Here’s is a recorded version of the song this post is about: 


As we rehearsed “The Nightingale,” I thought: THIS IS IT

… a tiny, huge, quiet, explosive defining moment, and I was in the middle of it.  It’s like when you wait for an animal in the woods, and suddenly it’s there, its breath frosting the air, its hooves ruffling the grass.

musical trancendance

I was with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra it was last Friday, the day before our concert in The Athaneum, an old theatre in a huge old ballroom that’s filled with more history than all my ancestors to together — the kind of theater I love.

The “Nighingale” always sounds beautiful when an orchestra plays it. I wrote it about the sound of my mother’s voice – and, I realized recently, my father’s – the deepest parts of my life before I was born, and when I was small.

These musicians were playing it for the first time and they were playing beautifully – but that’s not what was creating this shift.

They were listening and playing-with –  at a breathtakingly steep level of skill and artistry and musicality and listening. The conductor was silently moving through it, without stopping — and I knew he wouldn’t stop. We were inside the music. 

And I knew: THIS IS IT– the thing I wait and prepare for, the moment when ‘it’ is happening. THIS is the reason I do all this.  Composing, orchestrating, practicing, traveling – sometimes adventurous, often grueling – THIS is what it’s all for.

To stand here on stage facing these musicians, as if one and all were playing intimately to each other – as if a forest-full of elk came to a clearing and sang to the moon, together, to themselves, to each other, to the sound of song itself.

No recording, no concert, nothing short of being able to travel back in time to experience a lullaby from my mother’s throat – nothing short of the most intimate,  beautiful and humanity-defining sounds I’ve ever heard.

You don’t think of an orchestra as being intimate. But in a huge empty hall, if each is listening and playing as if we were one-on-one, it is immense and intimate.

Immense. And intimate.

When I first orchestrated this piece, I wondered if I could create the experience – as the performer – of singing with my mother.  It’s  greedy, I know. To write just to satisfy my own soul.

And I didn’t trust myself to do it. I tried to get a movie composer friend to orchestrate it. But he was busy,  so I did it myself – and I’m so glad I did.

And last Friday, I realized, again, that I wrote as if each instrument was a voice. As if each were her voice. As if I could tuck that primal human tenderness into different instruments at different moments of the piece and surreptitiously sing with her again as they played.

I put her voice in the English Horn during the opening – and as principal oboist Leonid Sirotkin brought it alive, it hung in the air like time holding its own breath — then slid into the French Horns in the second verse, and from there into the strings and the woodwinds. I created lines to sing with, and lines to sing against, and these musicians enveloped me in the harmony of longing and belonging.

As we played the piece, alone on the arched-ceiling, red-curtained, old wood floored vaudeville stage, with the echoes of ten thousand songs in the Athaenaeum theatre in Indianapolis last Friday …

I was so moved I could barely sing.

This is it.  This is why I’m a composing-performer, why I write music for symphonies and ensembles, and why I love to play it with them.

Watch this video from my PBS special “Invention & Alchemy” where I talk about “The Nightingale”

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