Kevin D. Cornwell

Composer

United States of America

Author

About

My mother had an Allen Organ in our living room where at the age of four I would sit for hours and entertain myself putting on stops, listening to the notes, changing stops, listening to how the notes changed. I remember particularly enjoying the celeste stops with their bell-like ringing. My fascination with the quality and timbre of sound led me to study music performance and eventually become a sound engineer. I took up violin at six though that didn't last as I hated to practice. However, I began bassoon lessons at fourteen and loved to hear its varied sonorities thoughout its range. I studied a Bachelor's in Music Performance degree at Thayer Conservatory having studied bassoon with Sherman Walt. For many years I performed with symphony orchestras, woodwind ensembles, and made numerous solo appearances. From St. Marks cathedral in Venice, to the Washington National cathedral in Washington D.C. as well as performances in Carnegie Hall under Maestro John Rutter. My performing career has seen nearly every continent in diverse venues around the world.

While my main vocation ended up in the world of mainframe computer administration, I never lost my love for music and the beauty it portrays. Now retired, music has once again become my focus. As a graduate music composition student studying under Roger Zahab at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, my intention is to bring music that is beautiful to hear and a rest for the soul in a world gone mad. Through my compositions, in a romantic and neo-romantic style, as well as performing on the Native American Indian-style flute accompanied by my wife, Madeleine, on classical guitar, my hope is that the listener can regain a bit of joy amidst a world in chaos.

Currently living on The Big Island of Hawaii, I find great inspiration from my faith in God and the nature around me. The oozing lava from the volcano, the quiet solitude afforded by the forest, the fish and whales in the ocean, all provide a rich and imaginative texture from which I draw my musical ideas.



Videos

Sheets

Interview

What does music mean to you personally?

Music is the golden thread that ties all of the human race together. Having performed on nearly every continent, I have seen that nothing is as universal in its understanding and in its shared experience as music. And, while it is true that music trends can parallel societal trends, there is an opportunity unlike any other where music can bring beauty and solace back into a societal fabric blackened by chaos. The concept that there is ‘old’ or ‘outdated’ music is incredibly naive. Music transcends time as well as human biases, and even when the structures or forms are of historical origin, that fact in no way negates the inherent beauty of the music itself. The human heart and the desire to do good, that very fundamental need to be beneficial to others, is of Godly origin and will never go out of style even when it is unpopular. Music, being of the heart, is the same; its inherent beauty transcends fashions, it transcends forms, it transcends language. As such, while music over time is woven with threads colored by current events, it will - as a force of nature - always exist above and beyond those same events. Thoughtful and artfully composed music is a constant reminder of all that is good.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

Music can be about fantasy, but to say that it is all about fantasy is to artificially limit music and the musical language. As the language of the heart, music can be about any aspect of the human condition, from love to hate, from stark reality to flights of fantasy. Unlike all other forms of language, music is capable of encompassing every human emotion, every condition of the heart. As fantasy is an illusion of the mind, music can readily paint fantastical visions, simply because music itself is an illusion of the mind. In the same way as feelings are transitory and illusionary (meaning non-tangible artifacts), so is music. This is what makes music such a poignant language of the heart; emotions and music live in the same dimension of the human psyche.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

An astronaut.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about the future?

I am gravely concerned for the future of A) Classical music; B) Civilized society. The singular reason that the classical music audience is getting old is because both intellectual pursuits and intellectual stability have been removed from the educational methodologies at all levels of education. The ability to reason and the ability to think critically is no longer a common skill. Instead, feelings and emotions are the hard-line focus. Emotion without the stabilizing component of rational thought is nothing but constant turmoil and chaos. It is a downward spiral draining civility out of human behavior. The language of music itself, an emotional language to be sure, devolves into chaos without the stabilizing foundations of a balanced and intelligently rational structure (music theory). And, today’s vastly popular musical genres are nearly entirely devoid of theoretical reason as they rely entirely on primordial or emotional impact. And, just like emotions which are transitory, today’s musical hits are equally as transitory given that they are without substance. In education, the abstinence from art, and from music in particular, starting in early childhood and onward, has led (in some part) to a society which cannot bring itself to balance emotional constructs and to value rational thought and deductive reasoning. This paradigm is clearly seen in both the destabilized and unbalanced nature of contemporary music as well as in the emotionally erratic and chaotic nature of societal discourse.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

Unless there is a shift back toward an intellectual foundation in learning, there will be no transformation. The problem is that there is no motivation. The current mindset of society is toward immediate satisfaction. This drive pervades the routines and behaviors inherent in everyday 21st century life. Long-term reward gained by engaging in hard work in the present, is neither cherished or encouraged. And yet, it is exactly that mindset that would be required in order to transform music and society. We cannot develop an appreciation for the arts, or for science, or for truth, unless we do the hard work of developing that very appreciation. The creation of quality music that will persist over time takes hard work and perseverance. Today, hard work and the concept of reaping the future rewards of that work, is not only old-school, but is shunned, even despised by the popular movements of the day.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

The most sought after goal of today’s musicians is a ‘new, cool, sound’. Classical music was/is/should be all about the creation of, and ultimately the conveyance of the emotional state-of-mind of the human condition. This latter is incredibly elusive and takes methodical and tenacious effort to effectively portray. A new sound is at best transitory and only lasts until someone else creates a newer sound. So, yes, composers ought to be more creative within the context of the musical language. Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, etc., understood this. It often took them months, even years to compose a twenty-minute piece. Their approach to creativity was one of patience and of self-control. An effective composition requires a sometimes tortuous control of the wild-mustangs of emotion. The most common approach to music today results in shallow music; music consisting of only the most surface exposition of the human experience. It’s like writing poetry using only the vocabulary and syntax of a first-grade primer. That becomes boring half-way through the first couplet. Hence, the dependence on the ‘new, cool, sound.’ Loyalty to the emotive nature of music requires the utmost self-control of one’s own raw emotions, combined with ultimate patience as one creates a sonic vision of meticulously chosen colors and expressions.

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

There is nothing that a scientist can do to attract the youthful mind to calculus, unless the youthful mind has been previously brought into a basic understanding of math. Why do musical concerts more and more tend to become theatrical events? Because we are trying to find a way to attract a youthful audience without the requisite tedium of musical understanding. Every child from kindergarten and onward, ought to be exposed to classical music. That exposure needs to become lessons in listening. That listening needs to become lessons in intellectual understanding. That intellectual understanding needs to become lessons in emotional conveyance. And then we will have a basis for building a societal audience in classical music. An audience that appreciates music for its depth and not just as a theatrical extravaganza of 'new sounds'.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favorite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

Every composer has their own ‘way’. I always have some image in mind before I begin a new composition. Indeed, if I don’t know what I’m wanting to ‘say’, then I have no basis to begin. This isn’t to say that my music is wholly programmatic, though it can be. It is only that I find I have no inspiration if I don’t have some clarity on what thought, concept, or emotion I wish to convey. My music is often characterized by the concept of ‘Sturm und Drang’. Stormy, even turbulent dramatic tension. Not because I choose that, but because that is a reflection of my personality. I tend toward black-and-white thinking. Dramatically polar opposites. And, for me, that’s where the self-control comes in; nothing in life is ever completely black-and-white so I find that I must back away and let a little grey mix it up a bit. I suppose one of my favorite compositions is my Lament for Juliana. I wrote it in one afternoon the day I was informed that my cousin had been killed in an automobile accident. It was and is a pure evocation of what I was thinking and feeling that afternoon. I also find my Nocturne No. 9 to be particularly representative of the drama of the human condition and of that for which we all hope.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

Sit down, slow down, remove all distractions, and just listen. Consider where the music is going, where it’s taking you, what it is encouraging you to feel. Let the music hold your hand and take you for a walk. We have become a society for whom music is just background noise. We are accustomed to not actively listening, to not considering the intellectual worth of the journey. Consider that as you hold its hand. What is the journey? Where is it going? What is it saying? What is it feeling? Music is a private place for each of us. And, sometimes in the quiet of our minds, it becomes uncomfortable. The thoughts and emotions, triggered by the music, can be difficult ones. In stillness, think and feel deeply. Just be. It’s okay to go there. It may not be easy, but you’ll become a more balanced and more empathetic person if you do.

Do you think about the audience when composing?

No. My intent while composing is to create an aural canvas that portrays an emotive concept as effectively as my abilities allow. If I do my job well, then the audience will understand. I don’t support the notion that requires an artist to dumb-down their creative output in order to reach the largest audience. When you dumb it down, you also restrict the depth and substantive qualities of the art. It is my intention to create a composition that is enjoyable to ‘young’ listeners, yet provides ‘meaty substance’ for the experienced listener. That’s my goal anyway, and it’s one which I’m constantly learning how to better achieve.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I’ve been composing primarily for solo instruments. The pathos evoked by a single voice is highly evocative of the singularity of the individualized human condition. We say, “No man is an island”, but in an emotional context, every person is an island. However, given that humans are not intended to be solitary and disconnected, I’ve begun an opus of quintets and quartets that portray the oneness and strength that a group can achieve. A very Aristotilian, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I am also preparing an album of my piano compositions to be released late summer, 2021. I don't approach composing and musical arts as a field for experimentation as some do. I am deeply committed to the emotional discourse for which music, as a language, is uniquely suited. Others are gifted in discovering new, perhaps more effective ways to move that discourse forward. However, I am most drawn to music of the Romantic and Post-Romantic era and find I am most sympathetic and fluent when creating within those forms.