Letters from the Muse Room #32 (March 2022)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published 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,

I have a lot to share with you in this newsletter, so let’s jump right in!

[A dog jumping right in… to a pool.]

I have four (four!) pieces of news, as well as three pieces of inspiration.

News #1 (kinda boring so we’ll get it out of the way first). You may have noticed that things look a little (or a lot) different this time around. I’ve switched my email app from Mailchimp to MailerLite, so that’s why. I’m enjoying it so far and I hope it helps my emails be easier and more enjoyable to read.

[MailerLite logo.]

News #2. I have a live performance of one of my recent compositions coming up! If you live in the Kansas City area, and you’re free the evening of Monday, March 14, please come on out for a performance of TheSpaceBetween! A new new-music ensemble called Chimera Contemporary will be performing a version I arranged especially for them. Here’s the Facebook event for more information: https://www.facebook.com/events/933895573984074. I hope to see you there!

[Chimera Contemporary logo.]

News #3. Just real quick, I wanted to let you know that Rainlight, my orchestra piece from 2020, received an Honorable Mention from the 2022 Missouri Composers Project competition. Yay!

News #4. I also wanted to share an update on the new orchestra piece I’m working on. I still can’t share all the information on it just yet (though I wish I could because I’m very excited!). But I can say that the idea of the piece is showing how an orchestra can make a melody a chameleon — changing its color based on its surroundings. Each melody in the piece is introduced and then has two different settings.

How does it work, you ask? I’m so glad you asked, let me show you. :) Here’s one of the melodies.

Here’s the intro (just violins and pizzicato cellos): https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/melodyAintro.mp3

Here’s the melody in light orchestration: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/melodyAlight.mp3

And then here’s the melody in heavy orchestration: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/melodyAheavy.mp3



There are three things that inspired me this past month, one nonmusical and two musical.

Inspiration #1. I LOVE the Olympics. I mean, I know lots of people do but I REALLY LOVE the Olympics. Like, watch-every-day-and-don’t-get-any-work-done-for-three-weeks really love.

[A Facebook post from four years ago.]

I got to watch this world-record-setting snowboarding run live and it was incredible. (24 feet 4 inches out of the halfpipe; 44 feet 4 inches off the ground. I mean, just look at this!!)

[World record for height in a snowboard halfpipe event. Truly amazing.]

I’ve written before about how I love watching football because it tells great, exciting and unexpected stories. The Olympics are the same way, and in a sense they’re more special because I only get to watch them once every two years. It’s not even necessarily the stories of the athletes, which I confess I don’t always find very interesting. But the stories of the events — a dominant win, or a come-from-behind victory, or a comeback four years in the making, or a record-breaking feat — are just as compelling to me as a great book or movie.

[Chloe Kim celebrating after a great run.]

Inspiration #2. Both my musical inspirations consisted of reconnecting with an old friend. The first old friend was Olivier Messiaen, a French composer who lived from 1908 to 1992. I enjoy a lot of his music, but over the past couple of weeks I re-listened to his piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Visions of the Infant Jesus). It’s a massive work with 20 movements that takes about 2 hours to perform in its entirety.

[The first system of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards.]

It’s a magical piece that runs the gamut from quiet and intimate to loud and thundering and everything in between. The passage above, from the very beginning of the piece, comes back throughout the piece in many forms and serves as one of several unifying themes.

I’ve never heard it performed live but if I ever have the chance I won’t hesitate to take it. If you’d like a challenging but very rewarding listen, give it a try.

Inspiration #3. The second old friend was not quite as old as Messiaen. Last week I was reading something I’d written in college, and college-me quoted a song lyric that current-me couldn’t quite place. I googled it, and was reminded about this album:

[Album cover for Janis Ian’s Between The Lines.]

Janis Ian is an American singer/songwriter. This album was released in 1975, and was one of my mom’s favorite albums when she was a teenager. I re-listened to this as well and was reminded how good it is.

Ian’s lyrics are meticulously crafted, and passionately and crisply delivered. The mostly understated music is led by melancholy guitars and piano, and in addition to the usual accoutrements of bass and drums there is an unusually large complement of orchestral instruments, including flute, clarinet, some brass instruments and lots of strings. “Water Colors” even features an extended unaccompanied cello solo at the end.

You should really listen to the whole album, but here are some highlights for me:

“From Me To You” (the lyric I quoted was from this song), probably my favorite track on the album with its sparkling fingerpicking guitars
The jazzy inflections and clarinet solo in “Bright Lights and Promises”
“In the Winter,” which switches between a minor key for the verses and the parallel major for the choruses, and ends on a deliciously unresolved chord (a I 6/4, for theory nerds [like me] keeping score at home)
The title track, “Between the Lines,” which features an exquisitely executed accelerando (gradually speeding up) that simultaneously engages in some sophisticated rhythmic trickery — the pattern drops a half beat in every second measure, and adds an extra half beat in every fourth measure, while getting faster and faster
“Tea and Sympathy,” which is both gorgeous and devastating
It’s an extremely well created and executed work of art and I encourage you to give it a listen as well. (Though it’s very different from the Messiaen!)

[Back cover for Janis Ian’s Between The Lines with a tracklist.]

Thanks for reading this far (I know this was a long one!). I really appreciate it. If you do get a chance to listen to one or both of these musical friends of mine, write me back and let me know what you think!

AJ Harbison

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