Nellmedia - Journal
Essay: The Museum
(This essay was written for college applications.)
If, by a strange twist of fate, there should be some apocalyptic disaster and I am trapped inside a building, doors barricaded by huge boulders of rock, I would like that building to be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met feels infinite, as though you could never find the end of it. There would always be more art objects to see, positioned in their display cases like silent ambassadors from another time and place. Still, there would be more stone Buddhas from 12th century Cambodia, softly suspended in their cool, gray gazes; still, there would be more foliate relief carvings in stained cherry wood, protruding from a door which once led to the dank study of some 18th century aristocrat; still, there would be more early Renaissance tapestries depicting ancient sackings of Jerusalem, soldiers marching in faded red ochre, the curator's favorite decorative platter surreptitiously concealing the image of someone draining a foe's intestines; and still, the musical instrument gallery would offer more viola da gambas, more spinets and virginals, lavishly painted with charming miniatures, pregnant with the possibility of warm, harmonic sound.
This impression of endlesslessness is compounded when I wonder about the quantity of the Met's collection which isn't installed. A gallery tour guide once informed me that there was a whole world underneath the floor. There are piles upon piles of Victorian ladies' gloves and hats stuffed into archival boxes, fated never to be revealed in a special exhibit alongside their flashier roommates (some rare Rembrandt, or a Greek funerary urn). What else is awaiting public display? The Islamic art galleries are undergoing renovation, scheduled to open during my sophomore year of college. Meanwhile, the curators are displaying a little row of illuminated manuscripts from Rumi's Persia: a gold-leafed amuse-bouche. The renovated Greek and Roman galleries opened recently, and the oversized stone head of Constantine, beckoning his subjects' unquestioning worship, looms large in my memory. What other oversized stone heads await installment from beneath those well-traveled floors?
I've been fortunate enough to take regular visits to the Met. Every time I go, I interact with a time or place that I normally experience on a purely intangible level. While teaching myself World History I've witnessed its cultural products first-hand. The pottery and gold of the Aztecs and Incas are realities which I have seen for myself. These distant civilizations exist not only in concept, but in physical space. Stepping into the little gallery underneath the main staircase, I can encounter remnants of Byzantine Egypt between walls of bare brick, where low lighting protects sensitive textiles. I feel like the privileged witness of a secret as I decipher ancient handwriting on broken pottery, passages of scripture placed alongside grocery lists. Moving backwards in time, I walk into the huge windowed gallery of the Temple of Dendur, where marble pharaohs perch above a black moat. Walking the lengthy floor, I breathe in sacred space.
Essay: Composing "Memory"
(This essay was written for college applications.)
It's a pleasant June afternoon in my backyard: sunlight glimmers on a rippling green creek, a light breeze sways tree leaves, and layers of bird calls resound from all directions while traffic, lawn mowers and construction workers create a rumbling underbelly of distant noise. I'm standing on sticks and grassy dirt with digital recorder in hand, announcing the following words precisely and slowly in a low speaking voice: “Memory preserves in distinct particulars and general categories all the perceptions which have penetrated, each by its own route of entry.”
These are the first words of the passage from St. Augustine's “Confessions” which I am attempting to set to music.
Imagine yourself faced with complete personal commitment to a career doing something that you've never really done before, without the knowledge of how to do it. That was the situation I was in when I decided to become a classical composer last January. I'd had years of experience composing, performing and recording advanced rock music, and a bit of jazz, and had listened to much classical music, but I had never actually sat down with a sheet of manuscript paper and written notes to be performed by classical instruments or voices. Approaching classical composition was like relearning how to walk.
I struggled with writer's block for months, striving to produce music that was in alignment with my newly developing sensibility. During the same period, I found myself entering a new intensity of interest in academic humanities – particularly literature and history. Augustine's “Confessions” found its way onto the silver quasi-baroque shelf above my bed, in the honored position of “favorite book” (alongside Francois Rabelais' “Gargantua and Pantagruel” and Seamus Heaney's translation of “Beowulf”). I found myself, a secular humanist, fascinated by the ruminations of this Catholic bishop from 1,600 years ago, a distant being whose writing seemed as near as a letter from a friend, as present and alive as a whisper in my ear. The book is written as an extended rhetorical question to God, but is essentially an exploration of the mysteries of human experience. He asked questions that are completely familiar and universal, yet often so personal and internal as never to be verbalized from one person to another: why do I act this way? Why do I think this? What is this experience that I'm having? Augustine communicated a complete inner world with clarity and poetry.
Looking at the way Augustine's thinking opened up my own thoughts, one can see why “Confessions” was a perfect source for my musical inspiration. I had long been searching for a text to use in a vocal work, and in a “Eureka!” moment I recalled a vivid passage from “Confessions” about memory and sense. I sat down with my well-worn paperback and copied the words verbatim into the final pages of a spiral-bound notebook. Using a notation of spontaneous devising I charted out the breaks in each phrase, identified the beginnings and endings of thoughts, and scribbled margin notes like “soaring melody”, “polyphony winds into unison”, or “dark shimmering harmonies” to indicate musical moments which I hoped to achieve. During this process I developed a vision of how I could sculpt the text into a musical shape. I recorded myself speaking the words aloud, and began composing using the recording as an approximate reference for rhythm and pitch. The music flowed from there. On that June afternoon, I saw a substantial piece of music emerging from the obscurity of blank staves on my computer screen.
Writing and finishing “Memory”, and eventually having the privilege to hear it recorded by a renowned vocal ensemble, proved to me for the first time that I was actually capable of creating the kind of music I was passionate about. Inspiration is necessary for a composer of any level of accomplishment, and each composer finds it in different places. On this occasion, I found that key to the gateway of my musical creativity in Augustine's writing. The words, the flow and conceptual arc of his ideas, and the content, tone, and power of those ideas gave me a solid structure on which to build, and allowed me to articulate the music which had been bottled up, fermenting within me.
You can hear the finished recording of "Memory", and read the text, at my composition portfolio.
Nellmedia - Journal
© 2008 Nell Shaw Cohen