FIFTEEN MINUTES OF DISSONANT HARMONY
By Pat Greene and Lindy T. Shepherd
I SEE a new Earth
An Earth that is alive– glowing with the care of man, Man grown wise and free.
The influence of different civilizations flows evenly around;
Races and nations and sexes understand each other,
Endue each other with life.
Invisible threads of sympathy cover the earth;
Science and religion, art and industry, are one in truth;
The motive of every act is love.
— Frank Townshend, excerpt from
“Vision of the Earth,” 1929
These are the opening stanzas of the poem that stirred composer Keith Lay on a journey that has led to this weekend’s premiere of his composition of the same name, Vision of the Earth. Several years’ worth of assembling and reassembling musical notes has yielded 15 minutes of music, created second by second as he sat down to write most mornings in the music room in his Oviedo home. What a performance his score will inspire under the power of 160 uplifted voices, a full pipe organ and a large orchestra in the Knowles Memorial Chapel at Rollins College. Raise the roof, indeed.
“The message is sweet,” Lay, 49, says, “but it’s done in a powerful, glorious way. The lines of the poem are so positive. … It isn’t so much of a cry as it is an exultation of life.”
He continues, “A lot of people think it’s very dissonant – I guess I hear harmony different than a lot of people.”
Vision of the Earth joins two other notable works on the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park program, Carmina Burana by Carl Orff and Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, performed by renowned cellist Christopher Rex. If you have the opportunity to see Vision of the Earth, take it. You only have two performances to do so.
The revered John V. Sinclair, artistic director and conductor of the Bach Festival Society, asked Lay to write the piece at the end of 2005. It was scheduled for a 2006 debut, but “it was too difficult” for the listener, says Lay, who spent the last year refining the composition.
Few people understand the motivations and expectations of a contemporary composer, such as Lay. This is a time in which everything musical seems to have been done already; yet history has left us with such a library of efforts and realizations that we can borrow, rearrange and reinterpret them, leading to far more possibilities. Like his peers, Lay borrows from the past, referencing 12-tone composition and other atonal byproducts without playing follow the leader.
“There have always been people organizing sound, and there are techniques to do that,” Lay says. Exploring artistic, emotional and scientific boundaries equals a new tuning of sounds, he explains. “We don’t often think of this as science.” Modern-day composers, he says, “still push the emotional, social, scientific envelope.”
In 1990, Lay relocated his family from the gray skies of rural Ohio, where his spent a melancholic childhood, to the sunny skies of Central Florida, where he teaches at Full Sail Real World Education. Lay mentioned how many composers choose to teach, relying on grants and contributions to make ends meet.
Shortly after arriving here, Lay came across a book by Irish poet Frank Townshend in a used bookstore in Winter Park; in it he discovered “Vision of the Earth,” the poem that inspired his composition.
The decision to use Townshend’s transcendental passage may have been immediate, but the path to gain permission was a slow, litigious one. Lay’s interest in Eastern thought is a natural partner to Townshend’s poem. He told me that the poet may have visited the East, but nothing is definitely known about his life. Townshend seems to have disappeared, at least in terms of Google searches. Lay wrote a letter to Townshend’s publisher and waited two years for a response. The response was, “We don’t know who has the rights.”
Later, Lay hired a private investigator. (It took him a while to locate one he could afford.) The investigator found one of the poet’s descendants in England, professor of sociology Jules Townshend, who agreed to the terms immediately. Lay said Townshend seemed excited that someone was still interested in his uncle’s work.
Lay himself is a family man with a close relationship with his wife and three children. Much of his work has been inspired by the life he lives. An earlier composition, On the Playground, is evidence of that; it was written after watching his kids play with other kids, but the sadness of his own childhood also figures into his work.
On the Playground, a violin concerto for strings, was performed by the Riverside Symphony in November 2004 at Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center. In the New York Times, a reviewer wrote, “What makes the music sound up-to-date and not like some pastiche comes from Mr. Lay’s penchant for fracturing phrases. Just when a spiraling melody dancing atop a jaunty rhythmic pattern takes off, it discombobulates into jagged bits and pieces.” Another composition, Earth Caoine, was written for and performed in 1996 by virtuoso clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The piece for clarinet and orchestra can be found on Stoltzman’s Reflections album, on which he collaborated with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Vision of the Earth,” the poem, expresses a golden hope that Lay says he’s always felt inside, even as a young boy who knew he wanted to be a composer from the time he was 15 years old. After some thought, Lay carefully chooses three words to describe the essence of his composition Vision of the Earth.
“Exuberance, contentment and wonder,” he says. “The exuberance is loud and joyful; the contentment is noble, a slow-march noble; and there’s the wonder of the mysterious.”