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The Music

John Newell

John Newell

Every summer I head up to Maine, to a wonderful (and until recently, forgotten) old fishing village called Lubec. Lubec is the eastern most point of the United States and lies across from Campobello Island, where one can find the former summer residence of the Roosevelt family. I still remember the day I arrived there for the first time:  It was late in the afternoon, the sun was reflecting off the water, the colors were so vivid, and everything looked so crystal clear. I was in awe of the light and the natural beauty of this part of the world.

Lubec is also home to SummerKeys, a summer festival offering workshops and lessons on all instruments to adult amateurs of all levels.   Matt and I have gone to Lubec to teach at SummerKeys for a number of years now (although at different points in the summer –– we've yet to be there at the same time).  This summer Ina will be joining the faculty as well.  The town of Lubec comes alive during the months of June, July and August with new and returning students arriving every week with their families. You can hear music everywhere, along with all kinds conversations about bowing, breathing, posture, phrasing, etc.

I met John Newell there about two years ago, when he joined the staff at SummerKeys. We hit it off immediately and I got to know him a little, as over the following weeks he collaborated with all of all of my students, accompanying them on the piano. Somewhere in that time I found out that he was a composer and that he particularly enjoyed writing for winds. In a few minutes of spare time (!), I managed to take a look at John’s website and listen to his work. I knew that I wanted to ask him to write a work for us.

John’s work draws from a variety of musical traditions, poetic and visual imagery, and is inspired both by the beauty and wonder of nature and what he learns from the world's sacred traditions. His work reflects his personal sensibility, arising from his spiritual journey and response to the world.

John prepared the first stages of …and nothing remains the same in time for us to meet and work with him in the summer of 2012, while we were on tour in Maine.  All four of us met in Lubec before SummerKeys got started and spent an afternoon working together.  Once again, we had an ideal situation where we could work with a composer, collaborating with his creative process.

John describes …and nothing remains the same as “an essay on change and the ephemeral nature of our world. Doubtless you’re aware that today "things are changing more and more rapidly." Change, on a more profound level, is a concept that poets and thinkers have wrestled with for centuries. Think: even the small details and rituals of life are never the same from day to day. And each brief moment, each passing day, is but a prelude to the next.”

We performed  …and nothing remains the same for the first time at the La Grua Center in Stonington, Connecticut. Future performances will take place in New Jersey, on Long Island, in Maine and in New York City at our concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 22, 2013. Please visit our Upcoming Concerts page for more information.

I am delighted to able to share some of John’s thoughts with you about his life and his work.



SG: How did you first become interested in music? What inspired you to begin composing?

JN: I grew up in a musical family, and like my three brothers, took piano lessons. Although classical music wasn't part of my family's world, I began hearing things that interested me… the local symphony, the New York Philharmonic television broadcasts with Leonard Bernstein, or holiday performances of The Nutcracker. Then I joined the Columbia Record Club and my love of Bach, Debussy, Brahms and Beethoven took off. Also, I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me and fed my curiosity.

It wasn't until my college years that I began composing. I was always interested in how music was put together, how it worked (I loved music theory), and I wanted to do more than just perform works that had already been created. I can't say that I walked around with melodies coming into my head, but more with ideas about how to construct a work. It wasn't until graduate school that I really had "composition" lessons. I studied at California Institute of the Arts (a brand new, cutting edge institution) with Mel Powell, pursuing with him a mostly post- Schoenberg/Webern approach. But at the same time I was exposed to electronic music, classical Indian music and the new music of the minimalists (Glass, Reich, Riley).

SG: You have lived in North Carolina, California, in Massachusetts and now Lubec, Maine. Has that had any effect on your compositional process? Does your geographical environment color or influence your musical language? Has it changed as you have moved to different/more remote locations?

JN: Music-making is to me quite "personal" and tied to my experience of life. All my works are on some level autobiographical. After graduate school, I settled in western Massachusetts, drawn primarily by its natural beauty. And I treasure living on the coast of Maine. Living away from major cities perhaps has helped to free up my imagination, to hear myself, and to follow an individual, and hopefully reflective, path. Don't get me wrong: I truly love New York!

Many of my works have been inspired by nature; for example Sky Music, an extensive work for flute, clarinet and harp. The five movements are depictions of various aspects of the sky. The first movement, River of Clouds, actually gets its title from the name of a wonderful Chinese spring tea that I loved. The second movement was inspired by the wind chimes outside our house. Then of course a starry night (the only “twelve-tone” movement). December Full Moon Rising was inspired by an unforgettable moonrise (it has a definite Oriental bent). Lastly, Song of the Mountains and the Sky; so many cultures have regarded the boundary of mountains and sky as a holy place.

For a couple of years my work took me to a number of Asian countries; more accurately, I obtained a new position that allowed me to travel (primarily Hong Kong, India, Taiwan and Philippines). That experience also contributed to my sense of journey.

SG: Many composers I know who have an educational background similar to yours, combine composing with a career teaching at the collegiate level. You received your doctorate in composition, yet did not choose to pursue such a path. How did that come to pass?

JN: Life has many surprises. I actually assumed that I would wind up in a college teaching career. I was part of a large generation of musicians, but the jobs available at the time I completed grad school were beginning to become more scarce. I did go through a period of teaching and pursuing academic positions. As I mentioned, I was drawn to building a life in New England, and that became more important than pursuing an academic career. Fortunately I found a way to make a living and pursue my own path. Perhaps I've been creatively more free as a result. Recently I've returned to teaching piano and music theory privately, and having a great time at it. I can do as much or little as I want.

SG: Can you elaborate in any way on your spiritual journey? How has it influenced or changed your writing over time? Has it changed what you want to hear?

JN: I grew up in a Southern Baptist environment and like many left that tradition behind in high school. Later I became quite absorbed in Buddhism. Now I am perhaps what you might call a progressive pantheist Buddhist Episcopalian who doesn't wear it on his sleeve. For me a spiritual tradition can be a useful vessel for one's understanding of (and coming to terms with) life. It can take you out of yourself. One obvious influence has been in the texts that I have used in my vocal and choral works, for example, a number of Psalms, mantra texts from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the nature poetry of Kenneth Rexroth, and my own poems.

Generally speaking, my work has perhaps become more reflective, less dense, more open to a variety of cultural traditions, and I think more spontaneous. About twenty years ago I began jotting down mantras and chants that came to me; these got put aside for a number of years. A couple made their way into several of my choral and chamber works. Recently I collected fifty of them, and published and recorded them.

My string quartet (A Day’s Journey) obtains its structure from the idea of a creative and spiritual journey. The title of the movements actually make up a brief poem:

Thoughts at dawn
Through heat and grit
Become a canticle
Seeking in faith the light.

SG: What inspired ....and nothing remains the same?

JN: The truth of continual change and the evanescence of life. I wanted to capture that idea. In this short work nothing really repeats; everything evolves into something else, and then dissolves.

SG: To me the opening stillness in ...and nothing remain as the same is breathtaking. Can you expand a bit on what you were hearing in your head when you came up with that opening, and how you went about creating what you heard?

JN: Quite honestly I was sitting quietly at the piano and simply played the single note that began the piece. The idea is that the work grows from silence, apparent nothingness, from which emerges an ephemeral "white" sound (unison harmonics in the strings and non-vibrato flute). The instruments diverge, resulting in a series of static chords; individual lines become apparent, and the work evolves from there.

SG: Finally –– and I ask this of all of our featured composers –– what are your thoughts on new music in general?

JN: There are so many currents today, so many people creating music. The world has become much larger (and with communication technologies, smaller) than when I was starting out. We live in a world of multiplicity of traditions and styles; change appears to be accelerating. As a result one of the major trends is the mixing and blending of "classical," popular and folk traditions: fusion. And it isn't just the "latest thing," but cultural shift that has been developing for at least twenty years or so. Not to mention the influence of digital technology being integrated with or supplanting traditional instrumental and vocal performance.

What do we as composers need to do? We can't help but be eclectic these days -- that is the nature of the world. I myself have been influenced by so many traditions. Yes, we must listen and learn from others, and when appropriate use the new tools at hand, but remain true to ourselves. In the end, as my teacher Morton Feldman once said: "You must choose your poison." I respect all who are genuinely working to develop their own voice, and I strive to do that. Beyond that, who can predict?


John was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. His earliest musical training was in piano. He attended Duke University, pursuing studies in composition, piano and conducting. John received an M.F.A. in composition and performance from California Institute of the Arts. He completed his formal training at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he studied with Morton Feldman. While in Buffalo he held the first Edgard Varese Fellowship in composition, earning his Ph.D. in composition.

John has received commissions from a variety of professional and amateur organizations. He is equally at home composing for vocal ensembles, chamber groups and orchestra. His works have received support from the American Music Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Meet the Composer. As an experienced performer he very much enjoys the process of working with musicians who have an interest in presenting new works, and welcomes inquiries about opportunities for collaboration. He now lives with his wife Linda in Lubec, Maine; they are very thankful to be living in such a beautiful part of this world. More information about his work is available on his web site: johnnewellmusic.com.