for string quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, harp)
“Write the piece that you have always wanted to write.” These were the words spoken to me regularly by Robert Kyr, my composition teacher from my time at the Oregon School of Music. For the most part, I always thought I was; each piece in my catalogue garnered more and more passion and enthusiasm from me than the previous. But there was something different about this project than any other I had taken on, though I could not put my finger on it.
When Kathryn proposed the idea of a piece for string quartet and harp, I was immediately captivated by the possibilities of such an ensemble. As we began to research past pieces for the group, it became apparent that, for whatever reason, this ensemble has not been utilized as exhaustively as one would think. Of the pieces of note, André Caplet’s “Conte Fantastique (The Masque of the Red Death)” d’après Poe (1924) and R. Murray Schaffer’s Theseus (1983) are two major ones that may exist within a musicians common knowledge. I attribute the success of these pieces not only to their brilliant creators, but also because both composers realized the inherent narrative ability of the ensemble, embedding a vivid and magical story into each piece that is indivisible from the music itself. Taking that cue, I decided to embark on a journey to tell my own story, if only I knew what it was!
As I began work on the piece, the purpose of it changed quite regularly. Initially, I was planning on portraying a type of fantasy world, first without any particular plan, and then with something inspired by the Norse creation myth. That quickly fell by the wayside, however, as I remembered the quote from Dr. Kyr and started looking at everything I wanted to write versus what I thought I should write.
What was this piece I always wanted to write and how do I get to it? As I struggled with this question, it became apparent that honesty was going to be the best approach. In examining myself, I needed to come to grips with my influences. Sure, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, and Rimsky-Korsakov are my go-tos in a professional conversation, but I was raised listening to the soundtracks of musicals, with Andrew Lloyd Weber being a daily occurrence, followed regularly by the original cast recording of Les Miserables. Additionally, I was given a Nintendo Gameboy when I was five, and video games and their music have been a way of life ever since.
In examining all of these influences—especially the ones I had little control in selecting—it really boiled down to one thread that was consistent throughout my childhood, and well into my adulthood: Dr. Seuss. My father use to read Fox in Socks to my sister and me at night, I’m almost certain I learned to read with Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and I still keep a copy of Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? on my bookshelf for when a close friend falls ill and needs to be read to in bed. These were my influences, and this is from where my piece would draw.
Instead of pulling characters or places, it seemed more feasible to draw from Suess’ poetry. Lifting single lines from a number of his books, my plan was to strip them of context and create a section of the piece based on personal interpretation of each isolated sentence. Four of the five movements are constructed through this approach, with the second movement being the only one directly inspired by the illustrations of Suess’ books rather than any text in particular. Oh, the places you will go! comes from the book of the same title (admittedly, the book is titled Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, but I really dislike contractions in this context) and was Suess’ last book published in his life time (1990). I know it is wet... is a fragment from the ever-popular Cat in the Hat from 1957, The perilous pants eating plants is lifted from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (one of my favorites) from 1973, and the last movement, Your Mountain is Waiting, comes again from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, though from the last page instead of the first.
I ran out of black paint and sunshine is made possible from the tireless support of Kathryn Harms, whose support of contemporary music and enthusiasm of educating anyone and everyone on the harp and its endless uses in music has led me to rediscover myself and write the piece I have always wanted to write.