In her brief but illuminating contribution to Image 's Fifteenth Anniversary Issue (#42), Ann McCutchan sketches out three headings to describe contemporary creative nonfiction that engages religious experience: writing that is given to bearing witness, spiritual celebration, and self-interrogation. To our way of thinking, her own writing embodies all three. McCutchan's personal essays about the role of music in her life go behind the typical “liner note” style of music writing to something far more elemental, primitive, bodily—and, hence, spiritual. In her essay, “Openings,” she speaks of the “windy gush of vowels,” those sounds that pry apart that in us which would otherwise be clamped shut. As a clarinetist, McCutchan has learned how music can be a spiritual as well as artistic discipline. She celebrates the beauty of music (as well as the human mind and body), interrogates her own life to discover the path she's been walking; and bears witness to the presence of mystery. That makes her a triple threat.
For the past few years I have been building a collection of personal essays, all informed in some way by music, my first love and profession in the arts (I am a clarinetist.) Some essays draw directly from my experiences as a musician, while others are influenced by voice, form, phrasing and tone color in music. To be honest, I am still discovering how much of my writing is shaped by my years of musical study and activity—so much of it is unconscious. The title of the collection is Circular Breathing, a musical term and also the title of a central essay about connections in my family, continuous and broken. The essay acknowledges the consolations of art, as well.
One of my current obsessions is the French Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen, whose chamber and orchestral pieces I discovered when I was an undergraduate music student in Florida. Everything he wrote was offered “to the glory of God,” as stated in his manifesto. Messiaen deeply loved nature and was a fine amateur ornithologist who worked the calls of numerous birds into his compositions. He employed Hindu rhythms in his music, too, and his orchestral palette is one of the most colorful of the 20 th century. The profound level of invention and imagination he devoted to spiritual expression inspires me, so I am piecing together an essay I hope will pay tribute to Messiaen's music.
In addition to “solo” writing, I frequently work with artists from other disciplines. In November, I performed in a 60-minute event composed in collaboration with artist Pat Alexander and choreographer Joyce Morgenroth. Scaling the Walls includes live music, theater, dance, and a large installation of sculpted paper screens reconfigured throughout the show. It explores intersections, passages, and leaps across boundaries of all sorts: physical, psychological, and spiritual. One of my contributions to Scaling the Walls, “If Walls Could Talk,” is a short play for two actor-musicians (myself and percussionist John Lane ) who engage in an absurd, adversarial conversation of words and improvised music, repeatedly failing to connect. Eventually one of the characters (mine) admits she is not as sure of herself as she has led the other to believe, and the pair come to a quiet, yet questioning, truce. Scaling the Walls was premiered at Cornell University in 2002, and the November performance took place at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Writer and musician Ann McCutchan grew up on the Atlantic coast of Florida and lived in Austin, Texas for 18 years before moving to Laramie, Wyoming in 2000. She is the author of Marcel Moyse: Voice of the Flute (Amadeus Press, 1994), The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak About the Creative Process (Oxford University Press, 1999), and a wide range of published work in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and other media, including several music libretti. Recent projects have included a wholly new script for Igor Stravinsky's WWI musical morality play A Soldier's Tale, commissioned and premiered by Chamber Music Hawaii. “After 85 years,” wrote Ruth O. Bingham of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, "A Soldier's Tale has finally coalesced, music and drama interacting as equal partners to engage audience members, who left the theater discussing both animatedly.” As a clarinetist, Ann has performed with the Austin Symphony, the Austin Lyric Opera, the Wild Basin Winds, and Isis New Music, an ensemble she founded and directed. She has appeared as a soloist at two International Electronic Music-Plus Festivals and continues to play in faculty chamber groups at the University of Wyoming, where she directs the creative writing program. She has received grants, fellowships and residencies from the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the National Park Service, Cornell University, the University of Wyoming, and the Wyoming Arts Council. In 1999 she held the Ward Lectureship in Religious Imagination at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Ann holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and an MM in Music Performance from the University of Michigan.