Unexpected Joys from creating Wendell Berry in Music

choral music poetry wendell berry

In hindsight, I think I can finally admit that producing and composing Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music was ambitious bordering on nuts. I just reorganized a cabinet that contains all of my draft scores, project notes, assorted correspondence, notebooks, clippings, and whatnot—inches and inches and inches of shelf space that would all ultimately boil down to two thin discs of music and a few pages of liner notes.

I spent seven years working on this project. Seven years, people! (Never full time—don't worry, I'm not that plodding.) But seven years, nonetheless, of fairly consistent work in the margins around day jobs, moves from Boston to Ireland to Wisconsin to Utah, two grad degrees (one for Liz, one for me), and the birth of our first son. This project cost me so much sleep and took me to the edge of my sanity (and past?) more than once.

It might surprise you to learn that an arts project like this hasn't been wildly profitable ... or it might not surprise you. (Don't get me wrong—I have been delighted by the response from customers far and wide! Thank you!)

So I'm asking myself, in the quiet of this very late night, what was it for? What did I gain by investing such effort into this idea? Lists are the rage on the internets, so here is one more for the heap. 

A Few Modest, Mostly Unexpected Joys of Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music

  1. Lots and lots of time with Wendell's writing. I discovered Berry's poetry first (thanks to my uncle), though I understand many people discover him first as an essayist. Deciding to celebrate one of my literary heroes caused me to read and reread all of his published poetry (and most of his fiction and essays). I feel like my appreciation for the written word deepened tenfold and my grasp of structure and style in language matured through osmosis. Reading is always its own reward.
  2. Developing new skills. I think writing music does (must?) require negotiating with one's muse and waiting sometimes for magic to happen, but it also invariably requires work. I worked hard! After writing 60+ minutes of music, only a portion of which made it on the album, I discovered that my facility with choral composition increased dramatically, which felt great. Learning is fun and so satisfying!
  3. Building new relationships. As an introvert, I'm often happiest in my own head, in quiet. It's not that I'm antisocial; it's just that I don't gravitate towards social situations without a purpose. Lately I've realized that I love creative projects because they cause me to stretch myself socially, and continue to pay dividends as I enjoy the friendship of people I wouldn't have met otherwise. Just thinking of all of these people makes me smile with gratitude right now!
  4. Deepening existing relationships. It's true that the initial album idea was mine, but the project became bigger than its origins through the help and encouragement of so many of my friends and loved ones. I discovered that people want to be needed (that's a lesson in Berry's writings, yes?), and a project is an excuse to need people. I can't list everyone, but I can thank my wife Liz in particular for her patience and love ... and even for doing the musical typesetting for a piece that I subsequently rewrote. Twice. Thanks, Love.
  5. Developing a voice. I have felt a deep sense of purpose, even a spiritual urging, behind the goal of developing my voice as a person and artist. But it's hard to say much without having anything meaningful to say! So this project helped me learn to speak through my music and production skills by simply repeating Wendell's words in my own way. Developing my voice through this apprenticeship, so to speak, has paid off in subsequent projects.
  6. Trusting and loving the creative process. Each time I start a project, I feel like I'm heading into a thick fog, uncertain whether I'll ever emerge. It's a form of terror reserved, I think, for people who lack the good sense to have normal hobbies. But, for whatever reason, each time I emerge from the fog I look back and, with a creative adrenaline rush, immediately start thinking of my next project. Repeating this process increases my faith in the process itself, even if it doesn't totally eliminate the accompanying jitters. 

At times I've been disappointed by the imperfections I perceive in the project or my scattershot attempts to market it while juggling a busy life with little kids, but tonight I'm just reflecting appreciatively on these unexpected delights. Now, back to neglecting my marketing task list...

—Andrew Maxfield (Producer/Composer)


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