Saturday, October 17, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 3


That's the only word for it.

Weavers of Light is now finished. I finished it late at night, after three or four continuous days of writing, or thinking about writing, or letting the ideas come so that I could write them down. I had to stop and take breaks, then come back to it. It went on for several more pages than originally planned, but that was necessary to give the piece its full flowering, its genuinely developing form.

I'm not sure what I feel about the piece, yet—the process or the finished product. This new piece was written during a period of complicated, extremely high stress in my life. It was pointed out to me that finishing it despite all the incredible stresses of late is itself a major accomplishment. Maybe that's true; my own feelings are still mixed, even confused. I'm feeling too many things at once, right now, to be able to sort them all out. I accept intellectually that getting this done—the first real piece of notated music I've written in a long time, and the first piece of new music I've completed since my life took some difficult turns a few years ago—is a major accomplishment. I accept it in my mind, and I don't yet know what I feel about it in my heart. My hands are telling me to keep going, to start writing a new piece immediately, to keep up the momentum, to stay on that bucking horse as long as I can. To ride that emotional rollercoaster that my life has become, these past few years, and to spend the energy all this stress and drama and grief has generated by channelling it as much as possible into ongoing creative force—like a laser etching diamonds, like a high-pressure firehose, etching words into stone by sheer force of water-pressure.

I pushed hard, at the end of the writing. I had set myself a deadline, a day on which I wanted to finish. That deadline was so that I wouldn't keep going and going and never finish; that deadline was also so that I could turn over the completed piece for rehearsal, and give my mind and body a few days rest from the intense work of its making. I almost made my deadline; I got all the way to end of the first part of the last section of the piece, but then I realized that I still needed to give the ending its full due. Approaching the end, I realized I needed one more day of intensive writing, to do it right. I needed to take the extra day to make sure I got the ending right. That I didn't rush it, that I didn't shortchange the music by pushing into conclusion prematurely. That I didn't finish the piece just to finish it, but that I finished it following its own proper logic and flow and form. The piece told me it needed more than I could get done, that last afternoon; so I took one more, as needed.

The last section of the piece, which is where the sense of the many strands weaving together comes to fruition, is longer than I'd planned, and actually is made up of two sub-sections. The first half contains the polyphonic choral setting of the poem I wrote that is the heart of the piece. I even achieved my goal, in this section, of writing the music heterophonically, even more than complexly polyphonically. Simultaneous variations on the same phrases, woven together, converging at the end of the phrase, but otherwise independent. There are couple of phrases I feel very keen on, as they are exactly what I was hoping for.

The second half of the last section, the actual climactic ending, is a long slow buildup to a big climax, then a gradual fading away to silence. It's clichéd to end a choral piece on a big homophonic climactic chord; so I wrote up to that chord, then kept going a couple more pages of fading away, and returned to the opening themes for flute and bells, as echoes of the piece's origin, before the last few notes fade out.

I know that I like arch forms in my music. I have observed before that I naturally seem to write spiral structures: in which an idea returns, or comes around again, but slightly altered. There are no exact repetitions, but slight restatements, slight variations. These return the original themes to mind without exactly repeating them. They are always slightly changed. So it's not a rondo or ritornello form, not a truly circular form; it's a spiral form.

During the long buildup towards the last climax, the instrumental parts get more complex, more non-tonal, more multimodal. The complex mode I had planned earlier, alternating between Lydian and Dorian modes, also ventured into Phrygian mode at times. The vocal parts mostly stay in Dorian mode; they venture into Lydian mostly to highlight certain parts of the text. This is straightforward wordpainting, almost programmatic musical settings. The piano part goes poly-tonal underneath that, both supporting the chorus, and venturing off into other, more discordant realms. I wrote the instrumental parts growing towards the climax as if they were an increasingly cacaphonous ringing of changes: as though a giant bell orchestra was gradually getting louder and closer. Then all the various musical threads converges on a big homophonic chordal climax, before falling away again to a consonant ending. I avoided classical tonal patterns, using different means to express tension-and-release. I avoided letting the ending be a choral cliché of a Big Ending. At least I hope I did, I feel I avoided those things, although the proof will be in the performance, and the audience's response.

Needless to say, the ending became more complex overall, and longer, than I'd originally imagined. I don't mind that. Although I hope the piece isn't too long now. Later on I may go back and trim it a little, to make it absolutely tight. For now, till after the premiere, I'm going to leave it as is. I need to take time away from it, clear my head from the writing, maybe work on another, completely unrelated project for awhile, then come back to it with fresh, more objective ears. I want to hear the recording of the performance again, a month or two after the premiere; I know that will be enough time for me to listen to the piece more objectively. It takes time and distance, sometimes, before you can really look at something you've made with a clear mind and no expectations. It can take time to be more objective about your own work; you can't possibly be objective about it at the moment of completion.

When I finished, I was wrung out, elated, too wired to go right to bed, too exhausted to stay up long. I needed to tell somebody about it. I called my sister and brother-in-law in Holland, late at night for me, breakfast time for them. They were very pleased that I'd finished the work. I just need to tell somebody about it. Then I had a glass of celebratory whiskey, and finally went to bed.

So I have mixed feelings about finishing this project. I am very glad to have gotten it done. I have a small mustard-seed revelation of an archetypal feeling that writing and finishing this piece is a symbol of my own returning to life, of getting my own life back on track, of being reborn. I have just the beginning of a feeling that this is going to set the tone for the rest of my life—now that it's my life to live, and I'm not going to live it for anyone else anymore. And yet the context of writing this piece, the stress of life I was going through during the process, which was more than I can really say in words, the context was so hard that I don't know if I did the piece justice, if I made it come out right, or if I failed, strictly in terms of aesthetic and musical quality. I don't know; I reserve judgment. That will become clear over time. I do know that this new piece may not be the most important or most well-written piece that I've ever done. But it is the most ambitious choral piece I've ever written. And it will be performed. My original estimate for its duration in performance was to be about 7 minutes; I think it might be closer to 10 minutes, though. It all feels bigger and deeper than I had expected or imagined. There is a sense of being on the threshold: of the numinous, of the archetypal, in play behind those curtains of partial awareness.

i finished writing late at night, emailed off the last pages as a PDF to be typeset, called my relatives, then went to bed. The next morning I got up, loaded up the truck, and drove to the Northwoods for some R&R. I wanted to go do some photography, clear the cobwebs out of my head, sort some things out, and hopefully get some rest. Well, it didn't work out that way: the source of my recent stress followed me to the woods, and except for a few hours spent in the deep woods, far out of cellphone range, making photographs, making art, the trip became a kind of hell of an endurance test. I came home a few days earlier than planned, because I couldn't take anymore, and I had no more strength. (The stress has also triggered a relapse of my chronic illness, which made it all worse.)

As I noted before, when I first began writing this piece, I wrote the instrumental framework first, then discovered where the choral parts fit in. Towards the end of writing, that reversed, and I had to write out the choral parts, following the lines of the poem, first: this is what set up the structure. I then filled in the instrumental parts to accompany the voices.

But at the very end, I had to revert to writing out the instrumental parts first, to define the form as it built towards climax. More accurately, I had to do all the parts at the same time, one or two measures at a time. I had to think of many things, juggle many balls in the air, all at once. This was where the weaving all came together, you see. This is where the parts all merged. It's reflected in the structure that moves from complex polyphony to arrive at the most homophonic section in the entire work, the actual climax itself: what were once many threads become one, many voices merge into one. So it had to be written out that way, as one.

Looking at the overall form, in retrospect, I see that echoes and weavings-together happen at each structural point in the music. As though I'd intended it, although no part of my conscious mind was aware of this happening during the actual writing. I notice the patterns and forms, their many symmetries and echoes, after it's all been done. I only accentuate a pattern I have noticed, during the actual writing, if I'm aware of it.

Obviously some greater part of whatever portion of my self that is the creative force behind this writing has a better sense of overall form and shape and gesture than I do myself; "I" being the conscious, verbal part of the self, the most intellectual part of the self, the personality-ego interface if you will. That greater self knew what was going on, and shaped things more than I knew as I proceeded. I can look back and marvel at how intentional it all seems in hindsight; all the while knowing that during the actual writing I had no clue. I marvel at the wisdom of the greater self.

Often I can look back over the writing of a piece like this, in hindsight, and spot more patterns and detailed echoes of form than I was ever consciously aware of during the actual writing process. This is nothing new. I'm quite used to this, as part of my creative process. It is how essays, poems, other pieces of music, and many visual artworks have been made. I actually enjoy finding the hidden echoes within a piece, afterwards.

I have learned over time to always do my best to avoid analysis during the actual writing process: if I get too analytical too early on in the process, it can kill the energy of the entire project. It can turn the making into an intellectual puzzle-box, which for me yields creative objects of merely intellectual curiosity. So I always wait till later to analyze. And that's as it should be: theory is what we use to discover and analyze after-the-fact; theory is a very bad dictator, and a much better descriptor.

So, this new piece is done. It will performed in Madison, WI, in less than two months. The piece is harder than I'd originally intended it to be—harder, that is, for the performers. It requires them to listen and think in certain ways about their individual parts as they weave into the whole. It may stretch some performers more than I had planned. But I'm not worried about that. Once the performers get a sense of the music's internal logic—as every artwork has its own internal logic, making of itself a universe of experience—they'll be fine.

I've had many problems in these past few years years with faith, trust, and surrender. Yet I find myself trusting those things that I already know to be trustworthy: as this Making is trustworthy. I have faith that the music will find its own level, and that the performers will find their way well enough into the music to bring out of it what I hope to hear. In the end, creative work is always an act of faith: as creation itself is an act of trust.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Will there be any chance we on the other side of the pond will be able to hear a performance, perhaps a rehearsal?

5:13 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

At some point, yes, certainly. When I get a partial rehearsal recording, I might post that sooner rather than later. And when I get the concert performance recording, I hope to be able to post it.

9:22 AM  

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