My own weird hymn
Last week At dawn I chant my own weird hymn was awarded special distinction in the ASCAP Rudolf Nissim Prize competition. I thought I would revisit the challenge of writing for an ensemble with marvelous sonic potential, but one that comes out of an institution with values that in some respects are in tension with my own.
An anti-trumpet-concerto? Perhaps; It certainly casts a questioning glance on the tradition of the Romantic concerto, a tradition understood broadly as an expression of the heroic triumph of the individual over the collective.
In my piece the soloist does not really compete for primacy with the ensemble but instead comments on it from afar. In this way, it expresses a certain frailty in the contemporary lives of individuals. What to do if you are unsatisfied with the worn-out expressions made available by common assent? So much in contemporary life hinges on the idea that we are free individuals with the power to shape our world, that we could live life according to our own deeply felt values and not those that are forced upon us externally.
And yet, if I want to do my own thing how can it be my own? The very words that I am using now belong to us all. Not just the words, but the concepts, the references, the very air that carries (my) sounds. The questioning path of originality leads toward individuality, but also toward the unintelligible, the ineffable, toward isolation. It is the path from communal to private language. How can individuality have any meaning at all if not through shared language and culture? In short, we need each other in order to be ourselves.
And this is probably a good thing. Still, there is a lingering sense of loss in this state of affairs. It is a loss well acknowledged by Ives in the “perennial question of existence” posed by his unanswered trumpet. To forgo society’s ready-made answers is to assume a position of exteriority, to give up to a significant degree the power to directly influence those around you. To be an individual is to dwell in this distance, however close our proximity to others may be.
One of my most poignant musical experiences was at the end of a very soft concert. With the last piece dying away, very distant music, drifting in from some remote corridor, remained in the hall — or did it? It was so numinous as to seem almost impossible. Outside the music, beyond hearing. This, it seems to me, approaches the paradox of individuality. Both intimate and distant, dancing conspicuously on the threshold of imperceptibility, perfect individuality is unattainable and yet the pursuit of it grants indispensable meaning to our lives.