Reflections Provoked by Juvenilia

I am a very different man from the one who wrote this short excerpt at the age of 17, and the music now sounds foreign to me.

This is the first section from the third movement of my first symphony, to this day the longest single piece I've ever written. I didn't have my first composition lesson until I went to Ithaca College the following year. Until that point, aside from playing in the school band, I had taken only a year combined of piano and trombone lessons (and I admit that I was not a very good student). We always had a half-step flat upright piano in our home that I played every day-- Hymns, Bach inventions, and whatever scores that my mom found at yard sales, mostly of watered-down classics.

College was nothing like I expected it to be, and after years of only hopefully guessing what it might be like, finally getting to see the musical institution from the inside was a shocking disappointment from which I've never fully recovered, and truthfully--despite its few bright spots--in many ways continue to be disappointed by with each passing year.

Looking at this score now, it's crystal clear that what has most increased in the past 15 years is mostly my degree self-consciousness, to say little of my control or understanding over the other elements of music. I hold no pretense that this short excerpt is some great work of art in any sense-- but it is at least true, in that it is a perfect reflection of everything that can be learned by osmosis, and everything that captivates the attention of a 17-year old musician; musical mannerisms as a vocabulary in their own right, driving rhythms, and the magic of the sounds that come out of big orchestral gestures. There was no reason for me to write this music, other than the desire to be a part of something that I saw--mistakenly or no--as somehow better than my own life as it was then.

Back then there were no free scores to download online, and I had no way of knowing about the music libraries at the state universities, which were all prohibitively far from my home. Everything I knew about orchestration I learned from sitting in trombone section of my regional youth orchestra, trying to play any instrument I could get my hands on, and listening to orchestral CDs that I borrowed from the local library. As you can see, I was completely naive to the mysteries of harmony, and counterpoint-- a word did not yet exist to me--was something I could only work out by intuition and ear.

It is a good thing that the world is not beholden to the delusions of its youth. But when I look at this work now, with the distance of 15 years, I can't help but see that a tremendous amount of talent was squandered-- mostly by my own personal failings-- but also partly by a system that imposes its ideas of what is correct, what is good, and what is "in style" on those who, in truth, have nothing to do with that system, even if they stand the most to gain from being accepted by it. I also see that ignorance does not preclude sincerity-- and that if anything, a surplus of the former only increases the intensity of latter.

As I now become increasingly entrenched in this musical institution, sustained by artifice and habit, I try to constantly be on the look out for the kind of ignorant sincerity that you hear in this excerpt-- if not to guide it, then to at least shield it, or nurture it, so that it has the chance to grow on its own. Whether this is the pedagogically responsible thing to do or not, who can say?


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