‘Music of the Senses’ Celebrates Eastern Mantras, Mother Nature –
Barbara Ulman was born with an ear for music and poetry. She was also born with a love of being active in the great outdoors, and of taking time to meditate on the sounds and vibrations she finds there.
Now, as she celebrates three-quarters of a century of a life fully lived, she has succeeded in bringing nature, music, poetry and meditation together to create the 13 compositions on her first CD, “Music of the Senses.”
“I love to hike. I love to go canoeing and play tennis, and I used to do a lot of rock climbing when I was younger. But playing the piano has always been so important for my life. It feeds my soul,” Ulman said. “It’s therapy for me.”
As a 7-year-old child in rural Brighton, Mich., Ulman was introduced to the joys of making music by a teacher who came to her students’ homes to teach piano lessons. When she was 10, Ulman’s family moved to a small town outside Boston, Mass., where she continued to take piano lessons, and soon added singing to her musical accomplishments.
“I think the first time I realized how important music was to me was when I was 15. A church choir in our town was doing Faure’s Requiem,” Ulman said. “I really loved that piece. They needed a few more sopranos, so I joined that church just because I wanted to sing the Requiem and because they had a good music director! I stayed there for a few years – until I went to school at Harvard/Radcliffe – just because they did so much beautiful music.”
In January 1977, when her only child was 3, Ulman signed up for a music composition class one evening a week at California State University, Fresno. She enjoyed it so much that she signed up the next semester for two classes.
“I was only able to go part-time. I had no plans at all to get another degree … but 12 years later, I got one anyway,” she said.
She’d earned her first bachelor’s degree many years earlier, from Radcliffe College, in anthropology, sociology and psychology. Although she thought she eventually wanted to become a psychologist, Ulman said, she ended up teaching school in the San Francisco Bay area for 10 years before she and her husband, CSUF math professor Burke Zane, moved to Oakhurst in 1973, the year their son was born.
“I quit teaching before we moved here. I just wasn’t cut out for it. I also decided not to become a psychologist,” she said.
What she needed was more music – and more time communing with Mother Nature.
In the summer of 1976, Ulman said, she had been on a backpacking trip with her husband and young son, up in the Sierra Palisades. While meditating at their campsite, located at about 9,000 feet in elevation, Ulman said, she spent some time looking out over the patches of snow nestled into the crevasses of the rugged, gray granite peaks.
“The sky was such an intense shade of blue,” she said. “Everything else was different shades of gray and white. It was utterly silent.”
Into that silence, she said, came an inspiration, an idea so strong, she said, “It was almost like a command: Write this song. Well, I wasn’t a composer at all, at the time. But I just knew that I had to set four Psalms and my Sanskrit mantra to music. It was such a powerful message. I had to write it.”
As she hiked back down that Palisades trail a few days later, Ulman started hearing the melody for the mantra that would eventually become the basis of “Joy, Praise, Hope: Psalm/Mantra Music,” the third composition on her newly released CD. It’s beautiful, complicated, melodic and over 11 minutes long.
“That melody kept time with my steps as I was walking,” she said. “I sang it to myself all the way down the mountain.”
She used her mantra-inspired melody for meditation after returning home from that hiking trip, and later, wrote out the melody for a Psalm. She put the hand-written Psalm composition into her piano bench, where it stayed for months.
“I wasn’t a composer. I’d played piano since I was 7, but I didn’t know how to actually compose music,” she said. “That’s when I decided I needed some more education in music before I could turn it into a large choral composition.”
That’s when she enrolled as a part-time music student at CSUF.
A few weeks into her first music composition class in early 1977, Ulman said, she showed what she’d written so far to the professor teaching the class.
“He kept it for a few days, and gave it back to me. He never said what he thought of it, and I didn’t have enough confidence to ask him,” she said. “I took it home and put it back in the piano bench, and it stayed there for 30 years.”
After graduating from CSUF in 1989, Ulman was asked by friends to set poems to music, which she did. But it took until 2008, with a lot of encouragement from CSUF music professor Brad Hufft, for her to start learning to use the music composition software program ‘Finale.’ Finally, in 2010, she pulled out the music she’d written in 1976, and used Finale to help her turn it into a full choral piece.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I like to do things when the time is right. Sometimes it takes a long time for that to come about,” she said.
But the wait was definitely worth it. She is very pleased with both the composition and the way the various voices and instruments on “Music for the Senses” work together to interpret her work.
The songs on “Music for the Senses” are mostly contemporary classical in style, Ulman said. They include choral works, vocal solos with piano and other instruments, as well as a duet for clarinet and piano. The CD is now available at Artifacts and Williams Gallery West in Oakhurst, or online on Ulman’s website.
Ulman said she is especially grateful for the assistance of two local artistic businesses: Josh Freeman of Ten Tortoise Design designed the CD wallet and booklet, and John Kilburn of Kilburn Music mixed and mastered the recordings.