Standing in his living room, Knoxville composer Mark Harrell is seemingly every bit a man of the present. But as he strolls about the room, showing off memorabilia and old photographs of his parents and grandparents and pointing out particular little treasures and furniture picked up here and there—each with an anecdote—one can see a warm nostalgia spreading over him. And with that glow of pride, one begins to see the evidence of a thousand little threads of history binding Harrell and his music to his own heritage of family and East Tennessee community. Certainly not an obsession and obviously not a burden, those self-imposed ties to the past are for Harrell the form and substance of his work.
It's abundantly clear that some of those threads have found their way into Harrell's latest work, Time Like an Ever Flowing Stream. The piece, commissioned by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, will be given its world premiere as part of KSO's Beloved Brahms concerts on Thursday and Friday of this week. When Maestro Lucas Richman suggested that a piece with a descriptive title would suit the context of the performance, a thread tugged at Harrell from the past. "I collect antique cookbooks and hymn books," he says. "I love old hymn tunes. A hymn I remember very well when I was a little kid growing up is ‘Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.' The fifth verse of the hymn is ‘Time like an ever flowing stream…' My piece never actually quotes the hymn tune in any way, but it does make use of the imagery of the text.
"Initially I was envisioning that the piece would start out very small… ideas that would flow together, getting larger and larger, and faster and faster, as if they were flowing together into a great river."
But, as is often the case, life intrudes on art, and those threads of family tugged at Harrell once again. "About a year ago, it hit an entirely different meaning for me," he says. "My dad had gotten sick and he died in February of last year. If you think of the phrase from the hymn, ‘Bears all [its] sons away,' I was struck by all that family history. I was an only child; I'm the end of the line. That weighed a little different for me. So, the piece became about that journey of existence, in a way."
Harrell's own river of existence is deeply etched into the history of the hills of East Tennessee. Born in Lake City in 1965, he is the seventh generation of his family springing from that area of Anderson County. But his was not a family of musicians, so Harrell's decision to go into music was not without parental discussion. Determination won out, though, and while still a music student at the University of Tennessee, he joined the KSO horn section in 1983. Like many musicians do, he wandered away after graduation, in his case to Boston to study with then-Boston Symphony Orchestra principal horn Charles Kavalovski. And, also like many, he has spent time seeing the world. But the tug of local ties eventually drew Harrell back to Knoxville, where he resumed playing horn for the KSO and began teaching instrumental music in the public schools. He is currently assistant band director at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School and is an adjunct horn instructor at Carson-Newman College.
Harrell admits that his compositional skills have largely come not from any specific, dedicated training as a composer but from his years of experience as an orchestral player—listening, observing, absorbing, and reflecting on bits and pieces of the repertoire he has played, then speaking out musically with his own distinct creative voice. "It's particularly fun to write for the people that I've known and made music with for all these years," he says. "I gave the opening horn solo in the piece to Calvin [Smith, KSO principal horn]. Then there's a solo in the third horn, which has been my part for years—Jennifer Crake is going to play it. As a matter of fact, most of the principal chairs have little solos."
When asked about what is next, Harrell seemed to have a hundred ideas. "I've been working on a bassoon concerto, and I've got a great idea for a one-act ballet," he says. Once again, the threads to the past glowed. "It will be called The Baptism of Sam Robbins. Sam Robbins was my great-grandfather. He never darkened the door of a church until he was 72 years old, at which point he figured he should cover all his bases and get baptized. Obviously, a comic ballet."
As far as the performances of Time Like an Ever Flowing Stream this week, Harrell has prepared himself for the recognition traditionally accorded the composer. But with almost a bit of old-time reserve, he concluded: "If it was left up to me, I'd rather have a seat in the back corner of the theater, where no one would know who I was, and I could just sit and listen to what people say about the piece, and watch their reactions."