Connection When Humanity Fragments

written by Bonnie McLarty
2018 GLFCAM Marion Terwilliger Webster Fellow, Cycle 4

In my role as a composer, I am frequently asked what kind of music I write, or to say something about a piece before a performance.  When this happens, it is easy to mention musical influences: Americana, folk music, composer-performers, dead white men — Copland, Shostakovich.  I can talk about my travels, my time spent outdoors, the colleagues and mentors that inspire me to be the best version of myself.  These factors are all real and true and valid parts of my compositional process and voice, but during the process of writing for the Chiara String Quartet in Cycle Four this spring and talking about the sound world I’ve been living in with Gabriela Lena Frank and others, I’ve found myself thinking less about the specific harmonies or melodies or rhythms and more generally about the character of the music.

Growing up in western Washington, we had a dog who was frightened of fireworks, gunshots, and loud thunder.  She spent the 4th of July huddled under the table.  She squeezed herself into the smallest space possible, her eyes round and bright with a frantic sort of fear, her body quivering.  This changed in her old age.  In her final few years she grew completely deaf.  Summer thunderstorms, New Year’s Eve, slaughter day for the neighbor’s steer — She stretched out on the gravel driveway, bathing in the sun, serene in her peaceful, silent world. 

Recently, I have been thinking about the intersection of music and pain.  The violence of sound.  The way the act of listening can feel like enduring an assault on the brain, whether the sound itself is violent — The high-pitched screech of disc brakes at an intersection — or not.  I recently attended a concert where the architecture of the performance space with its arches and stonework created a reverberant sort of pinball machine for sound waves, compounding certain high partials and flinging them across the room until the entire space pulsed with musical sound, as did my pounding head.  I plugged my ears with my fingers to dampen the vibrations. At moments like these, I have found myself envying the oblivious serenity of the old dog, her inner world undisturbed by the overwhelming sensory experience of sound waves. 

And yet.

I find that for me the power of sound goes beyond its ability to overwhelm my inner ear hairs.  Sound centers me firmly within my environment, connecting me to the world around me.  I can witness an event with detachment, but the physical sense of hearing places me in the midst of the action, leaving me no choice but to engage with my world. This is not to say that those who lack hearing have a less authentic life or paucity of rich connections to the world around them!  I am simply describing as best I can the way I experience the intensity of sound in my life.  As I write this, I am sitting in my brother’s kitchen.  Though writing is a solitary activity, the hum and gurgle of the dishwasher, the buzz of the fat fly on the window, the deep sigh of my dog Jemma under the table as she shifts position, the voices of my sister-in-law and her children in the next room — These sounds keep me company, the vibrations of the other lives and processes around me.  I am not alone.  I am here.  I am part of the larger world.  And for me, the sensory connection to others provided by sound is beautiful thing.

When I found out I would be writing for the Chiara String Quartet during Cycle Five, I was thrilled.  Few ensembles are as intricately connected as the string quartet, particularly a group such as Chiara, which plays with such sensitivity and cohesion.  

My piece for Chiara functions much like a sunbreak, where rays of light alternate with clouds, warmth with melancholy.  Anger, aggression, drive — These are completely absent, as are large-scale drama and virtuosity, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.   It’s certainly not due to any personal sense of serenity.  These days, my inconsistent journaling is mostly strong language scrawled semi-legibly across the page in crooked lines.  It’s also not out of a personal preference for “pretty.”  I derive a visceral sort of pleasure from playing or listening to music that lives in gritty, aggressive, or weird spaces.  

You wouldn’t know this from the pieces I’ve written this spring, however, nearly all of which have a consistently pastoral character.  I’ve thought maybe I am simply writing to console myself, a sort of soothing balm for the political climate of the past eighteen months.  The angry rhetoric that pervades national conversations about policy makes me want to disengage from the conversation.   More recently, it was suggested to me that perhaps my brain is responding to recent events by creating an idealistic alternate reality, a vision of a better world in response to the brokenness of this one.   Perhaps that is true.  Right now, it seems to me that my country’s morality has been turned on its head, but while many of my fellow composers have written stirring music that protests or portrays this, I seem to be writing something else.  In the months following the spring residency, I’ve taken time to process my musical journey over the past few months, thinking about the way I experience sound in general and especially music, and I’ve begun to realize that my music is less about a reaction to specific current events and more about the fragmentation of society and humanity.  Creating music is a way for me to re-engage with the world, with other humans, and hopefully to connect all of us with each other.  At least for now, this is why I compose.


Addendum added October, 2018:

Sometimes it's the simple things that build community.  Sharing quiche.  Discussing the pros and cons (okay, mostly the pros) of Dorico.  Singing silly songs in the car on the early morning airport run.  Shopping for groceries. Ordinary life, shared together. Other aspects of September's cycle four session were more deeply personal.  Heartfelt discussions about in the kitchen after supper, sharing hopes dreams and frustrations.  Late night listening sessions, in a safe space where intense differences of opinion could be expressed without rancor or any sense of threat.  The thrill of new music coming alive for the first time.  

The camaraderie and lasting friendships forged during Gabriela Lena Frank's Creative Academy of Music sessions keep on giving well past the official end of the residency.  I have just returned from an evening of music and conversation with a fellow composer whom I met through Gaby's program. So tonight, a late October evening under a milky moon, my heart is full. I am so thankful for the encouragement and support from the Chiara string quartet members, from Gabriela Lena Frank and from my fellow cycle four colleagues.  You are such beautiful people and I am a better person for knowing you.  


Bonnie McLarty is a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, studying composition with Forrest Pierce and Ingrid Stölzel. Her work as a collaborative pianist and teacher shapes her compositions, which feature lyrical expression and dialog between performers. Learn more from Bonnie's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank