Alan Elkins: Looking For The Flower In Chaos

What Is Good Music? Is There An Objective Definition?

Friday, March 21, 2014 - by Phil Wade

Composer Alan Elkins, who teaches music theory and other classes at Lee University, said, “I feel the definition of music for many people today is fairly limited, defined by individual tastes, especially since much of music is packaged in an easily digestible form.”  

He said music is organized sound intended for an audience. What someone considers good music can be subjective to his tastes, so if his listening habits only encourage him to settle down with a margarita, he won’t hear anything that stretches him or gives him a new, healthy perspective.

“For me,” Mr. Elkins said, “music should be allowed to capture both pleasant and unpleasant elements of life. Lot of people stay away from music that’s crunchy or not pleasant, but if you think about a field of flowers and you pick out one to look at—big deal. If you have a war-torn landscape and you find a single flower popping out, that flower is all the more beautiful because of the ugliness surrounding it.” 

That beauty and contrast was on display at Mr. Elkins’ most recent faculty composition recital in Lee University’s Squires Recital Hall. Several of his works were performed along with two compositions by his colleague, Dr. John Wykoff. 

In some of the music, like a beautiful work entitled “Strange Journey,” the audience could hear Mr. Elkins’ comfortable blend of 18th-19th Century styles, which he calls “Elkins’ House Style Tonality.” They could also hear it in the single movement performed from his work, “Ecclesiastical Songs.” 

The work, a song cycle, is 54 minutes of songs for baritone and piano, based on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. “This gets at the intersection of my faith and music,” he said. “Ecclesiastes is not what people would call a feel-good book of the Bible, but it resonates with my philosophy that music doesn’t always have to feel good or make someone comfortable with their circumstances. Some of this was composed in the midst of difficult situations. It has a lot of personal meaning.”  

“There are times in my music where I play ideas of consonance and dissonance off of each other and use vast contrasts in style to make the ugly more ugly and the beautiful more beautiful.”

The whole cycle is longer than Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, but not as long as Beethoven’s 9th symphony. “Performing a work of that magnitude can be impractical,” he said, “but there’s an alumnus of Lee University who has expressed interest in performing it either here or where he is completing his degree (or possibly both places).” 

The short works heard at the February recital were not all as sober as this. “The program showed his versatility and skill as a composer,” Dr. Wykoff said. “He showed himself comfortable writing in his own unique musical language and also in parody of others.”

The parody came in Mr. Elkins’ last work performed that night, “Madrigali Virali.” It has three songs written in quasi-Renaissance style using the words from a commercial, “Flea Market Montgomery,” and two songs, “What the Fox Say” and “Friday.”  

In the first song, called “At the Market,” the composer said, “I thought it would be funny when the words say, ‘Let’s make it a dance,’ to draw on a medieval dance style called ‘estampie.’ I had a couple students, who weren’t credited on the program, start the percussion backstage before coming out. No one would be expecting it.”

The audience laughed at each of these songs. Many said their favorite for the night was the second madrigal song, “What (Doth) the Fox Say.” 

There was also a piece for clarinet quartet, which is influenced by the original Nintendo (NES). Called “Blue Bomber’s Groove,” it pulls themes from the 1987 MegaMan video game. Video games is one of Mr. Elkins’ hobbies, and it has led him to prepare a unique class for Lee’s music students, which recently opened for enrollment. “Special Topics in Music History: Video Game Music” is a summer session class that will offer a historical survey on the technology used to make music in video games and how that has developed over the years. 

He said resources for a class like this are limited. “Part of the issue seems to be that people who are writing about video game music either know a lot about music or a lot about video games,” but rarely both. Even capable music scholars have written on the subject and included many factual errors.  

“My students have been excited about this for a while,” he said.

Mr. Elkins’ House Style is not the kind of music one usually hears on classical public radio, in part because no one asks for it. “There are certain pieces by certain composers that get a lot of circulation,” he said. “Like Bedrich Smetana. One of his famous pieces is ‘The Moldau.’ That particular movement is part of a six movement work, and most of the time, you just hear that one movement. Or Max Bruch’s three violin concerti—you tend to hear the first one, never the second or third. There are tons of instances like that.”

Those looking for good new music will want to watch the calendar for another Lee faculty composition recital.  


Phil Wade is a freelance writer and editor. Find him on Twitter: @Brandywinebooks or LinkedIn. He blogs regularly at Brandywinebooks.net.


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