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Creation and fall

Junior composer Caleb Bantum discusses influences behind new classical composition

Elliot Bailey, A&E Editor
Originally published April 6, 2015

Junior Caleb Bantum is currently writing a tone poem dealing with the folly of characters involved in a theistic creation story. Bantum is receiving guidance and mentorship from the Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop. The piece will be performed by a small ensemble in the lobby of Benaroya Hall before an event there on the evening of June 1.

He sat his cello down next to him on the bench after school. It was one of the first warm days of the year, and as we talked through the concepts of his new musical composition, a creation myth told in sound, new daisies reached upward, unknowing yet unequivocally sure of their course, from the school lawn.

“I’ve always kind of hated classical music,” junior Caleb Bantum said, rifling through his backpack for a bag of pretzels he hadn’t eaten at lunch. “But I’ve always kind of liked it as well.”

Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Wagner were always the composers that most interested him, not Bach or Mozart. He’s always preferred those that he saw as “the boundary pushers.”

Boundaries hold a certain significance for Bantum. They’ve led him to the Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop, a competitive entrance 12-week program from the Seattle Symphony through which Bantum and nine other underage composers are currently producing and meeting up to receive guidance.

Boundaries also led him to the premise of his current project, a tone poem exploring the idea of divine creation through a secular lens.

“I’ve always been the kind of guy who wasn’t happy with accepting things just because,” he said. He fished a pretzel out of the Ziploc bag on his lap. “I’ve always wanted to be able to, not so much understand more, but be able to experience more.

“I started looking into all these different kinds of things. My parents are Christian and I grew up in a Christian kind of background, but I was not really happy with that. It feels really — what’s the word — incomplete. It doesn’t answer all the questions.” He tossed a pretzel back and chewed it over. “Not that I’m ever going to find the answers to those questions,” he said.

And Bantum isn’t trying to explain something so big to himself with his music. That’s not what he means to do.

“The Creator isn’t the point,” he said. “I would almost go so far as to say the Creator’s not really a character.”

God in Bantum’s piece instead becomes “the backdrop from which this story springs out.”

The focal point is humanity and its fixation on an idea, a Creator whose influence on them is the greatest measure of his presence.

As the piece develops, the story of the people evolves, and the listener follows their trajectory from creation to fall.

“They’re trying to become their own God,” Bantum said. “The ambitions of the characters and their confidence in their own self, in their own kind of values and ideas, it gives them too much power and they use that power to hurt themselves.”

Bantum used illustrations and annotated sheet music such as this during his writing process. He used them as a bridge between his ideas and the sounds he attempts to portray them with. “I guess I could say, like, I feel what certain sounds mean. I g…

Bantum used illustrations and annotated sheet music such as this during his writing process. He used them as a bridge between his ideas and the sounds he attempts to portray them with. “I guess I could say, like, I feel what certain sounds mean. I get a feeling from a certain idea and I try to recreate that feeling with like a kind of musical idea or sound,” Bantum said.

This sort of adhesion, being kidnapped at the marketplace of ideas or believing implacably, is not something unfamiliar to Bantum.

“The words I never like to hear people say are ‘only.’ ‘This is the only thing that’s possible,’ ‘our God is the only God,’ ‘science is the only thing that can solve our problems.’ That’s immediately a turnoff for me,” Bantum said. “The main thing for me is I just want people to try to be understanding, not see their ideas as perfect.

“Kind of like what I was saying before, a lot of thought sometimes can become so hard and like stone that you start to become blinded by what you believe, and that’s kind of what happened to me in eighth grade.

I was kind of — what’s the word?” Bantum said. He scuffed his hands together and squinted at the sun. “I don’t know, basically I was a communist.”

It’s something that’s past, something Bantum has recanted, but at one point it was his patent truth.

“I’m starting to realize how absurd I was,” he said. “Well I’ve known for a long time how absurd I was in the eighth grade. After that I started to realize that I need to be more careful about that kind of stuff.”

“Not that radical ideas are stupid. It’s just that sometimes they interpret things a little…” Bantum looked around the school lawn for the right words. “Like, I know for me at least, I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.”

This enthrallment was much like that of the humans in Bantum’s piece. So easily carried away, having outstripped everything they know, they look up for the first time from their chase at the heel of conviction, and see just how fixated they had become.

“Now, I try to be more careful about thoughts,” Bantum said.

He looked out over the lawn, watching bees and spring create this year’s world all over again. All the cars in the loading zone had left for home and the daisies, in their egoism, continued reaching upward in the direction of sequoias, not knowing at what point they would have to stop.

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Creation and fall