Piano Music for relaxation and reflection

A New Beginning 

I am glad I discovered this poem by Irish philosopher and poet John O'Donohe.  Its theme resonates at this time of the year, when we make resolutions, imagine possibilities, and, at least for a while, view the future with wide open eyes and a beginner's mind.  Even if a new beginning in one's circumstance is not possible, maybe a new beginning in one's attitude is. I originally wrote “Begin Again” and “Once Again” with that in mind.  

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear,
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life's desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

John O'Donohue


Spring Intermezzo 

Exhilaration is the Breeze
That lifts us from the Ground
And leaves us in another place
Whose statement is not found --

Returns us not, but after time
We soberly descend
A little newer for the term we spent
Upon Enchanted Ground --
          – Emily Dickinson

A feeling of exhilaration accompanies the arrival of spring.  I found this feeling expressed musically in Betty Jackson King's “Spring Intermezzo,” a piano piece I discovered after hearing it played frequently in recent months on my local classical station WCLV FM.

It was recorded on the album Black Renaissance Women by Dr. Samanthe Ege.  I found the printed music at Jacksonian Press.  I've enjoyed playing this piece, as well as the three other compositions in the compilation Four Seasonal Sketches.  



The Peace of Wild Things 

Nature is what we know --
Yet have no art to say --
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

When I read these words of Emily Dickinson, I can't help but recall Wendell Berry's reflection on nature and its capacity to refresh us and rejuvenate us.  An escape from the chaotic noise of our "connected" world is right through the door - outside, in the presence of "wild things" that we'll never fully understand.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.

The Bliss of Solitude 

I wrote my piano piece "Daffodils" in response to William Wordsworth's poem of the same name. Written in 1804, the poem was inspired by the poet's wandering and discovery of a field of daffodils by a lake. The vision was a gift that kept on giving.  As expressed in the final stanza, the memory of this event pleased and comforted him when restless or lonely or bored.  Such is the power of nature if one pauses, pays attention, and notices what's right there to see.  

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margins of the bay.
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company.
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Random thoughts on Stephen Sondheim 

When faced with a creative block, I often ask myself, "What would Sondheim do?"  This in no way is an attempt to position myself on a level even close to Sondheim.  I'm not in his talent or skill set ballpark.  Not many are.  But I have taken to heart and attempted to apply the principles he lists at the outset of his book Finishing the Hat.  He insists that these principles are necessary for a lyric writer:

Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God Is in the Details
all in the service of Clarity

Easier said than done, of course.  But invaluable guidance from the Master?  Yes

Following his recent death, I turned to YouTube to sample the myriad videos of tributes, interviews, biographies, clips of his productions, and segments of classes he taught.  One could easily binge on Sondheim!

My favorite so far is the documentary of the recording of the original cast album for "Company."  In it he gives notes to the singers, interacts with the producer and his music director Harold Hastings, and discusses the project with Hal Prince and George Furth, his collaborators.  He is, in turn, frustrated, pleased, seemingly never completely satisfied, always clear and precise.

When I play the piano for pleasure, I often pull out one of his musical scores (I have them all!) and try to sight read and practice his piano accompaniments.  I also like to play along with the recordings to see how his excellent orchestrators arranged the music for the pit bands of various sizes that accompanied the shows.  I always learn something new, get ideas, and come away even more impressed with his compositions.

He was generous with his time, eager to share his knowledge, and encouraging in a practical way to the writers and composers hoping to follow in his footsteps.  Those of us who love musical theater are grateful for the words he wrote, the music he composed, and impact he has had on the performing arts.



Having recently completed a road trip replete with the sights and sounds of the great outdoors, nature in all its resplendent beauty, mysterious, healing, and intoxicating, I am reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem and that I, too, do not have the "art to say" and express what I've experienced.

Nature is what see
The hill - afternoon -
Squirrel - Eclipse - the Bumble bee
Nay - Nature is heaven -

Nature is what we hear -
The Bobolink - the Sea -
Thunder - the Cricket -
Nay - Nature is Harmony -

Nature is what we know
Yet have no art to say -
So impotent our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

It does not require a road trip to access this ironic simplicity.  It is there in our backyards if we will open our eyes and ears, and pause to notice it.

Immersed in the sound 

More than 60 years after leaving Russia, Vladimir Horowitz marked his return in 1986 with a concert at the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.  One can stream videos on YouTube and other platforms of this legendary concert.  PBS devoted a "Great Performances" episode to it. 

In a program full of musical highlights, I keep returning to his opening piece: Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata K. 87 in B minor. This is another example of a piece most pianists can play - that is, they have the technique to play the notes.  But as Horowitz shows us, that's where the musical journey begins. To borrow Emily Dickinson's phrase, his performance "takes us many lands away." 

We won't reach his destination.  But that doesn't matter.  What's wonderful about music is that those of us who practice and play can aspire to approach those distant lands that Scarlatti and the other great composers discovered through their compositions.  We travel on our own musical journeys, reveling in the experience, immersed in the sound. 


In an Unpredictable World... 

In Music and the Mind, psychiatrist Anthony Storr explores the power of music to stimulate the mind, captivate the heart, and nurture the soul.  He writes, "Music exalts life, enhances life, and gives it meaning...For those who love it, it remains a fixed point of reference in an unpredictable world.  Music is a source or reconciliation, exhilaration, and hope which never fails."

Musicians and ensembles of all kinds throughout the world have risen to the challenges imposed by this pandemic and have kept this "fixed point of reference" and source of hope fresh and alive.  If you are a musician, you are driven to do what it is you do - make music.  And so, virtual concerts and streams of live and recent performances abound on the internet.  Two of my favorite sources for these are The Orpheus Chamber Singers located in Dallas and The Cleveland Orchestra. But myriad opportunities exist to experience the magic and calming effect of good music that transcends time in these chaotic times.  I urge you to seek out and support your favorite ensembles and musicians from your preferred musical genre....and keep the music playing!

Quartet for the End of Time 

A global pandemic, protests that one hopes will galvanize systemic changes and encourage conversations so long overdue, a world in flux...It may seem like the end of time as we know it.

In 1940 in a Nazi prison camp in Poland, Olivier Messiaen composed and, with three fellow prisoners, performed "Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps" ("Quartet for the End of Time"), his musical response to and reflection on his world in flux.  He wrote, "I am convinced that joy exists...joy is beyond sorrow, beauty beyond horror."

I have listened to this composition many times, and was recently moved to send for the score in order to explore it and gain a deeper understanding of it.  With considerable practice, I could probably deliver a passable amateur performance of the challenging piano part.  But two of the movements -- V. and VIII., both transcendent in beauty -- are readily "playable."  So while listening to the recording, I have played along with the cello in the first movement and the violin in the other.  This has been a musical meditation for me - a brief and welcome respite from the noise of the world...the kind of mindful pause that music engenders.

One Step Backward Taken 

In the midst of this global pandemic, we are being asked to...pause, to simply...stop (not so simple to do), or, as Robert Frost so eloquently expresses in his poem, step backward.  

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons,
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices,
I felt my standpoint shaken in the universal crisis.

But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me,
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.

I think of my piano piece "Rapids" as a soundtrack for his "universal crisis" and "How the Sun Rose" as an underscore for the aftermath.

My favorite line from John Donne's "No Man is an Island" is "For I am involved in mankind."  Let's step back for a while, acknowledge and celebrate our common humanity, and know that the storm will stop, and the sun will come out to dry us...together.


A single string stirring neutron dance 

I have always liked that phrase from Michael Shorb's poem "Geese."  I often reflect on it when observing flocks of birds soaring as one during migrations. There is a rhythm and harmony to this "dance" that is musical.  In hindsight, I think this must have been part of the inspiration for my piano composition "Stirrings."

GEESE by Michael Shorb

Just north of Valley Falls
rust mustard hue of
fading autumn
     chills the marsh
last storm of
Canadian geese
stuns the flyway
imprinted engines of feathers and cries.

I wonder how they'll
thread their way
how instincts born of spanning
northern frosts and raw
walnut air
navigate interstate
haze to pinpoints in
South American distance
zeroing back with
each unerring swoop
to splashdown
   on a mountain lake
where reeds bend
mirrored in watery
of their own swaying

they and the vanishing geese
a single string
neutron dance
branches of the actual
surrounding me like
breath returning
when everything else
       is gone.

Mont Blanc Soundscape 

My daughter and I celebrated milestone birthdays recently with a grand adventure: the "Tour du Mont Blanc," a long-distance hike that circles the Mont Blanc massif and passes through France, Italy, and Switzerland.  The daily hikes were challenging and exhilarating.  And that's what we wanted.  Embarking early each day, my daughter seemed to view every lengthy ascent as a personal  affront as she aggressively attacked them  Though not quite as aggressive, I was able to keep up.  We packed lightly, but were glad we had our rain gear up in the chilly cloudy mist of Grand Col Ferret, our first aid kit for a minor mishap, and ample water.  We arrived a few hours before dinner at our hotels, each a unique and charming postcard property, where we enjoyed the warm hospitality and delicious meals.  We took far too many pictures - who could resist?!  But I will particularly relish recalling the sounds along the way: the rustling leaves, the streams and waterfalls, the buzzing bees among the wildflowers, each friendly "bon jour" from fellow hikers, my huffing and puffing, the church bells, and above all the cowbells ringing in the distance. In the coming months I will attempt to express my impressions of our tour in music.  One thing is certain.  The orchestration will include cowbells!

The Rapture of Music 

I am compelled to post this verse from the The Radiance Sutras.
It speaks for itself and for all of us who have been privileged to experience, if only momentarily, James Joyce's "aesthetic arrest" when carried away and lost in music. Once again, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "stunned by bolts of melody."

Immerse yourself in the rapture of music.
You know what you love. Go there.

Tend to each note, each chord,
Rising up from silence and dissolving again.

Vibrating strings draw us
Into the spacious resonance of the heart.

The body becomes light as the sky
And you, one with the Great Musician,
Who is even now singing us
Into existence.

Live from Here 

I've been a fan of "Live from Here," the weekly PBS radio show, since it filled the time slot claimed for years by "A Prairie Home Companion."  Every week I'm newly amazed at what Chris Thile "comes up with" on his mandolin - creative arrangements, dazzling dexterity, new musical ideas.  So to witness the live  broadcast from the second row in Dallas last week was a joy. As is the case with music, a live performance takes it to another level.  The enthusiastic audience was treated to folk, garage grunge, new age, classical, Texas swing, C&W, and R&B musical genres - all performed by expert musicians and sparked by the infectious energy of the host.  And they even performed a poignant piece - relevant in these times - tied to an Emily Dickinson poem....

Much Madness is Divinest Sense
To a Discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness

'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail
Assent - and you are sane - 
Demur - you're straightway dangerous
And Handled with a Chain



Hodie - "This Day" 

I have two Christmas musical traditions: raising my voice enthusiastically - though not always accurately - in the superb Dallas Bach Society's annual Messiah sing-along, and listening to - actually luxuriating in - my recording of Vaughan Williams' Christmas Cantata, Hodie.

Composed when he was 82, Vaughan Williams juxtaposes words from the Scriptures with secular poetry penned by Milton, Hardy, Drummond, Herbert, Ursula Vaughan Williams, and others. Joyful, dramatic, and majestic - subtle, haunting, and sublime, this radiant work never fails to move and inspire me.  As Michael Kennedy writes in his album notes, "Hodie is the music of goodwill, from the heart and mind of a great English visionary." The final chorus exclaims:

"Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so...

"And heaven as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall."

Merry Christmas

Fire-fangled Feathers 

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze décor.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings.  Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
                        - Wallace Stevens

This poem is a favorite of mine.  Wallace Stevens gives us facts simply stated.  There's the tree; there's the bird; the wind moves through the branches, etc.

We instinctively use our minds eye to picture the scene he paints with his words.  But where is this scene?  He says: "...at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought...on the edge of space..."  That is, beyond words.

What we do, or think, or feel doesn't matter.  These things simply exist.  They just are.  And as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Existence - in itself
Without a further function -
Omnipotence - Enough - 

So how do we access this elusive space beyond words, between thoughts, where we simply exist, just are, and mere being is enough?

For some, meditation.  For others, prayer as presence and contemplation. Through dance.  And for many of us, through music, the language that begins where words leave off.


The Poetry of Earth 

The sounds of nature are all around us all the time wherever we are.  But we have to pay attention and somehow listen through the noise of our daily lives.  Hearing the music of bird songs, waterfalls, and wind through the trees on a recent trip to Kings Canyon National Park, reminded me of John Keats' poem "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket."  Evidently taking on a challenge by a fellow poet, he wrote this in an hour.  The prompt was to write a sonnet about a grasshopper and a cricket. Clearly John Keats was in tune with the sounds of nature.  Here are fourteen lines that remind us to be grateful for the music, the poetry, the gift the earth gives us everyday.

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's - he takes the lead
In summer luxury, - he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.



A Die Walkure to Remember 

"This high-intensity performance will surely rank as a legend in Dallas musical history."

So writes Dallas Morning News Special Contributor Scott Cantrell following the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of Wagner's Die Walkure -- a performance I was fortunate to witness and experience.  During the last decade outgoing Music Director Jaap van Zweden has molded the DSO into a first-tier ensemble.  And along the way he has delivered numerous legendary performances.  While difficult to rank, I cannot imagine a concert topping this one in sheer intensity, musical expression, and emotional impact.  The story may be convoluted, but in Wagner the music tells the story.  Van Zweden read the story and communicated it  in spectacular fashion guiding the singers and super-sized orchestra to the delight of the appreciative audience.  Soon he leaves for his new post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.  He ends his Dallas run with performances of Beethoven's Ninth.  I eagerly anticipate the open rehearsal I will attend later this week.  I suspect that true to form he'll deliver a Ninth to remember!

What does it mean? 

Recently I heard a series of episodes of "Exploring Music" in which Bill McGlaughlin investigated music and meaning - certainly an elusive concept.

Soon after, I attended a concert and was moved by performances of Francis Poulenc's "Stabat Mater" and Herbert Howells' "Hymnus Paradisi."

The tragic events many years ago that precipitated the compositing of these dramatic works by these composers were similar.  The performance by the orchestra, soloists, and choir under the directions of a fine conductor was first rate.  And for whatever reason, I was in a receptive frame of mind that day, ready for immersion in the glorious sounds that enveloped me.

So what did the music mean?

An answer is not easy to express in everyday language.  Poets and philosophers have responded eloquently to their impressions of musical moments in their lives.

For me on that particular day, any meaning arose from the depth of my experience of the music.  And I guess this experience occurred at the intersection of the composer's inspiration and craft, the performers' interpretation, and my (the listener's) context.

Now I'm listening to John Coltrane.  What does this music mean?  I can't readily say.  But I know I like it.

"It tolls for thee." 

I wrote the piano piece "It Tolls for Thee" as a response to the killing of five police officers in Dallas in July of 2016.  However, it could have been written in reaction to the mass shooting in Las Vegas today or the myriad other tragic events in recent history.  In all of these instances I am reminded of the words of John Donne expressing our common humanity and our ultimate connection with each other.

"No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a promontory were.  As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend's were.

Each man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, send not to know for whom the bells tolls.  It tolls for thee."