Letters from the Muse Room #23 (November 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
We are now fully into fall, and in Kansas City, we’ve seen lovely fall colors in the trees, and also had our first snowfall.

I have three items for you on the news and updates front!

News and update #1: I am very close to finishing up my orchestral piece, Rainlight — just working on cleaning up the score and extracting the parts. Here is a clip, as promised, featuring the last minute and a half of the piece. The horns play the primary theme one more time, then the rain fades to a drizzle and a mist and the strings fade to silence: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/rainlightending.mp3.

News and update #2: My piece for women’s chorus and piano, Voices Rising United, was selected to be part of World National Indie Radio’s “Songs For Change” Radio Special! The special is airing on their website, wnir-radio.com, every afternoon in November at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. And Voices Rising United kicks things off at the top of the show. Check it out!

News and update #3: I also said last month that I’d have an announcement related to my pop music. Ten years ago, in December 2010, I released my singer/songwriter album Songs From My Shelf.

I recorded, mixed and mastered it all myself, and I actually had some really nice audio equipment at the time. Trouble was… I didn’t know anything about audio, or recording, or mixing, or mastering, or how to use any of the equipment I had. So, while the songs were good, the production quality was… not so good.

During my time in grad school at the UMKC Conservatory, I took a bunch of audio engineering courses, and as a result, I now know a lot more than I did back in 2010. So, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Songs From My Shelf, I am remastering the full album!

While there are definitely limitations with the original tracks, the remastered songs are already sounding way better, and — for anyone who has listened to the album before and had to crank their volume all the way up — way louder.

I’ll be offering the remastered album for sale on my website, but if you purchased the album in the last 10 years, I’d like to give you a copy for free. Just reply to this email (or the December one) with a picture of yourself holding the CD, or a screenshot of the digital album on your phone or computer, and I’ll send you a link for a free download!

If you don’t own a copy of the album but you’d like to, I’ll keep you posted as to when it’s available on the website!

––––

I was inspired this past month by a pair of videos that a friend shared with me. The first one was created by Adam Neely, a self-described “bassist, YouTuber, general enjoyer of things.” He describes his YouTube channel as “exploring what music means and what it means to be a musician.” The video that I watched from him was “The 7 Levels of Jazz Harmony.”

It was an excellent introduction to the subject, with well-illustrated examples of each “level,” and I think even people without the musical background to understand what a Dbmaj7(9,#11) chord is will learn something that will help them understand jazz a little better.

The second video was entitled “Wintergatan — Marble Machine.”

I’m a little surprised I’ve never seen this before, since it was posted more than four years ago. But it’s a marvel of engineering and music!

I hope you enjoy these videos as I did. Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News Recordings

Letters from the Muse Room #22 (October 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
Happy October! I don’t know about you, but for me it seemed like March and April dragged on forever, but then the months since have flown by. It’s nice to have some cooler temperatures, and the occasional foggy morning:

[Foggy morning as seen from my balcony, right outside the Muse Room.]
 
A short and sweet newsletter for you this month. I continued working on my orchestral piece, Rainlight, and got to print out my first 11″ x 17″ score on my new(ish) small business printer:

[My printer and my big ol’ score!]
 
And then make a whole bunch of pencil edits to the printed score:

[Edits and tea.]
 
And then put allll those pencil edits:

[Lots of pencil edits.]
 
back into the computer score. I’m now starting my second round of revisions, focusing less on the way things look and more on the way things sound. Next month I’ll send you another audio clip — maybe` the ending of the piece.

I’ll also have an announcement next month related to my pop music, rather than the classical/concert music I’ve been writing about for a while. So those of you who are interested in the other side of my musical personality — stay tuned!

[???]
 
––––

Nothing deep or profound to share on the inspiration front this month; just a simple music recommendation (and a brief note about supporting artists).

I have a membership to Amazon Music Unlimited, a paid version of the music app you get with Prime, and I enjoy discovering new music through their curated playlists. Earlier this month, I was listening to a playlist called “Instrumental Chill,” and was struck by a track from an artist called Little People.

[Mickey Mouse Operation, by Little People.]
 
I added the full album, called Mickey Mouse Operation, to one of my own playlists and listened to it a few days ago. I really enjoyed it. It’s creative and interesting and is some of the best chill music I’ve heard.

I say in my artist statement that pop music to me is a “dynamic
medium of energy and movement,” and even though the energy and movement is laid back, this music fits the bill. It makes for a great background soundtrack if you’re looking for something more active than ambient music but not active enough to draw attention away from what you’re doing.

[The dude behind Little People.]
 
Finally, one quick note about supporting artists. A lot of artists, particularly pop music artists, can make up to 50% or more of their annual income through touring. And, as you may have heard, very few artists are able to tour right now.

[Little People’s message about canceled tour stops.]
 
So, if an artist you like is performing online shows, or putting out new music — or maybe if you’ve just been streaming their latest album rather than purchasing it — consider giving them a hand and buying some tickets, a digital album or maybe even a deluxe CD package. It means the world to them, and also puts some much-needed cash in their pocket. They’ll get by with a little help from their friends… be a friend!

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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News

Letters from the Muse Room #21 (September 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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 hope you are all safe, healthy and not too hot. This past month was a good one for me — I continued to work for the Kansas City Symphony from home, my parents came out to visit our family for the first time in eight months, and my daughter started second grade (homeschooling).

I also made good progress over the last month on Rainlight, my orchestral piece. I’ve finished the first draft, downbeat to double bar, and I’m about to start editing a printed-out score (one of my favorite parts of the process).

I promised an audio clip this month and I do have one for you. I picked two minutes from the middle of the piece, including the buildup to the big thunderclap and a bit of its aftermath. You can listen to it on my website here: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/rainlightclip.mp3.
 
My idea for this section was that the short runs in the woodwinds are things whipping around in the wind. The low brass and strings gather the forces of the wind and the rain, and some tom toms and a big bass drum bring the thunder nearer and nearer, until the big moment where it all breaks loose.

—-

I have a confession (don’t tell anyone): I’ve never liked Little Women. I didn’t like the book, and I didn’t like the 1994 movie version. I’ve always felt that the story was too sappy, the characters too perfect and unrealistic, the plot too episodic. (We still have it on our bookshelf though because I’ve been told I can’t get rid of it.)

However, that all changed when my wife and I watched Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version last week. The characters felt much more realistic, the story was improved, and the cinematography of the movie was excellent.

This movie jumps back and forth between the past and the present of the characters, and the two time periods are filmed with different color palettes. So not only are the time periods differentiated visually — the way they’re differentiated also communicates something about what’s happening in the story.

The actors in this version are all excellent, and Gerwig’s adaptation brings out some of the more subversive elements that lie just beneath the surface of the original story.

It’s rare, but thrilling, to see an adapted work of art transcend its source material. I’m always inspired when a work of art takes something from another work and creates something innovative and unique from it.

What are some of your favorite adaptations — whether books to movies or something else — that rise above the original material to make something new and better? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe I’ll share some of your responses in my letter next month.

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room #20 (August 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
Happy August! Here in Kansas City it has been pretty sweltering for many weeks, though last week it was cooler and we had a good amount of rain (fittingly, considering the new piece I’m writing… read on). I hope you are staying cool where you are.

The musicians of the Kansas City Symphony have started performing some socially distanced outdoor concerts, and I was able to take my two kids to one of them a few weeks ago. It was a lot of fun and it was so good to hear real live music again.

On the news and updates front, I am hard at work on Rainlight, the orchestral piece that will be my third (and likely final) composition for 2020. I’ve only written one orchestral piece before (my master’s thesis, The Footsteps Die Out For Ever), so I wanted to give myself plenty of time to write and revise this one.

My plan is for the piece to be about eight minutes long; I’ve drafted five and a half so far. I want it to be a “pretty” piece, something beautiful to listen to, evoking the way light shimmers and reflects and dances in rain at night. Many artists are doing excellent work during the pandemic bringing attention to injustice in the world. But I wanted my composition coming out of this time to be something that would bring peace and comfort.

It’s not all peace and comfort, though; the rain ramps up in the middle of the piece, and the orchestra builds to a huge thunderclap at the climax. But then it will subside, and eventually fade out into silence.

I’ll have more to share next month, including an audio clip that will probably include the thunderclap (since that’s currently my favorite moment in the piece!).

—-

As America and the world continue (rightly) to focus on social justice, I’ve found inspiration this last month in expanding my own listening horizons. There are two nonwhite women composers that I’ve really enjoyed lately and I wanted to share them with you in hopes you might expand your horizons as well.

The first composer is Florence Price, who lived from 1887 to 1953. She was the first Black woman to have a piece played by a major orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony (No. 1) in E Minor in 1933.

I’ve listened to that symphony a number of times over the last month. I particularly like the second movement, which has as its theme a hymn-like tune that Price composed and uses trumpets, atypically, to present the slow, lyrical melody. It sounds solidly American, like Copland’s music does — but in its own way, very different from Copland’s style.

You can hear it on YouTube, performed by the New Black Repertory Ensemble, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s4yY_A2A2k. (If you click on “Show More” in the description, there are links to jump to each of the movements in the video. But of course you should really listen to the whole thing!)

I’ve also enjoyed listening to some of Price’s piano music, played by Lara Downes. It has a late-Romantic sound, with some Debussy flavor, but again done in her own way. You can listen to that album here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_n0ea9QRpeX_PDUWViDD1A8Va2squ8uOLQ.

You can also read more about Price’s life and work in this guide: https://www.classical-music.com/features/composers/guide-florence-price.

While I had heard of Florence Price (though never listened to any of her music), the other composer I’ve enjoyed recently is one I’d never heard of before last month: the Brazilian composer Chiquinha Gonzaga.

She lived from 1847 to 1935, a little earlier than Price, and was the first female conductor in the country along with enjoying a successful career as a composer and pianist. She also worked for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage in Brazil.

She composed a great number of tangos, waltzes and polkas for the piano, and I’ve listened to several albums of those in the past month. They’re not my usual musical fare, but make for great light and fun listening. You can hear an album of her piano music, performed by Maria Teresa Madeira, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDfyFrtI7mM.

You can read more about Gonzaga in this article from Chicago classical music radio station WFMT: https://www.wfmt.com/2017/06/05/hear-music-chiquinha-gonzaga-brazilian-composer-100-years-ahead-time.

I’m always looking for new music to listen to, and I’ve been inspired by listening to these two composers who had vastly different backgrounds than mine. I encourage you to listen to their music and continue seeking out other perspectives — in music, as well as in everything else.

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room #19 (July 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
Happy Third of July. I hope you have been staying safe and have seen some real, significant change in your community. Here in Kansas City, my family is healthy and I have greatly appreciated the diligent work of our mayor guiding the city through the health crisis and the protests with wise leadership. I hope you’re able to say the same.

It is good to be back with you this month and I am looking forward to sharing some music and inspiration with you.

I’ve written the last couple of months about my new choral piece, Adventus, and it is now finished! It’s posted on my website, complete with program notes and a perusal score (like all my pieces).

I wanted to share an audio clip with you as well. It’s just MIDI, so the “choir” is all “ah”s with no words, but you can get a general idea of how it sounds. Plus, it’s longer than the audio clip that’s posted on the website. You can listen to it here! https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/adventusdemo.mp3

With Adventus finished, next up is the third and final piece I plan to finish in 2020. It will be a short orchestral work entitled Rainlight. More to come on that next month!

—-

I’ve been inspired over the last two months by three people who have done some very cool creative things during their quarantines. Let me introduce you to:

1. Mac Barnett.

Mac is a New York Times-bestselling author of children’s books, a favorite author of my wife and my daughter (and myself). During the quarantine, he started Mac’s Book Club Show — “home of the Mac’s Book Club Show Book Club” — where he read one of his books on Instagram every weekday. He’s naturally funny and a blast to watch, and the book club reached literally every continent — there were three people who watched the show from Antarctica. You can see all the episodes on Mac’s Instagram account, in his IGTV posts.

2. Dessa.

Dessa is a rapper, singer/songwriter and author whom I recently discovered. (If you haven’t heard her album Chime you should really check it out.) During her lockdown, she hosted a Show of Force Majeure (a brilliant title) every Thursday night. She read original poems and stories, with the occasional musical performance as well. She’s written a book, but I didn’t know any of her work besides her music, and I loved the poems and stories she read on the show. Sadly, it looks she doesn’t have her shows archived on her Instagram page. So you’ll just have to listen to her music and read her book.

3. A man who needs no introduction: Sir Patrick Stewart.

Patrick Stewart, probably best known (at least to American audiences) as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, started his acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and is an acclaimed Shakespearean actor. During his period of quarantine, he has been reading one Shakespeare sonnet every day, and I’ve found they’re a great way to kick off my mornings. You can see all of the sonnets on his Facebook page and/or his Twitter account and/or his Instagram account.

I hope these three awesome people inspire you the way they’ve inspired me. Even with all of the anger and pain and grief in the world right now, there’s still so much that is funny and beautiful and uplifting. Think on these things.

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room #18 (June 2020)

Dear friends,
In consideration of the pain, protests, riots and violence currently happening throughout our country and even throughout the world, it doesn’t feel right to send out a normal letter this month. Letters from the Muse Room will resume with Letter #19 on Friday, July 3.

Until then, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

Stay safe and be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #17 (May 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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 hope you are surviving and thriving at home as quarantines and stay-at-home orders continue. As I wrote last month, I am very blessed to have a job I can continue to work from home, as well as having the Muse Room as a home office.

The mayor of Kansas City has announced the first phase of a plan to reopen the city beginning next week. I hope your local governments are making similar plans, and you’re able to start working back toward normal life safely.

One thing that has provided some hope and joy for me has been the arrival of spring. I always love seeing the colors of spring after a long, cold winter, but it has felt even more important this year.

I also shared last month that I’ve started working on a new choral piece, Adventus, with text by my brother Mark Harbison.

I am stoked to announce that the text is now finished! Here it is (though it will display best on computer or tablet screens):

Adventus
by Mark Harbison

Adventus
A coming
Poor son of man,
Yet Word of God made flesh:
The promised Messiah, King of kings.
Born without fanfare in the dirt and the hay,
His only proclamation a sign in the sky for kings from afar,
His only attendants livestock and shepherds, the least of these—
While the greatest slaughter the innocent, and voices weep and mourn.
In the fullness of time, the Redeemer has come at last: the Son of God Himself,
Who died but conquered death; who ascended to heaven and shall come again with glory.
When the course of time is finished, and the days of mourning are ended,
Despite hard-hearted pharaohs, weeping and rumors of wars—
The least of these wait, certain of the unknown day and hour
When his sign streaks like lightning across the sky,
When “how long, O Lord” is at last no longer:
When the Lord of lords returns triumphant,
Word of God crowned in glory,
Great Son of Man,
O Savior come
Adventus

When I first had the idea for the piece, I specifically wanted the text to be in this shape: each line gets longer and longer until the central line, which is the longest, and then each line gets shorter and shorter until we’re back to the single word “Adventus.”

In addition to bookending the piece with “Adventus” — looking back to Jesus’ first coming, and ahead to His second coming — the shape will lend itself well to the chant-like music.

I will share more about the piece, including an audio clip, in June!

––––

Something that has inspired me over the past month is connecting with musical colleagues I haven’t spoken to in a while. I wrote in the very first Letter from the Muse Room that my piano piece Five Scenes had won first prize in the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival Composition Contest, and I got to attend the festival in June 2018 and hear the piece performed (excellently!) by Perry Mears.

I got to meet many of the Luna Nova musicians who perform regularly at the festival (and some fellow composers), and very much enjoyed spending time with them.

Along with completing three compositions and listening to a ton of Beethoven, one of my goals for this year is to send out more of my music to musicians I know and ask if they would be interested in performing it. I determined I’d send out the piano trio I just finished, Always Be Clipping, as well as the Requiem I wrote at the end of 2018, and I emailed a couple of the pianists I had met (including Perry) as well as a soprano.

I didn’t quite know how the pieces would be received, especially at a time when live performances aren’t happening and when I hadn’t talked to these people in a while. But I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone said they were happy to hear from me, and were excited to take a look at the music and program it for concerts in the future. And it gave me a chance to learn more about how the pandemic has affected them and their families and how they were coping. It was great to reconnect with them, not only musically but personally.

We live in an age of amazing communication technology. Don’t let staying at home keep you from community.

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

P.S. The musicians of the Kansas City Symphony are still posting videos of home performances on social media, and I am still encouraging you to go and watch them. Search Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for the hashtag #KCSisStillMakingMusic and enjoy!

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #16 (April 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
Wow… what to say? When I wrote the letter last month, I could not have imagined what life would be like a mere 30 days later.

I hope you and your loved ones are well and are finding ways to both survive and thrive as you #stayhome.

I am very blessed to have a job that I can continue to work from home (and I do not take this for granted!). I’ve brought home a second monitor, keyboard and mouse, and voila… the Muse Room is now also an office!

The piano trio, Always Be Clipping, is now posted on my website — with a full MIDI recording and a perusal score to boot! You can see it here: https://www.ajharbison.com/music/concert/always-be-clipping.

I am now starting work on a new choral piece, the second of three pieces I plan to complete in 2020. I love the emotional immediacy of choral music; there’s something about hearing other humans sing that goes straight to your heart.

The text of the piece is actually still being written. My brother, Mark Harbison, with whom I’ve collaborated before, is writing a poem called “Adventus.” It looks back to the first Advent, the birth of Jesus, and also looks forward with longing to the second Advent, Jesus’ second coming — a poetic expression of “already and not yet.”

My music for it will be primarily homophonic — meaning the whole chorus will be singing the same rhythm most of the time, like a hymn or a chant — and the musical style will be based off of this piece, In the Midst of Life by Gerald Kemner. I like how it’s based around a consonant but “ungrounded” chord, and each phrase begins and ends with that same chord.

More to come on “Adventus” next month!

——

I shared this quote a year ago this month — Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” As the world finds itself grappling with an invisible, deadly enemy, the need for beauty seems more urgent than ever. 

I’ve written before about how my employer, the Kansas City Symphony, has inspired me, and, well, they’re at it again. Due to the restrictions on gathering sizes, we’ve had to cancel at least 20 concerts, and there’s a good chance we’ll have to cancel the rest of our season as well (through the end of June). But our musicians have found a way to inspire those around them: by sharing performances on Facebook.

The Symphony’s principal flute, Mike Gordon, started it about three weeks ago by recording and sharing a video of him playing a piece he’s loved throughout his life. He encouraged other musicians in the Symphony to do the same, with the hashtag #KCSisStillMakingMusic.

That first video has been shared 185 times and viewed over 10,000 times, and since then more than 20 videos have been posted by members of the orchestra, sharing beauty at a time when we feel the need for it most. You can find them all by entering #KCSisStillMakingMusic in Facebook’s search box and then clicking on “Videos” along the top bar.

Here are some of my favorites:

    Mike playing a Bach cello suite on his flute
    A socially distanced cello duet for St. Patrick’s Day
    A gorgeous harp solo
    A jazz tune arranged for seven tubas (!)

You do need a Facebook account to view the videos (it’s free to join if you don’t have one), but you don’t need to be friends with the musicians, as the videos are public.

I love what the musicians of our orchestra — as well as all kinds of musicians all over the world — are doing to help us all get through this pandemic together. Yes, it’s important to stay informed. But don’t focus on the headlines. Lean into the beauty.

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News Scores

Letters from the Muse Room #15 (March 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
This past week we’ve felt the first stirrings of spring in Kansas City — temperatures in the 50s and 60s instead of the 20s and 30s. It’s been glorious. I hope you’re enjoying the same where you are! 

[Something else that makes it feel like spring: new flowers on my lemon tree at work!]

On the news front, I am so. very. close. to being done with the piano trio! I’m incorporating feedback from some musician friends and working on extracting the parts*. Then it’s on to the next project — more on that next month!

*While the piano music will have the violin and cello parts in it, the violin music will only have the violin part, and the cello music will only have the cello part. The process of creating those is called “extracting the parts,” since you’re “extracting” them out of the full score.

The title of the trio is Always Be Clipping. The hardest concerts for an audio engineer to record and mix are ones with sudden loud sounds or ones with both very loud and very soft sounds, because the audio is always running the risk of clipping (overloading the recording equipment and distorting the sound). I wrote Always Be Clipping to be a fun piece that presents this challenge on purpose.

––––

I have two pieces of inspiration for you this month. 

The first is a quick one. I learned this past week about Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), a French Romantic composer. Like many other composers before him, he was pressured by his father to go into law. He dutifully attended law school and then worked for the French government for 19 years, continuing to compose on the side. Then, at age 39, he left his job to compose full time. 

As I’m a composer in his mid-30s who wants to compose full time, but for now works a day job, this was very encouraging to me. 

The other thing that inspired me this past month was a band called Ida Mae. I wrote back in December that I took my wife to see a Rodrigo y Gabriela concert, and Ida Mae was the band that opened for them. I bought their CD at the show, and finally got around to listening to it this last month.

They’re a husband-and-wife duo from the UK who play and sing music inspired by American blues, and they were one of the best opening acts I’ve ever seen at a pop music show. 

The blues-guitar and slide-guitar playing is spectacular (check out My Girl is a Heartbreak), the singing is gritty in a bluesy way (Reaching), the vocal harmonies are great (Chasing Lights, probably my favorite track of theirs) and the music is a lot of fun.

I say in my artist statement that pop music, for me, is a dynamic medium of energy and movement. Ida Mae’s music — just like Rod and Gab’s — makes me want to move. And I want to write music that moves people in the same way. 

Check out Ida Mae and support them if you like their stuff, as they’re musicians who are living the dream (and putting in the hard work!) of making music full time. Chasing Lights, their debut album, was released last year. Their website is https://www.idamaemusic.com, and you can find them on YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music and wherever fine music is streamed or sold. 

I hope you like the music, and I hope these two stories inspire you, as they’ve inspired me, to keep showing up and keep putting in the work to chase after your dreams. 

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #14 (February 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
This has been a good week to be a Kansas Citian. First, on Sunday, this happened:

[Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl win!]  
 
Then (as a result), on Wednesday, this happened:
 
[Chiefs victory parade and rally at Union Station]  
 
More on that in a moment. 
 
But first, I have a new clip of music for you! I finally finished my first draft of the piano trio, and I was particularly excited about the way the ending turned out. 
 

You can listen to the last minute of the piece, including the surprise ending, here: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/pianotrioendingclip.mp3.

While I feel the ending fits the piece very well, it’s also an homage to one of my favorite pieces: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’s a great piece, and you really should listen to the whole thing, but if you don’t have 23 minutes you can skip to the ending here

––––

So… how ’bout those Chiefs??

I’ve been watching sports since I was a little kid, and I’ve always enjoyed watching sports, but it’s only recently that I’ve realized why. As I talk about in my artist statement, music for me is all about storytelling — and I’ve realized that that’s why I love sports, too. A football game, a whole football season, is a particular genre of story that’s being written in real time.

I’ve realized that the reason I enjoy watching football more than any other sport is because I feel like it writes the best stories.

In baseball, for example, each team takes a turn on offense in each inning. Nothing can change that; it’s part of the game.

But in football, everything can change in a moment — a surprising punt return, a fumble, an interception, a trick play, a runaway touchdown, and suddenly there’s a whiplash-worthy twist and the whole story changes.

(Or, you know, 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.)

The Chiefs have written a pretty amazing story this season, culminating in their first Super Bowl win in 50 years (they won Super Bowl IV before it was even called the Super Bowl, in 1970). 

My wife, my daughter and I braved the cold and the crowds to attend the victory parade on Wednesday, and it was fun to celebrate a great happy ending.

I hope you find some inspiration in unexpected stories this month.

Till next time!

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News Recordings

Letters from the Muse Room #13 (January 2020)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of the 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,
Happy New Year! (And, for the non-purists, happy new decade!) I hope you’ve had a wonderful holiday season and you’re looking forward to 2020 with great expectations.

It’s hard to believe this is the 13th edition of Letters from the Muse Room — it’s now one year old! I hope, in a similar way, that you’ve enjoyed reading these over the last year and look forward to future editions.

I’ll keep it short this month, but I wanted to share two of my goals for the upcoming year.

The first goal — my composition goal for the year — is to finish composing the piano trio I’ve been working on, plus to compose a new choral piece and a new orchestral piece.

This is an ambitious goal, but I’ve mapped out a timeline and I think I can do it. I’m almost done with the first draft of the trio, and I’m planning to share more of that with you next month.

I have some ideas for the chorus piece and the orchestra piece as well, though those ideas are still very much in R&D. Stay tuned!

––––

The second goal, my inspiration this month, is due to 2020 being the 250th birthday of a pretty famous composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven, probably the most revolutionary composer in the last half millennium, was born in 1770, and musicians and arts organizations the world over will be celebrating his legacy in 2020 (including my employer, the Kansas City Symphony).

I thought that a fun way to get to know Beethoven better and celebrate his bicenquinquagenary (definitely the best way to say “250th anniversary”) would be to set a goal to listen through all of his major works, including his:

– Symphonies
– Concertos (piano and otherwise)
– Overtures
– Masses
– String quartets
– Piano sonatas

And more!

I put together a list of his pieces I wanted to listen to, including some I wanted to listen to at least twice, and came up with a total of 94 listens.

Also an ambitious goal. But I’m excited to learn more about his music in a deep way this year.

What are some of your goals for 2020? I’d love to hear from you. Reply to this email and let me know!

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #12 (December 2019)

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

Dear friends,
Happy December! Whether you celebrate Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, and/or Festivus, I hope this will be a meaningful month for you with lots of lights, celebrations with family and friends, and hopefully warmth.

You can hear a recording I made in 2009 of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” on my website — and even download it if you want — here! 
https://ajharbison.com/music/pop/redeemer/hark-the-herald-angels-sing/

In terms of news, I’ve continued working on the piano trio, and I have a new clip to share!

I mentioned in September that the concept of the piece is two alternating ideas, one fast and rhythmic and one with a continuous, sustained, lyrical line, with the instruments — piano, violin and cello —  each taking a turn featuring in each of the ideas.

This clip is from the second section of the piece, with the piano featuring in the second, more lyrical idea. Listen here! https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/pianotriomiddledemo.mp3

I’ve also started to think about some ambitious compositional goals for 2020. More on those in January….

––––

On the inspiration front, I surprised my lovely wife last month with tickets to a Rodrigo y Gabriela show. Rod and Gab, as they’re affectionately known by their fans, are a Mexican guitar duo who do some pretty incredible things.

The entire show was just the two of them playing their guitars — mostly nylon-string/classical guitars, though Rodrigo used an electric guitar for some of the songs from their newest album — with no other instruments.

One of the fun things about the show was that their guitars had cameras mounted to the headstocks, and the live feed from those cameras was projected onto the stage’s backdrop.

They both had an incredible amount of energy and showmanship that made the concert a lot of fun, but the music is excellent as well. Rodrigo plays lead and Gabriela plays rhythm guitar — but her rhythm guitar playing is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. 

She uses the body of her guitar as a percussion instrument, and it’s miked in a way that makes hits on the guitar sound like a kick drum in places and a snare drum in others. (But the performance is all live, without any extra electronics or effects.) She plays super-fast rhythms (often in triplets) on the guitar strings to create a full, vibrant accompaniment to Rodrigo’s lead lines. 

The best part about her playing is that it’s not a gimmick, and it’s not just showing off, but is actually an integral part of their style. (While still being crazy awesome.)

You have to see it and hear it to believe it. This video is from a long time ago (2006), but it’s a great performance of one of their most popular songs and has a number of good camera angles that show what Gabriela is doing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZbFLHlB8o4

In addition to having a great time at the concert, I was inspired by the energy, excitement and originality of their music. I want to write “concert music” that makes people feel the way I feel when I listen to Rod and Gab. 

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News Recordings

Letters from the Muse Room #11 (November 2019)

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

Dear friends,
My news and inspiration are one and the same this month: At the beginning of October, I had the amazing opportunity to attend The Cumnock Tryst in Cumnock, Scotland!

It’s a music festival led by Sir James MacMillan, Scotland’s greatest living composer, and features four days packed with performances at venues in and around Cumnock. This video is a nice summary (and our group makes a few appearances!): https://vimeo.com/365497264.

Cumnock is a small town in the county of Ayrshire, and it’s where MacMillan grew up — the Tryst is his way of giving back to the place he came from.

It was a terrific time of hearing great music and spending time with great people (our group is the picture at the top of the email) — certainly inspiring in many ways. The beauty everywhere is breathtaking. The countryside, the architecture, the venues where the music is performed.

I greatly enjoyed the performances too, including:

– MacMillan’s Cumnock Fair
– Krzysztof Penderecki’s Three Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano
– An acoustic set by famous Scottish singer/songwriter Barbara Dickson (including a terrific performance of “Eleanor Rigby”)
– Steven Osborne performing Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas 
– George Frideric Handel’s coronation anthems
                    
I was also inspired by a pair of works from another Ayrshire composer, Jay Capperauld.

He had a piece on the closing Festival Chorus concert, which included spoken and whispered sound effects. The effects reminded me of the piece I wrote with Melanie Penn that came out of our first trip to Cumnock, A Journey of Becoming.

And one of the concerts was dedicated to Capperauld’s piece Afterlife, for alto saxophone and piano. It was an evening-length* work that was too dissonant for some of the people in my group, but I found it enthralling.

* “Evening-length” is a concert-music term that just means a piece is long enough to take up a whole concert by itself. 

I felt it had a wide range of emotions and ways of creating and releasing tension, and it was performed magnificently. I couldn’t find any audio clips online, but I hope it’s a piece that gets recorded and performed a lot more.

On our last day in Cumnock, I was asked what my takeaway was. My response was that I wanted to create a piece that was like Afterlife, with the same ambition, scope and range — but something that everyone in my group would enjoy listening to.

I said something similar a few days ago when describing my goals as a composer: I want to write music that fellow concert-music composers enjoy as well-written and not being toned-down for the masses, but that non-musicians also enjoy without feeling that it’s inaccessible or too dissonant or too hard to follow or lacking anything to hold on to.

It was really an incredible opportunity and a very inspiring trip. I hope I’ve been able to share some of the inspiration with you.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #10 (October 2019)

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

Dear friends,
I have some music for you this month! Last month I mentioned the new trio I started working on, for violin, cello and piano. And this month I have a clip for you!

I tried a new method for writing my first draft of this piece, something I’ve never done before — a rhythm sketch. Before I wrote any pitches, I composed the rhythms of the whole piece on three one-line staves.

I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the method — it might not be something I do again. But it did allow me to get a lot done on the piece quickly, and have a start-to-finish skeleton to work from.

Since that original rhythm sketch, I’ve started filling in some pitches. The beginning of the piece, the first of six sections, is a feature for the cello, and you can hear a MIDI demo of it at the link below!

https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/triodemo.mp3

I’d love to hear what you think of the clip — reply to this email and let me know!

––––

I was inspired last month by a piece I listened to that surprised me: Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Berg is perhaps best known for being one of Arnold Schoenberg’s composition pupils; Anton Webern is the other famous one.

Together the three of them pioneered twelve-tone music, a music theory system that declared each of the twelve chromatic notes of Western music had equal importance, without a tonal “center” or home key.

Berg is interesting to me because he combined the twelve-tone system with the lyricism and familiar musical gestures of the Romantic period (c. 1830 – 1900), making for atonal music that is surprisingly accessible.

I recently listened to his Violin Concerto, not knowing what to expect — but I really, really enjoyed it. It’s a twelve-tone piece, but the twelve notes of the tone row are arranged in such a way that they form a lot of consonant and tonal-sounding chords.

The opening of the piece riffs off the four open strings of the violin (G D A E — the roots of the consonant chords in the row), using that pattern to develop the material of the tone row.

The ending also caught my attention: Even though it’s an atonal piece, it ends on a consonant chord (B-flat major with an added 6), with just a hint of the very beginning returning in the last two measures.

I encourage you to give it a try, even if you think you don’t like twelve-tone music. There are brass fanfares in the first movement that are reminiscent of the “Star Wars” score, and a great dramatic climax in the middle of the second movement.

You can listen to the piece and follow the score (with the orchestra part in a piano score) in this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd0dMs0MTg8.

––––

One final thing before I sign off. I’m going to be taking a trip in October, and I’m planning to share some photos and videos from it on my Facebook page and on Instagram. If you’d like to check them out (and trust me, it’ll be fun), you can follow me at:

https://www.facebook.com/ajharbisonmusic
https://www.instagram.com/ajharbison

Thanks — I look forward to connecting with you there!

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News Recordings

Letters from the Muse Room #9 (September 2019)

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

Dear friends,
Welcome to fall! Sort of. Here in Kansas City it’s still hot and humid, but there have been a couple of days with glimmers of cooler weather. While I’m not a huge fan of the cold, as someone who walks to work every day I can’t wait for some temperatures in the 70s instead of the 80s and 90s.

In the last month I’ve started working on a new piece, a trio for violin, cello and piano. It’s based on two alternating ideas — one that’s rhythmic and percussive, alternating with one that’s a continuously running melody (think Charlie Parker jazz, or Baroque music). Each instrument will take a turn as the featured soloist with each of the ideas, for a total of six sections.

While I don’t have anything to share from it just yet, I’m excited about the piece and I look forward to sending you a clip next month!

—-

Something that inspired me in the past month is something I just started doing yesterday — does that count??

This week I’ve listened to pieces from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier a couple of times. The Well-Tempered Clavier is made up of two groups of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key — 24 preludes and fugues in Book I and 24 preludes and fugues in Book II. The collection has been called the pianist’s Old Testament (Beethoven’s piano sonatas being the New Testament).

Every morning I wake up early to compose before I get ready for work. Yesterday, something made me want to listen to a prelude and fugue before I started composing, so I listened to the first set, in C major.

If I had to choose one composer who I thought was the best, the most skillful of all time, it would probably be Bach. And that first WTC prelude and fugue are so clear and so beautiful that listening to them really cleared my head and inspired me, just before I started working. So I decided that each morning, before I start composing, I’ll listen to a prelude and fugue from the WTC.

If you’ve never listened to The Well-Tempered Clavier, I highly recommend it. There’s really no one else who writes like Bach. 

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #8 (August 2019)

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

Dear friends,
How is it August already?! Summer has flown by for me. I hope you’ve had some time to relax and enjoy the warm weather!

Last month I shared a demo I recorded of “Blessed Be,” a song I wrote for Joyplosion — our church’s summer Bible school program. Every year our pastor chooses a theme Bible verse for the week, and I set the verse to music to help everyone memorize it. We create hand motions to go with it and sing the song at each meeting during the camp. (My daughter has helped me the past few years by teaching the motions. It’s hard to do motions and play the guitar at the same time.)

In recording and sharing the demo for “Blessed Be,” though, I realized I didn’t have demo recordings of the songs I wrote the last two years. So, I have two new Joyplosion songs to share with you! The song from 2018, “A Chosen Race,” is here, and the song from 2017, “See What Kind of Love,” is here.

You can see and listen to all the Joyplosion songs (so far!) at a new page on my website: https://www.ajharbison.com/music/pop/joyplosion-songs.

I also wanted to share with you a portion of the new piece I’ve been composing, Seal Lullaby, based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling. It’s just a MIDI recording, but you can get a general feel for how it will sound. It’s very simple and will be easy to sing — just like a lullaby should be! You can hear it here: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/seallullabydemo.mp3.

—-

This path that I’m on, of becoming a composer and working toward what I hope will eventually be a freelance career, can be hard sometimes. It’s easy to become discontent with where I am, to wonder what the next step is and to ask if I’m even where I should be right now. But a couple of things have encouraged me, just in the last week, to keep on going. The first is a new single by my favorite NYC singer/songwriter, Melanie Penn, which struggles with the same questions; it’s called “I Will Trust.” You can watch the lyric video on YouTube here.

The second thing that encouraged me was a conversation with someone I’ve known for a while now who has recently become more of a friend. He told me the story of his career, which was truly amazing. There were times when he felt trapped, like he could never escape the impossible situation he was in. But then something miraculous came along and he was given an opportunity he never could have dreamed of.

Each of these things gave me hope and strength to keep pressing on, working hard, going after my dreams. It reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill, dealing with a much more serious situation but remaining a good call to perseverance in any endeavor: “If you’re going through hell… keep going.”

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room

Letters from the Muse Room #7 (July 2019)

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

Dear friends,
Happy Fifth of July! I hope you had a chance to celebrate the Fourth with your favorite traditions. Our family spent time with Grandma and Grandpa, grilled some tasty food, listened to Hamilton (only the non-explicit tracks, at this point, due to the kids), and enjoyed watching some fireworks in our neighborhood and on the Missouri River.

This last month hasn’t been the most productive — our whole family was sick, some of us twice, so sleep, energy, time and motivation have all been in short supply. But! I do have a few things for you!

1. New music, part 1: As I mentioned last month, I led music for our church’s vacation Bible school program, and I wrote the music for this year’s theme song, which was from Ephesians 1:3. You can see the words and hear a demo recording on my website at https://www.ajharbison.com/music/pop/blessed-be.

2. New music, part 2: I also mentioned last month that I might record the ending of panicpanicpanic, and I did want to share that with you. It’s the only part of the piece with singing. You can hear it here: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/panicpanicpanicendingdemo.mp3.

3. New perusal score: I’ve added to my website the perusal score for the piece I finished before panicpanicpanic, which is a piece for soprano and cello titled Requiem. It uses excerpts from the traditional Requiem Mass’ text, with some interspersed texts from the book of Psalms. You can see it here: https://www.ajharbison.com/music/concert/requiem.

4. New piece: At the request of my wife, my daughter, and a Letters reader or two, I’ve started working on setting Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Seal Lullaby” to music. I wrote about the poem in May, and I’m trying to write a fairly simple arrangement for chorus. I’ll probably arrange it for women’s chorus as well after I finish the mixed chorus version. More to come in future Letters!

—-

I’m not much of a podcast guy, but this last month it was a podcast that inspired me. A long time ago I donated to a Kickstarter campaign for SCORE, the first full-length documentary about film music and film composers.

The creators of SCORE recently launched a podcast they’re calling a “biopod” — like a biopic movie, but in podcast form. They bill it as “a movie for your ears,” and it really is. It’s called BLOCKBUSTER, and it’s a dramatization of the lives of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas through the 1970s and the filming and release of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. It’s six episodes long, totaling a little under three hours.

The podcast is really well done — the actors are great, the sound design is excellent, and the background music does an amazing job of evoking the scores of the movies they’re talking about without actually playing those scores.

The emotional and musical climax of the podcast is in episode 5, with the recording of John Williams’ score for Star Wars in London. They play a fair chunk of the score on the podcast, and listening to it in this context brought it alive to me in a way I hadn’t experienced it before.

George Lucas said that John Williams’ music saved Star Wars, and the BLOCKBUSTER podcast is an excellent illustration of the power of music to tell a story.

You can listen to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or their website, https://www.getblockbuster.com.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News Recordings Scores

Letters from the Muse Room #6 (June 2019)

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

Dear friends,
Welcome to Fridays! I really appreciate those of you who responded to the survey in my last email and let me know which day of the week was best for you to receive my newsletter. I hope you will enjoy getting Letters from the Muse Room on Friday mornings now!

Two updates for you on the news front:

1. panicpanicpanic is finished! I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and I am excited to send it out into the world in search of a premiere. If you know a choral director who might be interested in a piece for speaking chorus about a panic attack, let me know. :) In the meantime, you can check out a perusal score and read the full program notes on my website at https://www.ajharbison.com/music/concert/panicpanicpanic.

2. My website store is live! It’s taken me a long time (because I’m a perfectionist), and there are still some small tweaks to make here and there, but I’m now set up to sell sheet music as well as other digital and physical products (anyone remember my 2010 CD Songs From My Shelf?). Feel free to take a look around at https://www.ajharbison.com/store.

Next month I’ll send some recordings — a kids song I wrote for our church’s annual vacation Bible school program, and maybe another excerpt from panicpanicpanic (I’m particularly proud of the way the piece ends). 

—-

This last month, a musical event inspired me in a not-particularly-musical way. On May 26 the Kansas City Symphony hosted the 17th annual Bank of America Celebration at the Station, a patriotic concert on the eve of Memorial Day. From humble beginnings, it’s grown to become an event with support services for veterans, a fun family area, a large array of food trucks, multiple opening acts and an evening Symphony concert that regularly draws 50,000 people from all over the metro area. 

As you might imagine, it’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of event for the Symphony, so as an employee I got a firsthand look at the event both in front of and behind the scenes. It was pretty remarkable, the sheer amount of activity going on and how smoothly everything ran.          

What inspired me, though, was that Celebration really owes its existence to a single person — Symphony Executive Director Frank Byrne. Seventeen years ago, when he had only been Executive Director for a couple of years, he looked at Memorial Day weekend concerts held in Washington D.C. and elsewhere and said, “Why shouldn’t Kansas City have something like that?” And with a great team and a lot of hard work that idea became a reality. Seventeen years later, it’s the largest free Memorial Day weekend event in the Midwest and a beloved annual tradition for thousands of Kansas City families. 

So, I guess all that to say: If you have a good idea, gather some good people around you and put some good work into it. You never know how far it might go. 

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #5 (May 2019)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Monday of the month, each issue of Letters from the Muse Room will include news and updates about my music, as well as something that has inspired me creatively over the past month.

Dear friends,
Happy May! Spring has finally sprung in Kansas City, and I’ve enjoyed sitting out on my balcony (which is just outside the Muse Room) to do some handwritten revisions on panicpanicpanic.

I have a quick favor to ask you. After I sent the April edition of Letters from the Muse Room, someone suggested that perhaps Monday mornings aren’t the best time. People have so many other things going on that it could easily get lost in the shuffle.

Could you please take 10 seconds and respond to this one-question survey, letting me know on which day of the week you’d be most likely to read the email if you received it first thing in the morning?

Take the survey…

Thanks!

Not a whole lot to report this month. I’ve finished the first draft of panicpanicpanic and I’ve really enjoyed revising the printed score with a pencil. I just started doing this with the last piece I composed, and I don’t know why I haven’t been doing it all my life. It gives me such a fresh perspective and really makes the music better.

I’m still working on getting my website set up to sell sheet music (and other things), but hopefully that will be done this month. Being a perfectionist and being very picky about how I want things to look makes it a slow process….

‑‑‑‑

In addition to being inspired by blooming trees and flowers, sunshine, my balcony, and my 0.9 mm Pentel Twist-Erase pencil, I was inspired this month by a Rudyard Kipling poem I read in a book my daughter checked out from the library.

It’s called “Seal Lullaby,” and it’s just eight short lines:

Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
   And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
   At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, there soft be thy pillow;
   Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
   Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.

I read it to my daughter as I was putting her to bed one night, and the language really struck me. Try reading it out loud. I love the way the words feel as you’re saying them, and the alliteration is delightful — “weary wee flipperling” (my daughter’s favorite phrase in the poem), “asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas” (my favorite phrase). It’s the one of the most musical poems I’ve read in a long time. I have an idea for a piece or two I want to work on after I finish panicpanicpanic, but after that (or maybe before) I might try setting this to music.

I hope you’re enjoying blue skies, green trees and warm weather where you are. Till June!

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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Letters from the Muse Room News

Letters from the Muse Room #4 (April 2019)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Monday of the month, each issue of Letters from the Muse Room will include news and updates about my music, as well as something that has inspired me creatively over the past month.

Dear friends,
Today is April Fool’s Day, but no joke — I’ve got some music to share with you this month! One “pop” music song, and a “concert” music clip.

I’m the director of worship music at my family’s church in Shawnee, Kansas, and over the last few weeks during Lent we’ve been singing some new psalms. One of the psalm texts, Psalm 143, really struck me, and I composed a new tune for it. I tried to make it a simple melody that would be quick and easy for the congregation to learn, but also something beautiful that would fit the emotion of the words.

You can hear a guitar/vocal demo recording of it, and read the words, on my website here: https://www.ajharbison.com/music/pop/psalm-143.

I’ve mentioned in my last couple of emails that I’m working on composing a piece for speaking chorus, panicpanicpanic. The text is a poem called “Panic” written by my brother, Mark Harbison. I’ve written music to a couple of his poems before (see Light of the World and Fall Colors), but I’m particularly excited about this piece. The poem describes what it feels like to experience a panic attack, in very vivid language, and I’m trying to set the text in a vivid way as well — with only speaking and sound effects, no pitch. (Except at the very end, but more on that in a later email.) It’s pretty intense, but I think it will be really effective with a full chorus.

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Just a quick note on the inspiration front. Recently, driving home from a Kansas City Symphony concert, I saw this bumper sticker on a car in front of me:

There is so much brokenness and ugliness that we encounter on a daily basis — on the news, in our relationships, in our own hearts. Take some time this week to protest by making some time and space for beauty. It could be reading a good book, visiting a museum, listening to music, or making something yourself. Step back from the brokenness, take a deep breath, and experience something beautiful. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world,” and that can be true in little ways, as well as big ways.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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