Quaker Composer


When the English composer Solomon Eccles became a Quaker around 1665, he sold or gave away all his musical instruments and all his printed music. Then, fearful that by doing so he had led the recipients morally astray, he bought everything back, carried it to the top of London’s Temple Hill, stomped it to pieces, and set it all on fire.

Eccles was an extreme case, but not by much. Early Friends held a deep suspicion of music. George Fox records in his Journal that, near the beginning of his ministry, he felt “moved . . . to cry against all sorts of music, and against the mountebanks playing tricks on their stages, for they burdened the pure life, and stirred up people’s minds to vanity.” Fox did, however, sing in prison to keep his spirits up (and to annoy his jailers), and he apparently enjoyed the music Margaret Fell and her children made during quiet evenings at home. In later decades, Friends would frown upon even those practices. At the height of this anti-musical obsession, during the Quietist period, singing a snatch of music would likely get a Friend eldered, and owning a musical instrument was grounds for being read out of meeting.

As a composer who is also a Quaker, this history has long puzzled me. What was it about music that so troubled early Friends that they felt a need to renounce it completely? Whatever it was, it no longer seems to hold. “Quaker musician” is no longer an oxymoron. What has changed? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it is the same strong power that music has always exerted over the human soul which frightened early Friends away, and which now draws us to it.

I am a Quaker, and I am a composer. Am I a Quaker composer ? To explore this question, let us begin as Quakers always begin: with silence.

Music could not exist without silence: it is the canvas upon which music is painted. It is also an active participant in music. The Japanese word ma describes the deep, expectant silence that exists during pauses in music, when listeners are waiting for the next note. The composer Toru Takemitsu describes ma as a “point of intense silence” which has “a deep, powerful, and rich resonance that can stand up to the sound.” This description of silence – deep, expectant, powerful, rich, resonant – is familiar to Quakers. We use the same adjectives to describe our practice of waiting worship, during which we listen - as we listen to music - for something real, but something that is also beyond the ability of words to describe.

The American composer John Cage once wrote a book called simply, Silence. Cage is famous (or notorious) for a short piano work, 4’33”, in which the pianist is instructed to sit at the keyboard and stare at the keys, without touching them, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. That piece has been widely satirized, but Cage had a serious purpose. He wanted audiences to listen to the silence; in other words, to extend ma until it encompassed the entire composition. In the spring of 1966, while a graduate student in music, I had an opportunity to discuss Cage’s work with the composer himself. When I remarked that I wasn’t sure some of his stunts could be considered music, Cage nodded emphatically. “Oh, I agree, I agree,” he said. “I’m not doing music. I’m doing Zen. Music is just the vehicle.”

So the question rises: when I, a Quaker composer, sit down to write music, am I doing music? Or am I doing Quakerism, and is music just the vehicle?

When I write music, there is no question that I am thinking primarily as a musician. I am calling on my knowledge of music theory, music history, the physics of sound, and the work of other composers, both past and present. I am conscious of the possibilities and the limitations of each instrument I am writing for, and of the technical demands the music places on the performers who might want to play it. I am aware of the sound of each note, and how the notes will sound with each other. I try to gauge the impact of all this on listeners, at each moment and overall.

But it is also true that as I work, I am influenced by my fifty years of commitment to the Quaker way. The core tenets of Quakerism – the presence of That of God within each living being, and what that implies for how we live – are part of who I am, and therefore are necessarily part of the work I do. And the comparisons are striking between what I do in music and what I do in meeting for worship.

I find the impulse to rise and speak during worship remarkably similar to the impulse to begin writing a piece of music. Both impulses have what the composer Paul Hindemith has called a “strange spontaneity,” making them seem to be placed in the mind rather than being conceived there. Hindemith elaborates: “Something – you know not what – drops into your mind – you know not whence – and there it grows – you know not how – into some form – you know not why.” Ministry and music both come to me in that manner.

And then you have to figure out what to do with it. Again, the similarities are remarkable. First come the tests: is this worth developing? Will it speak to anyone but me? Next comes the shaping, forming the message into words or the music into notes, testing the result in your mind. When the shaping seems satisfactory, more tests come: Is this really worth breaking silence for? A message I have formed may not get spoken; a composition may end up in a drawer. These are not valueless: I can revisit them later, and often do. Some of them will eventually get delivered, usually in a form quite different from the original.

I don’t want to take this too far. Music has been used since the beginning of time as an adjunct to worship, but music is not worship. Music and worship both seek to express experiences that lie beyond words, but they are not the same experiences. Music and worship each have the ability to move us to a place beyond the temporal world, but music emphasizes the movement and worship emphasizes the place beyond. Music makes its effect through our senses; worship makes its effect in spite of them. That is not true of all worship, of course. The pomp and show of high-church liturgy is clearly designed to appeal to the senses, which is a principal reason why the early Quakers rejected it, and probably also why they found music so suspect. Music and liturgy were so deeply intertwined that in order to reject one, it might have seemed necessary to reject both.

Should contemporary Quakers, who continue to reject liturgy, also continue to reject liturgical music? I certainly hope not. The circumstances surrounding the creation of a work of art have little or nothing to do with the art’s intrinsic value. What matters far more is the artist’s state of mind while creating the work, and the technical ability used to express that state of mind.

Bach wrote standing on the ground of his faith as a Lutheran; I write standing on the ground of my faith as a Quaker. Lutheran worship is liturgical, so Bach wrote music for the liturgy. Quaker worship is silent, so I write music for what I hear in the silence. Quakers take what they hear in the worship out into the world. I write music for that.

I am a composer who happens to be a Quaker. I am a Quaker composer. There is no difference. ~~~

To read an unabridged version of this article, see: https://westernfriend.org/media/quaker-composer-unabridged.

Bill Ashworth, a former clerk of South Mountain Meeting in Ashland, OR (NPYM), has twice been a semifinalist for the American Prize in chamber music composition.