Stretching beyond your comfort zones
When I turned 40 in March 2014 I paused to reflect, as many do, when they enter their 4th decade. Life, and our times in general, seemed to portend exciting and challenging times ahead. The one thing that bothered me is that it seemed too many, including myself, were obsessed with technology. The other arts did not get the attention they deserved. In my own life, I had gone from Maryland State Honors Chorus and writing and singing my own songs, to a musical silence. It seemed the busier my work life would get the less I had to feed the other parts of my own soul, including the arts. I used to draw and design my own furniture in college but never had the means to build them. My resolution in my 40th year was to stretch beyond my comfort zones and begin explore my creativity not just in business and technology but in the arts. This meant, no matter how bad the result might be, I had to conquer the fear of embarrassment and create and share something first with my friends and family and then beyond. I chose music, furniture design and poetry as the places to begin.
I began by trying to compose a classical song. I had always been moved by the story and love of Antony and Cleopatra. Their love moved and changed the world. While their love ended in tragedy, their love endured the march of time. Their passion lit the world on fire.
My process including rereading everything and everything new I could about their story. In their story I found that it was a love not inspired only by physical beauty, status and power. It was a love born of equal respect for each other. It celebrated the independent strength of each other. Antony was not a man afraid of a powerful woman. He in fact celebrated her power and her brilliance. Cleopatra did not shy away from a powerful and influential man. She embraced him with a mutual respect and admiration. They were each other champions. They celebrated their victories with their own victory laps and marches.
They already had extreme power, influence and wealth before they met. There was no value to be extracted from each other. There was only value to be created. But it was their minds, intellect, committment, loyalty and fierceness that ignited their love beyond a normal love. They married and had children together who they named Emperors and Empresses of new lands they had each conquered. Their enemies in Rome began to fear this uncommon love and agitated for war against them. Their fear was this uncommon love between two great humans could lead to a Universal Empire that threatened their own.
Cleopatra and Antony would go into battle together. Imagine that. The power of a love like that. Around 31 BC the Romans took naval action against them off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra arrived with her very own fleet to fight against the Romans and to protect Antony and his forces. After this Battle of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra were forced to retreat, Antony’s own armies deserted him and this led to an unraveling of all that Antony and Cleopatra had dreamed of for their love.
Regarding the narrative, “Cleopatra” explores the historic love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. It was these joint battles that inspired the composition. I began to imagine Antony and Cleopatra in a tent together in a forest along the coast of Actium. The tent is deep in the forest along a stream that empties into the ocean- the gateway to their final joint battle. There is a sense between them that this battle could be the last time that these lovers would ever be able to hold each other in this world again. This inspires the greatest tenderness and love in them. The intensity of their love echoes and portends the intensity of the battle ahead. This sets the stage. The piece opens with a this tenderness and love. Dawn awakens them around the 3:00 mark. If you can imagine the main melody it is echoing these words: “You are my Cleopatra. I am your Antony.”
The piece opens with a brief overture that introduces the main theme sung by viola and violin, which represent the two lovers’ voices. The mood then darkens to foreshadow the ensuing turmoil in their relationship.
The next section depicts the depth of their passionate love. Set in a forest, the two lovers wake up on the bank of a stream. A naive joy and playfulness in the pizzicato section distinctly contrast the reality of their situation, as they are on the brink of a battle.
After a night of hours of uninterrupted passionate discussion of strategy and of love, they awake to the sounds of the battle at dawn. The battle cry. The trumpets blazing. The spears rattling. See them line up their forces, chariots and ships and see their spear tips glistening in the sun. As they are interrupted by the battle march, at 4:33, where Mark Antony must put on his Roman armor and leave Cleopatra, the Queen of Eygpt. The greater politics of their warring nations separates them, and Antony is heartbroken by his own forces desertion in his greatest time of need and most painfully by misunderstanding Cleopatra’s retreat from certain death as abandonment. He is then falsley told that she has poisoned herself. Antony wounds himself with his sword, begs others to finish him and he soon gets a message from Cleopatra’s message to come to her. He does. It was the message his heart prayed for. He reaches her and and knows that she had not abandoned him in battle and that she was, as always, his loyal warrior. He died in her arms and in the finale we hear Cleopatra’s wailing lament of Antony’s passing. She cries out in mourning of her greatest love. She then takes a poison so that she can join her only love in the afterlife. This is musically embodied in an improvised violin solo over a tremolo drone.
This journey was a challenging and fun one. I want to thank Yvette Holzwarth my fellow composer of Cleopatra who deserves the credit for collobarating with me to fully realize my vision. It began with the melody I had created and the narrative I imagined and evolved and grew into the song and performance you see below. I am now working on 2 more songs and we hope to have all 3 performed by an orchestra in 2016.
My future posts will explore the process of exploring the furniture design and poetry. I hope to add other areas where I can stretch myself beyond the valley of my own expectations. So many have the potential to be more than just a career of a defined single vocation. More explored multiple passions in the past because there wasn’t a set definition of one’s entire identity by one chosen vocation. That spirit gave birth to more polymaths. All of us have the potential to be more than one thing or any other mono-label that we accept. It takes a hearty sense of optimism and fight against your inner cycnic to even take the risk of stretching beyond ourselves. I have found that that nurturing our creative side feeds all aspects of ones life and those around us in a positive way. We are what we wish to be.
Cleopatra by Shervin Pishevar & Yvette Holzwarth
Gabi Holzwarth, Violin — gabiviolin.com (Special thanks to Gabi for introducing her talented sister Yvette)
Yvette Holzwarth, Violin — yvetteholzwarth.com
Danny Sheu, Viola — dannysheu.com
Hannah Addario-Berry, Cello — addarioberry.com
The video and performance can be seen here: