Making a Contribution

choral music Composer poetry wendell berry

My uncle once surprised me by telling me that farmers don't grow crops. "Farmers grow soil," he explained. "Soil grows crops."

I'm three generations away from my own family's subsistence farming, and so the idea was news to me. But I began to see in my uncle's point of view the important theme of contributing. 

By my uncle's standard—and by Wendell's—any farmer who thinks of growing crops as simply taking from the soil will have nothing but dust before long. Cultivating soil is an act of continual giving. As long as we want to eat, we have to give good care and material back to the soil.

I recently attended the American Choral Directors Association annual conference in Minneapolis. Like other attendees, I was privileged to hear lots of new music, but one performance stood out. Philip Brunelle, artistic director of VocalEssence, who was conducting the premiere of several new choral works, explained to the audience that a certain composer was in attendance and that she asked for the opportunity to conduct the premiere of her new piece. He then invited Alice Parker to the stage.

A hush went over the audience as Alice Parker, now age 91, walked slowly to the front of the choir. If I remember correctly, the applause began before she even had a chance to signal a downbeat. It was a joy to watch the choir watch her as she directed their excellent performance, to watch her watch the choir, and to watch a thousand people lean into every nuance of the performance. When she finished, there was just a moment of silence, and then a standing ovation. 

Why were so many people clapping so enthusiastically for a woman who could probably go unnoticed on any street in America? It wasn't just for a fine performance of a fine new piece of music, though the music merited the applause. I think they were applauding her decades of giving. In the choral world, it's hard to find someone who hasn't performed a composition or arrangement by Alice Parker. And the impression I get, though I don't know her personally, is that her music isn't really about Alice Parker. She has advocated for singing, for hymn singing, for music in community. She has given her music into world, and enriched many lives as a result. She has made a contribution.

I'm a compulsive note-taker. As I sat in the concert hall, I scribbled in my pocket notebook something like: THIS. This is the kind of reputation I want for myself, to be someone who adds just a bit to our shared richness. If there's a record of the good that humans have accomplished during our residency on earth, I want to add a page or even just a line. I want to be like Alice.

Being a composer in the 21st Century is a little different than in previous centuries, I think. In the post-Spotify world, what's the marginal utility of yet one more composition, or one more recording?

On the one hand, it's hard to argue that the world needs another recording of the Goldberg Variations. But on the other, you hear Jeremy Denk's recent recording, and you discover something new about the music and the world! Similarly, it's hard to argue that the world needs new music at all, considering the wealth that is already available to us (and the serious, existential issues facing all of us). However, it has never been today before. And although the themes of the human story don't change much from one generation to the next, these humans in these places at this moment haven't existed until now.

If culture is a learned way of living, which has to be relearned, reinvented, and renewed on a minute-by-minute basis, then perhaps new music is as essential to our way of living today as ever, despite the seemingly endless accumulation of music from the past. Hearing is still one of our senses, after all.

So despite the fact that you and I can access an inexhaustible supply of music, I'd like to add a little—not for novelty's sake, not for my gratification, but simply to contribute something to our cultural soil. 

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