Week 56

Part 1: Inspiration.

 Cumbria, on the drive back North.

Cumbria, on the drive back North.

          Touring season is once again in full swing! I've just returned from a tour in North Wales with the Devhana Consort and on Thursday I'm set to embark on an incredibly exciting trip to Leipzig, Germany. The past week has been inspirational to say the least, beginning with a series of personal realizations that were outlined in my last post and culminating in a cracking weekend with the lads in St. Asaph. On Friday Sarah and I travelled to Glasgow for our Valentine's Day date, and we witnessed a concert that was truly life-changing for both of us.

          It was all Sarah's idea, and hats off to her for organizing everything while I finished up my orchestration lectures for the first years. As she was completing her degree in Los Angeles, a musician by the name of Blake Mills was beginning to gain a lot of ground there and it was just our luck that he happened to be performing in Glasgow on the 13th. I'll admit that at first I was interested, but not totally grabbed by the recordings of his music that she sent me. It clearly meant a lot to her to see this concert though, and some time away from the stresses of the PhD with just her for company sounded like the perfect spiritual tonic.

          The concert proved to me the power of live music over recordings. Blake Mills and his troupe are musicians of an extremely high order, introducing a marriage of simplicity and technical craft that I have never seen before in music of their genre. If there is one thing that I prize above all else, it's a musician's ability to hone and craft a sound perfectly while remaining generous of spirit. Even though Blake's technique was very advanced, it never came across as show-boating. He used his talents to convey his own internal life in a very deep way, a goal which all musicians strive for but rarely achieve. Jesca Hoop was equally stunning both as an opener and a collaborator. I also had a chance to speak to Stuart Johnson afterwards, who is one of the most sensitive and collaborative drummers that I have seen in recent years. Many thanks to him for his openness and for showing me around his kit after the concert.

          Last week I wrote about the new direction that my own music has been heading in recently. Seeing Blake Mills has only strengthened my desire to head down this new path, however risky it is. So here is the short beginning of a very long explanation that will run throughout this blog from now on.

Part 2: The Wall.

          Years ago, before I became a classical musician, I was a drummer. At the age of 15, it seemed all I wanted out of life was to hit things with sticks. I played countless concerts on small stages and in dingy, smoky basements with the LaVoy Brothers' Band and Shipwreck Party. And yet, somewhere along the line my focus shifted to choral music. I stowed the sticks, picked up a pencil and started composing. Don't get me wrong here, I regret nothing about that decision; choral music has given me a musical home that I never dreamed of having. It will always be a huge part of me and I will continue to compose music for choirs. But there is a growing part of me that is coming to uncomfortable, and oddly exciting, realization.

          I've blocked out half of my musical life for the past 8 years. I love classical music, but it often does not contain the frenetic energy and individuality of more popular genres. At the opposite end of the spectrum, while this energy is incredible it does not make up for the fact that popular music, almost in its entirety, is less technically crafted and profound than classical music. In one of my first classical composition lessons ever, I brought along a “song” to show to my teacher, and he proceeded to tell me that I was getting a degree in classical music and that I should never, ever bring a song into one of our lessons again. Sadly, that reaction is not uncommon amongst musical academics.

          There is this idea that classical music and popular music shouldn't mix, like the musicians in both categories feel the other side is tainted in some way. I've never understood it, and I feel that this invisible wall between the two is dangerous for music in general. My belief is that the dawn of pop music in the twentieth century and its meteoric rise to popularity caused classical musicians to have a negative reaction, one of pride and the fear of diminishing importance. We built the wall, and popular musicians, sensing our aloofness, built it even higher.

          See, there I go again, referring to myself as a “classical” musician as opposed to a “popular” musician. It's ingrained in us from day one that there has to be a division. The wall is creatively stifling in the worst way, preventing any kind of organic flow between musical styles. Think about what it does to all musicians: people on the popular music side are cut off from advanced forms, from truly knowing and understanding how the music of great composers is crafted, from experiencing the profundity of the massive war-horse works for choir and orchestra for example; people on the classical music side are locked in a cage of formalities that often hampers musical honesty, simplicity, and energy.

          I know, you're offended or you take issue with what I just wrote. “My guitar playing is difficult and advanced.” “The formalities are meant to preserve and heighten musical energy, not hamper it.” Or, even more bluntly, “our music is better because of X,” where X = a reason that can easily be matched or contrasted by the other camp. The truth is, I've sat on both sides of the aisle. I have straddled the wall time and again, and from that high vantage point I have seen that these reactions are based on self-consciousness and pride, even if we are unwilling or unable to admit it. We have all done it; attempted to legitimize our own craft by demeaning another. I think it's wrong that this kind of behaviour is normal and accepted consciously or subconsciously by any musician.

          So, this new direction of mine is essentially an attempt to dismantle the wall, brick by brick. Most people are sceptical, and I understand that. It's a risk, career-wise, but a calculated one that I intend to follow through with. As I said last week, I would regret it if I didn't at least try. The final concert in Wales was proof that the two sides can exist in tandem and still be effective. We sang ancient chants, music from the 18th century, and I performed my arrangement of Arthur McBride. All were successful, even in juxtaposition with each other.

          The Leipzig trip is coming at the perfect time. The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir from Pennsylvania, conducted by Jim Moyer, will be performing the world premier of my “Salvator Mundi.”With all of this soul-searching, what I need more than anything is to be around a group of young, passionate musicians who are having their own experience of a lifetime. From what I can tell, based on the pictures and videos being posted online as they begin their tour, this is an extraordinary group of people. They have a beautiful sound as a choir, very vibrant and warm, and Jim is a wonderful conductor. I feel so blessed and lucky to be given this opportunity to work with them.

I'm sure I will come back all inspired, so expect to hear more from me next week.

Until then,

Thomas LaVoy

Music of the week: Blake Mills - It'll All Work Out