One Must Live Every Note

Inevitably, as another year comes to an end, there comes a time for reflection and for resolutions, for looking back as well as dead ahead. Personally, the passage of time doesn’t frighten or concern me, nor does getting older. What is important is spending my time on worthwhile things.

Earlier this year I came across two quotes that have stuck with me ever since and that I think I will carry with me for quite a while longer. The first one I read in an entry of Jean Sibelius‘ diaries, which were edited by Professor Fabian Dahlström and published in 2006 in a beautiful hardcover volume. I found a secondhand copy in good condition and bought it on a whim. I rarely give in to impulse buying, but this particular item I have not regretted at all.

It is fascinating, entertaining and exciting to follow Sibelius’ thoughts and feelings, his doubts, his failings, his victories and his strengths. I read through almost all the entries (dating from 1909 to 1944) in the first couple of weeks from getting the book, and have since returned to it every now and then, basically just opening it up at whichever point and getting a dose of Sibelius, so to speak.

Never write an unneccessary note.

One must live every note.

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

A simple and very important maxim that I believe any music composer would agree with, whether or not they actually follow it or not. (I imagine that those who don’t at least wish they did – or perhaps think they do!)

Those who know me are familiar with my seemingly neverending internal struggle between wanting to write the music that I want to write, that is true to me and to my musical idiom and values, and on the other hand feeling like I have to write music of a certain style and character in order to please the powers that be, the so-called “establishment”; in other words, the institutions, ensembles, festivals, competitions and venues where my music could potentially be performed.

I have little actual proof that the music I (want to) write is ‘wrong’ in the sense that it is, at some level, forbidden or at least unwanted. However, I cannot shake the feeling that I need to pick a side: either go all in on widely appealing popular music with plain chords, easy melodies and clear structures; or prostrate myself at the altar of serious, cultivated and opaque art music that is lauded by the enlightened few but of absolutely no interest to anyone else.

Cutout of a painting from 1894 by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a friend of Sibelius (who was 29 at the time).

It should be fairly easy to gather from what you just read that I have little patience with the navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing tendencies of ‘serious’ music. But neither do I suffer the misdirected, prideful ignorance of those who discredit or shun music that they don’t immediately understand – for the simple fact that they do not understand it at once, or that it places certain demands on them as a listener.

One new year’s resolution that I want to strive toward is to stay true to myself, to my ‘voice’, to my own style o idiom, to resist pandering to either any one extreme or the other. In that sense, I want to live by Sibelius’ words, in that I want every note of mine to be consciously written for and through myself, that it comes to life through me and not through someone else. I must live every one of my notes. All other notes are, as a result, unnecessary.

A beautiful Boxing Day sunset (sic) at 1:30pm.

The other quote comes not from music, nor is it even music-related. But it is nonetheless important as a constant reminder to oneself and to others, not least in troubled, anxious times such as the particularly hard times we are living in now.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.

Every step requires the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968)

There are many layers to this quote and I am intentionally reinterpreting it, which a part of me can’t help feeling is a little sacrilegious, but all the same I do find great motivation and strength in this quote. Not only in my musical endeavours but in life in general as well. It is equally applicable on the very large scale of human society as on a comparably minuscule scale such as one single person in the world.

When I teach, for instance, it is of course necessary for my students to put effort into their work in order to develop and hone their skills. But it is also important for me to lead by example, to keep working toward being a better composer, better musician, better leader, and so on; also to stay curious, to keep growing and evolving instead of contentedly settling for whatever ideals or idioms I currently possess.

Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed in 1964 for the Nobel Foundation Archive.

That tireless exertion and passionate concern is a requisite for a fair and equal society to develop (or, for that matter, to be maintained!). And on a much, much smaller and more personal level, it is only through tireless exertion, passionate concern and dedication that I can keep growing as a person – and as a musician.

Finally, I am reminded of something a rabbi told me back when I was a teenager that has stuck with me since then and has become something of a general motto for me in life: to realize the potential in God’s creation by realizing the potential in yourself. By working consistently and diligently toward becoming the most accomplished person you can be – not to the detriment or at the expense of others, mind you – I think that positive and constructive movement inspires further positive and constructive events, large and small.

And if you do believe in God, that we are all part of God’s creation, then that wonderfully clever, funny and just plain wise rabbi was correct in a very literal sense. Even if you do not believe in God, it is still a matter of fact that we are all a part of this world and share a responsibility for it. And through our actions, large and small, we can either help build or destroy it as well as each other and ourselves.

In this year as well as the next, and the year after that, I definitely know what I want to do. And with a little help from my friends, I do think it is possible.

See you next year, dear reader.