Racial Injustice Is Worth the Fight

The life and times of Perry...

It’s hard to imagine that a whole week has gone by since the tragic death of George Floyd in the United States of America, and yet the protests continue around the world.

When we see the images beamed across our television screens it is also hard to call the United States of America, ‘United’!

United is far from the truth, the streets are teeming with people who are angry that Racial Injustice continues to blight this once proud country.

Unfortunately many of the protests that we see through local media channels show that the often peaceful protests have been blighted by people who take it a step to far, and turn to violence and looting. Almost as if they are wanting to exacerbate the issue and raise the importance factor up a tad even more.

Yet for me the images that resonate most are the ones where we see the…

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Listening to

I’m fascinated by Children of the Otter, a collaboration between Russian composer Vladimir Martynov and Tuvan ensemble Huun Huur Tu. I’ve listened to HHT for years, but I wasn’t familiar with Martynov. I will be seeking his works out in the future. Anyway, this album gives me all the feels.

I sometimes make Spotify playlists for inspiration on specific projects. For The Unseen Realm score, I made two. I give them code names, for mystery. I made the first, Project Quantum, when I first met with the directors to watch a rough cut of the film. It had a sort of spacey, cosmic feel. Turns out, the producer wanted a different direction, more grounded in the human elements of the story. “Make me feel something,” he said. “I want people to walk out of this picture hopeful and uplifted, like they’re heroes.” This second list, Project Invisibilis, reflects that updated brief.

At this exact moment I’m listening to Víctor by my Facebook friend and composer Albert Roda. Lovely and sentimental, in the best way.

I’m looking for my next project, which will be for myself, and so I’m listening pretty broadly to catch a mood. Stay tuned!

Creation: Teardown

ARTISTIC OUTPUT IS ALL TOO OFTEN sacralized and mystified in order to protect the artist and their world from the reality that work is work and a lot of what one does as an artist is mundane. Not only do you have to spend many hours of toil building a thing, you also have to build a mythology around it. An image. A posture.

My posture, then, will be to de-mythologize the process, the artifact, and the artist (!) as much as I can, to draw back the curtain and show the man at the levers. By exposing its construction, my aim is to enlarge the work rather than diminish it.

I believe art should make us feel more human, not less.

Creation is a suite for orchestra and chorus. It’s the biggest, most serious piece of music I’ve ever written, and I learned a lot in the process.

Let’s dig in and see how this sausage got made!

The rest of this will make more sense if you know what I’m talking about; you can get the sheet music or you can listen online.

What is it?

  • 11 movements
  • 1,360 measures of music
  • Around 47 minutes
  • Piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd doubles bass flute), 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 bassoon, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones (3rd bass), 1 tuba, timpani plus four percussionists, full SATB chorus, strings
  • More than 48,000 notes
  • 600 pages or so of printed score (170 pp) and parts
  • 4 years
  • 1 crazy composer
Score, 170pp

Inception

I think it must have been either hubris or bad judgement that led me to take as my topic the entire world and everything in it for my first major work for orchestra. Looking back, I think I should have written a little suite about, say, trees of the Pacific Northwest — something narrower and close to home.

A woodwind quintet maybe?

Nevertheless, the big sound of the orchestra is what I really love, and my wife Olga had suggested I try my hand at a large piece, and so I shot for the moon (and the sun, and stars, and everything beneath). I figured that around 30-40 minutes long would reasonably fulfill the definition of “big”. I also knew that wanted it to be a suite rather than a symphony, in part because I was daunted by the formal constraints of a symphony and thought a suite would be a more forgiving form (I think it was), and in part because I prefer programmatic music over absolute music, at least when I’m writing it.

I like to tell stories.

The choice of Creation in Genesis 1 as subject just came to me one day. I wasn’t going to start from absolute nothing; I wanted to incorporate some pieces I had already made. Reduce, reuse, recycle! I had one track that I thought sounded like the deep sea, and another one that sounded like flying. I thought they could be edited to be about whales and birds. I had another tracks I thought might work for man and woman — but I abandoned it along the way.

I’m a software designer by profession, so I approached it as a design problem. Go with what you know, right? The first thing I needed was a design brief, a document that describes the project in enough detail that design can get started. I made an absolutely skeletal plan for what movements I felt were necessary to get through Genesis 1, and which phrases I wanted to illustrate. I wrote about each one in prose, as if I were describing the music having listened to it after the fact.

Yes, I made a requirements list. And, like any good software designer, promptly threw it out.

From there I embarked on a process of imagining themes and identifying tropes to use to tell the story.

The difference between an artistic device, a trope and a cliché is the same as the difference between flowers and weeds: It’s how you feel about it being there.

This involved quite a lot more imagination away from the keyboard than you might think. Meditating on the problem, on the text. Imagining the subject matter as a series of scenes. How do you illustrate a mythical chaos dragon that represents the sea in musical terms? (An asymetrical 7/4 time signature, a lot of tritones and bowed gong is one answer.)

When I write a bit of music, it means precisely what I want it to mean, okay?

This part isn’t rocket science. Instruments and techniques naturally sound like things. You won’t be surprised that I illustrated the idea of songbirds with piccolo and flutes, or that swarming ocean creatures involve a lot of scurrying fast staccato. Abstract ideas like “light” or “resting” were a lot more challenging than concrete things like, say, animals. (I’ll talk about specific motifs more in the individual movement teardowns.)

There’s no particular reason that the line below would invoke “plants” or vegetative matter of any kind, except the context. Context is everything.

Ye olde descending sequence by thirds.

Elegance is about fit, not a measurable amount of beauty. A note, phrase, or chord may be ugly or pretty in isolation, but in context, it may fit or stand out — in the same way a color, a chair, or a swatch of wallpaper might only work in certain rooms and not others. Any element may elegantly work with all the items around it, or it may awkwardly work against them. Or it may elegantly work against them, as a contrast. The point is, it’s all a system of pieces that either hang together, or you end up with cacophony.

Elegance is about fitness to a given context, not a quantifiable amount of beauty.

I was originally going to use that motif above as a song sung by Eve, the first woman. I abandoned that idea when I couldn’t get it to work out. I didn’t throw the musical idea out, though. Instead, I recontextualized it by surounding it by all sorts of rising figures (evoking sprouts or vines reaching up) and eventually transformed it into a forest hymn. (Look for a teardown of the “Let the Earth Sprout Vegetation” movement as soon as I write it.)

It was an iterative process, and I worked on several movements at once, randomly, in pieces. I’m a doodler. When I draw, I start with an eye or a finger or a mouth and I draw outward from there. I don’t always know what I’m making until it’s made. When I write, I will often start with an opening line or a bit of dialog and then build the story around that. And when I write music, I tend to have a set of disjointed ideas and then I decide on a form somewhere around halfway through stringing them together.

Chaos is how I learn.

So what I’m saying is: I had a plan that I ignored whenever it suited me to do so.

If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t much matter which way you go. Source.

I have a compositional process that I’ve grown over the years that I’ll blog about some other time, but in a nutshell: I started by recording chords and themes as MIDI with a Yamaha piano keyboard and a computer mouse into FL Studio, a digital audio workstation (DAW) that has built-in MIDI sequencing. (They pretty much all do.) Then I edited the music by dragging notes around, drawing new notes around them, by copying and pasting (a lot). I listen to the music on loop, and when it matches my vision for the piece — or just as often, when the vision of the piece evolves to match what I’m hearing in the DAW — I’m done! The audio files were posted on Soundcloud and that was it as far as I was concerned.

This is one movement, all one big multi-track MIDI clip/pattern, plus tempo and expression automation.

But what if it was on paper?

I wanted to share the music with others, so I joined a few composer interest groups on Facebook and posted links. I harbored a secret daydream of having the work someday engraved and premiered, but getting plays and appreciation for the “laptop music” versions was the beginning and end of my plan.

That is, until I was approached by Davis Brown of Gusthold Music Publishers who had heard the links I posted and reached out to me about getting it published.

I should stop at this point and thank the man profusely. This work would never have been completed as a score and parts without him. I was a fool to think that I could have self-published it at some point. It would have been terrible without him, and thank the Lord, with his gentle support and guidance — not to mention hours of typographically transforming my sloppy manuscript into a readable score and parts — it’s a far better product than it otherwise would have been.

Anyhow, he naturally assumed that given the scope and ambition of the work I had (naturally) been working in notation and keeping a careful score all along, which he was interested to look at. Here’s my response:

Hi, Davis. Thanks for getting back so quickly.

[…] I have not been producing scores as I go. I did just enough scoring in college to learn that a) it’s indispensable, and b) it’s very labor-intensive. I’ve always seen two paths: one toward live musicians via paper, one toward recordings. I took what I thought of as the less impossible path.

If you are no longer interested in working with me, I wouldn’t hold it against you. You’ve already made my whole year just by considering it!

Now, I do think (perhaps foolishly) that I have been producing MIDI in a way that score production should be straightforward, that is, it’s all very tightly gridded. I have been following what I understand to be conventional instrumentation and playable articulations. I haven’t been cheating the audio by “layering” and other production tricks. I have always kept the aesthetic value of performance in mind as a guiding principle. (But see below; there are things.) I suppose I would buy Sibelius if it came to it. I’ve tested the workflow of moving from the MIDI to MuseScore and I’m pretty confident I can make that work in a pinch.

But there’s never been a pinch.

Plus, I settled on making music I could listen to and share on the internet, because for me it really is about the sheer joy of creation, that is, I really do believe that what I’m doing is ultimately for God’s glory. I believe I’ll have all eternity to sing with heavenly choirs. If the dream scenario never happens for me in this lifetime, I think I’ll be okay!

You mention the length and complexity of the work itself. Yes! It’s quite involved. And maybe familiarity breeds contempt, but I think it’s still very much in need of an edit that I can’t do on my own because the defects I hear at this point are probably not what should be fixed. It’s all about blind spots. I mean, I could call it finished today and just never write the final movement (God rested on that day, why shouldn’t I?) but — do you really think it’s good enough to be published? Some days I feel like that whole second movement is unlistenable garbage. Some days I wonder if the animals movement fits with anything else. Some days I think there’s a shocking lack of development and all the structure is ad hoc. Too much timpani, not enough trombone. And there are passages that are so self-indulgent, like the one (one!) bass flute line in the sun, moon, and stars movement. Those things would have to be edited away, I imagine.

So anyway, have I thoroughly discouraged you yet? I’m definitely “willing for you to consider publishing the suite.” You seem great, and I really like that you started a company instead of just going away bitter. (My day job is in electronic publishing; I know how rough it can get for creatives.) I support small business. I’d be willing to work hard, just because I’m stubborn, but it would be a lie to say I have anything like a plan for self-promotion.

I could attempt scoring some of it to see if it’s a workable product on your end, and to establish a timetable for score production and editing to proceed in parallel. That’s a heck of a lot of work to put in on your end.

So as I say, you’d be taking a chance on me, not the other way around.

Soli deo gloria,
Eli

How’s that for a pitch letter? Shockingly, he didn’t run away. I asked for a year to do the edit. He suggested I buy Finale not Sibelius. It made no difference to me, so I did. (These days I’m coveting Dorico, though.)

The next year was a deliberate march through the movements one by one, paying penance for the many, many sins I had thus far committed.

Editing, or “The long dark night of the soul”

The process may be meaningless, but the prizes are … also. (Source.)

I decided to do all my editing and rearranging in the digital audio workstation (DAW), just because I knew the tool better and it was faster that way. I use FL Studio, mostly as an accident of history — it was my younger brother’s preference, and I stuck with it. It has tools to quantize the performances as needed, to stretch, fold, spindle, and mutilate them — as sound events on a timeline, not graphical symbols on a page.

I use EastWest Hollywood and Quantum Leap orchestra libraries (via a subscription to their Composer Cloud) as my voice banks, which I both love and hate. As a tool for making orchestral mockups, it’s pretty good.

First I had to develop a new DAW template that divided tracks in such a way that one track in the DAW was one staff in Finale, and I moved over all the notes from the old project files to the new template, track by track. The template was important for two reasons: One, it created a “box” to put all the music into that facilitated the MIDI export, and two, forced me to think through the exact shape and size of the ensemble that this work entailed.

The music projects that I started with weren’t terrible, but it wasn’t very close to usable, either: Yes, I had gridded all the notes with quantization, to make sure the MIDI exported as sensible music, and not the kind of hot garbage MIDI conversion where everything is 1/32 note off the beat.

Quantization: Sort like taking people walking randomly down the street and turning them into a Japanese precision walking team.

All the while I had been thinking about a natural-sounding ensemble. It was real music, for the most part, and not … trickery. But the ensemble had drifted in my mind as the draft unfolded over the three or so years from when I started. Was there a harp or not? How many of each kind of woodwind? Sometimes the chords implied two horns, sometimes six.

Ah, the “Tutti Strings” channel. Hello darkness, my old friend.

There were times I was lazy and put a low note into a horn track instead of switching over to a trombone or something more appropriate to the range, or I made those decisions based on the timbre of my sound libraries and not based on the proper physical characteristics or idiom of the actual instrument.

I might have been writing with a live orchestra in mind, but the one I was actually working with came out of a tin can.

The chords were structured without much regard to voicing. When you are only making sounds for your own pleasure, you can afford a lot of divisi in whatever string or horn parts you want. I’m embarrassed to say that my normal method of writing chords is to just play them on a MIDI keyboard and not worry too much about how many lines there are. I have ten fingers, don’t I? Many chords were just blocks and needed to be broken up.

I had always decided to fix it later, if I ever decided to publish. (I was always thinking I might self-publish.) Now it was later, and I found myself picking through the weeds and doing things like breaking up “Strings” tracks into first and second violins, violas, celli, and basses; revoicing woodwinds to accomodate two flutes and piccolo, not three (or in one place, four!) flutes; moving technically-in-range-but-please-don’t notes from trumpet to other players, or switching octaves, or rearranging chorale portions so the melodic lines would sit more comfortably within the ranges of the instruments.

(If you’re doing this, I recommend you buy an instrumentation book. Almost doesn’t matter which one. Here’s a good list to get you started. I used Adler in college.)

I also spent a little bit of time thinking about key signatures while I was still in the DAW. I know you can transpose in Finale, but I do a lot of my work by ear, and as I say, I’m comfortable with what I’m comfortable with. In the initial creation phase of the project, I sat down to a keyboard and made the sounds come out the way I wanted them to. This resulted in spending quite a bit of time in the lesser-used keys. This is sort of unavoidable if you decide to structure a piece around movement by thirds, for example C (no flats or sharps) – Ab (four flats) – E (four sharps), not so bad, but D (two sharps) – F# (six sharps!) – A (three sharps).

This poor F horn player:

WHO HURT YOU??

Thankfully, the F# major passage (which is C# for the horns!) doesn’t last for very long.

I remember being a performer in college and dealing with four or five sharps on a page. I’d look at the name at the top of the page and think, “Who is this jerk, and why do they want me to suffer?” Now I’m on the other side of that coin, and … I’m sorry? I tried my best to balance the needs of the performance with the needs of the music and in the end, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ? Trust me, the alternatives were worse. I opted for short bursts of intense pain over longer stretches of less pain.

I don’t know if art is suffering, but artists are definitely insufferable. Myself included.

Anyway, the idealized process for each movement was:

  1. Export MIDI from the DAW.
  2. But wait! My DAW doesn’t export time signatures into MIDI very well, and doesn’t export multiple time signature changes at all, so I had to use a little freeware MIDI hacking tool called Aria Maestosa to hack the time signatures in.
  3. Import the MIDI into Finale. For each movement it seemed a different set of import settings worked best to produce readable music, so this always took a few times.
  4. Make the “clean” movement from the publisher’s template also in Finale. I found it best to add empty measures and put in time signature and key signature changes in the empty file first.
  5. Then copy and paste the staves from the imported-from-MIDI Finale file into the template. (This was faster and much more accurate than trying to conform the imported MIDI to the template.)
  6. What that gave me was measures with notes in them on the proper staves. So then began the painstaking process of adding all the performance amenities, or about 40% of the music that MIDI doesn’t capture very well: tempo markings, rehearsal marks, articulations and slurs, dynamics and hairpins, technique instructions, and anything else that goes into real-deal honest-to-goodness performable music.

That was the ideal process. In reality, I did a lot of massaging at every step, normalizing, cleaning, pruning, editing. It was basically a big database migration — software people know what I mean.

In the end, this process took around 2,000 hours, off and on over four years to finish. Seems longer than that, to be honest.

In my defense, I didn’t sit down to a blank page (or in my case, screen) at the beginning of this work. I started with three short pieces I had alredy completed as the basis for three movements, and slotted them into the narrative of Genesis 1 as best I could.

Form

I took as my model orchestral suites like Holst’s The Planets and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Not that I’m on their level! I just mean that I meant the movements to both 1) cohere as an entire unit and to 2) stand alone if necessary. The movements are between two and seven minutes long, give or take. In some ways, you could imagine it almost like an album in contemporary terms: eleven songs, around a radio hit’s length each. In fact, that’s originally what I was aiming to do.

Structure

The movements generally follow the path laid out by the text of Genesis 1. Each one is inspired by a word or phrase in that narrative. And so it starts with “Let There Be Light” and ends with “The Seventh Day.”

As they progress, the movements get longer and more involved, less minimal, more polyphonic and more adventurous in terms of harmony — in the same way that creation itself gets more complex and involved as more categories of thing are added to it.

More measures as we go along …
And the total number of notes sort of correlates.

(These counts will vary slightly from the published work. I wrote a computer program to parse Music-XML out of Finale to count notes, which worked off of the manuscripts I sent to the publisher, not what eventually got on paper. But it’s close enough for blogging. And if you count ten bars instead of eleven, it’s because the tenth movement segues directly into the final movement, so it’s one file.)

Now, one possible structure for the work as a whole would be to organize the thing into seven movements, one for each day in the narrative. There is a very clear “and there was evening, and there was morning, the Xth day” formula that divides the action of the narrative into seven sections. So the logical choice would be seven movements.

So how did I end up with eleven?

I started with an idea that I’d divide the work into days, but as I got into it, the different material for each day didn’t really cohere. And if you look at the narrative, the length of the days is quite asymmetrical.

Generally speaking, there is not a lot of what you’d call motivic or thematic development like you’d find in Beethoven, say. Instead the development of each movement and of the piece as a whole is driven by the story, and it doesn’t dwell too long in any one place. This was mostly intentional. Biblical narrative is famously dense, almost to the point of being cryptic. There are no long meditations or explications about the meaning or consequence of God creating light in Genesis 1:3. He says, “Let there be light,” and ipso facto there’s some light, which causes a separation between light and darkness — and that’s that, on to the next thing.

The music itself proceeds in this way, as well. In lieu of motivic development, there is more like a sequence of moods. I wanted it to seem like the music was telling a story, and for that story to be tightly woven and not very repetitive.

Motifs

That’s not to say there are no recurring motifs. The text of Genesis 1 breaks into two sections, roughly speaking, the first where various separations of raw elemental materials — light, water, earth, wind — create spaces to be filled, and the second where those spaces are filled with living things. To create linkages between the movements, there are a few motifs that are first introduced in the “container” movement.

For example, “I. Let There Be Light” introduces a “Light” motif (leitmotif, get it?) which is restated in the corresponding “filling up the container” movement, in this example, “VI. Sun, Moon and Stars“. Both movements open in very similar ways, with a pedal tone in the strings and a perfect fifth horn call. This call is then transformed “XI. The Seventh Day” into an explosive call for Creation to praise its Creator. It starts and ends with light.

Motifs are created by an organic process of imagination above. Sometimes, though I resort to other means. That particular motif for “light” was derived using a musical cryptogram from the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:3, illustrated below.

1. Hebrew Bible. 2. Map letters to pitch classes. 3. Music!

Okay, this is embarrassing, but I said I would go for full disclosure, right?

The first statement of this theme is wrong. It puts a C#, and not an E as the last note. The reason? When I set up my grid for translating the Hebrew alphabet, I transposed the letters tsadi, qof, resh with the letters samekh, ayin, pe. That meant that resh, that last letter, fell on the C# instead of on the E. Worse? I built the entire first movement around a D major 7th chord, spelled D-F#-A-C#. So it appears as A-D-C# throughout.

So, any future grad students out there writing papers about my orchestral works: It was just a mistake. You’re welcome.

As Bob Ross used to say: We don’t make mistakes, we have happy little accidents.

I don’t do cryptograms very often, because the results are not usually very fertile ground for musical development. This one happened to work out, and ends up being a thread that runs all the way through the work, which I think is particularly fitting.

I’ll discuss more motifs in the individual movement teardowns, linked below.

Technique

I wanted the work to be interesting enough to not just be a pastische, but also remain broadly accessible. One of the complaints I have about a lot of 21st century concert music is that it’s too challenging. On the other hand, I know that just writing pure imitation of earlier works, while throughly enjoyable, has to compete with 500 years of of Western Music’s Greatest Hits. I mean, if you have a choice between programming Beethoven and a Beethoven wannabe, which do you pick?

So I wanted to find a sweet spot with enough familiar/conventional/common practice elements to be on sure footing as far as audience appreciation goes, but with enough new/surprising/challenging elements to be interesting.

This worked itself out in a few different ways.

Repetitive Figurations. I’m fascinated by the minimalists, Glass, Adams, Reich, even if I don’t actually want to be a minimalist composer. But I have to admit, the minimalists, especially Philip Glass, found a way to make stuff that is accessible but doesn’t sound like it came from the 18th century. I’m more into the so-called “mystic minimalists” like Pärt, Rautavaara, and fellow Pacific Northwesterner, Alan Hovhaness.

But as I said, I’m not too interested in actually doing minimalism, so much as appropriating it in small pieces. And so you’ll find some of what I call “little machines” — figurations of repetitive interlocking rhythms that aren’t quite arpeggios, which create a sort of embroidery effect. I don’t know if this is technically a minimalist technique, but I was certainly inspired to do it by listening to a lot of Glass. There is a lot of hemiola, or 2-versus-3 in these textures, which I love because it creates a shimmering, unsettled effect. Here’s an example in the woodwinds from “Let There Be Light.”

Neotonality? That is, mostly diatonic, with some spice. I’d say it’s more like the soft neotonality of contemporary cinematic music, and not the hard neotonality of the 20th century art composers. Throughout Creation, most of the chords are triads or triad-adjacent, with a few jazz chords thrown in, a few borrowed chords, a modal scale here and there, some whole tone scales, and tritones — lots of tritones. As the piece progresses, it moves from one or two keys per movement, to three or four keys, to several keyless movements, and back again to end on a strongly diatonic dominant-tonic ending. (For the applause!) I’ll dig into the harmonic language of each movement in the individual movement teardowns, later on.

Programmatic Storytelling. One of the things I told myself while working on this piece was that I didn’t have to advance the state of music, I just had to tell a good story. That’s a Tweetable, hang on:

Hey composers: You don’t have to advance the state of music every time. Sometimes it’s okay to just tell a good story.

In fact, the story had already been told, and it was a best-seller. All I had to do was illustrate that story. What I ended up with wasn’t quite as involved as impressionism but not fully abstract, either. I’m hoping that you find the movement about birds or whales or plants to be evocative of the idea of those things, rather than necessarily mimicing the sounds of those things. (Although there is some of that, too — but only as necessary to spark the idea.)

Occasional Chorus … in Latin? At one point, I had an idea to follow the text beat for beat — for example, to have a particular texture of brass and timpani every time the text had God speaking. I soon abandoned that approach, because it became too mechanical.

Transparency to the source material is one thing; slavishness another.

I also thought about setting the entire text with the chorus, but instead decided to only grab phrases here and there, and to grab them from various parts of the Hebrew scriptures (and one part from the Greek text of the old testament). I tried setting the texts in English, in Greek, and Hebrew, and finally settled on Latin. This may seem a curious choice, given that I wanted the piece to be accessible. But then again, I don’t want it to just be a Bible story. I want the juxtaposition of music and text and the frission it creates to be primarily musical, not textual. And so I chose Latin in part because it has a simple syllable structure which is relatively easy to set as music, and in part because most people don’t speak it and won’t understand the singing portions as primarily textual, but as primarily musical.

Text and Subtext. Generally speaking, I wanted to hew close to the text, but not too close. I mean, if you just want to read Genesis 1, it’s freely available all over the place. And music isn’t a straightforward way to encode a story anyway — cryptograms aside. And so I hope you find a lot of interplay between the text of Genesis 1 and the subtext created by the music. There are some very conscious choices I made to create harmony with the traditional understanding of certain passages, and to create dissonance with others. (Wait until you hear why the third movement is called “Leviathan and Behmoth” instead of say, “Sea and Dry Land”.) Hopefully the give and take between the language of the stories and the language of the music will spur you to think about the story in new and exciting ways.

A little word on theology. I don’t personally subscribe to any particular interpretative theory about the Creation story. Literal 24-hour days? Days are metaphors for long ages of time? It’s a literary structuring thing? History or mythology? Scientific or not? Directed evolution? I am not willing to fight about it. I expect to arrive in heaven and to find that in the FAQ section of the new arrivals packet!

This was cutting-edge science … in its day.

I’m treating the account as primarily a literary artifact, because that’s where its power and beauty lies for me. I care very much about the exact historicity of some facts of the life of Jesus — death, burial, resurrection — because my Christian faith is founded on them (1 Corinthians 15). But I’m willing to be, well … jolly about how you read Genesis. So long as you do! My intention with this work is not to try and indoctrinate anyone into a particular viewpoint on the creation event, but rather, to celebrate it in all its multifaceted glory.

Why this? Why anything at all? I don’t know, but I’m sure glad to be alive, and I hope that you are, too.

Art is supposed to make us feel more human, not less.

Conclusion

This has been a real labor of love, and I hope you enjoy experiencing it as much as I enjoyed making it!

This post is part of a series. Read them all: Creation • I Light • II Separation • III Sea & Land • IV Plants • V Sun, Moon & Stars • VI Swarms • VII Birds • VIII Whales • IX Animals • X People • XI Sabbath

We’re a Matched Set

My wife Olga and I have matching tattoos on the back of our necks. She designed it after I explained to her one of the ways I generate motivic material: musical cryptograms.

UPDATE: I recommended that one of my composer groups use these pitches as part of a melody challenge: these pitches, in any order, any accompaniment or style. Listen to all the entrants on Soundcloud:

The basic idea is that data goes in one end, music comes out the other, like so:

Drink … more … Ovaltine?

There are a lot of methods, some more famous than others. My favorite is to start at “A” in the alphabet and “A” on the piano then go up one half step for each letter, so that the letter B is A#/Bb, the letter C is the note B, and so on. You can see the chart I generally use above.

(I used this same method, but with the Hebrew alphabet, to generate the “let there be light” main theme for my Creation orchestral suite. Learn more about that.)

The first time I told her about musical cryptograms, Olga thought it was a neat idea. She was a math minor, but more importantly, I think she thought I was a neat idea. (Go figure.)

So she took her name, interleaved the letters of my name, and run that through the matrix to get notes. The time signature in her version isn’t 4/4, it’s cross-over-cross, that is “in God’s time”; and the barline repeats — over and over for as long as we’re alive. (This is in her handwriting, and she puts the sharps and flats after the noteheads, which is endearing as far as I am concerned, and yes, those are 8th notes, the tattooist forgot to color in the beams and … you know what? Shut up, it’s perfect!)

Anyway, the tattoo was a surprise, and … well, I was definitely surprised. I wasn’t sure about it at first (it’s my upbringing) but nevertheless, not long after we got married, I got a matching one of my own, in the same place. Mine is a little lower so I can wear a collared shirt and hide it. My day job is still corporate, after all.

It’s not exactly a melody that you’d put together on your own, but it’s ours, and that makes it beautiful to me.

Love you, dear! With all my heart.

UPDATE: My piece Oellgia: Fantasy for Oboe and Piano is now available on Soundcloud and as downloadable sheet music.

Sound and Fury, Signifying Everything

I’ve had a complicated relationship with music.

All my life, I had music in my head. My earliest memories have sound — the percussive staccatto of hammers, the asymmetrical rhythms of unintelligible speech, strains of 70s rock wafting off a push-button radio in an old Pontiac.

I learn best listening. I remember things primarily by their sound. I guess that’s how my brain organizes.

What follows is an abbreviated history of my relationship with music. I’m sure many details are misremembered, because that’s how memory works. If I’m a liar in the end, at least I’m an honest liar.


Mom and dad always had music playing on an old turntable, or they were singing to each other, or sometimes both. My dad was a carpenter, and he thought my mom was a lady, and so he’d sing, “If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady; would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby?” (My favorite version of that one is by Johnny & June Carter Cash. But let’s be honest: My favorite version of every song is by Johnny Cash.)

I was the baby he was talking about.

My dad, not Zappa.

Back then, my mom was an astrologer and a Wiccan — although it was called “white witchcraft” back then — who grew up in Texas. My dad was an atheist, a political science major, and an anti-war activist from Washington state. The soundtrack of their lives was a melange of protest stongs, golden age country, the Doors, Mozart, acid rock, Thelonius Monk, and whatever struck their odd fancy. My mom played piano a little, by ear, and when we went to my grandmother’s house, she’d play the hymns her mother loved so much: Amazing Grace, Old Rugged Cross, Nearer My God to Thee.

I was around four when my mom found Jesus. Or rather, Jesus found her, in the form of a little country house church in rural Texas. We lived out on a farm with my mom’s mom and my mom’s mom’s mom — grandmother and granny, we called them. I remember my mom quietly gathering up her house idols, which she kept in the windowsill with her house plants to keep away the evil spirits, and dumping them in the trash.

Meanwhile, my dad was working at the nuclear power plant in Glen Rose, Texas, a two-hour commute. He didn’t have time for Jesus at first, but he came around pretty soon after mom. He held out maybe a year?

Well, with the zeal of the newly converted, they built a bonfire in the front yard and burned almost everything they had: books of magic spells and evolutionary biology, cards (Tarot and playing), paintings, carvings, pamphlets. If it seemed even remotely pagan or overtly secular, it went on the pyre.

(Both my parents think I was too young to remember this. I think they’re wrong. The hiss and crackle of the fire, the clinking of household items falling into the flames. I remember them arguing about some of the pieces — they had this one expensive silver goblet with a satyr as its stem that they decided to sell to a jeweler on the understanding that it would be melted down. They were zealous, not reckless.)

Now, you have to understand, my mom was actually worshipping spirits at the time, and according to her, she had … seen things. This wasn’t an academic exercise for them. It was a purification. If the windowsill gods had been a way to protect the family before, burning them was the way to protect us now.

The music went, too. Anything “secular” had to go, because they’d heard a preacher that told them that the two-four backbeat had originated in shamanistic cults in Africa and was a gateway for demons to get inside you. It was the 80s. Satanism scares were all the rage.

(Whenever I tell this story, I think people expect me to be bitter about it. I’m not. I don’t feel deprived by not having rock-and-roll in the house any more than I feel deprived not drinking yak’s milk or skiing the alps. It was just a condition of my upbringing, and it turned out all right, I think.)

By the time the embers burned down, this is what was left:

  • Beethoven, Symphony Number 9
  • Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata
  • Mozart, Symphony Number 40
  • Grieg, A Minor Piano Concerto / Peer Gynt
  • The Very Best of Andrés Segovia
  • Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez
  • Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf
  • Henry Mancini 40 Greatest
“Did you get my sweet watch in the shot? Good.”

I know, because I wore those records out.

They agonized over the Mancini, I have to tell you. In the end they decided it fell just on the holy side of the line, mainly because it didn’t have any lyrics, and because Dad had already given up so much, and couldn’t part with the Pink Panther Theme.

Can you blame him?

Anyway, until I was in the sixth grade or so, we didn’t have popular music in the house. We just didn’t. I heard it, of course. I went to school, and I had friends who tried to get me hooked on Journey or Run DMC. But I tried not to listen. That was the bad music. I sure didn’t want any backbeats putting any demons inside me.

(Not music-related, but I saw the Star Wars movies out of order. They tell me I saw A New Hope in theaters in 1977, back when they just called it “Star Wars.” I was three, and there’s no way I remember it. I actually do remember watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture at a drive-in, though. Then in 1984, Return of the Jedi finally came to the little podunk theater in the next town over, and my mom and dad broke the NO POP CULTURE embargo. Empire Strikes Back? First saw it on a TV rebroadcast. When the updated editions came out on DVD, I bought the box set and watched them all in order.)

We started going to a little storefront church that was more wild than the local Pentecostal church, but less than the snake handlers the next county over. (Mind you, it was debated.) Mom and dad became song leaders. My mom played piano and my dad led singing. (The running joke was he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he made up for it in enthusiasm.) We often sang as a family, like we were the Partridges, tambourines and all.

So. Many. Tambourines.


My grandmother’s piano was odd. It was an old upright piano, not a brand name you’ve ever heard of, and it was painted with cracked off-white paint and teal blue pinstriping. It had faux-grecian columns made out of moulding and half the keys were missing their ivory. I like to pretend it came from an old western-era saloon.

It’s in the family picture below, circa 1981. In those days, we didn’t buy music. We made it. (My mom didn’t buy our clothes, either.)

That’s me on the left in the sweet corduroy vest.

That piano was where I first learned about intervals, by which I mean I sat there and played every possible combination of two notes from bottom to top, first the notes that were next to each other, then the ones that were one key apart, then two keys apart, and so on until I was stretching as far as my little arms would reach to play one low note and one high one. Then I moved on to three notes, and then four. Hour after glorious hour. There were no books, no primers. I had no idea what I was doing, except trying to understand the sounds. It was years before someone told me the notes had names. My favorite intervals were what I now know as the perfect fifth and the perfect fourth.

Yes, as a kid, I had favorite intervals, in the same way people have favorite colors or a favorite flavor of ice cream. A major ninth sounds to me just like pistachio pudding tastes — nah! I had you going, though. (Synesthesia is a real thing, but I don’t have it.)

One time, my cousin Chris and I furtively disassembled grandmother’s piano. I mean we took out all the bolts and removed all the keys, the pedals, the rods, the dampers, the hammers. We stripped it down to the harp and thank the good lord the bolts were too tight for us to unscrew or we would have gotten the harp out of it, too. The piano was in the back bedroom, and we laid all the parts out on the bed in order so we could “remember how it went” is how I remember Chris putting it.

I swear it was all his idea.

The adults were in the next room, enjoying Thanksgiving (probably). My aunt Rhonda came in, gasped, and then told us in her best scolding voice that we’d better get that piano put back together, and fast. Thinking back, she was probably resisting the urge to laugh out loud. It took about four hours, but we finally got all the hammers back in, all the felt straps hooked back up, and all the keys back on.

The knee bone’s connected to the foot bone. (Wikimedia.)

I would bang on that piano incessantly. The perfect fourths, usually a C plus an F above it, sounded like soldiers marching along, Da-da-da daaaa, da-da-da DAT-da. The fifth sounded open and lonely, but so, so pure and beautiful. You could make the low notes at the extreme end sound thunder bom-bom-bom. There was a lot of thunder in my childhood, out there on the west Texas plains. I might have used the high notes to mimic bird calls.

It should be coming clear to you by this point that while I spent a lot of time with that piano, I never played much music on it. Someone tried to teach me “Chopsticks,” I’m sure. Someone taught me “Heart and Soul” at some point.

That’s not what I was using that piano for. I was using it to try to understand how the world worked. I was trying to understand how the sounds I felt inside mapped on to the sounds that happend outside. I was learning my place in the world.

Maybe that sounds stupid to you, but it makes sense to me. I’m about one and half diagnostic criteria away from being on the autism spectrum, which makes me “eccentric.” It doesn’t bother me, and I try not to let it bother anyone else. I can sit quietly — real quiet — and I got good grades and all of that. I don’t have focus issues; quite the opposite. When I was three my mom wanted to take me to psychiatrist because I spent all day drawing the same face over and over again — circle, two dots, straight line mouth. Never a smile. Never a frown. Just a straight line. Fortunately, they couldn’t afford it. There wasn’t anything wrong with me; I was just figuring out how to draw. That one thing.

And on that piano, maybe I was figuring out how to me.

Okay, that was overwrought. After all, music is a thing I do, not a thing I am. But it’s also a thing I need to do, and I guess that need is part of who I am.

To this day, when little kids go banging on the keyboard, I let them. Or I want to, assuming no other adults are around to get upset. People don’t like to be jangled, I guess. Seriously, thank God for headphones, but when I can get away with it, I let them. You go ahead and figure out what that noise means to you, little person.

Go ahead and figure out how to you.

I swear I tried to embed this but Instagram is stupid.
Everyone click on the picture and support Nathan W. Pyle, mkay?

I often think I would have benefitted from more structured education along the way. Then again, I wonder if it wouldn’t have made me less offbeat in certain ways that I’m pretty attached to. Hard to say one way or the other.

Chaos is definitely how I learn.


Fancy-schmancy churches had hymnals, but we had cassettes that got passed around and duplicated from spirit-filled church to spirit-filled church. You’d play the tape, write the lyrics down on a transparency, and teach the tune to the musicians and the congregation by ear — which is to say, by trial and error. Each song evolved as it got passed from church to church: choruses were extended, verses rearranged or dropped, bridges added. Sometimes they said you could hear no-kidding actual angels singing along on the tapes.

That was our music catalog: bootleg mixtapes from neighboring churches.

Imagine how excited I was when my dad bought an old set of National Geographic magazines, and inside the 1979 edition was a vinyl record bound in with the pages. It was a recording of whalesongs through a hydrophone. It was a treasured possession.

(This is one of the inspirations I drew on for my Creation suite, which has a movement covering “great sea creatures.”)

And all the while, the music inside ebbed and flowed but it never left. I didn’t listen to a lot of rock-and-roll, even after the secular music embargo, and I don’t even now. It’s not that I disdain it — oh, I did when I was in high school. It was a way to feel elitist and superior over my classmates. “You listen to Madonna? How gauche!” But these days, I know music is music and people like what they like and it’s best not to go too much deeper into it than that. There’s no “real music” or “fake music.”

But I don’t identify with contemporary popular music. Oddly enough, it’s just as easy for me to get into pop music from other parts of the world as it is for me to enjoy the US pop scene. I mean, I have my favorites: Paul Simon’s Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums are, as far as I’m concerned, the best ever. Add to that Peter Gabriel, So. (I went to high school in the 90s, what can I say?)

Philip Glass, though. That’s a bridge between here and there for me. You’ll hear little Glass-ian figures all throughout my music.


I first started composing in high school, by which I mean I recorded songs on a Yamaha PSR500 keyboard that I bought with my first paycheck working for mom and dad at the gas station. (They managed an Exxon when I was in high school. Long story.) It had all the standard MIDI voices, the ability to quantize to 16th notes, and a limited number of pattern banks you could record and arrange into a song. I was hooked. I spent so many hours alone in my room, still plinking out intervals — but this time with feeling! (Mostly angst.)

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

During this period I was in the band, and started learning how to read music. It was marching/pep band in the fall and concert band in the spring. I played F horn because it was a horn the school could lend me, and they needed horn players. (Did I mention we were never very well off? You could probably tell from looking at the pictures.) Yes, I marched with the concert F horn, a silver-nickel plated Holton double. It was a nice horn. Nice and heavy.

I started to cultivate a taste for dark, brassy classical music. It matched my teenaged moods. I’d walk to the library and check out CDs. (Uphill, both ways, in the snow. But seriously, kids, there wasn’t internet back in 1991.) I’m talking stuff like …

  • Bruckner symphonies, especially 4 & 9
  • Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Shostakovich symphonies, especially 5
  • Saint-Saëns, especially the “Organ” symphony (Nr 3)
  • Hovhaness, 2nd Symphony
  • Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion
  • Sibelius, Franck, Berlioz
  • You get the picture.

Oddly enough I skipped Brahms and Mahler. It wasn’t on purpose; they just never came up in the rotation. Still don’t, much. I know I’m missing out; they don’t call it the Titan for nothing. This is odd, because I’m told sometimes that my music reminds people of this or that piece by one of them and I have to shrug. No, I’m not really a Mahler fan, and I can’t explain why, because by all rights, I absolutely should be.

Listening to this stuff in my headphones, usually in the evenings after everyone was settled in, I started to get a vague notion of timbre and orchestration. Of harmony and counterpoint. All along I heard music inside, but I’d never had anything like an ability to express it. If I had taught myself the letters, I had no idea about the language. If I had known that I eventually wanted to make music, I might have thought to check out a library book about it. But no, I was still just having fun exploring.

Meanwhile, in band, I was playing Orff’s Carmina Burana and Handel’s Watermusic — but mostly we played Sousa marches. If you’ve never had the unique joy of playing 96 measures of offbeats, you’ve never played F horn in a Sousa march. One *blup*, two *blup*, one *blup*, two *blup*, one *blup*, two *blup*, one *bladda blap blap*. Repeat for five to seven minutes. It’s fine. I never was a very good performer anyway. I was just happy to be there, and you may not be surprised to learn that I’m highly focused when I assign myself chores, and not at all when other people do. Scales? Nah.

“Hm, and now for the horn part. How about eighth notes on the offbeat? Nothing beats that!”

(I’m not going to talk about the first girl I had a crush on too much here. She was first chair horn. Her mom was a piano teacher. She played Chopin and Bartok. She was sweet, and I wasn’t. I was in love with the music anyway.)

Playing with that Yamaha P500 I learned a little bit how to structure something that sounded like music — how to move from chord to chord, how to put a melody on top of chords, how to put a countermelody underneath and alongside. I proceded entirely on intuition. Oddly enough, I had sort of a natural intuition about voice leading. When you want to move from one chord to another, you generally want it to be smooth, and I don’t know where I figured out that you want to move as few notes as possible, but that’s what I did. And I loved singing rounds, and so I loved writing them, too.

I shouldn’t romanticize it too much. I learned a metric ton of bad habits, including never really learning how to play a piano as a piano. I envy people who can sit down and play fluidly with both hands. At the same time. (Maybe someday I’ll just break down and take a piano class.) And now that I’m grown, I envy performers who practiced their scales and can zip up and down four flats or five sharps without getting bogged down.


Eastern Washington University is a GOOD school, but only just. It’s a state school, kind of out in the country, which is one reason I picked it. (The other reasons are complicated. My wife knows. Story for another time.) I had three majors I was considering: English/creative writing, graphic art, or music. I picked music education because I thought I would enjoy the job. So I was a music-education double major. I was in the orchestra and the band, and like a lot of performance classes, you’d get two credits for five credit hours worth of rehearsals, plus practice time, plus concerts.

Also, you had to buy your own pair of Dinkles Oxfords, black. I didn’t know shoes could cost that much.

I got married in my Dinkles.

Eastern is where I fell in love with composing, though. I was a mediocre performer in high school. I only got a little bit better in college. The rule was that you had to get at least a B-minus in all your major classes to stay in the program; but if you were a performance major, you had to get A’s in all your instrument classes. This makes perfect sense. At my first instructor eval, I played my etudes, and my faculty mentor, the principle horn player at the Spokane orchestra at the time, pursed her lips and got a really pained look on her face. Finally, she said, “Are you an education major?” When I said that I was, she said, “Oh thank God. You’ll be okay with a B-minus, then. I thought you were a performance major and I was going to have to flunk you out.”

I was just happy to be there. We played real music. Beethoven. Copeland. It was a blast. And I was fourth horn — chord support mostly. And more offbeats. But I didn’t even care, because I was part of it. More importantly, I was taking ear training and interval singing and music theory. I finally had the names for all the things I was already doing, as well as a whole brave new world filled with things I had no idea existed. I was learning how it worked. I read scores, I made scores. I learned the basics of engraving, analysis, interpretation. I learned how to appreciate music I wouldn’t normally enjoy.

Most importantly, I learned how to put pen to paper and make music come out.

Sort of. Again, I don’t want to over do it here. I was in no way some kind of wünderkind prodigy who was able to breeze through theory. I dropped out after a year and half of school. I got a good taste, not a whole meal.

Why’d I leave? (The more honest word would be quit.) The reasons are complicated, but you can spell them L-I-F-E. Mostly, the closer I got to being a music educator, the less I wanted to. What I really wanted was to switch my major to composition.

However.

I wasn’t even a little bit convinced I could make a living as a composer, and I’m sure I was right. (Right?) My south-midwestern Christian upbringing hadn’t hammered into me much of a work ethic, but it sure gave me a bunch of complexes about putting your effort toward useful things. An honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work. And doing something you love just because you love it is somehow dishonest.

To be clear, nobody ever came right out and told me that in so many words. But I looked around and saw how everyone toiled and worked themselves sick at jobs they hated and I figured that’s how it works.

If you never expect to be happy, you won’t be.

Hey, that belongs on a coffee mug …

Thanks, internet!

Meanwhile, the Internet kicked off in a big way. In those days the browser wars were between Netscape Navigator, Mosaic, and a flat rock. I got into computers, hard. I learned HTML, about the same way I learned music, chaotically. My dad worked sales at a software company, and called me up to say they were hiring in the digital publication department. Right about then, an education prof made it abundantly clear that there were 80 of us in that program alone competing for a total of 8 jobs statewide, and that she hoped we’d be happy teaching PE to middle-schoolers. Around then a distant relative of my wife at the time died and unexpectedly left her just enough money to pay off our debts and rent a truck to move back home — $4,200.

That was my price.

Computers is how I make my living, and just on that basis alone, it was a good choice. I lucked into the ground floor of a company whose vision and mission I care about, with people that I enjoy working with and for. #blessed

Nevertheless, I have regrets. Who doesn’t?


My first marriage was a mistake. I wouldn’t go back and undo it — we have a daughter together who I love to death. But I spent about fifteen years being mostly dead inside, creatively stagnant, just going through the motions. I turned off the music because in the end I had to turn off everything. I was a husk by the time we got divorced. As much fun as it would be to carp about my ex, it’s not necessary for this story. Suffice it to say that we were badly mismatched, and everyone knew it but us. She figured it out first, and went to live with her boyfriend.

So I was single for a while. Two mostly grown kids in the house and me. I was bored, and I needed a hobby. Around about that time, my youngest brother moved in with me. He’s twelve years younger than me, and was having a hard time at college. L-I-F-E was happening to him, too, and hard.

He had been in a garage band, and wanted to start making music again. I decided that I could help him out. So I bought a digital audio workstation, scoured the web for terrible soundfonts, and we messed around with it.

I dusted off my “chops” such as they were, and I pulled out some of my old college assignments. I decided that if I was going to make bad dance pop music with my brother, I could try to make bad music that was meaningful to me, too. And I did. I made a lot of really terrible music. It was therapeutic, to be honest.

That and Jesus is what kept me alive.

I remarried, this time to my best friend. (The real reason I went to Eastern, as it turns out. If only I had known at the time.) And I’m not dead inside, for a long time. We just crossed ten years, and I’m happier than I ever have been.

And so the music kept flowing. And one night I was showing off my latest creation — which must have been a one or two minute track, because that’s all I made back then — and she said, “You could make something big if you wanted to.” She says it was an observation, but I took it as a challenge.

I thought about it off and on for a few weeks, and decided that if I repurposed three of my best tracks, extended them, reworked them, I had maybe a third of an orchestral suite already. I thought about ways to group them and eventually landed on a narrative. (I like stories — can you tell?) I knew I wanted to write about nature, and I knew I wanted to do something worshipful.

Nature. Narrative. Worship … creation!

It took about four years, but I managed to pull together a whole orchestral suite. That will be the subject of my next post, and I promise it won’t be this long.


Like I said, I have had a complicated relationship with music, all my life. And it’s still complicated, and I love it. There’s no such thing as a right to compose music, but if there were, I wouldn’t have it. I’ve got no credentials, I’m barely educated, and I haven’t been “honing my craft” for years of hours. Much respect to people who do and have. Nevertheless, I love it, and I’m going to keep pressing forward.

Whew! Since you made it this far, here’s a cookie — a musical cookie. Here’s the first track from the first cassette that I recorded for my mom in 1992 on that Yamaha PSR-500 keyboard. It ain’t great, but it sounds like me, even back then.

(That image at the top is a Lorenz attractor, and I’m not going to pretend to understand the math, but it’s a chaotic orbit where the body seems strangely attracted to various points. It’s a pretty metaphor, ain’t it? And someday I’m going to figure out how to turn the math of that wonderful thing into music.)

Soli deo gloria.

Why I Create

Everything is more meaningful when it’s on a sunset picture.

I feed my family by designing software for a living. I work with a lot of creative people: marketers, graphic artists, interaction designers, interface designers, and yes, software engineers. Math can be creative, too!

And a lot of them struggle. I struggle.

I mean, Buddha wasn’t all wrong. Life is struggle. And my favorite definition of design is iteratively struggling to understand systems, processes, and artifacts that don’t yet exist and describing them in sufficient detail that they can.

And why not? Each creative task poses a problem: a sculpture which must be found within a rock; a painting which must emerge from smeared pigment on a surface; a dance which must consist in a series of very uncomfortable body positions that need to be practiced hours a day to perfect; a 47-minute 11-movement orchestra suite about the whole diggity ding dong world and everything in it, which must exist as both a sequence of sounds, and a bunch of marks on a page so a bunch of people can make the sounds in the right order. And yes, a big part of the process of creation is solving the problem that you’ve posed for yourself. Or, if you’re a special kind of lucky, the client has posed for you.

And yet.

What if it’s not a problem to solve, but a process to enjoy? What if the act of creation was supposed to bring you joy, not pain, toil, misery, self-doubt, and anguish? What if …

Creation is meant to glorify its creator

The popular mythos of the artist as a simultaneously self-indulgent and self-destructive creature is unfortunate, because creation is supposed to be joyful. It is supposed to be uplifting, inspiring, engaging, and edifying for both creator and audience.

(Here I stop and confess. I’m a Christian. I believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. You don’t have to in order to enjoy my work. But knowing that is going to help you understand what follows.)

There is a further illusion that there is “high” or “fine” art that is meant to be adored and below that, an undifferentiated mass of merely decorative junk to be be consumed and forgotten. High art is of lasting value, its creators immortalized by the lasting impression of their creation. Low art is here one day and gone the next, sunk into the vast ocean of human regret and despair.

But the purpose of art is not to be adored; nor is it to immortalize the artists, no matter what that poem about Ozymandias may imply.

Rather, art was meant to glorify God.

First Things

There are two kinds of thing: Creator and Creation. As such, everything that isn’t God is in one way or another is an image that points to God — or ought to. People are made in the image of God, and Jesus is the perfect expression of that image that points with perfect correspondence to the Father (Genesis 1:27; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3), both sign and signified in one. Marriage is an imperfect “mystery” that points to the relationship between Jesus and the church (Ephesians 5). The heavens and earth declare his glory (Psalms 8:1; 19:1; 65:1–13; 69:34; 96:11–12). And so on.

As J. R. R. Tolkien pointed out, we are sub-creators who mimic The Creator of Everything (compare C.S. Lewis). This insight extends not just to the arts but to all of life: As the painter paints and the sculptor sculpts, so the carpenter builds and the contract negotiator drafts. “Whatever your hand finds to do” it’s for your creator (Colossians 3:23–24).

When God designed houses for himself on earth — I am thinking of the Tabernacle and the temples — they were not austere but highly decorated with cherubim, animals, flowers, and fruit trees. They were decorated in such a way as to evoke heaven and the Garden of Eden and to overwhelm the viewer with awe for the majesty, glory, and power of God (Exodus 26:1; 36:8, 35; 1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35; 7:29, 36). All these were but a dim reflection of the realities seen in Ezekiel 1 and 10 and Revelation 4 (Hebrews 8:1–7). Heaven will be a very sensual place, if only because it is nearer to the one who made senses in the first place, who knows best how to thrill them.

The senses were created so that man could appreciate his maker and reflect that appreciation back as praise.

God “planted” the ear, and in so doing, gave us a sense of hearing attuned to the reverberations of his creative Word who was in the beginning, simultaneously God and with God (Genesis 1:1–2; John 1:1–5). Job tells us that at the creation the “morning stars sang together / and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). So music, song, and spoken words that point to God glorifies him. That which does not is mere noise.

The sense of sight points to the light that burst forth at God’s command, “Let there be light” — and Jesus the light of men, and perfect light of the world (Genesis 1:3; John 1:4–5; 8:12; passim). Inasmuch as we point back to him, we too are lights (Matthew 5:14–16; Luke 11:34–36). We enjoy color, because God has thus devised our eyes and minds, and filled the world with it. Any visual art that points to God glorifies him. That which does not is mere darkness.

(If thinking about “God” in this way makes you uncomfortable — good! It should. Human consciousness yearns some kind of meaning in the universe, and if it’s not out there, that’s okay I guess, but if it is … it’s wild and it’s powerful and I want to get to know it.)

Movement hearkens back to the motion of God in creation, the fluttering of the Spirit over the waters, the stretching of the firmament, the rise of the mountains and recession of the seas (Genesis 1:1–5). Moreover, we have bodies because God sculpted Adam out of clay, touching him with his hands even as he was crafting the sense of touch (Genesis 2:7). We know of balance and proportion because God made us to have symmetry in one direction, and we have a variety of interesting poses and motions — arms and legs and shoulders and knees — because God made us to be asymmetrical in other directions. So choreography, dance (and sculpture which evokes them) that points to God glorifies him. That which does not is mere deformation.

We have a sense of taste that we may know what fruit is good to eat, and so we can enjoy the marriage supper of the Lamb, so we can (metaphorically speaking) “taste and see” that God is good (Genesis 1:12, 29; 2:8-9; Revelation 19:9; Psalm 34:8). So food that is delicious and is taken with thanksgiving to God, glorifies him. Gluttony, on the other hand, is mere sensuality, self-satisfaction minus gratitude for the amazing gift of life in the first place — which the existing such pleasure confirms.

(Worse, it is a kind of hoarding. To glut when others starve is unjust, unkind, and un-generous, which is the opposite of God.)

We have minds that were made to enjoy thinking, reading, writing; hearts to enjoy feeling, emoting, sympathizing and empathizing; mouths to enjoy speaking, eating, drinking, kissing; ears for hearing; hands for building, clapping, waving care-free; feet for running, walking, dancing.

Signposts & Reflections

God made it all and it is very good, but he made it to point to him, not to replace him. His glory he will not share with another (Isaiah 48:11).

Therein lies the danger. Any and all of the senses and faculties of humankind can be turned toward the self and the creation rather than toward the creator. Then a healthy use of the senses to appreciate the world God has made and so appreciate him devolves into mere sensuality. What would be communion with God is fornication with nature; what would be love of God is wanton self-pleasure, in a word masturbatory. (Sorry, it had to be said.)

See Romans 1. See most of Israelite history, or look in the mirror.

That is not to say that ugly things cannot glorify God. We understand the Bible to have been co-authored by God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter) and it certainly glorifies God. And yet it is not all autumn scenes painted in improbably warm and bright colors with soft, fuzzy brushstrokes. In its pages you will find unflinching depictions of sins of every kind. Even the grotesque body horror images of a concubine cut into pieces and mailed to the elders of Israel, or a basket of severed foreskins delivered as a wedding gift, or a conquistador who measures his own self-worth by the piles of his enemies heads, or for that matter, the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross are put to the purpose of glorifying God, if only by way of contrast. To shy away from truth is no good way to serve the God who is Truth.

In sum, art that is not gratifying to God has no reason to exist, because any part of creation that is not gratifying to the Creator has no reason to exist, and will thus be erased, revised, trimmed, pruned, cut off, cut out, and cast away. If writing be re-writing, then behold! The Divine Author is as much an Editor as he is a Poet.

Soli Deo Gloria

Johann Sebastian Bach used to sign all of his manuscripts with either the initials S.D.G. or the Latin phrase soli deo gloria. It means “To God alone be glory” and it’s a confession that the art contained therein belongs to the creator and is intended by the artist to glorify Him, not to glorify Bach. It’s less well-known that he often started his compositions with the initials J.J., or Jesu juva, “Jesus Help” or the German version, J.H.

I’m not JSB, but I like to put S.D.G. on my compositions as well. You’ll see it in my Soundcloud descriptions for my major works. Even when I don’t remember to put it in the description, it may show up in the tags, or … well, I meant to.

All the music, art, writing, or what-have-you that you find from me should be understood to be written under the headings J.J. and …

S.D.G.

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