Composer's Note: "The Seed is in the Ground" (Part Two)

See Part One here.



The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.
(Sabbath Poems, 1991, V)

From Wendell Berry. New Collected Poems. 2013. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.


At the time when I was considering how I would set these words to music, I had been reflecting on the artistic principle of economy: using just enough, but not too much. (Isn’t that a lesson for all of us? It reminds me of so many of Wendell Berry’s essays in the Home Economics collection as well as the fine introduction to What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth by economist Herman Daly, but I digress.)

I had noticed that in Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, for example, the composer sticks to just the eight notes of a major scale until about two thirds of the way through the piece, at which point he delivers just one poignant exception. A single grain of salt. What restraint! What a lesson to learn for a creative generalist who wants to be and do too many things all of the time (that’s me, in case you were confused). And so, I attempted to apply this ideal in my less magnum opus, introducing just a few critical dissonances with restraint both in frequency and timing.

While this text was rattling around in my memory and heart, my wife and I relocated from Boston to Castletroy, an eastern suburb of Limerick, Ireland. We would be there for a year while she completed a master’s degree in Irish traditional music as a Fulbright scholar. I followed my nose one afternoon to the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance and found a piano in an unclaimed rehearsal room. Very quickly, the timbre, tonality, and shape of the piece unfolded in my imagination and I made notes on whatever scraps of paper were in my pockets. Most of the heavy lifting was done in an hour or two.

Fortunately for me, the Mornington Singers (Orla Flanagan, director) very graciously read an earlier version of the piece during one of their rehearsals in Dublin. Hearing it thus performed provided the opportunity for me to further refine and balance voice leading, doublings, and distribution of tasks among singers, and to make sure the harmonies “spoke” well in a large, reverberant acoustic.

I’m not in charge of what the music “means”—that’s your business. But I will say that I think this poem, a gift from Mr. Berry, has caused me to think on occasion about the seeds that I plant and nurture in my life, and about the vast degree to which I don’t control the outcomes for those seeds. Nevertheless, perhaps we can all choose to cultivate good seeds and then trust in the process that invites those seeds eventually into the light. Let’s all rest in hope.

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