A Composer's Quest for the Sublime


In my last post, I mentioned the author C.S. Lewis. In his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy he talks about an experience he had several times throughout his life that he describes as "stabs of joy." They are fleeting and if pursued for their own sake are elusive, but as abstract as they may sound I believe we all experience these feelings, especially when we listen to music. For me, these episodes are usually very short in duration, but they manifest themselves as a sudden feeling or flash of a mental image of some other place that I long to experience whether in the past or the future, whether in fantasy or reality.


Instead of trying to define these experiences I would rather give examples of music that seem to produce them for me. I think I may have first felt these feelings in music when as a boy of fourteen or so I heard U2's The Joshua Tree. It was already a few years old by then, but the album made a huge mark on my musical tastes for years to come. There was something so transcendent and other worldly about the mood of this whole album that I was moved like never before. I was mesmerized.


At university, my interests had expanded and I discovered the music of Gustav Mahler. I cannot explain why his music spoke to me, but it did from the very first listen. That first piece I heard was just an expert from his second symphony. It is probably a rather dull part for most people—the brass intro for the 4th movement. Something about those long sad notes grabbed my attention. The piercing vocal solo that follows still gets me. Later I would discover other parts of Mahler's work that gave me that sweet but painful feeling of wanting to be somewhere else or in another age. It's not easy to describe the sublime.


Another example comes from Edward Elgar. I attended a concert near the end of my college career where the university orchestra played "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations. This piece nearly brings me to tears. It's fascinating to me that this one variation has become the most popular of them all. The question I'm perplexed by is "what makes this variation so clearly better than the others?" Is Elgar tapping into some powerful emotional tool that can be harnessed and wielded? Why is that one variation generally agreed to be the more beautiful one? I suppose a rigorous analysis of its harmonic and melodic structures would yield some answers when compared with other popular works, but even music that isn't similar to anything else can bring on this stab of joy. And what works for me probably wouldn't work for others. This reverie is a personal one.


As a composer, I feel that I'm constantly chasing this experience. I want to find those moments that spark deep emotions and put them into my pieces for others to experience. But how? I'm not sure, but I believe the "magic" happens as a byproduct of making music that you love. I suppose it could be simply described as a quest for beauty, but there's an added element. I don't just want to write pretty songs. I want to tap into a greater beauty, an objective one that isn't bound by musical styles or human preferences. I said earlier that this is a personal experience, but is there some part of it that is universal?


I don't have an answer yet, and I don't suppose that I have ever successfully produced this experience for anyone, but that for me is one of my biggest goals in writing. This quest is one thing that keeps me interested in making music. It's like a miner panning for gold. Maybe one day I'll strike it rich. You just never know when you're going to find gold, but the surest way is to keep searching for it, keep writing, keep trying to produce beauty in the world. I guess that's all an artist can do.





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