Monday, October 05, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music

Writing a new piece of music—writing anything new, really—sometimes I get into a mode where things start to flow more rapidly than I can get them down. They spill out so fast that I am rushing to complete what comes forward, getting it down as fast as the pencil will move. Sometimes you have to stop what you're doing, and sketch out what's to come later, to preserve it for the time it will take to germinate and get your full attention.

Music is the most core, the most central, of my creative arts. It's what I'm most passionate about. It can also make me feel very vulnerable, very exposed. So I sometimes protect it by not talking about it, not revealing the process. It's not that the music can be derailed (although my attention can be), it's that it's so personal that at times it feels very naked. Although as an artist I'm used to being naked—you must learn to cope with feeling exposed, if you want to be any kind of artist other than merely cerebral—this goes a bit further. It goes deeper inside my own desires and dreams. It's more central to my own being. And thus I reveal more by it, and am made more vulnerable by it, and sometimes protect it more carefully. Not with a will to be secretive, rather with a need to keep it safe from the casual bullying of everyday life.

The new piece has a name now, over a month into its composition. I have so far produced about four final pages a week, since I began the process of notating from my sketches, giving me about 20 pages done so far. (Don't be too impressed: the pages sail by pretty fast in performance.) This past week, though, I seemed to cross a threshold, or step over the edge of a cliff, and in an afternoon of sitting at my worktable, twice as many pages as usual emerged. I only reluctantly stopped the flow, because I must, because it was necessary for me to go photocopy the finished pages, then drive into town to deliver them to the performers. Rehearsals for the premiere in December are already beginning, even though I haven't handed over all the finished pages yet. (Don't be too impressed: that's not uncommon for the premieres of many new pieces.)

Weavers of Light page 1 (Click on image for larger view)

I am now about two-thirds of the way through the final notated score for this new piece.

After the big surge that produced several more pages than usual, yesterday, I've taken a day's pause from the notating, to catch my breath and build up back-pressure for the last big push; thus I've been thinking about the score all day long. I'm writing about the process of writing music here only because I've been thinking about what's coming next, all day long; and I thought it might be interesting to pause and contemplate the creative process itself, in the midst of it.

In terms of form, there was the instrumental introduction, which led to an opening choral chant. Then the interwoven chants of the middle section of the piece; once the form and process of the chant section were conceived, most of the effort was about filling in the outline. And the last section, which I have just begun to notate in final score, will be longer, through-composed rather than pattern-oriented and cyclic, and use more complex musical modes and melodies. It's going to build up to a bit of a climax, then return to silence.

Most choral music is homophonic music: the voices tend to move in parallel, in vertical alignment, even as they move forward through time and notes together. I far prefer to write choral music that is polyphonic, with independent but interlayered and interdependent voices—and that's what I'm doing here. I've pushed some sections of this piece past polyphony into heterophony: independent voices in simultaneous variation on a core mode or theme, converging at key points but otherwise completely independent. Heterophonic music is the hardest kind of counterpoint to get choruses to sing, because they're used to being a massed mind, unity-of-many, and find it hard to break that unitive momentum and be independent voices. (Orchestras are worse about this, actually. You really have to push them hard, sometimes, to get them to think outside their usual box.)

This new piece, now named, is not the most complex piece I've ever written. I have a set of five art-songs, for piano and solo voice, that I wrote just over a decade ago, that pleases me as being almost the most advanced style, in terms of music theory, that I've written in. The piano writing in those art-songs is among the most complex I've ever attempted; and that piece was publicly performed, but never recorded. The harmonic language used in those songs is far more complex than what I am using in this new piece, which is largely melodic and modal; especially in that middle chant section. I'm indulging myself in this new piece with some blatantly "pretty chords"—still modal rather than tonal, but pleasing to the ear. Modal music doesn't have to resolve the way tonal music does; so I can indulge myself by letting certain rich clusters just hang there in the air, and not have to make them go anywhere. One way to avoid to clichés is to avoid the kind of writing that leads to clichés.

People sometimes have marveled that I can write this kind of music away from the piano. That I can sit at a table, and write it all down, and hear it in my mind, how it's going to sound, without need for sonic reference. But this is nothing new or unusual: composers have done this for centuries. (Think of Beethoven's amazing last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C, written when he was completely deaf.) You get to a point where you know your tools so well, that you don't have to think about how you're going to use them, you just use them. (A poet acquaintance once opined that this is also how I write poems: honestly, I've never studied grammar or syntax at the level some poets demand one should; but somehow the poems come out "clean" anyway. To be honest, I think it's silly to care overmuch about the method of craft; it strikes me as a waste of effort to think so deeply about what one is going to write, when that effort ought to go into the writing itself.)

Writing a piece of music, when I'm in the part of the process where I'm committing final pencil score to paper, can become so intense for me that I must break away, periodically, to come up for air, to rest, to breathe. Sometimes I become so agitated that I have to step away from the table, for five minutes, for an hour, and come back to it when calmer. There is nothing fearsome or painful in this agitation. It is, rather, the shakiness that comes of ecstasy, not from suffering. Of course at certain levels of intensity, agony and ecstasy are bound twins.

It feels very similar to the process of writing poems at white heat, in that one feels on fire, but there are differences. The pressure of the water coming out of the firehose, perhaps because it's a different kind of firehose, has a different sensation than with poems or photography.

Photography and drawing are about seeing/perceiving, rather than about merely looking at things. You see essences within forms, and you might take a long time to look at your subject before snapping the shutter. Or you might be completely spontaneous, and literally shoot from the hip, not even peering through the viewfinder, trusting that whatever light is captured to be the right light, in that moment.

I'm talking about notated music here. Recorded improvisations or composed- or structured-improvs can feel synchronistic, even magical, when all the elements fall into place, and suddenly you're in the zone, and everything is happening just as it must, and you realize it, don't try to stop it or direct, just ride that horse as long as you can. But notated music, I'm not exactly certain why, has a different sensation.

It's perhaps because everything must come out through the needle point of the mechanical pencil, or pen. There is a lake of creative water trying to come out through a very narrow aperture, relative to the other firehoses. The firehose of poetry is actually pretty wide-open and effortless. One reason I value writing music more than writing poems, other than the closeness of music to my heart as mentioned above, is that poems are actually easier to write. They seem less real to me, somehow, because they are not so demanding to produce.

Perhaps it's a vice or perversion on my part: and yet I trust more what is difficult.

Weavers of Light page 8 (Click on image for larger view)

The piece of music that I am writing now, for male chorus and small ensemble of instruments, is the first piece of music I have fully notated in several years. Perhaps it is causing me this feeling of pent-up pressure because I haven't used this creative channel for awhile.

And there is a history of distraction and lost time to this piece's making. I actually began thinking about and planning to write this piece early in 2004, when I was still living in the Twin Cities. I began work on it, began to pull ideas together, began to consult with the group that might potentially perform it.

Then my own life became so distracting and stressful that I set aside all writing of music for almost 5 years. I moved out West; then I moved again; then my parents became ill, and I moved back in with them to be their live-in caregiver; then they died, and I spent six months cleaning out their house so we could sell it; then I had to move; and in there I also was diagnosed with my very own long-term chronic illness; and that's only the highlights, in a nutshell.

So in some ways I feel doubly vulnerable about writing this new piece, just now, because it's a sign of my own return to life. I feel protective of it not because it's the best thing I'll ever write—that piece is always the one you're going to write next—but because it still feels fragile. Truthfully, I still feel fragile. My own health has not been fully restored, after the intense period I've just been through. Truthfully, I feel vulnerable at the moment—and it has affected the writing of this new piece—because events are conspiring to try to suck me back down into the black hole that I felt I was only just beginning to emerge from. And resisting that tidal gravitational pull, resisting that entropic inertia, has some days taken all the strength I had, just to stay afloat. Some days you're grateful to have achieved neutral buoyancy, rather than feeling like you're still drowning.

Tomorrow morning I will turn off all the phones and other distractions. I will make breakfast, then sit down at my writing table, and continue on. I am almost ready. I can feel the pressure building. It feels like notating this last, third section of the piece may be even more intense, more of a flood, than before. It feels ready to make itself manifest, already pushing at the exits. My job in all this is to make sure that nothing can distract me for two or four hours, set out the blank pages, my pencils and rulers and erasers—then get the heck out of the way.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I'm afraid I'm one of those who needs a keyboard in front of me. I can write away from the keyboard but I do so without any passion: I know chord progressions well enough that I can be sure that what I end up with is harmonious but there's no soul.

Interesting bit on vocal structure. I have a fondness for choral music. It's just a shame so much of it is churchy. Despite that I listen to a lot of Pärt and I've got an album by his teacher Tormis which has some male-only pieces on it that I quite enjoy.

Today I'm enjoying the work of Klaus Schulze specifically Another Green Mile which has some nice wordless vocals on it reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard who he has worked with but it's not (I suspect it's Audrey Motaung although there are two females credited on the album).

10:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're right that a lot of choral music is churchy. The greatest sacred choral music isn't really churchy, though, as in the hands of a master, it becomes sublime and transcendent. I'm thinking of Bach, of course, but also of Handel, Mozart, Fauré, and others.

I share your fondness for choral music. It's one reason I like singing in a chorus. Albeit the pleasure of singing in a male chorus is different than SATB. Similar, but different.

Klaus Schulze has some good stuff, I agree. Since you know Lisa Gerrard's work, who is a favorite of mine whether with Dead Can Dance or not, I wonder if you know of Paul Schutze, who is terrific, and within that same realm in some ways:

There's one long CD called "New Maps of Hell" that I particularly like.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Nope, never heard of Paul Schutze, but his site looks interesting. I will investigate.

As for Gerrard - I have a lot of time for her. Saw a great documentary a few weeks back which just underlined what I knew already. I discovered her via a film called Whale Rider and I bought the soundtrack as soon as I came across it.

2:41 PM  

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