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The following is a reflection by composer Dale Trumbore on the process of writing How to Go On, her eight-movement, 35-minute secular requiem commissioned by Choral Arts Initiative and premiering July 16 & 17, 2016.
Almost a year ago, I found myself sitting on a wooden bench in a hundred-year-old log cabin schoolhouse, twenty feet away from a Steinway concert grand, reading a book by mortician Caitlin Doughty called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory. I was at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, an artist residency in Saratoga, Wyoming, confronting something I'd been struggling with for the last year: coming to terms with my own mortality.
I'm agnostic. I think—but can't know for certain—that there might not be life after death. I hope I'm wrong, because this thought terrifies me. I can't imagine my death or that of everyone I love without feeling utterly hopeless and paralyzed by fear.
So I went into the two-week residency at Brush Creek prepared to write secular requiem How to Go On for Choral Arts Initiative and finally make peace with the notion of my own mortality. Is such a thing is possible in two weeks? I'm not sure it's possible in a lifetime, but I was prepared. I had books: Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön's The Places That Scare You and Living Beautifully; poetry by authors Barbara Crooker, Amy Fleury, and Laura Foley to set to music; Caitlin Doughty's Lessons from the Crematory. I braced myself for a lot of composing, a lot of reading, and one long, dark night of the soul.
I arrived at the residency and found—well, the other residents, with whom I formed a quick bond that felt a little like being a teenager at summer camp.
It was a strange juxtaposition, to say the least. Each day, I worked for hours on How to Go On, on learning to give up, as Laura Foley writes, “all you love. All of it.” On embracing the decomposition of the body as a return to nature, as Amy Fleury describes beautifully in her poem “When At Last I Join.”
I composed during the day, and at night, we residents had dinner together and often stayed up late drinking wine around a campfire. I met photographer Jennifer Garza-Cuen, whose image taken during our residency will become the cover of the recording of How to Go On. One of the writers taught us to play poker, and we stayed up that night until 3 a.m. Another night, we went out for karaoke at a local bar. We went hiking and got lost, but we made our way back to the trail.
Somehow, the whole experience made its way into the music itself; not the poker-playing or karaoke, of course, but the sense of lightness, of ease. If the initial description of How to Go On sounds like a bit of a downer—who wants to go hear a chorus sing about death for 35 minutes?—it shouldn't be. The piece isn't quite that. If How to Go On is about confronting loss and mortality after a loved one's death—and it is—it is also exactly what the title promises. It's about accepting everything we do or don't know about death and going on to create a meaningful, beautiful life for ourselves.
If I was looking for an answer last summer, or to make peace with mortality through the process of writing this piece, I found—well, if not exactly that, then something close. I found it in hiking, in getting lost, in feeling utterly alive. I found it in the words I was reading every evening and setting to music every day. I tried to put all of it into the music itself.
At the very end of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty talks about standing in a cemetery at night, how that experience is so unlike the way cemeteries are represented in pop culture, with ghosts, zombies, etc.
In real life, we are left with what she calls the “stillness and perfection of death.” “Maybe,” she writes, “we create the gimmicks precisely for that reason, because the stillness itself is too difficult to contemplate.”
There aren't any easy answers here; there can't possibly be. But there's something to be said for confronting our own mortality and that of everyone we love, sitting still with that knowledge, recognizing it, accepting whatever fear and grief we may feel. The premiere of How to Go On will be, I hope, a chance to dwell not in darkness, but within the stillness Laura Foley describes in her poem “Sometimes Peace Comes.” “In the endless, deep silence,” she writes, “you find out what it is, / what it is, / and your part in it.”
Pre-order forthcoming album How to Go On: The Choral Works of Dale Trumbore, to be released in January 2017, and order tickets for the July 16 & 17 concerts of How to Go On here.
Lorraine Joy Welling