Sight, Sound and Beyond

Posts tagged ‘composition’

Can Music Be a Form of Prayer?

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excerpt of  “In the Beginning” from Images

A year or so ago, I was riding in the car with one of my friends who has the same first name as I do.  I don’t remember the exact sequence of the conversation, but I went from talking about God to talking about one of my music composition projects.  “Gee Jen, ” she said, “I am surprised you don’t write religious music.”

I always wondered that myself.  Honestly, I never wrote anything that would be considered religious.  I never wrote a Mass or anything like that.  Many of the great composers have already written such wonderful works, so I never felt the need to write any sacred music myself.  I was always trying to find my own voice and do something different.  The fact that I had not written or was even considering writing any sacred music seemed quite bizarre to me.  After all, I am active in my church’s music ministry.

The topic of music and God, also came up in a discussion I had with my spiritual director some time ago.  She mentioned how music can be a form of prayer and worship and used King David as an example.  While The Ark of the Covenant was being brought to Jerusalem, he danced before the Lord .

“As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord;”2 Samuel 6:16

“Oh, but I don’t compose religious music,” I told her, “and much of the music I play would be considered secular.”  She had told me that my performance and compositions didn’t have to be of a religious nature to be considered a form of prayer.  It seemed really strange to view my own music as a form of prayer or praise to God.  I have studied music written for The Church, is considered sacred since it was clearly directed to our Lord.  However, when I began to think more about the process of composing and the art of performance being forms of prayer, the more it seemed possible.

God is the source of all creation and I believe all things come from God as well.  For example, I just finished recording a CD of original piano music that will be coming out next month.  If at least one of the compositions would be called “good,” I couldn’t take all the credit.  The closest sacred work that I have composed that is included on the disc is Images, a collection of seven piano pieces inspired by my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Each piece was inspired by either a specific place, moment or feeing during my visit.   It isn’t written for the Mass or anything like that, but I would consider it sacred because it was inspired holy places and spiritual experiences.  It is a trip that transformed me in many ways.  The scriptures came alive and I felt it brought me closer with the Lord.

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excerpt from Revelation

For me, the art of composing and performing is a spiritual collaboration between man and God.  Sometimes the two can be completely in sync with one another where the music just flows freely and effortlessly.  This rarely happens to me, but when it does, the experience is awesome.  An examples of this happened to me in 2011 when I was writing a piece for the North/South Chamber Orchestra called Revelations.  The ideas for this composition seemed to pour out into my head and I simply followed where the music led me.  There seriously had to be strong Divine Intervention for that work.  I called it Revelations because it literally was revealed to me.  Was it revealed to me by God?  I would like to think so!

As for performance, the mind is truly in the present moment and only when the mind is in the present moment can one be in the presence of God.  I can recall many performances in which I felt very well connected with the piano and truly in the moment where I was able to connect with the audience and other musicians who were performing with me.  This is what I love about playing chamber music, there is more of a sense of community, a kind of joining together in group prayer.  In my best performances, all sense of time is lost because I am completely immersed in this heavenly world.

Much of my music comes from my own personal experiences, and even though I have free will, God is still the author of my life since He created me and knows everything about me.  Much of my music is inspired by my two avian companions, Sunny and Nikki, and who created them?  I think our Lord smiled when He imagined those two!  He seems to work His hand in everything.  Man may have built the first piano, but who created man and gave him the ability to imagine such ideas?  Our ability to create comes from the Creator.  After all, we are made in His image.  Therefore, when anyone creates a something that would be considered beautiful, powerful or a masterpiece, it is not simply just a human effort, but a collaboration between God and man.  Where there is collaboration there must be a dialogue of some kind, and when one engages with a dialogue with the Lord, that is called prayer.

As I write this, I recall a gift my mother gave me one Christmas.  I was a pillow that read the following: “Music, a Celebration of the Soul”  I couldn’t agree more, for when the soul is in perfect alignment with God, it truly has a reason to celebrate.


Ode to Joyce

Mary Ann Joyce-Walter

On Sunday, February 26, I participated in a Manhattanville College chamber music concert celebrating the compositions of Dr. Mary Ann Joyce-Walter.  The concert was held to honor her retirement from the college this June.  The performers consisted of faulty, students and alumni like myself.  I felt very privileged to be included.   It isn’t everyday that I get asked to perform, but I felt very honored to perform music by my very first teacher of composition.

I met Joyce when I was a sophomore in high school.  At that time, my older sister, Elizabeth, was attending Manhattanville and wanted to introduce me to faculty of the music department.  One of the first things that things Joyce said to me was: “You are very pretty.”  She went on to tell me about the music program and the available concentrations.  Little did I know that wouldn’t be the last time I would be seeing her.   At that time, I didn’t even know if I wanted to continue my studies of music at the college level.

Anyway, I began taking Joyce’s classes during my first semester of my second year of college.  She was my music theory teacher, and I immediately grew to like her right from the very first day of class.  “I hear you are a very strong music theory student,” she said.  Not only was she my music professor but she was also my academic adviser as well.  At the end of my first semester with her, she gave me one of her CD recordings that featured her music:.An Evening with Gerard Manley Hopkins.  It was then  that I became interested in composing music.  Of course, I didn’t think I had it in me to even write music.  My only composition was a very short piece I wrote for my freshman music seminar class.  It was a rhythmic piece for four tin cans called Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

During the second semester of my sophomore year, Joyce began incorporating composition into her class assignments.  Once we began studying 18th century counterpoint, we were to write the first section of a two-part invention.  Being one of her faithful disciples, I wrote a two part invention in its entirety and played it in the Student Composer’s Concert.  We were both quite happy with how the piece turned out.  Even though it was written in an older style, she had told me that I had done well.   During the summer we kept contact and theory and composition continued on.  I wanted to wright another piano piece but was unsure about to organize the piece.  She had gave me some pieces to study and analyze so I could see examples ternary, binary and rondo form.  Many of the pieces we studied were from one of the books we used in class called Anthology for Musical Analysis by Charles Burkhart.  Using the pieces as a model for form, I composed From a Dream.

Besides introducing me to composing, Joyce introduced me to the wonderful world of birds.  She had kept cocketiels for much of her life and always told me again and again about Joe, the marvelous bird who could whistle the theme from the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.  However, besides birds, she introduced me to the music organization, New York Women Composers, for which I now currently serve as Secretary/PR Coordinator.  In addition, through her, I met and found Flora Kuan, one of my piano instructors, who did wonders in developing my technique.

Till this day, Joyce and I continue to stay in touch and whenever I have any composition-related question, she is the first person I ask.  Also, she is one of Sunny and Nikki’s biggest fans.  One of my favorite memories is when I took the girls to see her at the college for the first time.  She just fell in love with them and her feelings toward them didn’t change one bit after they both pooped on her desk.  “Oh it is just transformed seed, ” she said with a chuckle.

It truly is amazing that we have already known each other for nearly 11 years now.  Manhattanville will surely not be the same without her.  She was the best music professor I had, and she certainly gave her students much encouragement and praise for their hard work.  I felt proud to hear her music performed that day, and if I ever turn out to be a really great composer someday, I will always remember that the composition journey started with her.        .

My First Experiment with Synesthesia

Abstract Symphony in Blue and Green by Vicky Brago Mitchell

When I was a sophomore in college, I made my first attempt at painting music.  I don’t know if I was very successful, but the experiment went like this.  In my theory class, we had to write an example of a tonal modulation.  We had to begin in the key of E minor and modulate to one of the other 5 related keys: G major, C major, D, major, A minor or B minor.  I ended my example in D major by using an E minor chord as a common chord.  The example was about two measure and was written in four voices, like you would find in a Bach four-part chorale.

I showed my musical example to my freshman academic adviser, Randy.  He is an art professor, but I had him for the freshman seminar which all incoming freshman were required to take.  I asked Randy if he would help me make my two measure example into a painting.  He agreed and we began our experiment.

Creating my visual masterpiece took a few attempts, but here is what I ended up finally doing.  I took a large piece of water color paper and painted 2 thirds of it blue to represent E minor and painted the remainder of the paper green to represent D major.   These visual representations were based on my own personal perceptions of these two keys.

Now how did I represent the notes in the chorale and their durations?  Randy gave me a book that consisted of color samples.  He told me to cut the colors out that best represented the notes in the example.  Shorter notes were cut closer to the shape of a square while longer note values were cut more in the shape of a rectangle.  It was not an easy task to do as matching up the colors to my own perceptions was very challenging.  Therefore, I had to chose the ones that were as close to the original as possible.

I arranged the “notes” on the panted paper in the same manner as it appeared on the staff.  The example moved from left to write and the voices were arranged in their conventional order: bass, tenor, alto soprano.  Once the notes were glued in their respectful places, the work was finished.  It turned out to be pretty cool and I titled it From E Minor to D Major.

Once I finished the work, I gave it to Joyce, the professor of the theory class in which I had done the initial assignment.  I had given it to her as a Christmas gift.  Joyce became my academic adviser in my Sophomore year.  It was that same year that I became interested in composing music and began studying composition with her as well.  Even after all these years, I still have close ties to both Randy and Joyce.  I don’t know if Joyce still has the painting, but I am glad we still have our friendship.  That’s more important.

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