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

Tickets For Disney On Ice On Sale Sept. 5

Disney On Ice presents Treasure Trove is "a magical medley of Disney tales in one jam-packed ice show that commemorates the legacy of Disney animated films." This skating performance visits Chattanooga from Thursday, Nov. 6, to Sunday, Nov. 9, for six performances at UTC McKenzie Arena.  Tickets go on sale Friday, Sept. 5. Review for Disney On Ice: Get tangled up in Disney’s ... (click for more)

Screening Of Rocketship X-M Is Sept. 18

There will be two screening of Rocketship X-M on Thursday, Sept. 18, at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Heritage House Arts and Civic Center, 1428 Jenkins Road.  Rocketship X-M (1950) is directed by Kurt Neumann and stars Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery, Jr., Hugh O'Brian and Morris Ankrum. An astronaut crew of four men and one woman on their way to the moon, are unexpectedly ... (click for more)

Bradley, 24, Charged In Death Of Boy, 3; Child Had Numerous Injuries After Left With Boyfriend; Mother Was In Workhouse

Justin Dale Bradley has been charged with criminal homicide in the death of a three-year-old child, who was rushed to the hospital on Wednesday and later died. Police said Dakota James Arndt had numerous injuries over his body. Authorities said Bradley, 24, is the boyfriend of the child's mother, Brianna Kwekel, who was in the Workhouse at the time. Ms. Kwekel was serving 48 ... (click for more)

Helen Burns Sharp Asks Recovery Of Legal Fees In Successful Black Creek TIF Lawsuit

Helen Burns Sharp, citizen activist who sued to try to stop a $9 million Black Creek Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and won, is seeking to have her legal expenses paid by the city and the developers. Ms. Sharp said in a court filing that her legal bills to attorney John Konvalinka are $74,427 thus far. Chancellor Frank Brown ruled in favor of Ms. Sharp, saying the Sunshine ... (click for more)

Decimating The Chattanooga Public Library

Corinne Hill claims that the library is just undergoing a normal weeding process for eliminating books.  She has bragged that she's responsible for the elimination of over 100,000 books - with more to go. "Normal" weeding is not rampant throwing away.  Yes, books go to the Friends for their sale - where they get $2 for a $75 book and thousands wind up being recycled ... (click for more)

The Many Lessons I Learned From Helen McDonald Exum

Helen McDonald Exum was my friend and mentor. As I think of her passing I can only imagine the celebration that is happening in heaven as the news of her arrival is being told. I am sure that there is a party that not only has she organized but that there is not a detail that has been left to chance. I am sure that it is the grandest of events, for you see, she has been planing ... (click for more)