The old saying “it’s about the journey, not the destination” is one that comes to mind when listening to the music of Franz Schubert. Seattle Weekly music writer and composer Gavin Borchert has been thinking a lot lately about Schubert and the distinctive way the composer’s music slowly unfolds over time. To Gavin’s ears, Schubert, an early 19th century composer, has a strong kinship with American minimalist composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. That kinship is explored in a new recording called “The Knights: A Second of Silence.”
The new recording features Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” alongside works from the late 20th century by Morton Feldman and Phillip Glass. Though including composers from such different eras and cultures on the same recording may seem odd at first, Gavin says the composers all share a similar interest in music that unfolds through subtle shifts in rhythms and instrumental colors. This is music that wanders and drifts. It is not goal or destination oriented.
In Schubert, Glass, Feldman, and other composers on the recording, the music is about savoring the moment as it passes, taking in the subtle changes in mood and instrumentation, and focusing listeners on the nuanced changes happening in every passing beat of the piece.
Though Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” is one of classical music’s most well-loved and often performed pieces, this recording by The Knights orchestra gives the piece a new resonance in Gavin’s ears. He likens the opening movement, with its shifting keys and constantly changing instrumental colors, to a meandering stream or shifting cloud formations.
Schubert keeps us guessing when it comes to harmony and instrumentation, but the repetition of small bits of rhythmic and melodic material draws the listener in. It’s an approach shared by Phillip Glass, more than 160 years later, in his 1983 composition, “Company.” Gavin explains, “Glass is a minimalist concerned with the unfolding of time. The minimalists were revolutionary in their approach to repetition. They got into a rhythmic groove and they didn’t let it go. They would latch onto a rhythm and just enjoy it. That’s exactly what Schubert did.”
Gavin also hears a similar approach to Schubert in the 1970 composition called “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety” by Morton Feldman. The layering of instruments in Feldman’s composition and the music’s endless repetition of the call of the cuckoo bird create what Gavin calls a “repetitive, contemplative, dreamy groove, perfect for a piece concerned with memory, loss and reflection.”
Schubert and the minimalists broke strongly with tradition when it came to their approach centered on savoring the moments along the musical journey. Gavin says that spirit of innovation inspires and instructs him as a composer: “It’s not necessarily about writing music that sounds like Schubert, or Morton Feldman or Phillip Glass. It’s about listening to these composers and thinking, ‘Yes! This is a different way of doing this. And how can I apply that to my own work, even if my work sounds nothing like them?’ Just to be exposed to these ideas is so valuable.”