There are many reasons why we listen to music. Whenever I listen to music, I always have a distinct purpose for listening to it. Sometimes it will be to study a certain composer or performer, sometimes to prepare for an upcoming performance, very often I listen for work, and almost always I listen for the purpose of self-improvement. Recently I took on work at the University of Michigan accompanying their ballet classes, and so I am currently listening to a lot of ballet music.
Most seasons and holidays have specified music as well. Of course Christmas has its own genre of music. But Spring and Summer also have their own music. Valentine’s day has its soundtrack. The Fourth of July, Halloween, Easter, and nearly any other season or holiday you can think will have loads of music specifically written for it. The exception to this rule I think is Lent. There are of course Hymns written with lenten themes, but there are very few pieces written by the pantheon of composers for the season. So instead of writing about a lenten piece of music, I’m going to write about a piece of music that I think fits the ethos of lent.
In my opinion, minimalist music is some of the most beautiful. It is music that allows you to sink into your own thoughts, in a sometimes calming, sometimes exciting, but always provocative way. John Luther Adams and Steve Reich are my favorites in this genre. I think Adams’ music fits lent particularly well. In a Treeless Place, Only Snow is a piece he wrote in 1999. It is a sonic representation of the arctic tundra. As you listen to it, you will notice there are no melodies that will stick in your head, in fact it will often be unclear if there even is any melody. The piece slowly morphs through different rhythmic patterns and chordal arpeggiations. It is tonal, but doesn’t really have a tonality. It exists in a very neutral place for it’s entire duration.
Despite this lack of ‘action’, and for a piece where nothing really happens, I find it very powerful. During this lenten time where we commemorate Jesus’s time in the desert, I hope this piece of music, that sonically creates the arctic desert, can be a meditative piece for you. I’ll leave you with these words the composer wrote about the piece- “I no longer want to be outside the music, listening to it as an object apart., I want to inhabit the music, to be fully present and listening in that immeasurable space which Malevich called ‘a desert of pure feeling’.”