From Afar

On the day that Mitt Romney suspended his campaign to win the 2008 U.S. Presidential race, I sat down and listened to From Afar, a fantasy for guitar and orchestra by Joseph Schwantner. I’m starting to understand Schwantner’s musical language, and I’m beginning to like it, too.

The fifteen-minute fantasy starts with a rumble of timpani, a low bass note, and an open E chord. Metallic percussion sounds dust rapid-fire guitar passages with color, and then the piece is off with a repeating, relentless “E” note anchoring key shifts, open intervals, and a dramatic brass fanfare. The guitar quivers. Off-set arpeggios leap up and fall back. Motion, motion, motion. The guitar solo flits from one idea to the next like a fretful bird of paradise that never pauses long enough for anyone to catch a good look.

When the pace slows down, about halfway through, the soloist spins out a long, lyrical line, burnished gold against a waterfall of cascading tension. The orchestra falls back completely, leaving the guitarist to linger alone on a quiet passage evocative of Isaac Albeniz’s Asturias. Single notes drop like stones. Then it launches back into a frenzy of restless energy. As in the beginning, phrases arc up and dip down, wild, ragged, and edgy. The piece lands heavily, resting on a low note.

In December, when composer Joseph Schwantner handed me a copy of Isbin’s 1987 recording, I must confess I didn’t like it. From Afar was commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony for guitarist Sharon Isbin, and its title refers to the composer’s vantage point: Schwantner played the guitar as a child. Long after he’d stopped playing, he wrote this piece – from afar, as it were. Since I didn't like it at first, you might wonder why I bothered, then, to listen again and again. I suppose I believed it would be worth it. But I had to open up to the piece, paying close attention, as if it were a story or poem. Some of the best things take patience and effort, and an ounce of commitment goes a long way. Sure, you can’t force yourself to fall in love with anything or anyone. But you can give space, time, and attention. You can allow yourself to be surprised.

A few years ago, when guitarist Sharon Isbin performed From Afar with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, she said she was very much aware of Utah’s political climate and the conservative crowd. She told me she felt apprehensive, since From Afar is a challenging, unfamiliar piece, radically different from the safe worlds of a Beethoven symphony or Mozart piano concerto.

The day after her performance, she unfolded the newspaper to read one critic’s review. He called it “sexy and savage.” He liked it, too.