Sunday Morning Music: Elephants Piss in Fear

The title of this movement from Time Grown Old – Images of the Mahabharata, that I composed back 1995, is a literal translation of an actual phrase from the Mahabharata. The entire four movements form a concerto for pipe organ, percussion, and electronic sound. This recording is me as organist, with the University of South Florida Percussion Ensemble, Robert McCormick, Director. It was recorded recorded at the Bayshore Baptist Church, Tampa, Florida.

To listen to today’s Sunday Morning Music, click HERE.

If you decide later you’d like to listen to all four movements, click HERE. Should you listen to the entire piece, please note that movement 2 begins EXTREMELY softly.

ST ANNE with descants plus 3 chorale preludes on the tune

The tune name of this famous Hymn is St Anne. The words are equally famous: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Seems like an appropriate text for these days.

This rendition has all 6 verses as found in NCH #25. There’s a very short intro and the first verse begins when the trumpet enters. Hang on to your part because starting in verse 3 the descants begin (there’s 4 verses with descants)!

Here’s a link to three chorale preludes for solo piano I composed a couple years ago that are based on ST ANNE. They’re audio streaming (nothing to download). You can hear the famous melody used in various ways. For instance, in the slow movement, it’s the top notes of the accompaniment.

(To listen to preludes, click on following link, then the “play” button)

And…you’re welcome to download the score HERE, for free. Of course, every composer hopes maybe somebody will feel like playing a piece if there’s a free score on offer!

Truth in fiction

Trust me: this blog post really IS about music composition…eventually, so hopefully you’ll read to the end of the post! This is another post after returning to posting my thoughts for aspiring composers after mostly switching to posts generated as part of my job as a working musician/composer during this pandemic (see and for discussions of this.

Long ago, way before personal computers and the Internet, there was a young woman I knew who, from an early age, collected quotes from books on 3×5 index cards. Even though only in her very early 20s, she’d collected hundreds of these quotes. Almost all of them were from fiction. Although I’ve never had the persistence to accumulate such a storehouse of quotes, from time to time, I noted some passages in fiction that affected me deeply. They expressed a truth about life that resonated with me.

Here’s an example: “As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come…and he would have to meet it when it did.” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling.

I just “Googled” that entire quote for the heck of it and discovered that it was listed on J.K. Rowling > Quotes > Quotable Quote page. Someone else had found it meaningful also.

The older I get, the more slowly I read, the more I return to re-read books I’ve read before, and the more I savor those bits of truth I find. I’ve certainly read my fair share of self-help and applied philosophy books, but I’ve never found as many helpful truths in those books as I have in fiction, for as Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Similarly, never have I found as many helpful truths in literary fiction as I have in genre fiction.

Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Awards acceptance speech is terrific. Not only does he talk about the truth in in the life (fiction), more importantly, he takes to task the academic (“literary”) fiction network and bias. I highly recommend his speech: Stephen King, Recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, 2003 (

In an old blog I had, I once posted, “If I were able to write a novel, the kind of novel I’d hope to be able to write is the one I just finished reading, The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont.” The reason I felt that way was because of the underlying truth–a truth that is true for any human being–that was the premise of the story. It affected me deeply because events in my own life vibrated in sympathy with the tones struck in that story.

Part of what makes some authors so great is that they write “as if” they were inside the reader’s own existence. They must have the capacity to experience their books as we do and that inner perception must inform what they write. I also believe that the best musicians, be they performer, conductor, or composer, write/perform what they do for the benefit of the audience, not to aggrandize themselves.

In the field of professional music performers the best musicians also have a knack for hearing what and how they’re playing from the audience’s viewpoint, as part of the whole…as if they were outside themselves, sitting in the audience…quite literally and acoustically. They don’t just play their part from their own viewpoint.

The best composers have a way of doing something similar: they are able to experiencing what they’re writing from within time–just as a listener experiences it–not just from their viewpoint outside of time as a composer looking at the whole. In both cases, the musician/composer is performs/creates for the listener, not for the informed critic. This has always been true. Most people forget that Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven were all writing for the masses, they weren’t writing for the intelligentsia.

So, the moral of this story is to encourage composers to speak to the universal emotional experiences of their listeners. Engage the audience. Don’t write for critics. Write for the audience. You do that by providing them with an emotional experience. Become aware of your own emotions. Get in touch with the fact that we’re one person, that we inhabit a shared emotional world. Don’t just write notes.


Tailgate trombone

Feeling the urge to return to writing the occasional composition-teacher post! Some time ago I made a list of titles for posts I had ideas to write. Here’s one…

“Tailgate trombone” is a term that applies to a typical trombone part in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz in tutti sections (tutti, Italian from Latin totus, “all,” is where everyone is playing at the same time). This “tailgate” part sort of follows its own course, outlining often descending chromatic lines inherent in the harmonic progression of the tune being improvised upon.

The reason for titling this post with that designation is that in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz (I’ve never been absolutely sure to what extent those two styles are mutually exclusive) each instrument has a set role and melodic character that’s unchanging in the tutti sections.

Those are typically as follows:

  • trumpet plays embellished tune melody
  • clarinet plays arpeggiated harmonic structure
  • trombone plays tailgate part
  • tuba plays bass part
  • banjo plays harmony rhythmicized

Having these set roles in tutti sections helps clarify the texture, keeping everyone out of everyone else’s way while madly improvising in “le jazz hot.”

My purpose in raising this topic is that all too often, as useful as this device is, too many student composers do the same thing to their classical compositions, never allowing the parts of the texture to deviate from their set roles.

I do the same thing myself for certain reasons, especially when I’m wanting to create a static atmosphere.

For, that’s the danger: the music becomes static.

It’s definitely true that as great a composer as Mozart utilizes static texture, sometimes called mono-textural music. But, it’s worth your effort to take something like a Mozart piano sonata that definitely falls into this category, and see how even he breaks the texture from one phrase or group of phrases to the next into contrasting textures of different characters.

Then, take a look at someone like Beethoven to see how even the seams between contrasting sections are disguised so you start with one texture and miraculously discover you’re in a different texture without noticing how you got there.

This is even more true with someone like Mahler!

Mono-texture isn’t “bad” and multi-textural “good.” The goal is to become adept at handling texture freely without being forced to being stuck when you don’t want to be.

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