An Essay by Mark Christopher Brandt
The titles of these pieces, and the title of this work come from thoughts and reflections I live with daily as a Catholic Christian. To be clear, I did not think about what "Wisdom" sounds like as I was improvising. I simply labeled each improvisation with the name of a gift of the Holy Spirit in the same way I labeled the pieces in Seven Moons with the name of a moon orbiting Saturn. The idea of what Saturn meant to me was the catalyst for the artistic expression. I chose the seven most recognized moons for my titles, and the eighth piece was named for the project.
I liked how the project went, so I decided I could continue this concept forward at least one more time. For this outing, I chose items relating more to my life in the present moment rather than items from the past, as in the case of Seven Moons. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are listed below along with a brief essay, if you will, on what I have learned and put together, both spiritually and artistically, since my first completely improvised work of musical art.
The gift of wisdom helps me to avoid the things that could lead me away from God.
The gift of understanding helps me sense when someone is hurting or in need of compassion.
The gift of counsel helps me make choices to live as a faithful follower of Jesus.
The gift of courage helps me overcome any obstacles that would keep me from practicing my faith.
The gift of knowledge enables me to choose the right path that will lead me to God, and it encourages me to avoid the obstacles that will keep me from Him.
The gift of piety inspires me to joyfully want to serve God and others.
The gift of wonder and awe of the Lord, often referred to as Fear of the Lord, moves me to love God so much that I do not want to offend Him by my words or actions.
Come Creator Spirit
At Baptism, Catholics receive the seven special gifts listed above from the Holy Spirit. I grant you, not all of us cooperate with them, and many of us actually choose to ignore them. Be that as it may, they are freely given to us to help us live as followers of Jesus and to build up the Body of Christ, the Church. That is what I am doing as an artist with my short life and my musical gifts.
I really liked the idea of Seven Moons. The idea for that work of art was actually based on my own unique encounter with the planet Saturn. Unlike my encounter with Saturn, however, which was actually a round styrofoam ball with rings made of construction paper, my encounter with the person of Jesus Christ was a real and life transforming experience, which has been growing exponentially within me for over twenty-five years.
I don’t think I could have moved forward as an improvising artist without recording and producing Seven Moons. Almost immediately upon its completion, I began to enjoy a greater freedom of soul as both a person and an artist, as well as a deeper level of detachment from the need to receive any kind of praise for the work I am producing. I did not feel like rushing out and bragging about the fact that I can "create from nothing” like my preeminent childhood musical heroes Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Armando “Chick” Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett. On the contrary, I was confirmed in the reality that humans do not create from nothing. We are co-creators with God. We like to take the credit for what we do as a result of His gifts, and we get our feelings hurt when we are not recognized or praised for our talents, but that does not mean that the credit we think we are due is actually based in reality.
The other thing I immediately recognized was that while I lack nothing in courage, in comparison to any of my heroes, I am completely lacking in depth and skill when placed next to any one of them. I can honestly say that one year later, as I approach the recording of Seven Gifts, I am certain that I have improved as a human being, by the grace of God, far more than I have improved as a pianist.
While the option to practice and prepare for a totally spontaneous recording seems to be an oxymoron, there is an overall practice life which does increase one’s abilities and depth. I have not devoted my life singularly to music as my heroes have done. I have devoted my life to the practice of my faith and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I have committed to becoming an excellent father and husband over and above all other goals and dreams. My music is a gift which drives me closer to loving God and loving my neighbor. It is the means by which I can objectively learn about the life of heroic virtue as seen in the saints. It is not “the end all and be all" for me.
It would be erroneous and even dishonest to equate myself in skill to the musical heroes that I mentioned above. At the same time, it is fair and truthful to suggest that my music is equally valid, and both artistically and aesthetically as beautiful as any music created by them or any other artist, simply because it is the result of my docility to God when I sit at the piano, either practicing, performing live, or recording. In other words, we cannot know the motivation driving an artist to share his or her work with the world. That motivation is between the creature and the Creator. My motivation is open to the public because I am sharing it willingly in this moment. I do everything for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
Having stated that, I do not take this artwork lightly. I have spent many hours each day listening to and studying music since I began my career many years ago. Sitting at the piano and making music on the spot is no game. It is not a small gift. Only the most courageous of artists would attempt it, and only a few are given the gift to do so. I do not take this gift lightly. That is why I want to make certain I am telling everyone I know from where and from Whom this gift and ability comes.
I am saddened by artists who practice 10 hours a day, obsessively trying to attain perfection of music written by someone hundreds of years before they were born. I make no judgement about these artists, but I cannot help but wonder what kind of connection they actually have to humanity when 90 percent of their day is spent behind a piano. We praise them for their perfection and their skill, but what are they contributing to society that was not already contributed by the original composers? What is the difference in their performance and that of any other skilled pianist who can play the demanding repertoire of the classics? What becomes of the pianists who dedicate their lives to classical perfection and then go home from the competitions empty handed? Do they become teachers? What do they teach? How to become great? How to become passed over? If all we, as musicians, learn in our life is music, then all we have is the opinion of those who listen to music and worse those who critique music to determine our worth. That is truly a depressing thought.
Since October 7, 2014, the date I recorded Seven Moons, I have continued to perform jazz standards weekly for weddings and private functions with my bassist friend Shaun Jurek, and I have done some truly rewarding artistic shows featuring my originals with the band No Explanations. In my personal practice, I have been studying Chopin etudes, the C# minor and minute waltzes, the A major Polonaise, and selected other snippets. From Bach, I have worked on a French suite, some inventions, chorales, a Goldberg variation, and on occasion, I will visit the Well Tempered Clavier. Daily, with all of that, I visit a Beethoven piano sonata, three particular favorite Mozart piano sonatas, three Clemente sonatinas, some Czerny and Pischna, and I even revisited the ear training and theory books from my college days of long ago. I plan to keep up this practice during the coming year and add to the repertoire as well. Believe it or not, I did not practice anything specific for this recording. I do not believe one can practice improvising.
All of the things I mentioned above count as practice in an effort to broaden my education and my understanding as a pianist, before undertaking a solo piano recording. To spice the pot a little bit more, I actually dropped down to a shadow of my regular daily practice routine one month before the scheduled recording date so that I would rely more on my interior ear and less on my chops in order to avoid any mindless or unintentional playing. In other words, I did not want to slip into muscle memory auto-pilot. That is not improvisation. Anyone can do that. Everyone does that from the great to the mediocre at some point. For this recording in particular, however, I wanted to listen and play only within the realm of what I actually heard within me at any given moment and not what I could feel in my hands or what I could physically accomplish.
The whole point of doing an original music recording, especially one that is completely improvised on the spot, is to avoid at all cost any conscious regurgitation of ideas by the musician in question. The music does not exist in time until it is heard here for the first time within the musician. Then it can be transcribed, written down, and even memorized by both the listeners and the musician who performed the music, namely, me. This offering requires intense listening to what is coming from within. It is just plain arrogant to assume that I am the origin of music. I am the sum total of my experiences, but the origin of new melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and their organization at the millisecond, originates in God, and these elements are orchestrated, organized, and offered by the Holy Spirit. From there, they proceed to the head and to the hands and then the listener. Hence the need for practice.
While I can claim that I am cooperating with the process of creativity within me, I cannot legitimately claim that I actually make the music up on the spot. That, in my case, would be a lie. In the case of artists who do not know that God is the author of all that is good and beautiful (and especially those who choose to ignore this truth), the claim is born out of ignorance or arrogance, as the case may be, and it accounts for why most artists are temperamental, eccentric, easily agitated and, at the very least, moody. Imagine the struggle of going through your day knowing that you are not being praised “properly” for your efforts, while instinctively knowing that your efforts originate in God. That would make anyone uncomfortable. That is the explanation as to why artists, and humans in general, are not happy. Until we surrender to the Creator, we are roaming the planet seeking validation for even the least important things we do.
The process of practice, understanding, and then application of musical skills is the same in Christianity, whereby we actually exude the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our personality. To the degree that we discipline ourselves in our lifestyle, and then discipline ourselves in listening to that still small voice within us, is the degree in which we can effectively bring God’s love into the world. The ultimate question is this. Can we let go of our need for control and what we want God’s love to be long enough to actually hear what it is, and then stay out of the way as His love flows through us to the outside world? I ask myself that question every hour of every day.
I will never record the jazz standards or the classical pieces, nor would I ever boast in performing them live. I teach standards and classics to my students and I share them with my friends in the same way that I study and share the Old Testament of the Bible as a means of understanding how it is fulfilled in the New Testament. Jesus offers us the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. Classical music is to the Old Testament as jazz music is to the New Testament. The balance of both is found in the Holy Spirit. You cannot have one without the other. We are not to become old. We are not to become new and ignore the old. We are to become good stewards who know how to bring forth both the new and the old. In short, I am not a pianist of finite skills. I am a musician of incalculable ability. I submit that you, in whatever walk of life you find yourself, are gifted the same way.
When Beethoven put together a showcase of his abilities and featured his latest works, he did not perform the works of Mozart. He used them for personal study and practice. He used them with his students. Bach often composed music on the spot in lessons for his students. That’s how we got the Two Part Inventions. Is it wrong to perform these pieces from the greats who preceded us? Absolutely not. Is it a tragedy that these pieces have become the measure with which an artist is judged? Yes. Depth of soul is unique to each individual. It comes from a variety of experiences, not all of them musical. The bar is high and artists must not be content with mediocrity or complacency, but neither must they become entrenched in a self-worth based upon their ability to out-gun the guy next to them with technique, knowledge, or repertoire.
I dare not discuss here the idea of a jazz competition. The great jazz musicians were considered great because of their individuality and their unique qualities and quirks. The winners of the most prestigious competitions are often selected for the way they “uphold the tradition” of jazz with careful emulation and even blatant imitation of their predecessors. I fear that one day, in the same way that the classical tradition has been weakened and distilled by careful regurgitation of notes and dynamics controlled by educators who did not make the final cut in their competitions, either personal or professional, we will one day see a masterpiece like the Miles Davis Kind of Blue album (released August 17, 1959) be recorded and produced, note for note, exactly as it was played by the original improvising artists and sold as a legitimate work of art by a completely different set of artists in the modern age. Or has that been done already in a strange agreement with all that I have stated above? (Blue, released October 14, 2014 by Mostly Other People Do the Killing Quartet)
Long before any musical experts were seeing the value in the music of Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin was teaching it to his students and finding joy in the compositions of this musician who did not compose his first sonata until he was 53 years old. The point is, Scarlatti did not win a music competition. He composed the music he heard within himself and then placed it out there for better or worse. He was long dead before he was discovered. The deeper point is just that. Each of us is going to die. Why don’t we look for the beauty in everyone and work to discover that beauty within ourselves. The answer to that question is simple: because the beauty within us is not music. The beauty within us is God. The beauty within everyone around us is God. This scares us no matter what religion we are, and no matter what we do for a living.
The questions and the answers that every artist, indeed every person, must put to themselves are no less important for me to ask myself when I look into the mirror each day to trim my beard. Will I be as famous as the musicians I love? Probably not. Should I be? Not in my honest, humble opinion. Is my music valid next to theirs? Without doubt. Does my life have meaning? Thanks be to God who created me, yes. Am I content with how I have lived my life and the footprints I will leave behind? I am.
You don’t find peace being great at what you do. You find peace knowing that, despite your failings and imperfections, the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ awaits you when it’s your turn to die.
That makes the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit well worth the asking.
Mark Christopher Brandt
August 22, 2015