The music of Michael Kurek is rooted in the past, and his own guiding philosophy is rooted in a love for the transcendent, triune splendor of the good, the true, and the beautiful, a love which is itself a fruit of his Christian faith…
As editor for the past sixteen years of the St. Austin Review, a journal of Catholic culture, I try to keep my finger on the pulse of all that’s good, true, and beautiful in contemporary art, music, and literature. For the most part, the pulse is strong and beats from a heart that seems healthier than it has been for decades. We seem to be at the dawn of a Christian cultural revival, awash with new novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, and composers, which would have been difficult to predict at the turn of this century. Even as the secular culture decays into a decomposing, deconstructing mess, or what might be called nihilism’s self-annihilation, new Christian culture seems to have been resurrected. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pioneering courage and conviction of Michael Kurek, whose latest album, The Sea Knows, all that is so vibrant and exciting in the Traditionalist avant-garde.
Before delving into the music on the new album, let’s learn a little about Mr. Kurek himself. One of the most respected classical composers alive today, his works have been performed by symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles on five continents (excluding only Antarctica and Africa). His numerous prizes for composition include the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy’s highest annual “lifetime achievement” award in music. He serves on several professional boards and committees, including the Classical Grammy Awards Nominations Committee in Los Angeles. His music has been performed on radio or TV throughout the world, in France, England, Germany, Japan, Korea, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Russia, Portugal, Australia, Brazil, Italy, Sweden and, of course, the United States.
What makes Mr. Kurek so exciting is the manner in which he is a traditionalist rebel in the midst of the barren and inspirationally bereft musical establishment, his music serving as an oasis of edifying beauty in the midst of the atonal desert. “Traditional classical music by people like Brahms (and, I hope, me) has a narrative quality, a musical storyline,” he writes, “like a river with a forward-moving current that pulls you along through time until you feel transported to some transcendent perception by the climax or by the end. Another metaphor is that a piece of narrative music makes a dramatic argument, in which its themes are like the characters in a play who discuss and undergo character development, so that by the end you see (hear) them in a different way.”
Mr. Kurek laments that “the craft of narrative composing has been lost,” something that he blames squarely on the nihilistic pretensions of the modern music academy. Trained in this academy, he began to feel that the “dissonant,” “atonal,” and “discordant” methods of composition which he’d been taught were fundamentally flawed. “As a young convert to Christianity, I was slow to discern the philosophical underpinnings of the techniques I was being taught. My present philosophy of pursuing truth, virtue, and beauty based upon the principles of both natural law and Christianity only gradually emerged as something I could articulate.”
As Mr. Kurek’s own musical imagination, and the music he was writing, began to be transformed, he encountered opposition from within the music academy’s ivory tower, even as his compositions began to gain popularity among concert goers. “I see now it was because I was writing not within the kind of post-modern accessibility that was now acceptable in academe but in a fundamentally traditional style.”
His work, and the popularity it enjoyed, has led to a movement in musical composition in opposition to the atonal fads that had dominated composition in the last decades of the twentieth century. “I might count myself among the pioneers of that movement,” he says, “were it not for the fact that I never set out to be a pioneer and never liked the idea of joining any composers’ movement, nor especially of contriving a style in order to be a part of one.” He came to realize that he should simply write the kind of music he would like to hear himself, were he sitting in the audience, and which he naturally heard in his own imagination when composing.
Now, having learned something about Michael Kurek’s neo-traditionalist philosophy and his rebellious return to narrative composition, we can take a look at the five pieces that have been assembled on the new album.
Track one, Serenade for Violoncello and Harp, written as a musical gift for his wife, romantically intertwines two themes in the manner of a fantasia, with the cello seemingly playing the role of the lover serenading his beloved. Track two, Moon Canticle, is described by Mr. Kurek as being inspired by the moon or perhaps even sung by the moon: “With its constantly evolving, descending melodic lines, I think of the work’s form as a continual shower of moonbeams falling upon an enchanted forest of shifting harmonic shadows.” The impressionistic theme of shadows is continued on track three, Savannah Shadows, a string trio inspired by Savannah, Georgia, and its “ironic mixture of homespun Southern charm with the mysterious, haunting atmosphere symbolized (for me) by the ubiquitous, hanging Spanish moss.” Mr. Kurek considers the long, exotic, drooping phrases of the violin and the viola as “a kind of musical Spanish moss,” with the cello introducing “a tender, homespun theme.” Haunted by the shades as well as the shadows of Savannah, “the longing whispers of departed souls out of so many old mansions, forts, and graveyards,” the intermingling themes develop “toward an emotional climax and a nostalgic return of the theme.”
Track four, Sonata for Viola and Harp, composed in 1987, represents a transition from Mr. Kurek’s earlier Modernist training to the more clearly traditional style of the other works on the album, all of which were composed in the past few years. “Even then, fresh out of grad school, I was longing for a traditional sound and moving towards it,” Mr. Kurek explains. “Parts of it uses exotic scales that are outside of our normal major/minor scale system and more associated with composers like Bartok or Hindemith, so it will sound strange and tense to many ears. However, the second theme is in a more traditional melodic style, and that ultimately wins out. On the other hand, the entire piece uses very traditional phrasing and has a sense of a Romantic style, even when the pitches sound odd. Though dark, it does have many profound moments and enough of the traditional to fall generally within the realm of the beautiful.” He considers the piece to be interesting, representing “a kind of stepping stone” in the quest for an original voice in a more traditional style, something he indubitably achieves in his later works. Conceding that this might be the one track on the album that some people will want to skip, he defends its inclusion because of “the extraordinary performance by these musicians,” adding that “players need a good recording to refer to,” and in recognition of its having become a staple of the repertoire.
Track five, The Sea Knows, is the final track and the piece that gives the album its title. In the poem of the same title, included in the liner notes, which Mr. Kurek also wrote, and in the tone poem itself, the sea stands for God. “The person on the beach is a human, at first struggling with longing and the God-shaped hole within himself, so the music is turbulent. Around six minutes in, a beautiful theme enters, like the voice of God calling the person to salvation. The turbulent music struggles with this call, thematically, until the end, when the person has accepted the call and found fulfillment in God, awash and lost in the sea. So in addition to the technical form, a Sonata form, there is a drama of redemption at work, programmatically.”
Michael Kurek believes that “a patient, life-long quest for excellence in a more traditional style, be it representational art or narrative music, requires a strong guiding philosophy.” Mr. Kurek’s own guiding philosophy is rooted in a love for the transcendent, triune splendor of the good, the true, and the beautiful, a love which is itself a fruit of his Christian faith. It’s unlikely that his traditional Muse will win him many friends in the ivory towers of academe but he doesn’t care and nor should we. Almost none of the more than seventy pieces that have won the Pulitzer Prize in music are played anymore. They have not entered the standard repertoire, nor have almost all of the Grammy-winning “best new compositions.” Michael Kurek is quite content to let the fashions have their day and for the fads to fade away. What will remain is that which is rooted in tradition and which reaches for the stars. Michael Kurek’s music, as exemplified on this marvelous album, is rooted in the past, which means, as we can confidently prophesy, that his reputation will reach into the future when most of his contemporaries will be as forgotten as they are dead and buried.
Audio and video recordings of some of Michael Kurek’s works, including The Sea Knows, can be found on his website. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.