The music of Mark G. Simon
My music grows out of a large frame of reference encompassing traditional and modern compositional practices. Perhaps the first thing that listeners will notice is a strong presence of American popular music. The strongly tonal harmonic orientation of these pieces was chosen to allow the pop music influences to reside comfortably. I felt at the time (1990s) that a truly contemporary musical language had to proceed from the vernacular, that being the music most strongly rooted in the time of its creation. I felt it was the job of serious composers to refine this language and thereby produce something timeless.
Beyond the vagueness of this particular formulation (what is timelessness and what makes it the exclusive property of the academically trained composer?), I found that I could not restrict myself to the vernacular. I could not filter out the sounds of the early modernists (Stravinsky, Bartók) who had led me into serious composition in the first place. I could not resist the charm of Forte’s set 5-29, which has come to dominate the harmonic world of much of the music I’ve written since 2004, and which makes fleeting appearances in these works. But neither would I filter out the vernacular music, particularly the rhythmic formulas of rock and popular music. Only by giving free rein to the particular set of influences that animated me could I arrive at a musical style expressing my own personality.
Anniversary Sonata (1998)
The Anniversary Sonata was composed for the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents, and first performed at this occasion. My father had been a Congregationalist minister in New England, Detroit and Miami before retiring to the small village of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. The sonata has an easy-going, congenial nature, much like my parents themselves. The three movements are played with only a brief pause between them. The first movement is marked “With restrained energy”, indicating that its highly rhythmic drive needs to be subjugated to the lyrical lines.
The title of the second movement, “Angel Music” is a reference to the popular saying G.K. Chesterton, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly”. I thought of this while contemplating the humility, good humor and devotion to social justice that characterized my father’s ministry. The last movement, “Pleasant Hill”, is based on a pop tune that came to me while visiting the quiet retirement community where my parents spent the last years of their lives. One aspect of pop music which particularly interests me is the way it consistently places the downbeat accent on the “and” of four, anticipating the downbeat of the next measure by an eighth note. Using the meter of 7/8, this movement mimics that tendency while retaining the placement of the downbeat at the beginning of the bar. The 3/2 meter of the second movement is similarly transformed here, leading to sections in 11/8 time.
While composing this movement, news reached me that my mother had suffered a heart attack, and so a dramatic climax is reached where the beating heart can be heard, as if monitored in the cardiac unit where she lay. Fortunately, she recovered in time to be present at the anniversary celebration, to hear this sonata, and to live for another decade in the peace
of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee.
Un Buen Piola Porteño (2001)
This piece was one of the more fortunate dividends resulting from my decision in 1999 to attempt to learn the Argentine tango. While never mastering the intricacies of the dance, I became acquainted with the music of Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Guastavino and Horacio Salgán. Inspired by these examples, I set out to write my own tango, and of course it grew beyond that to become a piece about tangos. It is constructed in an arch form, in which the three tango themes are recapitulated in reverse order. A slower central episode, marked “Out of body experience” denotes the moment when the dance transcends its physical limits.
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1994)
John Keats was inspired to write the Ode on a Grecian Urn when he walked into the British Museum one day to see the Elgin Marbles and was taken by this one earthen vessel on display decorated with scenes of Greek life. He returned to the museum on a regular basis just to admire this object, and eventually immortalized it in this meditation on the nature of beauty and truth. The poem’s very existence testifies to the power of art to affect people’s lives.
I have set four of the poem’s five stanzas. The outer stanzas contemplate the object from the spectator’s point of view. On cue, Keat’s urn comes to life in his imagination, everyone springing into action at once. I think orgiastic describes the scene as Keats sees it, with its mad pursuit, struggles to escape, pipes and timbrels, etc.
In the middle stanzas he tries to literally put himself in their place. He speaks of the people in the world of the urn not as representations of reality, but as reality itself. Thus the aulos
player on the urn can only play silent melodies because he’s only a painting on an urn. The bold lover is frozen in place on the urn, and thus can never complete the amorous act he’s initiated, but he can console himself with the knowledge that since the woman of his desire is also frozen in place, she will always be there for him, pretty and desirable as ever. Likewise, the village where the religious worshippers came from is fated to remain ever vacant, since its residents are frozen in space at the site of the ceremony. The extended instrumental section that concludes this third song is supposed to represent the ceremony itself. The idea of a sacrifice made me think of Bach’s Musical Sacrifice, or Musical Offering, so I included a fugue.
Though everyone on the urn is frozen in one place forever, they have immortality. Keats knows that they will continue to live when he and his contemporaries have passed on.
Some say the final summation “Beauty is truth…”is too simple-minded. Is that all there is to truth? Don’t we need to know anything else? I think Keats meant only for the words “beauty is truth, truth beauty” to come from the urn. The remaining lines are addressed not to us, but to the urn. Its beauty is justification enough for its existence. It doesn’t need to solve world hunger, for instance, or put an end to warfare. All it needs is to be beautiful.
-Mark G. Simon
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