What goes into composing a piece of music about an extreme onset of emotion? We asked Patrick Harlin, composer of Rapture, which receives its Canadian premiere at our March 27 and 28 Beethoven and Shostakovich concerts. The “rapture” is an emotion experienced by some ultra-cavers. After weeks underground, these cavers felt a primal need to escape. The feeling is described as worse than a panic attack, or a near religious experience. Learn more about it in our Q&A with the composer!

What inspired you to compose a work about “the rapture?”

This piece, believe it or not, started out as sketches for a piano concerto. Pretty early on I realized I wanted to spend more time featuring the large forces of the orchestra and was less interested in writing a piano concerto, so I quickly changed direction. At about that time I was listening to an interview about a group of extreme explorers who had recently reached the deepest point in the deepest known cave on earth. This incredible descent is similar to the first summit of Mt. Everest in terms of both magnitude and danger. Unlike the first summit of Mt Everest, where the climbers entered the pantheon of explorers, both the incredible accomplishment and the story behind (the cave exploration) remain relatively unknown. In the interview and subsequent book Blind Descent, author James Tabor talked about this concept of “the rapture.” In caving, because of the amount of time these explorers spend underground absent from the circadian rhythms of normal life, at some point their body says “I need to get out of here now!” This comes in the form of what is described as an incredible panic attack, or as the author describes it, a panic attack on methamphetamines. However, there is no elevator to the top. Many times these climbers are up to a week from the entrance. There is not much you can do except wait out the rapture. I take some creative liberties with the concept of the rapture, broadening it from the notion of panic to the very universal human experience of being overwhelmed with emotion.

What is the composition process like for you? How do you start?

For me, starting is always the hardest part of writing a piece. It is not for lack of ideas but rather because there are so many different creative routes and options on the table at the beginning. Because of this openness, I have found that it helps if I have a concept or an image that I am trying to evoke with music. Rapture is loosely programmatic. I constantly thought about how sound works deep underground – the echo, the reverb, the cacophony. There are parts in the music meant to reflect this visual imagery of the cave, and parts that are purely musical.

After I have some idea of the concepts at play I tend to fill in the finer details. This amounts to improvising on the piano and searching for a melody, motive or even harmony that I find intriguing, inputting music into a computer and sometimes playing along or composing in my head to the new tracks. An important part of my creative process is the physical aspect of playing a piece on the piano, getting a sense of the time as well as the motions. I end up spending a lot of time plunking out the various sections of each work. As a pianist, one of my favorite parts is the process is orchestrating, dealing with all the different timbres and colors that you don’t have at the piano.

Eventually I reach a point where it feels like all the ideas coalesce, and I get a sense of how each component of the music fits together and relates. This is the most enjoyable part of the creative process, though it is the part that takes the most work to get to.

What do you want people to experience when they listen to the piece?

I always hope that my music connects emotionally with an audience. The concept of rapture in this case is associated with ultra-caving however I think everyone at some point in their life has been overwhelmed by emotion – that experience is almost a universal one. The way I constructed the piece is with very minimal material. It starts with an initial motive, a small musical fragment that you hear in the flute. I take that musical fragment and amplify it by turning it into different melodies, inverting it, and slowing it down into a tutti brass arrival a minute and a half later. Really two musical main motives saturate the music and are spun out to create the various textures in the music. The reason I stick with such a limited amount of material is conceptual. I was relating it to a way in which an idea or emotion can become pervasive, especially when you are overcome by emotion. If you were to look carefully at the music in Rapture you would see that these two ideas are the genesis for most of the music and are playing constantly.

Since I write with images in mind, in particular with this piece, I always hope that an audience member can tap into the visual imagery depicted in the work. For the younger members of the audience, I hope they catch some of the references to electronic dance music. Most importantly for me though, I think even though we experience music collectively in the concert hall, there is no right or wrong reaction to this piece. Some of the most enjoyable moments for me are when listeners share their perspective and it gets you to think about your own music differently. One conductor mentioned to me that he wasn’t sure if the person in this work descends into madness at the end or arrives at the surface at the end. I don’t ascribe programmatic meaning beyond the concept of “being overcome by emotion” to this piece, as the audience responses have been so varied. I really want each person to have his or her own personal interpretation, and it is fun to hear what those are.

What was the biggest challenge you had in composing this piece?’

One of the biggest challenges and biggest thrills in writing an orchestral work is that there is very little that you can change once you have written the music and handed it over to the musicians. An orchestra is such a massive production and the rehearsal process happens so quickly that there are not any easy options for changing things, you need to get the music right the first time.

Another challenge with this work had to do with the conceptual; ultra-caving is quite an esoteric activity and music can be such an inclusive art form. I grappled with how to balance the idea of the rapture in caving with relating it to broader themes in life.

What did you learn about yourself as a composer through writing this piece?

I discovered that I am attracted to extremes in music and culture. This attraction manifested itself in my most recent orchestral work River of Doubt, a work that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Theodore Roosevelt and Candido Rondon expedition down an unknown tributary to the Amazon River. This work came about somewhat organically. Last summer I went to the Amazon Rainforest in Peru recording soundscapes. These recordings are part of my doctoral work at the University of Michigan, which looks at sound and sustainability. I happened to be across the border from where Roosevelt and Rondon made this historic journey down the River of Doubt contemplating what to write about next. I have known for some time that I like to have some experiential connection to what I write, and spending a month in the Amazon seemed sufficient. The story of the Roosevelt expedition is quite harrowing, and looking back on it, both Rapture and River of Doubt depict a journey into the unknown. I love to experience new places and venture outside of my routine. Sometimes those adventures happen while traveling far and wide, and other times those new experiences happen at home in the concert hall.