This Saturday, I’ll join my fellow Kalamazoo “Philharmonians” on stage at Dalton Theater to play a concert of unknowns. Our conductor, Andrew Koehler, has in fact titled the concert, “Toward the Unkown Region.” I am sure he will elaborate more on that title in the program notes, but for me, this music was all unknown until I began learning it in January. In other words, I’d never heard of or listened to any of it. We’ll be playing a symphony by Charles Atterberg and the Turandot Suite by Busoni, not to be confused with the opera, Turandot. Wondering what this music is all about? Well, you’ll just have to come to the concert and see. (Laughs wickedly into her sleeve.)
Also on the program is a brand new piece, written especially for Kalamazoo Philharmonia—Yonder, by Carl Witt. Yonder is written for solo piano, cello and string orchestra, named after some lines of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mr. Witt graciously gave me some of his time last week so I could ask him a few questions about his work as a composer.
During our conversation, I discovered that his family background is unusual and quite intriguing. Carl’s dad worked at NASA in California before he and his wife moved to southern Michigan to join a community founded on the principles of Carl Jung. Once there, he started building harpsichords in an old goat barn. Carl grew up watching his dad perfect his craft and was completely captivated by the sound of the instrument. Naturally, he learned to play the harpsichord first and then took piano lessons. His musical training hit a speed bump when he attended an Episcopal boarding school in Tennessee. Music was not encouraged, but sports were, much to Carl’s chagrin. After leaving that school, he got back on track with his musical training. He now holds a bachelors from Western Michigan University, a masters from Southern Methodist University in Texas, and a doctorate from the Eastman School in Rochester, NY, all in composition.
Composition was a huge interest from the beginning. Because of the prevalence of harpsichords in Baroque music, Carl grew to admire J. S. Bach the most. As a little boy, he kept a composition book where he wrote terrible little pieces and signed his name at the bottom, J. S. Witt. “Composing has never been easy for me,” he told me. He describes it as hard, thankless work. But he has come to the point where what he writes is solid. When he composes a new piece of music, he is confident that what he produces is good, though he believes he may never be completely satisfied with his work. Familiar sentiments for those of an artistic persuasion.
When I began learning Yonder, one of the first things I noticed (besides the panic-inducing, rapidly changing meter on the second page of my part) was the passage by Hopkins printed at the top of my page. Poetry is a love of mine, and I resolved to bring up the subject of poetry with Mr. Witt when I talked to him. Some of his favorite poets include Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Theodore Rutke, and Mary Oliver.
“Did you,” I asked, “have the Hopkins passage in mind when you wrote Yonder?”
It turns out that he did not, specifically. He wrote the entire piece and didn’t quite know what to call it. So, he started reading Hopkins and came across these lines, “Yonder – What high as that! We follow, now we follow. Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, yonder.” It wasn’t until after he had sent the finished composition to Andrew and discovered the title of our concert that he realized just how apt his title was. We are all of us heading yonder, into the unknown region. Learning how to face that unknown with courage and grace is part of being human. In many ways, that is what Carl has learned to do through composing.
I asked Carl what he most hoped his music would accomplish in the world, and he responded this way, “It has to do with healing. I would like my music to heal the broken spirit of the world. Our culture is suffering so badly and the earth is suffering so badly. By wrestling with my own demons, by going through the process and bringing this material to light, I hope it is somehow contributing to that. It’s an internal thing. We all have to work with our fears and anger and whatever we’re given to deal with.”
I like that—whatever we’re given.
I hope you’ll join us at 8:00 PM at the Dalton Theater on the campus of Kalamazoo College to listen to this first performance of Yonder. For ticket information and other details see here. Carl will not only be there, but he’ll also be performing with us on the piano. I hope to see you there!