Conquest of Cold

The music I contemplate most, of course, is my own, during the process of composing. Since I have a premiere coming up next week of a piece that is deeply involved with contemplation on a conceptual level, let me devote a bit of space to it.

In the new brass quintet, commissioned and to be premiered on March 6 by the Redline Brass Quintet, I decided to go for an arrival that is the opposite of what is expected in Western classical music, an area of extraordinarily low kinetic energy. The decision had a technical stimulus, in fact, which was my desire to use the harmon mute as a careful filter of the brass sound. I pondered this desire, imagining placing the sound in the spot of the “great arrival” and how that would affect the overall shape.

From the outset, a central premise I worked with was that such an area of low energy would correspond to an experience of extreme mental clarity during meditation. Since I always name my ideas, I may as well admit that I called this the experience of pure consciousness. One possibility I considered was that some kind of stress-producing, anomalous event early in the piece would get one reaction, and after the experience of pure consciousness, it would get a different, transformed reception in the imagined mind whose energies the music carries.

It's worth mentioning at this point that after thinking, contemplating, planning for quite a long time, the initial start proved frustrating and difficult. An experience of Zen chanting provided the sound infusion I needed to start over from a place of inspiration. After that, the piece unfolded well.

Sketching ahead the possibilities for a gradual dissipation of kinetic energy, I laid out the energy states that the group would go through. As I got closer to the entry into pure consciousness, when no one really moves any more, and the magic of overtone interaction begins, I realized that I had encountered other conceptions of similar states of being. I read Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Schachtman some years ago, and learned of the discoveries made as scientists were able to get closer and closer to absolute zero. These include superconductivity and the amazing superfluidity of helium when it is cooled to near absolute zero.

This strange behavior of the physical world seemed to provide a parallel to the effects on consciousness of not following thoughts, of just sitting, allowing what is to simply be there, almost as if the act of thinking is akin to the action of heated matter. Maybe that sense of connectedness to all things and beings which can emerge from calming the mind is more similar to the reduced molecular or atomic vibration which we call cold than we realize. For my purposes as a composer, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that the similarity gave me a sense of expansion, of discovery, and a title that resonates with the piece and my life.

The sense of connectedness that meditation brings leads to compassion, and compassion is indeed the Conquest of Cold on the interpersonal level. The quest for absolute zero led to the discovery of superconductivity, superfluidity. The practice of meditation leads to compassion, or the sense of superconnectedness to reality. What is, is.

What is in the music, is that action – articulation and movement of notes – virtually ceases. Only slowly evolving and interacting overtones emerging from harmon-filtered (muted) brass exist at that lowest ebb of kinetic energy. Yet the hope is that this will be the most magical place in the piece, a real high point of interest that will demonstrably transform the ensemble reaction to anomalous events.

A composer is often filled with hope...