The Boundaries of Inspiration
written by Steven Juliani
GLFCAM Steve Stucky Fellow, Cycle 8
November 25, 1963. A woman sits in the front room of her home overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. She is overwhelmed by the events of the previous days and begins playing her violin as she waits for the coffin of her president to pass by.
This is the beginning of my idea for the piece I am writing for Cycle Eight of the 2019 Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. The piece will be for Sasha Callahan, violin and Haruka Fujii, percussion.
The first memory of my life is watching the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy with my mother, on a black and white television, in the front room of our home in San Francisco. When Gabriela Lena Frank assigned me to write a piece for violin and percussion, this memory came to mind.
My composition process usually starts with a story of some kind. Some memory or imagination that triggers a feeling - a feeling that generates sound. With that story comes a world that I can hear. When thinking about writing for one percussionist, I remembered the sound of the muffled drums playing a funereal cadence as the drummers walked behind JFK’s hearse. If you search “muffled drums” on YouTube, one of the first hits is a video of that moment. The sound is unusual. Dark and deep, not at all the bright peppy sound associated with marching drums.
The story I imagined for this piece is that of a violinist waiting for and watching JFK’s funeral procession pass by. She plays her heart out. The piece starts with her anticipating the arrival of the cortege. She wonders if the social and political structures she took for granted are disintegrating. She is devasted by the loss of the young president who offered so much hope for the future. She is heartbroken for his elegant wife and his young children. Under the violin the distant approach of the drums can be heard. As the drummers and coffin get closer and pass by, her music and the drummer’s cadence lose their footing and drift into seemingly unrelated material, as if her mind wandered away from the moment – as if she was lost. As the procession moves away the drums fade and we are left with the violin alone. She reflects on what she saw and wonders what her world will be like going forward.
This music also speaks to my reverence for our Constitution and my concern for damage currently being done to our democracy.
The initial inspiration for a piece is something I don’t usually like to think about. I worry that focusing my attention on that process will extinguish it. The whole thing seems so fragile, so delicate. The ideas seem to come out of the air, from nothing. Here, the idea is clearly drawn from the unusual, mournful sound that the muffled drums made and how they made a profound impression on me as a three-year-old boy. There must have been something about that moment too that struck me. I can’t ask my mom about it, she died many years ago. But I imagine she was absolutely grief stricken by the assassination. She grew up in a political family. Her father, an Italian immigrant, had been a delegate for Harry Truman at the 1948 convention. I have a Christmas card that a young senator Kennedy sent to him. I imagine that as the little me stood next her watching the funeral, she had tears streaming down her face as she explained to me what was happening. I imagine the reason I remember the moment so clearly is because it had such a profound impact on her.
That scene gave me the idea for the piece but not for all the actual music. The detail is the hard part. Along with the idea does come some sound - a quality of sound that emanates from my memory of the moment. I can hear clearly the sound of the drums – not the actual cadence that was played but my imagining of the cadence, with that muffled sound. I can also hear a mournful melody the violin plays. Beyond that is the work.
I start to work by thinking about the piece. I imagine it being played and try to hear what it would sound like. I try to imagine what I would want the piece to sound like. I want it to be beautiful. I go for long bike rides and while not trying to, I hear the piece.
At some point I go to the piano and start writing down these bits of music I have in my head. As I start, I face a familiar voice within me. As I write, I hear:
“Is this good enough?”
“Is this the music that I really want to write?”
“Will anyone like this?”
“What will Gabriela think?”
Every time I hear that voice I remind myself that nothing is final, that these are just ideas and all I have to do is follow them as far as I can. I don’t have to use them, I don’t have to let anyone else hear them. I have the power to reject and refine and I can decide all of that later. Those messages to myself enable me to go forward.
I go back to work. Then I hear:
“How does this idea fit with the other stuff I’ve written for this piece?”
“This sounds like something for another piece, why are you writing two pieces at the same time?”
I tell myself: You don’t have to use this. You don’t have to decide whether it fits with anything else. Just follow the idea as far as it goes. But then:
“This sounds like pop music.”
“This is too dark.”
“Can’t you write something upbeat?”
I remind myself that all I’m doing is following an idea I have right now. Other ideas will come later and I will follow those. After a while of following ideas, I will step back, look at them and decide if I like any of them and whether I can fashion any of them into this piece. I don’t have to decide any of that now.
This exhausting conversation never stops but I am able to leave it behind as I bore in on an idea. I am able to convince some part of my self to set aside judgement until another time.
I keep working, all the time filling in the detail of the scene I imagined. As I work, I find myself over and over in that moment with my mom watching the funeral on TV. I can feel her next to me and I remember my young impression of how important this thing was.
And I realize that the violin in my piece is my mother.
Steven Juliani is a composer, attorney, music copyist and horn player. He started composing music in 2016. Juliani studied horn with Mason Jones at the Curtis Institute of Music and Vincent DeRosa at the University of Southern California. Learn more on Steve’s bio page.