Morgan Powell on the Creative Process: The Reality of Maborosi

[Ed. Note: Morgan Powell's Maborosi receives its world premiere performance in UT Austin's Jessen Auditorium on October 11, 2009. Over the summer, Columbus OH-based writer Ann Starr attended a private reading of two movements from the composition. She shares some thoughts on how this music, though highly abstract, is charged with meaning. — FJO]

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Ray Sasaki & Morgan Powell working on Maborosi

This summer I was fortunate to be at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, to hear the first and third movements of Maborosi, a new work by Morgan Powell. Virtuoso trumpeter Ray Sasaki and the formidable Chicago percussionist, Steve Butters performed the duet. In exploiting every possible tremor and nuance of the flugelhorn and vibraphone, this music reverberates in the flesh as presence and in the mind as unattainable distance.

Powell wrote maborosi on a commission from Ray Sasaki and the University of Texas. Sasaki, the Frank C. Erwin Professor of Music at Texas, is one of Powell’s closest friends, and longtime muse. He and Butters will premiere the work in Austin this October, when the whole work (with the second movement, “Chimera,” for three dispersed groupings of trumpets) will be performed.

Throughout his fifty-year career, Powell has been disinclined to talk about his music for the reason that it prevents people from asking their own questions and digging to find the answers. (He addresses his reasons in a 2009 interview with the present author.) I maintain that his work though, has a basis at least as strong in idea and experience as in music itself—another reason to be reticent perhaps. At any rate, I believe that his notes on maborosi give important information concerning his entire oeuvre. In succinct notes on the score, he suggests probably the most important thing anyone could know about him as an artist when he likens his creative process to encountering a maborosi.

For the Japanese, maborosi means a faraway, phantasmal light that can draw mortals away from life, to the abyss. Powell writes that, “the creative act—in this case, composition—is the pursuit of the unknown starting from the jumping off point of the known. The concept of and reality of maborosi is something known to those living a questioning life.”

Powell is not telling us that he works from inspiration, desire, a sense of mission, or even pride of theory. This statement is not describing some blazing inner necessity. He is not even motivated by the need to make music. Composition is a high-risk undertaking with real consequences for the composer’s life and mind. He is drawn to it by the (potentially lethal) need to question; by questions that produce thoughts with unforeseeable outcomes.

Not enough can be made of this point, for it underscores how hard won is the beauty admirers know to be so characteristic of Powell’s work. He puts his mental well-being at risk when he composes: What labor is as daunting as whole-hearted moral, philosophical, or personal inquiry? Yet despite the threats of uncertainties or the lure of alternate realities to which questioning makes him susceptible, Powell finally returns from process to common reality with music that registers his solitary struggles in formal strength and heart-stopping beauty.

Composers of Powell’s stature can solve any musical problems they face or that they create for themselves as they write. But life’s perennial cruxes—living with ambiguity, duality, or uncertainty—are not to be cracked by information or technique. Powell’s music is marked by images of wondering vulnerability that he undoubtedly encounters himself. But he places these emotional images inside compositions constructed to provide a framework that could not possibly have existed to aid him when he “jumped into the unknown.” The man agreed to voyage out, took on immense labor, and survived it. Any struggles in an unknown landscape, any wishes to renounce the life he has stepped away from are implicit. Not the decision to leave composition’s questions for “life as we know it,” but the decision not to follow the maborosi structures the composition. Music, then, is Powell’s medium of thought, as the personal essay was Montaigne’s and poetry Shakespeare’s.

In the scope of inquiries suggested in titles (Alone, Gaman, Destiny and Desire, Myth, even The Waterclown), Powell situates himself in the artistic and philosophical tradition of humanism. His sensibility is related to the inquiries of the Age of Exploration, when, armed above all with their senses and questions, travelers set out to discover and order the fundamental nature of the Earth, its inhabitants, and its creatures; when anatomists explored and struggled to interpret the astonishing mechanisms of life inside the body. Powell’s oeuvre is “Shakespearean” not in any pretense to greatness (he would probably be surprised by the suggestion of any such link, historical or evaluative), but in the unselfconscious clarity of observation brought to the enduring questions of human nature and of individual meaning.

What’s more, the dualities and contradictions central in his work attain a powerful place in music that they cannot achieve in words and literature. “What a piece of work is man,” and “What a rogue and peasant slave am I,” need never be separate thoughts in music. On score paper, composers achieve a simultaneity that we literary sorts never can. In Powell’s writing, one feels the struggles—one’s dismaying awareness of greatness and nothingness, the battle between death’s seduction and the compulsion to embrace life’s risks—as they are experienced in situations and in our flesh.

We live moral lives not as imitators of blind Justice who weighs one side of the struggle against the other. We live them, as embodied beings must, while multiple streams flow through us to no assigned beats; we hear competing voices mingle in our heads and resonate to dissonant frequencies in our bones.

Morgan Powell’s music mitigates our anxiety and ennui, doubt and fury; he has lived all this as a very condition of composing. The maborosi are real for all of us, even as most work hard to deny their presence.

For me, Powell’s maborosi creates a charged calm. In the vibrating hush when Sasaki and Butters perform this transfixing work—flugelhorn floating above bowed metal of vibraphone—I hear Sirens sing. Yet I know that I can endure every tragic and alluring thing in this so distractingly beautiful music. I am protected by the architecture built of the composer’s own risk and effort; by what hopeful image of the human condition he brought back when he finally knew that he would turn away this time too from the seductive choice posed by the maborosi.

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Ann Starr

Ann Starr is a writer and visual artist who relocated from the Boston area to Ohio in 2002. She is currently writing essays, a memoir, and an article about the Tone Road Ramblers sextet. Starr’s writing credits include the liner notes for the Ramblers’ 2008 CD, Dancing with the Ramblers (Einstein 018), and a 2005 profile of MacArthur winning visual artist Aminah Robinson for Columbus Monthly, which won the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists’ award for Best Arts Profile.