wife, and they connected her to me. I could not have been more excited for her; twenty-one months into my mission, I wish I could tell her what lay ahead in her future. At the same time, I tried not to be aware of what was in mine.

The day I flew home from my mission, I prayed that I would never ever forget those marvelous experiences that I had as a missionary. I could never forget the amazing people that I had grown to love. I couldn't forget anything. How could such a time and place have completely changed who I was? These were just everyday people, living their lives; how could something so simple as a setting apart uttered with hands laid upon my head have put me on the path to desiring nothing but their happiness? I had never felt so torn apart as I realized that in no time at all, I would be released from once having been set apart to represent the Lord Jesus Christ.

As much as I feel I have done countless wonderful things since coming home - and many things have happened - God continues to grant me that final wish, that I not forget who I truly am - a Sydney RM, a revelatory missionary forever. One who knows the words revealed to Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail as D&C 121. I can't say I've been more faithful than previously, in fact if anything I have gone through much toil and confusion and to be honest the longing for that other world could not have tormented me more than it had at those times. But I'm grateful to, despite my difficulty in learning and adjusting, have gone through what I have. These are never the trials that I would have wanted! But what had I expected? Trials wouldn't be trials if they were easy. And yet they are so minute in the scheme of things.

I hope the people of Australia who knew that I once knew them could know that I still remember them clear as day. I'm so grateful for the increased memory I was given for that time and for that specific purpose. You're still in my heart. I remember that I taught you; that I befriended you on the street though you continually denied interest in lessons; I remember that I stood there with you into the waters of baptism as you accepted the greatest joy you could then receive. Some of you have disappeared and returned to your home country, some of you have found yourselves lost and once again in search of truth, and some remain, continuing your progress toward eternity. I wish that I could still reach you, though no longer missionary, still a friend. Still someone who cares deeply about you, to see you thrive something so powerful as the Atonement of Christ. But even if you can never hear my voice again, I know our Father in heaven continually hears my prayers for you, and is watching over you in every step you take. I wish you could know that He can never truly forsake you - for the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but "my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee."

When Sister Howes sent me this recording shortly after I performed the song in Hyde Park YSA Ward Easter fireside, she mentioned that she didn't know if I would share it or even if I would want to listen to it, but it was moving to her. I gave it a listen and immediately found my intonation, among other things, revolting. And truthfully I still do. But as I lose contact with more people that I knew as a missionary, my memories are slowly failing me with time. This song is a small piece of the love that I knew and felt in those last months in Australia and further evidence of the truth. Can I forget something so beautiful? Never. The gospel is true, regardless of what we do. I will never forget it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Two Piano Preludes

These pieces have actually been available for months, but I've realized that the only thing stopping me from getting back in blogger shape is myself. During this time I've had a stupor of though about the fate of this blog, seeing as my train of thought which had been running a clear direction three years ago suddenly took a very large turn. Whatever the case, I will never give up composition as a hobby, but my output will be more limited in terms of variety. Because I probably will not study the orchestral arranging and directing in the near future, I aim to steer in the direction of writing for small ensembles, if not simply for solo piano. The piano has enough grandeur to give me as a performer suitable happiness because of its already immense capacity as a solo instrument.

Well here I finally present to you two pieces that I hope can give you a sense of hope as you play. I also hope that one day one of my pianist friends will be able to record these for me without all the mistakes that I make in doing so so that these sounds would be enjoyable to listen to as well.

Download score: Prelude No. 1

I haven't much to say about anything that I write, except that the subtitle for this piece is indeed taken from the nursery rhyme about the demise of an egg, but additionally and more accurately alludes to a specific story in the Book of Mormon.

Download score: Prelude No. 2

I find the nearly ternary simplicity in the form of this piece quite pleasing. But alas, it can't always be this way.

It is difficult to classify this music in terms of form and I really don't feel qualified in giving names to my creations, so at this time these will be known as preludes. But as always, I leave the rest up to imagination.

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.