Thursday, October 22, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 4

Rehearsals. Finished notation, finished scores. Announcements. Publicity. Rehearsals. The circles of preparation.

Once a new piece is made, the writing finished, that's not the end of the process. There are still rehearsals and performances to do. Notated music composed for others to perform, or indeed for oneself to perform, still requires rehearsal and performance.

This is different from improvised music, or transcriptions made of improvisations, which are notations of what somebody played without reading notation when they played. There are musicians who transcribe and study great improvisations by great jazz musicians, to study them, to analyze them, to learn from them. But then some jazz students take it further, and rehearse and re-perform the transcribed improvisation as though it were a composed piece rather than a spontaneous performance. I have very mixed feelings about that practice: the question is, why would you want to do that.

Of course, as a composer myself, a number of pieces of mine are effectively notated improvisations. It's one effective way of getting the sounds down on paper. Notation's root purpose is to be able to communicate your musical ideas to others, so that they can perform them, too. I record a lot of original music that I never bother notating; but on more than one occasion I have transcribed, or partially transcribed, a recorded piece of my own so that others could play it, too. In some cases, I wrote out a chart for a player to overdub over what had already been recorded, none of which had been notated. I have been in several bands that were based on improv, or structured improv; like a jazz band, in some cases I wrote out a chart, or a whole piece.

For example, here's the chart for "Rivers," a piece I wrote for The Barbaric Yawps. (You can here a complete studio-recorded performance of "Rivers" here.)

(Click on the thumbnails for a larger image of each page.)

The chart for "Rivers," like a jazz chart, is instructions for performance, with melodies and chords indicated. But interpretation is up to the musicians; they are free to depart from the chart, especially during the free, improvisatory sections. This was a fairly typical chart for this band, and many of the pieces were written out this way; the head, or theme, is precisely notated, and the free sections are left open for the musicians to improvise within. All of this is common practice in some styles or genres of making music.

Depending on the style of the piece I'm writing, I may not need to be at the piano to compose at all; such was the case for "Weavers of Light," as I knew what modes I'd be working in, and the logic of mode is such that one has a rule-set to both follow and deliberately not-follow, to create musical effects. (Some very subtle, it's true.) On other occasions, I sat and improvised at the piano, and wrote down the sounds that I liked, eventually forming them into a piece, or part of a piece. The back-and-forth between listening and writing is very obvious in this way of composing. For myself, I find this way of working to be most useful when I'm writing more complex music—more dissonant, more austere, more architectonic—which requires me to hear the resources I'm summoning, to hear the effects being produced. There may still be sections where I don't play the line before writing it down, as I can hear it in my head; in those cases, I play it back to confirm that it works. When I'm writing a piece that is more tonal, or more modal, I don't at all need to sit at the piano to write it; because those musical structures are internalized enough that I can "hear" them in my head as I write.

There is some truth to the notion that what musical instrument I have at hand will affect what I compose: different styles of music may emerge if I have a piano at hand, or my Chapman Stick, or no instrument at all but my voice and my mind. "Rivers," mentioned above as a piece written for The Barbaric Yawps, was composed on Stick. "Weavers of Light" was written completely with no musical instruments at hand. For the most part I sat in a chair in silence, and composed it based on what I was hearing rising up from within. As a long-time composer, that means that I can "hear" in my mind, with no difficulty, most of what I wrote on the page. The sounds and timbres and amplitudes of voices and musical instruments are things I have absorbed over many years, and they are now internalized. I don't always need external reference.

Looking back over the process of writing several of my older notated compositions, I believe that my usual practice is a combination of sitting at the piano, and sitting away from the piano. I can usually remember which phrases or pieces, or sections of pieces, were written each way.

But as a composer, no matter how well-intentioned the practice of re-performing a transcription of someone else's music is, I find it to be problematic. It's a bit like forging a painting to present it as your own. There are questions not only of originality, in this case, but of ethics.

I mean, if you're playing jazz, why not make up your own solo when you're playing a piece, rather than recreate Louis Armstrong's? It's one thing to transcribe and play a another jazz player's solo to learn from it—as an étude, if you will—but it's another thing to re-create that other player's solo in performance. At that point, you're playing an existing score, as though it were a written score, not an improvised solo. The processes in each case are rather different, and the intentions of the player seem rather different as well. I would go so far to say that, in my experience, the very intentions, the very thought processes in play, the things the musician is thinking about in the moment of playing, are also very different.

When you finish a new piece of music, and give it to the performers who are going to premiere the work, you give up some control over your music. You must. You have to let the performers find their own way into the music; you must let them interpret it. Unless you are a composer/performer who only writes music for yourself to play, you are always going to have to give up some or all control over the outcome. Even an authoritarian composer working with an ensemble used to performing his or her music must give up some control over the outcome, if for no other reason than that each musician brings their individual training, experience, and breath to each piece of music they perform.

I'm a performer in the group that is going to premiere the new work. I'm a singer in the chorus that is going to premiere "Weavers of Light," and for whom the piece was written. (Although, I do hope other choruses eventually take up and perform this piece, as well.) So I'm present at virtually all the rehearsals, and sometimes the artistic director will turn to me to answer a question about interpretation, or details of notation or performance.

When I answer questions in rehearsal, I appear to be fully confident to others, sure of myself and the music and what I want. Nonetheless, I'm still feeling my way. I may appear to know what I'm saying, but it remains a process of discovery for me, as well.

As a composer/performer, I am comfortable with others bringing their own interpretations to my music. I've been aware of this with every piece I've ever notated and given to someone to be played. It's unavoidable—so I choose to embrace, and work with it, rather than against it.

Therefore, usually in my scores, I leave a few things open-ended, inviting the performers to interpret them. I will give general rather than precise tempo markings. I have written entire pieces, as well as sections of pieces, in which the performers are given the freedom, within proscribed limits, to make whatever sounds they choose. This is the element of indeterminacy I bring to most of my art-making, reflected in the music. "Weavers of Light" has no indeterminate sections, no real indeterminacy in the music, beyond the factors of interpretation that every conductor and every chorus will bring to the music: their individual touch and style, their flair and favor. I encourage that. There are factors to every creative situation that are unpredictable, and beyond the maker's control. I never forget that; and for the most part, I find creative work that is over-determined by the maker to be usually flat and dull, lacking surprise, and quite often lacking any interest whatsoever except the intellectual.

A current fashion in poetry tends towards over-determining the reader's response to the poem—even when the poet states that the poem was made using the tools of indeterminacy. I have heard poets actually state publicly that if the reader did not receive the poem exactly as the poet intended, as though it were a telepathic transmission rather than a work of art, then that poet considered the poem to have "failed." As if poetry were communication and only communication. There's a lot of that going around right now. It is one reason several current fashions in poetry are so very, very dull—and likely doomed to be never read again, a hundred years from now.

To the contrary, I enjoy discovering things in my own creative work that others have found, that I didn't know where in there, or that I had not consciously placed in there. I enjoy the process of hearing my own music as though it were brand new, as though it were someone else's, as though I did not already intimately know its every corner. This is one way in which I keep myself interested in what I'm making.

To get the notation right, for this new piece of music, this week I've been proofreading the last sets of pages being typeset, going over them as carefully as possible. Catching some mistakes, including a few mistakes in my own original notation; nothing big, just details like having one too many beats per bar, or writing an octave indication that's wrong. Nothing that isn't corrected in a moment.

I don't own the Finale musical typesetting software myself, so the Chorus' assistant music director and accompanist has been engraving the music. "Engraving" is the word used for musical typesetting. It refers back to the days when master pages for printed scores were engraved on copper plates by specialists. The process is the same as artistic copper-plate engraving, involving the use of acid etching on the plate's surface to make the shallow grooves where the ink will lie. Now, like so much else in publishing, this can be done with computers.

Finale has some severe limitations, in my opinion: it is designed to accommodate normative musical notation for Western popular and classical musics, for the most part. It hits a wall, and hits it hard, whenever a composer asks it to do something outside its normative assumptions. Which most contemporary avant-garde music will do. Modern composers are used to having to invent new notations for specific purposes or precise effects. There are always ideas that don't fit within the norms of ordinary notation. One finds oneself having to invent new symbols. One finds oneself being required to change the software's default settings. (An example: the software always wants you to indicate a time signature. If you are writing something in free, non-metered time, you constantly have to keep turning that default feature off.) And there are things that are harder to do, for a trained music copyist and composer like me, in Finale, than on the page. I can make a clean pencil score that anybody can read, from my background in professional music copying, in a fraction of the time it would take me to do it FInale. "Weavers of Light" is not an avant-garde piece of music, per se, nonetheless, there have been issues with Finale being unable to properly engrave some of my indications in the score, certain things done for musical effect that are integral to the piece. We've had some difficulty with octave up and down markings, for example, in the piano part.

The software makes it look clean and precise and professional, so the performers really appreciate having a clean, engraved score. At the end of this rehearsal and performance cycle, I expect to have a clean engraved version of my score available to be copied as needed for future performances. The technology also allows me to send out the score to future performers, if any, in digital form, for them to print on-site and on-demand. (In a manner parallel to some innovations in contemporary book publishing.)

Yet any software that slows down the creative process, rather than enhancing it or speeding it up, is of no use to the working composer. So, I'm not going to be composing using Finale anytime soon; especially not for my music that doesn't easily fit into the stylistic expectations of popular or light classical music. And as a composer, you don't always have time to go through the software learning curve, when you're in the midst of a project. So, I have no problem with someone else engraving "Weavers of Light" in Finale. But I wouldn't attempt it myself, just now. Far better for me to do my composing with pencil, generating a clean final score, then hiring someone else to engrave the score. There isn't a skill in any trade that you can't learn, given time and practice and inclination; but the tradeoff is about how much time and effort it would take you to learn that skill, versus hiring someone to do it for you. Usually, you come out ahead if you hire an expert rather than try to re-invent the skillset for yourself.

I have other skillsets that I am far more facile at: Photoshop, typing words on my laptop, photography, cooking. If I ever choose to, I'm sure I can master Finale, too. Right now, I don't want to spend my time on that. I'd rather spend my limited time and energy on the making, rather than the engraving.

Although the end product really does look very nice. Although the engraved score doesn't feel as personally belonging to me, anymore: it feels a bit removed, a bit distanced, a bit generic, rather than my own music. That's another trade-off in giving music to others to be performed: you must let go of certain kinds of ownership, just as you let go of certain kinds of control. Performance is a collaboration with other musicians: it requires a meeting of individuals in which unity—in the form of synergy and everyone coming together with one mind, one purpose—can be achieved, but is not guaranteed.

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