Letters from the Muse Room #27 (May 2021)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published (new for 2021) the first Friday of every other month, each issue of Letters from the Muse Room includes news and updates about my music, as well as something that has inspired me creatively over the past month.

Dear friends,
Spring has sprung! After a cold Kansas City winter, sights like trees in the neighborhood (above) and beauty around our new house (below) are incredibly welcome.

[Dandelions and violets in our front yard.] [A surprising tulip!]

Now that my family and I are a little more settled in at our new place, I’ve had some more time to compose. I’m working on a “pandemic piece” for a friend of mine who plays the flute. It’s for “one flute in isolation [i.e. one person playing both parts in a video] or two flutes together.”

I’ll share an audio clip next time, but for this month I thought I’d share the program notes that describe the piece. (I usually don’t write program notes until I’m finished with a composition, but for some reason I’m working on them early this time!)

I vividly remember March 12, 2020, when a Kansas City Symphony staff member interrupted a meeting I was in to announce that the mayor had declared a state of emergency. That was the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic for me. It quickly led to the postponement, then cancellation, of a few Symphony concerts, then a month of concerts, then the entire remainder of the 2019-20 season. Thus began a long period of silence that many artists and patrons of the arts felt as a heavy weight: the “great pause” of live music, dance, and theatre.

Early in the pandemic I read an article by David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. He wrote that what everyone was feeling was a collective sense of grief. We could feel denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, sometimes within the span of a week, or a day, or even all at the same time. He encouraged his readers to let themselves feel their grief and then move through it to acceptance, where we find power to act. He also talked about the sixth stage of grief: meaning, which can bring light out of the darkness.

This piece is a reflection and meditation on the pandemic through the lens of the six stages of grief. It is written in eight movements.

i. intro: A premonition of what is to come. The flutes introduce the primary themes of the piece through a combination of traditional playing and extended techniques, like blowing air through the flute, timbral trills (using two different fingerings for the same note), and Aeolian sounds (a mix of traditional tone and air noise). Tension grows quickly, introducing quotes from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky’s ballet Pétrouchka — two pieces the Kansas City Symphony had programmed that were canceled by the pandemic. The movement ends with a frenzied run upward that is suddenly cut off.

ii. silence: This movement symbolizes the silence of canceled performances using literal silence and suggestions of it through extended techniques.

iii. denial: The performers face each other. The music tries to remain upbeat despite a growing sense of unease. Even as the performers continue facing each other, they take cautious steps backward.

iv. anger: The performers turn away from each other. The music conveys anger through tongue pizzicato, sharp trills and fluttertonguing, as well as a quotation from Brahms’ First Symphony (another canceled piece).

v. bargaining: The two flute parts try to bargain with each other, offering musical material that is quickly rejected by the other part.

vi. depression: The performers sit and revisit the lament from the first movement.

vii. acceptance: The performers stand; the lament theme is transformed into a glimmer of hope.

viii. meaning: The performers face each other again and play a repeated melodic line. The two parts are separated at first by four beats, but come progressively closer together. The performers begin to take steps toward each other. In the final measures, the two parts finally line up in unison as the piece, and the lights, fade.

[The beginning of the first movement.]

I’m excited about the piece, and even more excited that there’s already a performance planned. More to come!


Two pieces of inspiration for you this time around. I haven’t watched too many online performances over the last year, but I did spring for a ticket to Brooke Annibale’s ten-year anniversary performance of her album Silence Worth Breaking.

[Silence Worth Breaking album.]

Ms. Annibale is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and Silence Worth Breaking and its follow-up EP Words In Your Eyes are my favorite albums of hers. I bought a ticket to hear solo acoustic versions of all the songs on the album, as well as to support her as an artist unable to make income from touring right now.

[Brooke Annibale performing.] Brooke Annibale performing in pre-pandemic days.

I enjoyed the show immensely. I loved hearing all the songs with just guitar and voice, and hearing her talk about the stories behind the songs. As a fellow guitarist I enjoyed seeing how she played the songs, and I took notes on some chord shapes I wanted to try out. And it made me want to get back to writing songs myself.

I’ve been focusing on concert music for almost 10 years now (before, during and after grad school), and while I want to continue working in that arena, I might also have to pick up the ol’ guitar and see about writing some new singer/songwriter songs. Stay tuned!

The second thing that inspired me was another “pandemic piece,” this time by another composer, that I listened to — from the 1550s.

[John Sheppard’s Media Vita.]

The New York Times published a story at the very end of 2020 titled “From a 1550s Pandemic, a Choral Work Still Casts Its Spell” (and, me being me, I just got around to reading it this last month). It’s a fascinating article about what the author considers a “pandemic piece par excellence.”

But whether you read the article or not, I encourage you to listen to the music. It’s a piece called Media Vita (In the Midst of Life), by the composer John Sheppard. I listened to it while I was taking a walk around the neighborhood, and the pure, fresh-sounding Renaissance music was transcendent.

[The Tallis Scholars released the first commercial recording of the piece.]

Try to find a recording by The Tallis Scholars; Renaissance choral music doesn’t get much better than that.

Have an inspiring and transcendent week. Be well.

AJ Harbison

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