Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 2

I am learning new rhythms of working. Or learning to pay attention to the existing rhythms. It seems important to remember, though, that after life-changing events in your life, your art changes, as does the way you make art. I am noticing as if for the first time how I write music; and it is for the first time, in truth, the first time since my parents died that I have notated a musical score on this scale, with the intention of it being performed by others.

The flood of ideas for the last section of the new choral piece continues, and I find myself "filling in the blanks" easily and with gusto. But I realize that I cannot make more than a page or two an hour, and maybe only a few pages a day—not because of my speed of writing, which is relatively facile, but because I must keep stepping away from the table, and walking off some tension or other. After a minute, all the while working over the measures in question in my mind, the proper solution appears, and I can fill in that blank where before the white void of the paper was almost frightful.

I can work for a few hours per session, then I must stop for awhile. Go off for a walk, go do some errands, go to the post office. The intensity of making this music is more than my body can sit still for. It creates a sidebar restlessness in me, that I must work off, regularly, in order to be able to hear the music arising from within. And when I come back to the writing table, the music keeps flowing. I can often multitask, when I step away. Most of my mind is still on the music, keeping that pressure on, as I prepare a meal during one break, or check the weather. If I am able, I will finish as many pages as I can per session, till I must stop, to eat, to relax, to give myself a rest from this exertion.

The feeling of being at white heat is the same as for writing an essay or poem; but the writing is more complex, and slower to accomplish, because I must handle more variables during each moment of writing. I get less done, it's harder work, and it makes me more tense, than with writing words; but then, the end result is more than words, alone. It's music, it's words-with-music, it's multisensory in ways that words alone cannot achieve.

I think of a poem written almost two years ago, a shaman's critique of pure poetry, and I realize the connections between what the viewpoint character in that poem speaks, and this (recovered, rediscovered) process of notating music. I see many parallels in how writing this music is losing the self, coming back to the self, losing the self—all in a kind of breath rhythm. I see the connections between the necessity for experience and somatic embodiment within a poem as being parallel to the immersive experience of being in music: music is something multisensory, but it is also multidirectional, in that sound comes at you from all directions, and you feel certain frequencies resonating in your physical flesh. Music can never be all in the mind, even at its most abstract, because once it is made manifest by being played, it surrounds you. The difference between poems on the page and music in the air is like a diver standing on the lip of a swimming pool: you can think about it, and keep it cerebral before you dive in, but once you are immersed in the water, your body is as engaged as your intellect, and perhaps more. You're in the water, not just thinking about being in the water.

I am aware that this writing is more like a diary entry than I usually present. It's a one-time process, though.

What I am doing is observing myself, observing my own creative process, as if I was doing this for the first time. Because in many ways, it is for the first time.

it's the first composed piece of music of this scale that I have completely notated in over fifteen years. It's the first piece of new music that I've composed like this since the life-changing events of my parents' passing, my own illness, and the many changes of the past four years. And it's the completion of an idea that was started before those life-changing events occurred, so it is a first return to life as I desire it to be, the return to life after a very long winter.

I'm observing myself, to learn how the process works for me now. I don't know myself this way anymore, so I'm learning about myself and my process all over again, as if for the first time. Everything else in life has been made new, so this is being made new as well.

i am recording my observations of myself and my process, then, to learn about them. I observe and record, and believe that this will lead to a better understanding of my own process, and to a renewal of these aspects of my creative life that have lain dormant and unexercised for a long time.

Another aspect of this project that intrigues me is that, while I feel like I'm starting all over again, I still have all my old knowledge and skills. I feel like I've returned to the very beginning, creatively, but I retain several decades' worth of training and experience in music composition and music theory. I still have my own style, if changed, and my own ways of working. I still have the knowledge of what I've learned to do, what I've taught myself to do, and what I've learned about myself in terms of what kinds of music I tend to write.

So it's paradoxical: brand new on the one hand, comfortably familiar on the other.

I also observe, about stepping away to do something else for awhile, that sometimes I do that so my mind can mull over what the music wants to do next. I think about the words I'm setting, I think about the musical mode I want to work in—for this concluding section an invented mode that alternates between Dorian and Lydian, but in both cases avoiding the sixth tone of the scale, as a way of leaving unresolved which "minor mode" is in use at any given time. Sometimes it's stepping away to let the back of my mind sort it out, and give me a clear answer when it's done. It's like percolating water until it comes to a boil. When the solution to the puzzle of what wants to happen in the next few bars comes into my head, I go back to the table and immediately write it down.

This is a process of distracting the personality-ego part of the mind with other things, while the rest of the mind works on what is supposed to happen next in the music. Then when the rest of the mind is done working on the problem it presents a solution, and the part of the mind that's usually in the driver's seat (or thinks it is) gets back to work.

Lots of artists, poets, and composers imagine that everything they do is done consciously, with the driver's-seat part of the mind. In fact, that is the smallest part of all the overall system of consciousness. (It likes to ignore the rest and inflate its own importance, too.) In fact, the unconscious resources of the mind are far more powerful for creative work. Whatever you choose to label this process, and there are many labels—letting your right brain work on it while your left brain does the dishes; listening to the Muse; taking dictation from the collective unconscious; trusting your intuition; whatever—it's a powerful way to work. It also makes for deeper, more resonant art in my experience. Whenever one encounters art made with only the left brain personality-ego consciousness, it tends to be marked by certain characteristics: puzzle-box complexity; ego-inflated pomposity; cleverness; logical consistency, but not in a good way; a certain cerebral detachment from emotional nuance. None of these are complete in themselves, none of them are particularly warm, none activate the kinesthetic soma and bring it into the experience of art; unless these are balanced with emotional resonance, there is no depth, no echo of infinity.

Of course to many artists this is heresy. But then, post-modern art-making has become so much a cult of personality, so much driven by the extra-artistic aura surrounding the creative process itself, that few artists seem to even realize how dead their own art really is; or how deadening.

I make no populist appeals. I am not making "art for the masses," but art to please myself. There are many layers of meaning, of resonance, in whatever I try to do; art I stand the least is the type of art that, once you've solved the puzzle-gimmick, the art dies and you never want to see it again, and I refuse to make that kind of art. I call it shallow, and worse.

I observe myself stepping away from the table whenever something isn't right, or satisfying to both structure (music theory) and essence (expression). Both must be satisfied, whichever page of music I'm working on, before I can go forward.

So sometimes you just have to step away from the table, and wait. Eventually, what is supposed to happen next is revealed.

When I first began writing this piece, I wrote the piano and instrumental parts first, then fit the chorus lines to them. The beginning had always been clear in my mind: a flute gesture, a response from the bells, and the piano making a context, a ground of being.

Now as I near the end, I find I am writing the vocal parts first, and filling in the piano part last. I know what the vocal lines need to do, and how they will interweave with the poem that inspires the last section of the piece. It all breathes together, and the melodies come first, followed by the accompaniment.

So the procedure, the order of writing things out, has reversed itself, at the opposite end of the process. Reversals that lead to something more true, more real.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I love the water metaphor. I may use that.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Feel free, please.

I don't rememebr now if I've talked about it this way before. And i've used a water metaphor to myself for a long time, that creative force (if you will) is like a river or a lake of water, and that the creative channels are like high-pressure firehoses, which I can direct, and switch between, but I don't really control the water-pressure or force. It's always there, like that lake or river, ready to be tapped into with the hoses.

I dunno. Maybe it's too idiosyncratic a metaphor to be useful to anyone but me, but feel free if you like it.

7:38 AM  

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