“Sanibel has so many
beautiful aspects:
the beach, the preserve,
the dolphins, the stars.
Those things inspired me
to start writing this suite.”

“Sometimes the material
will take you places you
didn’t know you would go.
Sometimes a solution
comes up that’s different
than you thought
you would find.”

Poetry and Problem Solving

by Paula Michele Bolado

ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, in the persistent flickers of sunlight volleying off the sabal palm trees surrounding his Santiva home, Erik Entwistle sits down at his walnut Steinway and plays his newest compositions. His fingers tap along the keys like a lyrical dancer stretching, and bounding onto stage. The music itself becomes a poem, a painting, an impression of something words cannot quite evoke; as if one could truly describe Degas’ blue ballerinas or understand why Monet’s layers of colors are laced with brush bristles—intentional, frantic, impressionistic? Maybe what is seen and heard are just solutions to problems the artist has to solve. As spectators and listeners we get their answers. Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

For Entwistle, “You are the creator, you are in charge of something, and composing music is about problem solving.” The answer to the problem becomes what we hear, which moves us into an experience. For example, in one of his newest compositions, ‘Elegy,’ in memory of his mother, he starts playing somberly, but finishes the piece luminously and lightheartedly, as her memory is a celebration and not a lamentation. He also can take the listener to a place of activism for the brilliance of wildlife and the need for conservation through his ‘Sanibel Suite,’ which recently premiered at BIG ARTS’ Schein Hall on Sanibel Island.

As he plays ‘Elegy,’ we recognize the introduction’s opening into C Major before it transitions into C Minor. The song listens like a waltz taking place gracefully across the floor in circling and sweeping movements. Then the scene changes to evoke a montage of images from one’s life: from playing in the park with children to bedtime prayers with grandchildren as the music gently comes to a close. This is what Entwistle has me hear: an elegy of love for one whose song still lives on, a reminder of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18,’ but to a mother’s legacy.

Music is poetry and one cannot just look at the poem to know how it should sound, as poetry is meant to be read aloud. Like with poetry, Entwistle says that knowing the title and the background story helps influence how you hear and play it. He points out, “Debussy puts titles at the end of his preludes and you don’t really know what they are about until you look at the title. It’s a truism that if you have a title it’s going to influence what you are going to hear. So if I said ‘Elegy’ you’re going to be prepared to listen to something sad.”

Moving through grief seems to be integral to his composing process. Shortly after his mother passed away, he lost his younger brother. Thus, the piece, ‘Elegy’ has another layer woven into the sound; it is not a sad harmony, but is further enrichened with depth and meaning.

Entwistle makes a choice to play songs that are positive and pleasing to the ear, tonal and consonant. He says, “I like a lot of music that uplifts people that doesn’t have a negative reflection of ugliness. There’s plenty of art and music where there’s a place for that [atonal, anxious, and dissonant] but it’s not what I feel like I want to write.”

As he prepares for the next piece, his Shiba Inu sneaks in to take a nap next to the piano, soaking in the warm sunshine from the window. Before he plays, ‘Her Most Beautiful Smile,’ by Japanese composer Taro Iwashiro, he tells me this impressionistic piece inspired him to get back into composing. As he plays, I envision the expansion of spring and flowers budding brilliantly in the sun and closing in the night. Perhaps it is the rustling of the palms outside, or the April air, but the love of people and of nature can be felt in his work as I listen to him play. He says, “What you can’t express with words, you can express musically. It’s also about sharing love.”

Discovering how to get there as a composer is the main part of the journey. “Sometimes the material will take you places you didn’t know you would go, which is interesting, or you would find something unusual in what you are composing that you weren’t expecting because you are problem solving. Sometimes a solution comes up that’s different than you’d thought you’d find.” If he hits a bump, like with the piano solo he’s working on, he works through it and allows the unpacking of a problem to happen naturally.

Throughout the years, Entwistle has learned that composing music is all about problem solving. Starting late at age fifteen, Entwistle found that he had a lot to catch up on, so he felt at Dartmouth College he could explore music and found that the impressionistic styles of Debussy and Stravinsky were inspiring to his composing process. He explains, “It was the most challenging thing for me and it was the thing that was the most difficult. Composing didn’t come easy or naturally for me so I had to work really hard at it. With composition I had a lot to learn. I still feel the same about it because the more you do the better you get at it.”

Despite his incredible talents, he hasn’t been really ambitious with his compositions in the past. He has a degree in music from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and he was an instructor at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, a conservatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but his degrees do not hang in his studio like tactical validations of pedigree. Instead, his numerous publications on music, from magazines to critical essays (he’s a published scholar on Czech composers such as Dussek, Martinu and Kapralova), rustled pages of sheet music, books, pets, and technology used for modern music programs, distinguishes his presence as a teacher and composer.

And he’s an islander now. He left the demands of his job up North which has allowed him to open up the emotional space needed to compose. He says, “There’s an enormous amount of time required to write out your scores and figure out your pieces and I didn’t have that… and Sanibel has so many beautiful aspects: the beach, the preserve, the dolphins, and the stars here are so brilliant because there isn’t any light pollution. Those things inspired me to start writing this suite, which started with one movement and then one led to another. Suddenly, I had four movements that all worked together.” The pieces include ‘Deserted Beach,’ ‘Cycling through the Refuge,’ ‘Under the Stars,’ and ‘Dolphins in the Wake’.”

Entwistle moved here with his family in 2014 and his name already creates a buzz among musicians in the area, as well as with people referring him as a piano teacher. He always encourages his students to compose. According to Entwistle, “These students are coming up with beautiful pieces. You can be creative at every level and the self-conscious aspect where you judge yourself you need to set aside. It can be completely individualized. Students can be proud of what they composed. It teaches them about notation, history, musical styles, analysis, and lot about what makes music work.” He has an easy teaching style and laid back attitude reflective of island life.

As the sunlight flickers into the studio, cascading deeper hues of yellows and golds upon his Steinway, and his dog stretches in the glow, Entwistle ends the interview with his newest piece, which has reverent tones of modern Japanese influences.

The Sanibel Trio, with Erik Entwistle at piano, Espen Lilleslatten on viola, and Renata Arado on violin, will perform May 22 at Shell Point in Fort Myers, as part of their Concert & Conversations Series. This is their premiere concert as a Trio. They are playing selections by Mozart, Bach, Dvorak, and ‘Sanibel Suite,’ the trio version for violin, viola and piano. The concert is at 7pm in the Grand Cypress Room at The Woodlands, followed by a reception. •

For information about the concert, call 454-2067. For more information about Erik Enstwistle, visit erikentwistle.com.

May-June 2017