Joseph Blunt: Creating Music By Harnessing Silence
Joseph Blunt is a philosophy teacher and classical composer who has been writing sacred and secular music since the 1970s, and whose original symphony will be performed at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in late 2017.
Blunt was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but due to his father’s work for the US Navy and later his civilian career, the family moved across the country often.
After finishing high school, Blunt studied vocal performance at Manhattan School of Music, then switched his discipline to composition.
Throughout the 1970s, Blunt lived on Lafayette Street and wrote original scores for The New York Shakespeare Company, La Mama Theater, and a variety of dance theaters. To supplement his income, he worked with the owner of now-famous East Village eatery, Phebe’s Restaurant, as waiter, barman and eventually manager.
Around this time, Blunt discovered practical philosophy, and began a lifelong study and practice of philosophy, which he says works in harmony with his composing.
Blunt lives in New Jersey and when he's not working on commissions, he is teaching at The School of Practical Philosophy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he is also the chef.
Joseph Blunt at the School of Practical Philosophy. Pic: Caroline Jumpertz
Q: When did you start playing and composing music?
Joseph Blunt: My first instrument was the bugle, of all things. It was a brief time when my father was stationed in Nebraska during the war, and he had a bugle in the house which I came across one day. I got pretty good. Of course I would play it odd hours of the morning which wasn't too well received.
Then I played the trumpet for a long time. I played the clarinet, did a lot of singing. In general I ended up writing for the things that I was playing, and I wasn't really too keen on performance. I was much more content to sit quietly and write. That came more naturally than anything else.
Q: How did you find your way to Manhattan School of Music?
JB: They needed singers and I was a good singer so I got in as a singing major but then I studied composition there. I studied privately with John Herbert McDowell, who's a very well-known composer in the 1960s and 70s, particularly in the field of dance. When I was in my 40s I went back to school to study composition at Juilliard with Lawrence Windows.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of someone listening to something that you composed?
JB: I guess in high school. I had a very good friend who was a clarinetist and we used to play together. I wrote a little serenade for clarinet and piano for us to play.
Q: How did that feel?
JB: Well I was almost, in a way I was embarrassed because it didn't seem very manly to be composing music when all my friends are out playing football. Of course I did a lot of that myself, but yeah, secretly I was truly pleased. It was very rewarding to have created something and have it performed and accepted.
Q: How much of your material is religious and how much is secular?
JB: Well, it's varied really. I've composed a lot of atonal music. I was very into that for a long time. I guess there’s something about that music that is unsatisfying, especially harmonically, there's no soul to it. It's ‘head’ music for me. It's very fun to play and to construct but it wasn't nearly as rewarding as the music I was writing when I was much younger, so I went back to tonality again. I'm very happy I did.
Q: Could you describe what you do?
JB: That’s not to say [my work] doesn't go off on tangents. It is quite modern in many aspects. The mass [I’ve just finished writing] is quite a modern piece. I think harmony represents the soul. The soul of the music is in the harmony, it's the emotional aspect of music for me. That’s how I see it. I've recently composed a classical symphony. I had always wondered ‘What I would write, what would come out of me if I was living when Beethoven did, or Mozart?’ So I wrote a classical symphony. It's being played in Australia in 2017.
The music is already there and if the mind is quiet and you're attentive to the subject, it just enlarges itself in front of your eyes.
Q: Congratulations. How long did that take you?
JB: About a year and a half, I suppose. It's very humbling to write in that style and to stick with it.
Q: A long-form piece is probably like a novel…
JB: The first movement I ended up not using at all. I was happy with it when I finished it but then I wrote the second movement, and the third movement, and they were just so much better than the first movement. I rewrote the first movement upon completion of the third movement, so the symphony has the traditional four movements.
Q: Could you describe your approach to working?
JB: Well, I don't work at a piano. I use a piano when I need to, but basically the working process is I just allow the mind to fall still and wait for something to come. It sounds kind of strange, almost like fishing. You throw your line out and you wait for something to nibble at it. The beginning parts are always the hardest for me, just getting started. Then in a way you just sort of listen and it tells you what's next. In a way it writes itself and the composer is just there to accurately put down what's coming out.
Q: What do you think fuels what you're doing?
JB: Well, I guess it comes from a love of music. You have to consider that, so this music is coming but it's coming because there's been a long study so that the principles of harmony, rhythm, voice leading, orchestration, counterpoint and all that are some way have been crystallized within the framework of the human mind. The music, in a sense, is already there and if the mind is quiet and you're attentive to the subject, it just enlarges itself in front of your eyes.
Q: Can you recall a really important piece of insight or advice during your life?
JB: Going back to maybe 25, 30 years ago, John Herbert McDowell helped me more than I realized at the time. He introduced me to all the players of the Philharmonic and other opera orchestras and gave me the list of all the players. I had a list that you couldn't imagine! A book of just the best players in the city.
He also introduced me to people that supported me for awhile. He got me involved in the New York State Council on the Arts I received many grants all through the ‘70s. Which was not a lot of money to live on, but I didn't care. I was writing every day. I had a restaurant job that I kept on the side just so that I didn't starve [Phebe’s Restaurant in the East Village]. You could go a couple of months without having work and then suddenly you'd have four or five jobs at once.
Q: Those kind of jobs would be commissions?
JB: Mostly it would be theaters, the off-off-Broadway theaters like the LaMama, Truck and Warehouse, Jon Kato Repertoire Theater. I did a lot of work for New York Shakespeare Company and for various dance companies.
Q: What do you think is the best lesson that you've learned?
A: I think it would be to be sure when you choose a subject that it's one of very high value. I mean, for example, my last piece was a mass. I just finished it. It's a very rich text, it goes back thousands of years. All the great composers of the world have written masses. It's a text which constantly is uplifting and offers inspiration and this music comes from this inspiration so that the music comes from a source of high value. I think that's probably the most important.
Q: So you’re saying ‘don’t spend your time on things you don’t personally value’?
JB: I had a very brief time where I was interested in commercials. I did two of them. It was the most ridiculous thing in the world. You're working with people who have no idea what music is or how it goes, anything about it. The producer of one session comes over to me and says, "Can you make it a little bit more blue." I didn't know what in the hell he was talking about.
I thought, look, this guy's nuts. Went back a few minutes later and played the same thing and he says, "That's perfect.”
Q: You obviously found your passion relatively early and you've been able to make that your life's work…
JB: I mean that's really very rare when you can make a living only on writing. I did a lot of private teaching. It was a very good source of income.
Q: A lot of creative people talk about ‘flow’ or tapping into that source. You said you found it through the practical philosophy side of meditation?
JB: Right. If the mind is busy thinking about things, there's no room for anything to pass through it.
I'm in this restaurant one day, about 40 years ago, and it started to rain really hard and it got dark out and the lightning was powerful, the kind of lightning that just makes you jump. I could hear this music and I thought it was the radio — it wasn’t — it was this piece. It started with a huge clap of thunder and I asked: "Is there a radio on?" There was no radio on.
Q: Was it through this experience that you sought out practical philosophy?
JB: I was always interested in philosophy and I had a girlfriend who used to go to siddha yoga. She kept asking me to go and I ended up going just to, you know, make her stop nagging me about it.
The only reason I went back was because of the food. The food was unbelievable. It was Indian food, the best food I had in my life. At the same time, I came to realize, "Well, there's something to this." I didn't know what it was, but I knew there was something there. Then someone gave me a card for the School of Practical Philosophy, and I went to both for a while, but then I just kept coming back here [The School of Practical Philosophy].
Q: Do you have any advice for your younger self?
JB: Oh, goodness gracious. 'Don't fool around so much!'
When I was younger, of course, now I had a great life because I had this great place on Lafayette Street, a beautiful duplex with a recording studio in the building and, so I had a nice social life but there was a real conflict between the social life and the work. If I would go out and not work I would feel guilty. If I was working, I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, god, I would love to go out." It was a conflict.
I left the whole thing behind in the mid-1980s. I moved to Jersey City, where I live now. I moved into a nice quiet place which is wonderful, it's near the water, I overlook Manhattan. It took me too long to really settle on that. I had too much time going back and forth. I would go days without sleeping.
Q: Did philosophy help you come to terms with that conflict?
JB: Philosophy really puts the emphasis on your higher nature and that's really important. It's quite a different effect than being involved with everything and being moved this way and that way. There's no stability, there's no anchor.
Philosophy puts an anchor in there and so I'm grateful for that.