I began writing music when I was in eighth grade. At thirteen years old, I received my first pad of manuscript paper. The first “piece” I wrote was a short melody for Alto saxophone with light piano accompaniment. I did this for a Geography project about culture and we were assigned Ireland. So, naturally I picked two of the most naturally Irish instruments that exist… I wrote something in 6/8 time with a few grace notes here and there, and got an A nonetheless and. In the process, however, I birthed a passion that I have carried with me ever since. It is incredible, the power of music, and how therapeutic and healing it can be. Over the past several weeks I have been sifting through old accumulated files of compositions, the earliest of which date back to 2005 – assuming when I totally legally acquired my first full version of Finale (musical notation software). I remember the awe I felt, fledging full-scale works and hearing them played back in real time (albeit in MIDI, computer-generated renderings). The hindsight is striking, knowing just how little about music and composition I understood. I basically knew how to read and play music. I had learned the basics of a slew of wind instruments and piano. But it is evident to me, and perhaps only to me, I had a deep understanding of what sounds moved me, and what reflected how I felt.
Adolescence was tough for me. I came out of the closet early, at thirteen. I was bullied a lot. I came out out of pure necessity. I had no defense other than to respond: “Yeah. I am. Now what?” Admitting it turned out to be a great source of strength for me. And it wasn’t so much that I was giving in. I was owning who I was. And that is probably the most empowering thing a person can do. I had music, too. It is amazing to me how quickly a piece, or a song, can take you back through some very vivid memories, and how it can resurrect formerly buried and forgotten emotions. Nostalgia, many call it. But sometimes we encounter bitterness, anger, or sadness. For all artists, creation is life-fuel. The resulting relic serves as sort of piece of iconography that not only stands as representative of whatever piece of your soul is imbued within it, it also provides access to the deposits that reside within for immediate retrieval. In going through these scores and listening, I am acutely aware of precisely what I was feeling with each note. Although I never would have, and still hesitate to call myself “composer,” the music is most certainly still me; albeit small parts of me.
Let me again be painfully clear in saying that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The sounds I made were not consciously intention, and I think my creativity was greatly hindered by the software I used. But I didn’t know any better. Even so, I found a way.
The oldest of these came out of a particularly difficult time. My mother, may she rest in peace, battled with depression for much of the time I had with her. I humbly and graciously accept the love she gave to us, as do I the lessons I gained from living with her. To say her illness did not effect me would be a lie. But to convey the impression that I am somehow scarred by it, would be equally false. Simply: I experienced, and I learned.
I spent a lot of time by myself in that house. Writing, practicing, watching Harry Potter, doing anything but my school work to try and shut it out. It was a pretty tense space. There was so much yelling, unruly, wild heathens of children. And although her intentions were pure, they came across as sometimes muted. The mood stabilizer she was taking, to her own admission, replaced the middle hues of human emotion with one solid block of gray, but left the outer extremes of anger and sadness. She was much quicker to cycle into anger than she was into sadness, but the bluer hues were just as scary. She was not a happy person during those years. She was going through a divorce with a dead-beat, abusive husband. I remember the night we left like it had just happened yesterday. We had found ourselves borderline squatting in this beautiful farmhouse in a state of halted renovation. There was electricity in two rooms: the kitchen and the living room. The wood stove used to heat the entire house had caught fire our first night there, so we resigned so spending the winter in one room: all six of us crowded around a single kerosene heater. I got very sick that year. It terrified her. So we left. One night, when he was out, she packed up our stuff into the back of a friend’s pickup and we never looked back. Once settled, I began to write. I wrote about my fears, my anxiety, my sadness, and I wrote about my worry for her. The staff became my journal. Only, it was ultra protected because I was the only person in my family with the ability to read it.
As we grow, it is common to look at a photo and be able to recall the memory. For a broader perspective, one can even lay out a spread of photos delineated into a timeline to observe one’s growth. Music is like this for me. It has always been such an emotional practice and I can quite literally pinpoint each major emotional checkpoint in my life with every score I set eyes on.
When I got to grad school, I began taking composition lessons for the first time. My aesthetic at the start was for film score, for lush harmonies and sweeping melodies. I idolized the modern giants such as Danny Elfman and James Horner, or Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for ’…Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.’ A taste for film score is taboo in the classical music world, especially as a composer, yet I am a shameless fan and am in constant awe of its power.
I am one of the few new composers who still believe there is merit left to be found in “traditional” harmony. There is a reason why it has withstood the test of time. And what I find absolutely fascinating is how human life resonates with music as a collective. How is it that certain music is SO captivating – whether consciously or unconsciously – for all of us? *Spoiler Alert* When Dobby dies at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, we all feel it (and don’t tell me you don’t. I proudly admit that I ugly-sob into my pizza/bowl of pasta/*instert-carb-of-choice-here* every damn time). And, in revisiting all of these old works of mine, it is even more evident that there is a language here, one that we all innately understand. When I was thirteen, I didn’t know jack-squat about writing music. I didn’t even learn what a “standard” chord progression was until I got to college at five years later. But somehow, my heart knew what it craved. And I think all of yours do, too. It’s why we all gravitate towards our own collections of music. We have all discovered for ourselves what resonates with us, what heals us, what distracts us…our souls know it, and I think life is a journey about understanding the soul, not finding it.
I am going to share with you some of these pieces. I will include the year each piece was completed and I think those of you who have known me for a while will get a pretty good kick out of the progression of things. I am linking the sound files generated by my notation software – some (one) will be live performances, most will be at worst MIDI. These are the pieces that moved me to make this reflection – not, of course, by any means, for their compositional or academic merit, but because of how quickly I was able to identify the period in my life during which it was written. I am not sharing these as an invitation to criticize Marcus Redden as a young, teenage composer. I am not Mozart, so you can go ahead and calm right down. But, if you like what you hear, and you are not already a classical music fan, consider checking out some film music — a gateway…drug? I personally recommend the aforementioned composers, John Williams is a great place to start, Danny Elfman is particularly moving for me, and of course the late great Ennio Morricone. Really, just google search your favorite movies’ film score composers. I promise you won’t be disappointed.