Shuffle: Piano Tuner Makes His Debut as a Composer With "Songs of Ascents"

Apr 12, 2018

For more than 25 years students and faculty at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music have known Mark Graham as the man in charge of tuning the school’s 108 pianos. But this weekend, he’ll be wearing a different hat: that of a composer.

Graham has been tuning and maintaining pianos at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music for 26 years. During that time he’s kept a little-known secret: For decades, Graham has led a quiet side career of sorts as a composer.

“I might well be the most-performed composer in the building only in that people are singing hymns I wrote every weekend,” Graham said.

'We happen to be missing the music, so we have the liberty of adding it.'

Graham has written scores of hymns that are sung at his church every Saturday. This weekend, he’ll make his conservatory debut as a composer with a piece he’s been working on for most of his life.

"Songs of Ascents"
In his late 20s, Graham came across a set of 15 psalms from the Old Testament. They’re known collectively as “The Songs of Ascents.”

“It’s a Hebrew term from back when the psalms were compiled as a book,” Graham said. “It’s not something that later English translators added.”

These particular psalms — numbers 120 through 134 — are thought to have been sung by religious travelers on their way up to Jerusalem.

“And by the way, that’s where the ‘ascents’ come in,” Graham said. “Jerusalem is an elevated city, and these were sung on their way, literally gaining in elevation.”

Conductor Marc Weagraff leads the BW Singers, a choir that includes conservatory students, faculty and community members.
Credit PHILIP DE OLIVEIRA / WKSU

Several of these psalms were written more than 2,000 years before anyone figured out a way to write down music. Whatever melodies might have accompanied these psalms are lost to history.

“We happen to be missing the music, so we have the liberty of adding it,” Graham said.

'The piano tuner's music'
Graham started to add his own music, but he stopped short of completing the entire set. The music sat abandoned for more than 30 years. Then, last summer, Graham decided to revisit the music he’d started.

“I hadn’t looked at them for a while, I was revisiting them,” Graham said. “And I realized I had 14 of them done and there were only two more to go.”

Now in his 60s, Graham decided it was time to finish the entire set.

“I sat down and made myself finish them. And then I thought, 'Well what do I do?  Who wants to perform the piano tuner's music?'” Graham said.

Marc Weagraff conducts the BW Singers, a choir of conservatory students and community members. Weagraff got a copy of the music, played through it, and programmed it.

“Because it does have a number of challenging elements,” Weagraff said. “I thought, 'OK, this is going to give us something to really sink our teeth into.'”

Hymns and show tunes
The music combines a number of influences from Graham’s eclectic musical experiences; everything from church hymns to show tunes.

Graham says he was also influenced by perhaps the most famous setting of the psalms in Hebrew, by a composer who was himself inspired by the musical stage: Leonard Bernstein. Graham performed Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” at BW when he was in his 20s.

“I wanted to hear what the psalms would sound like in English with those kinds of harmonies and rhythms,” Graham said.

After months of rehearsals, the BW Singers will premiere the complete set of 15 psalms this weekend, with the piano tuner-turned-composer listening to his own music from the audience.

“I've been here 26 years, mostly as a pianist and as the piano technician,” Graham said. “I've gotten to know people, I like the music students, and I've built relationships with many of them. And I think, unintentionally, some of them are paying me back in a very nice way.”

"Songs of Ascents" will premiere at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music on Sunday, April 15 at 6 p.m. Admission is free, and there will also be a live stream.

Shuffle is WKSU's weekly spin through Northeast Ohio's music scene.