Ingram Marshall Built and Obscured Monoliths of Sound

I first came to know the composer Ingram Marshall, who died on May 31 at 80, as a campus personality. Benevolent and slightly spectral, he’d glide into Yale’s music library, where I had a work-study job as an undergraduate student, and I’d help him find scores and recordings. I already knew a few of his pieces, and was a bit awe-struck chatting with their creator. His musical and real-life personalities seemed directly related: unhurried, easygoing, more likely to follow a train of thought than pursue a rigorous argument, but unafraid to let the conversation become serious or philosophical.

Our conversations broadened during my time learning with Marshall in graduate school. His teaching style was distinctly unrigorous but discursive and all-encompassing. In a lesson, we were as likely to discuss a Bergman film or the best way to cook wild mushrooms as we were to analyze whatever I was working on. Mostly, he was content to leave my music as I’d written it; on certain occasions, he’d point out a passage and say, “I like that part, it could last longer.” He encouraged me to take my time, focus on my ideas, and see them through.

Marshall became a friend — simply a great hang, and endlessly interesting to talk with. We’d drive out to Sleeping Giant State Park north of New Haven, Conn., for hikes along the river, or further into the country to hunt for morels and chanterelles in his secret spots. He consorted easily with composition students; he treated us as colleagues, and as a result we weren’t afraid to speak openly around him.

Around the same time, I started to find great pleasure in playing Marshall’s music, particularly the solo piano piece “Authentic Presence” (2002). A grand fantasiain the tradition of Schubert and Chopin,it is full of contradictions and unexplainable things. The rhythmic language vacillates widely between insistent pulse and total freedom. Sometimes, the phrases are like run-on sentences; elsewhere, they are poetic, rhetorical, filled with pauses and hesitations. The music looks simple on the page, spare on indications almost to the point of inscrutability — a challenge to interpreters to form their own ideas, but also a gesture of respect, entrusting the music to its performer’s care. “Authentic Presence”manages to feel weighty while also ephemeral, grand without grandiloquence, understated in its execution yet unafraid of dramatic gesture.

These qualities, constants of Marshall’s style over his entire career, made his voice one of the most personal and distinctive of any composer in recent memory. With an unlikely fusion of loose, stream-of-consciousness forms and old-school contrapuntal technique, he constructed monoliths of sound, then obscured them. He wove elaborate textures out of canons, inversions, elongations and diminutions. His gamelan-inspired arpeggios undulate gently in and out of sun and shadow. Frequent quotations and references give the music a sense of porousness and mutability. Everything coexists in what feels like a physical acoustic space — rich and reverberant, but also distant, held at a remove, seen through a dense fog. Above all, there is the emotional flavor of it. For him, music wasn’t just an abstraction, an intellectual game of pitches and forms. It was also about expressing something sincerely.

In much the same way, Marshall’s use of technology was never for its own sake. He valued gear only insofar as it allowed him to achieve a musical and expressive result. In the spacious “Gradual Requiem,” composed in the late 1970s, an idiosyncratic ensemble — of piano, mandolin, synthesizer, Balinese flute, prerecorded choirs and eight-channel tape delay — guides the listener through a gently epic musical journey of sound design as composition, with electronic and acoustic elements blending seamlessly, cushioning and enveloping one another. This requiem creates a sacred space without words, using layer upon layer of reverberation and delay to build an infinitely large cathedral around the music.

Much of the music closest to Marshall’s heart was sacred: New England shape-note songs, Bruckner motets, the gamelan music of Java and Bali. Though he’d grown up a Methodist choir boy, his own beliefs were similarly varied and idiosyncratic, and a deep sense of spirituality runs through his work. Grief recurs, as does coming to terms with death, even finding a kind of ecstatic joy in its anticipation. “Bright Hour Delayed,” from “Hymnodic Delays”(1997), takes the boisterous Sacred Harp hymn “Northfield”as its theme: “How long, dear savior, O how long / shall this bright hour delay?” Marshall slows it down by a factor of four, splays the voices and leaves its melodies hanging plaintively in the air, echoing into the distance like a musical question mark.

In “Kingdom Come”(1997), grieving becomes a kind of ritual, connecting the individual to the universal pool of human grief. The piece opens with a chain of A-minor chords, spiraling upward (a reference to Marshall’s beloved Sibelius) then slowly, painfully, drifts downward in an aching lament. We land in a deep, murky F-major stew, out of which bits of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” emerge. (Charles Ives, another composer who used that hymn tune, is a clear reference point; Marshall and I shared adoration for our fellow New Englander, particularly his ability to combine seemingly disparate elements into a potent emotional salmagundi.) As it gathers momentum, “Kingdom Come” becomes a procession in slow motion, a chorus of mourners gathering. Despite its troubled affect and a couple of jolting outbursts, it is not histrionic music; it always looks inward in its search for associations, allusions and meaning.

Marshall’s eclectic approach to composition appealed to me. I felt I’d found a mentor who related to music the way I wanted to: with curiosity, open-mindedness and little regard for historical period or genre. He gave the impression that all of music was at our feet in an enormous pile, fodder for inspiration. That’s not to say he liked everything or was uncritical. He could be bluntly dismissive of composers he considered overly academic, technically flashy or too eager to please. But his default approach to life and music was one of generosity.

People who knew him often observed that Marshall seemed to be egoless; he didn’t strive, network or self-promote the way artists of my generation have been trained to do. He did have an ego, of course, as one must to pursue an artistic craft so single-mindedly; he just managed to keep it admirably separate from his personal interactions. Though he didn’t strive for fame and fortune, he certainly wished for wider acclaim. On his blog, Old Man of the Woods, in 2013, he lamented the “minor little” commissions he was getting. “There has been nothing of substance, just a few chamber and solo pieces. Frankly, it’s kind of depressing not to have a major work under way on the drafting table.”

The source of the frustration was not always external; he was a slow and painstaking writer, at times laboring over a piece for years before he molded it into a form that satisfied him. But once he had done this, he took great pleasure in hearing his own music and was justly proud of what he felt to be his most successful works. And in his own funny, quiet way, he relished attention and affirmation of his creative struggles. A few months ago, I was interviewed about his work on Joshua Weilerstein’s music podcast, and Marshall was thrilled. “I loved all that adulation,” he wrote to me in an email. (Weilerstein conducted my piano concerto “The Blind Banister,” in 2015.)

In 2016, Marshall mentioned that he would like to write something for me — a concerto, perhaps. I immediately called up his old friend and steadfast champion, John Adams, who wrangled a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The next year, “Flow,” a chamber concerto, emerged, and seemed to capture a little bit of everything from Marshall’s voice. The piece begins in beatific, C-major stasis, as a jaunty hymn gathers momentum in canonic form. Then, a series of escalating ruminations on another hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?,” first on a solo viola, build up to a fiery orchestral tutti. Then, suddenly, we’re in Indonesia, piano and percussion leaping forward in music as puckish and energetic as anything Marshall ever wrote. Pentatonic arpeggios pile up in multiple keys; a polytonal roar escalates and evaporates. Marshall labored over the final page. When the last revision arrived, days before the premiere, I was moved to find that its closing notes were a quote of my own piano piece “At The River,” which I had dedicated to him in 2011.

Of the many obscure, unpublished, unrecorded works from Marshall’s catalog, my favorite is a setting of Emily Dickinson’s “As Imperceptibly as Grief” — particularly because it feels almost secret. Marshall was never quite satisfied with the song, and never got around to revising it. The last line “Our Summer made her light escape / Into the Beautiful” is extended over five repetitions, gently rocking between C and F, the simplest chords imaginable. Over barely a minute, it conveys a sense of timelessness, and also of time drawing to a close. But the song doesn’t end with a fade-out. The final gesture comes as a surprise: a sudden, brilliant cascade from opposite ends of the keyboard toward the center, a carillon from the beyond. That “bright hour,” long delayed, has arrived at last.

Back to top button