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A Song for my Mother

Last Sunday was the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I think of her every day but especially at this time of year.  I wish I could call her, tell her all the things that are happening to me, talk about the weather, talk about anything.

And I wish I could do some of the things that I promised her I’d do, like write a piece for her.  She never really understood the contemporary classical music field but nonetheless she always wanted me to write her a piece and call it Song For My Mother. She bugged me about this for years but it was an impossible task.

First of all we had wildly different taste in music. Every time she came to a concert on which I had a piece she would say “why can’t you write something nice and tonal?”  I would get furious and start sputtering like Napoleon Dynamite.  It is tonal music mother!!  My music is tonal!  God!  Then I would pull a tater tot out of my pocket and chew it petulantly.

Well, no. But seriously I never wrote the piece because I thought it would either have had to have been some kind of Billy Joel-esque “classical” piece complete with an Alberti bass line or else a quasi-romantic Nocturne or some other thing I didn’t feel well-equipped to write and also because, though it’s only all these years later that I’m realizing it, I just wasn’t emotionally up to it.

I remember trying to think of specific musical ideas and always feeling overwhelmed before I even started.  Shortly after she died though I was asked to be part of a musical celebration for the 100th anniversary of Poetry Magazine.  The composers would choose poems published in the magazine to set to music for a performance in their gorgeous center in Chicago.

Needless to say a hundred years of poetry is a lot to go through in search of one poem that moves you.  I spent several days on their website reading and reading until I found a poem by Laura Kasischke called simply Game.  I read it several times over and was stunned at how powerfully it conveyed what I was feeling.

Composing is often difficult for me but I set this poem very quickly, in just two days.  Then for good measure I set two other poems by Kasischke, one about perspective and the other about a woman feeling strong after a breakup.  But Game remains my favorite.

The piece was sung in performance by Alison Wahl with the Chicago Q Ensemble and they did a marvelous job.  Unfortunately I doubt my mother would have liked it, at least musically.  Though it’s tonal, solidly in Eb Major throughout, it’s nonetheless a complicated tonality, wistful and rhythmically restless.  Not at all to her taste.

But then again, I’m not totally sure I knew her taste after all.  Lately I’m haunted by the realization that I never really knew her, that it was in fact impossible to truly see her as an independent person while she lived.  That’s the other thing that five years has brought, a sense of perspective.  It occurs to me now that I could have written anything and she would have been happy but somehow I couldn’t do it until she was gone.
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