Finding the Music

by Joshua Roman

Fraud. Faker. Sham artist.

Roman_2 (Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

These are just some of the things that ran through my head as I tried to push through the internal noise and jot down a few melodic ideas to match the words in front of me. The negative voice in my head can be quite derisive. I’ll avoid, for your sake, typing the more profane things it comes up with to keep me from making progress.

While that voice was not helpful at all, it was not entirely without ground to stand on. I’d never taken someone else’s words and set them as music before. I’d never written for an ensemble of such size, or a piece of such scope. It was yet another creative stretch past my previous efforts and it was, at times, very painful. There were times when I really did feel like I was faking it until I could make it.

But that’s the thing about doing something for the first time, isn’t it? You don’t know what will happen. Not that you can ever truly know, and be 100% sure, of any future. But at least you can have an experience-based sense of what to expect.

So how did I end up in this stress position, reaching for something new? I tend to say “yes” a lot. It’s one of the things that has been a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, both. In this particular case, I’m super glad that I did say “yes”, because those intense, stressful periods were short, and interspersed with real glimpses of inspiration. Were it not for the deadline, I might have had nothing but joy and a synergetic experience. Truth be told, though, without a deadline I might have never finished. And, once the piece was complete, I had the thoroughly moving experience of performing it with committed and powerful musicians. And there’s more to come!

41xrjOsUnvLThis project, my setting of Tracy K. Smith‘s poem “Life on Mars”, from her Pulitzer prize winning book Life on Mars was an outgrowth of an earlier collaborative seed. Scott Reed, at the Music Academy of the West, had approached me about working with Tracy at some point, and as an intro to her work, had given me a copy of Life on Mars as well as another one of her books, Duende. I’d read them multiple times when there suddenly was the need for another composer on one of Town Hall Seattle’s concerts full of premieres. We wanted four new works with our available forces – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was the big work on the program, scored for Soprano, Violin, Cello, Flute, Clarinet, Piano, and a few doublings – and had run out of contacts with time on their hands. I was convinced to set two of the nine pieces from “Life on Mars” for that concert, and when Music Academy of the West found out I was already in that project, they commissioned me to finish the 9 song cycle.

I chose “Life on Mars” because to me it represented a colorful, modern voice using creative analogies to probe some of the deeper questions about complicity and empathy. Up to that point, the little music I’d written down on paper had been more fanciful in nature; playing with the idea of light traveling through different atmospheres, or exploring the naïve quality of young love. I wanted, this time at least, to look something straight in the face and tell it I was not afraid.

Tracy’s work does this. In “Life on Mars,” we circle around the darkness, toying with theories about what binds us together or pulls us apart. We also take the time to more directly confront episodes of moral error, looking at the horrifying story of a man who kept his daughter in a cage in his basement for years, a girl recounting the rape and destruction wrought on her village, and the actions at Abu Ghraib.

Finding a musical way to embrace the variety of tones, even among those darker passages, was a unique challenge. The nine poems had a few through lines – a character named Tina (a real-life friend and colleague of Tracy’s) muses about scientific connections to emotion and language while the author’s voice responds in the text – and a rhythm of wild fantasy in contrast with the depths of depravity emerges – but my initial and pervading instinct was to follow the many colors within the poems to their most natural musical styles. Thus, I began to search out the most obvious clues and go from there.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was the sarcasm in the poem about Abu Ghraib (“Strung Up”). As I heard a voice in my head speaking the text, enunciation became stronger and a blues rhythm began to emerge. There was no going back from this, and it became a hardcore blues riff with bass clarinet taking center stage along with the soprano. In “They”, where the girl has been dragged from her village, the italicized text and hauntingly stark descriptions of the event made me feel an incredibly discordant juxtaposition of stillness with bubbling energy underneath. More whispered than spoken, with moments of beautiful reverie that become disturbing for their context.


At other times, it was not a voice that captured my imagination so much as connections to the structure or the words themselves. The first movement references “dark matter” (which I chose as the title of the song), and the rhythm of those words began popping up as a unifying music gesture. In “Back and Forth”, violin and cello exchange false harmonics in an easy dancing rhythm, and the singer alternates between two notes as she sings the line. I used a simple inversion technique in “In Error” as the words “and told in reverse” are sung, and amplified the effect with a sudden stop on the word “hacked.”


As for structure, one of the happy things about writing based on an existing piece of art (or anything, really) is that I am able to come up with a musical structure based on what I perceive as the existing narrative. Rather than coming up with a new abstract form, or imposing my own, I was able to just spend a lot of time with the text and watch as the shape began to emerge, seemingly on its own. Obviously this is my interpretation, and is based on my musical associations with the text, as well as my understanding of the text on its own merit. Other artists might not have gone off so playfully with passages like the one in “A Pair of Them” where words like “spaces”, “nothing”, and “equation” are repeated in the text, and so repeated as flourishing musical gestures in the song. Also, someone else might not have bothered to count that there were 12 statements about “The earth” and decided that a “Passacaglia” was in order, with each phrase starting on a different chromatic tone over the same ground (earth).

I could geek out all day over this, hehe. That’s the fun part. Once you get an idea, it can be absolutely exhilarating. My parents, who hosted me at their farm in Oklahoma for much of the writing of this piece, probably thought I was nuts as I would shout and repeat just-discovered harmonies over and over again on the piano. Especially as I’m not really a trained pianist or vocalist, but have no shyness at home.

But even that might not compare to hearing this sung and played live. I’m very grateful to all the musicians who have performed notes I’ve written – each time it has been a humbling and invigorating experience. And, as someone fairly new to composition, mind-bending as well. With this piece, with my short chamber work “take me all the way,” and again with my cello concerto “Awakening.”

The latest performance of my own work, which you can hear in its entirety, was with Jessica Rivera singing “we do it to one another” at Town Hall Seattle, and all of the musicians brought their best in a performance that left me feeling amazing gratitude. Jessica and the others really got into the characters, and left me with goosebumps from intensity as well as beauty (yes, there are moments of great beauty in this poetry as well). Jessica Rivera is someone who takes the roles she inhabits very seriously. She is not only a singer with a beautiful voice, but one that uses it with a great sense of responsibility and deep preparation.

I was especially grateful for their dedication as a fever had me horizontal for much of the week, and shaky on my feet even during the performance, which I conducted. So, a brief but heartfelt thank you is necessary to:

Jessica Rivera (soprano)
Mae Lin (violin)
Richard Belcher (cello)
Todd Palmer (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Andrew Rehrig (flute)
Conor Hanick (piano)

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(February 25, 2016 performance at Town Hall Seattle. Photo Credit: Libby Lewis)

As part of this very special event, Tracy was able to join us and read some of her poetry, including “Life on Mars.” You can hear this, as well as our panel discussion with Rebecca Hoogs, below. Tracy shares some of her insight into the writing process, as well as her feelings about having her work turned into a musical piece after the fact. Spoiler: we feel the same about that – it is a unique situation when compared to either setting poems from an author of the past, or working with a librettist in a real-time collaboration.

Thank you for supporting my artistic journey by reading this blog. Please feel free to comment, and even suggest topics for future posts. There are plenty on the docket, but it’s always nice to know what you are most interested in hearing about, as well. In a process that is not too dissimilar from my composing, that negative voice pops up during the writing of blog posts as well. One thing I’m slowly learning: sometimes that voice just means you’re breaking new ground, and it’s important to keep going as you expand your artistry, and ultimately, your concept of self.

I hope you have a chance to listen to the concert in its entirety. Back to my initial impulse to write this particular piece; I am a fan of music that helps us escape, celebrate, etc. I know I am in part, an entertainer. But sometimes, I think it’s important to explore a little deeper, within the safe place that art can offer. Then we have the opportunity to challenge ourselves to look within, with fearless scrutiny, and face every aspect of our collective nature together.

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