by Jeremy Howard Beck
Throughout my entire childhood and adolescence I was obsessed with roller coasters. My career choice was clear as far back as my kindergarten yearbook, where my “When I Grow Up” was listed as “roller coaster designer.” Right below was my favorite color: chartreuse. You can imagine what the other kids’ choices were, and therefore the kind of kid I was.
On a TV documentary years ago I remember someone saying that roller coasters, and thrill rides generally, allow us to hold our fear of death out at arm’s length and to deal with it in a safe, purely physical (non-emotional) way. That’s what writing music is for me: a safe way to sit with, and make sense of, difficult and often intense emotions in a form that others can viscerally understand and identify with and respond to. And I don’t just mean negative ones; as researcher and author Brené Brown has pointed out, there is no more sharp-edged emotion than joy.
To paraphrase Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, I know I need to write a piece when I have a question I can’t answer. “Awakening,” my first piece for the Guidonian Hand trombone quartet, was my attempt to reconcile my emotions surrounding both the passage of Proposition 8 in California and also the Jewish High Holidays, which happened nearly simultaneously in the fall of 2008. At the protests I attended, and hearing the blast of the shofar, I felt both joy and outrage, belonging and alienation, at the same time, and I tried to write music that felt like that.
I wouldn’t say that I write autobiographically, but all of my music has been profoundly influenced and affected by things that happen to me and the people close to me. Sometimes those things are large, society-scaled watersheds that also affect me on a very personal level, as Proposition 8 did, but it can also be a particularly meaningful and painful good-bye I said to someone in a bus station in Montréal (“Tschüss,” for double electric guitar quartet and 3 dancers, in collaboration with choreographer Haylee Nichele), or the week I spent taking care of a friend who’d been raped (“Human Kindness is Overflowing,” for the Bang on a Can Summer Festival), or a musical “letter” of hard-won exuberance both to an old friend whose fiancée had just been murdered and to myself to lift me out of the depression that event had thrown me into (“You Are Alive,” for brass, percussion and 6 dancers, also in collaboration with Haylee Nichele).
This approach isn’t limited to “program” music, or music “about” something: my most recent project, a cello concerto (called, amazingly, “Cello Concerto”), has no emotional or extramusical program whatsoever. Instead, it is structured as a series of études—not only for the soloist, but also for me as a composer of music for strings, which to me are still hopelessly foreign and mysterious compared to the other instrument families. The études aren’t the kind any string player would think of, and that’s part of the point: the whole structure of the piece has been borne out of my discomfort and inexperience with composing for strings, and the admittedly strange way I’ve come to think about them. There are five movements: études for the right hand alone (bowing), the left hand alone (fingering), percussion (pizzicato and other non-bowed techniques) and harmonics; and a fifth movement integrating all these techniques and musical materials into a cohesive whole.
(Hilariously, to me, this is the exact same structure as “Awakening”—a bunch of highly focused technical studies, plus a larger movement integrating each of the techniques studied—but where that piece’s études came out of the emotional context of the piece and my total fluency with the instrument and its capabilities, the Cello Concerto’s études are, I imagine, how a Martian might think of a cello if he landed on Earth tomorrow and had to write a cello piece. My hope is that, after the concert, the soloist, the orchestra and most especially the audience will think about the cello, an ancient instrument with unfathomable history, in a new and exciting way.)
What fascinates me endlessly about roller coasters isn’t the engineering; that is merely a tool to an end. What hooked me then and still does now is the human experience: the way wood or steel is shaped and structured in ways that create physical, emotional and even spiritual catharsis. The truly great roller coaster designers—both classic (Harry G. Traver, John Miller, Prior & Church, et al.) and contemporary (Werner Stengel, Anton Schwarzkopf, Ron Toomer, Bolliger and Mabillard, et al.)—were and are master engineers, to be sure, but the engineering has always been in service of the riders’ experience.
When I was a child I drew hundreds, thousands of original roller coaster designs. As I got older (and more experienced as a rider), my track layouts improved and became more varied and adventurous. They also became more precise, in terms of scale and proportion. I didn’t know enough math to worry about it yet, though, and since I think roller coasters have an inherent beauty—like with boats, you have to WORK to make a roller coaster look ugly—I didn’t even really think about aesthetics all that much. My primary focus was how the ride would feel: the drama and flow of visceral, physical sensation in time.
I turned out to be not nearly enough of a math wiz to make roller coaster design my career, and I’m not sure exactly how I ended up in college as a music composition major, but that’s what happened, and that’s where I stayed. I had no idea what I was doing or why I was even doing it to begin with, and the excited jargon of the other composers and composition teachers was as baffling to me as it was boring. What had I gotten myself into?
One of my first composition teachers, Deniz Hughes, was different. She didn’t start out talking about technique or theory. She talked to me about emotion, about how people feel music in their bodies, about the importance of planning a piece’s emotional shape before you write it. She told me something I will never forget: “Your music is ultimately about three things: Who you are, where you’re from, and what those first two things make you feel.” She taught me the planning and architectural methods used by Mark Adamo and John Corigliano, both of whom would later become my teachers and mentors. I was brought up, musically, in that tradition. I have never known anything else. Looking now at one of Corigliano’s graphic plans for his pieces, I’m struck by how similar they are—both in what they communicate as well as in their literal ups and downs—to the fictional roller coasters of my childhood fantasies.
Viewed this way, music is a never-ending adventure of discovery: I almost never use the same tools from one piece to the next, and my pieces can sound quite radically different from each other. I write music to make sense of the world, of others, of my place in and among it all. I aspire to be the kind of musician who is always adventurous with sound, even in ways that make me uncomfortable or even afraid. Having never been particularly fascinated by or even much interested in music theory in and of itself, the paradox is that, by writing music that is as personal as I can make it, I have arrived at a place where I am more fascinated by sounds and the theory and technique behind them than I have ever been.
Jeremy Howard Beck is the recipient of a 2011 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, and his music has been performed across the country at the Bang on a Can Marathon, MYTHOS, the International Trombone Festival, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Symphony Space, Galapagos Art Space, the Gershwin Hotel, and more. Read more about him and listen to his works at his website, www.jeremyhowardbeck.com.