Friday, January 07, 2011

Lux Aeterna

Tonight I'm writing a short a capella choral piece, for male voices (TTBB), as a sort of warm-up exercise for larger-scale composing I will be doing later this year. An unlimbering of the creative muscles, musically, if you will. Nothing too fancy or complicated, just a simple, lush setting of a favorite text. I'm about half way through the piece right now, taking a short break to step back and journal about the process; the writing is going smoothly tonight, and I may actually finish the piece in the next day or two.

I'm setting the Latin text Lux aeterna, from the Requiem Mass. Here's the Latin text, followed by an English translation. (My rendition from the Latin, based on a blend of other translations.) A text that begins and ends with eternal light:

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum,
quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Eternal light shine on them, Lord,
with your saints in eternity,
for you are merciful.
Grant them eternal rest, Lord,
and perpetual light shine on them.

Why would I, a non-Catholic, a post-Christian, be setting this text? Because the Latin texts remain beautiful, after all these centuries. My knowledge of Latin is mostly Medieval Latin, or church Latin; not ancient Roman Latin, but the Latin used by the church in Rome in later centuries. And I like what this text says, from the Requiem: eternal light, eternal rest. My own spirituality is all about the Light, its presence in my life, its recurrence and return. I can imagine no more potent an image for the Divine than eternal Light.

I'm writing a short homophonic setting of this text, not more than a few minutes long. I find myself, as I compose, repeating each phrase a total of two times before going on to the next phrase. I find myself writing it at the piano, sounding out each chord sequence before writing it down.

I find that I can only sit and compose for an hour or so at a time, at most. I may be full of ideas, but my ears get tired. I pause for awhile, then come back to the piano, with new music in my inner ears. Also, and this is very interesting, I experience an almost electric overload after an hour or so—as though I am brimful with current running through me, and I must step back, get grounded, relaxed, and recentered, before I may continue. So I step back form the writing, then come back to it later; write for awhile, then must pause, and come back again later.

Describing this process makes it sound problematic, but it's nothing of the sort; if anything, it feels like I am filling up to the brim with electricity, with joy, with passion. It's a very good feeling. Yet to keep the music focused, and not run off in all directions or become unbalanced, I must stop, rest, recenter, regroup, and begin again. It's like taking a break from making love. You come back to it with love. I am balancing abandon and focus, inspiration and contemplation; I've said before that art-making needs to be a balance and blend of Dionysus and Apollo, and this process seems to bear me out.

My musical language herein is typically modal, rather than tonal. Looking at what is emerging, I'm seeing all that counterpoint training back in music school, with internal voice-leading and contrary motion, coming into play. All of what I learned about 18th C. harmony, although this piece sounds very 20th C. There are a lot of chords that just hang there, lush and resonant, without typical, clichéd resolutions. Sometimes the resolution comes several bars later. You can't really say what key it's in till the very end, and even then it's a harmonically open cluster, not a triad. I find the usual tropes of tonal music—virtually all pop songs are based on the tonal ballad form, no matter what they do to veer away from that template—to be heavy-handed, unsubtle, more like the marching of an army than the sighing of a willow branch. I want to write music that's outside that box, and for most of my career, I have. Not that I haven't written a pop song or two, or jazz chart, but rarely anything you'd recognize as a Nashville or Tin Pan Alley song. I've often been invited to join songwriting composers' groups—the pop song equivalent of writers' critique groups—but nothing I write really fits into that paradigm.

Just as in writing a poem, or when elements converge into a visual artwork, I hear phrases and lines of musical setting in my mind. I sit down to play them out at the piano, and then write them down. In playing what I'm hearing in my head—I'm one of those musicians who always has a permanent soundtrack in his head, which when I'm composing is supplanted by what I'm composing—I sometimes find other chord choices, or surprise myself at the piano. Sometimes a phrase wants to go off in an unpredicted direction, and I let it—following the brush, just like when writing a poem. I don't try to force the music, I just listen to it. It's not a process of deliberate, conscious control, everything martialed and mastered by the intellectual part of the mind; it can feel more like listening to an inner voice, singing, and notating what you're hearing. I know what I would like to do, mostly, but I don't feel in charge of where the music is going. I listen, and I follow.

I've always been able to dip into that inner permanent soundtrack, and pull out a melody, a phrase, a line of song. Since it's always there, it's always available. But when I'm writing music, I usually need silence, no other musical or sonic distractions going on. I'm listening, so you need to create an environment in which you are able to hear clearly what you're trying to listen to.

People often seem surprised that I don't have the TV or stereo blaring sounds out into the house all the time. As though there was something wrong or abnormal about that. Well, it seems to me that many people are afraid of silence—afraid of what might rise up in them should they not be constantly stuffing it down with input, with distractions, with pop songs or TV dramas. It seems many are afraid of those voices that rise up within, given a chance, given some silence; they do their best to suppress them, or outright deny them. Many famous songwriters I could name write almost entirely from their left brains, avoiding anything mysterious or unpredictable—and it shows: their music is often depthless.

Since this choral piece is a warm-up piece, stretching my creative muscles for a much larger composition I will be undertaking throughout this next year, I am writing quickly. I plan to gift this piece as soon as it is done, perhaps even this week, to Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, if they want it, for their next Christmas concert. If they choose not to do it, I'll pass it on to other venues.

Update, one day later:

I finished composing the piece late tonight. The second to last segment was the hardest to bring into focus. I actually got the ending first. I knew exactly the way I wanted to end the piece, and I wrote that down first. Then I had to go back to get to the ending from the middle, and that was the segment that made me work harder. It's also the part that uses more linear counterpoint, with different lines weaving together, rather than the homophonic nature of the rest of the piece.

The finished score is short, only three and a half pages, and I estimate the piece's duration in performance to be around four minutes. So, not a big piece. But just perfect for what I wanted to do with this. Something short, simple, elegant, and meaningful.

Tomorrow I'll make a cleaned-up fair copy, as the finished score, then make a couple of photocopies of that, and start passing it around.

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Blogger mand said...

Art, when(ever) it is performed will you put a recording up for us? :)

That Perfect Harmony chorus look like a fun lot!

7:58 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Sure, if it gets performed and I get a good recording. I try to do that with most of my composed and notated music, but it can take awhile. The lag time between composition and performance is often several months. (I mean, unless you do a demo recording yourself, which I might do here.)

Thanks for asking. :)

11:24 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve known houses like that where the TV was the first thing turned on in the morning and the last thing to get turned off at night. In most houses these days the TV is the focal point in the room now that fires (both natural and electric or gas) have been replaced by bland radiators or under floor heating. Our new TV certainly dominates our living room. I’ve got into the habit of watching breakfast TV in the mornings and so I do tend to turn it on first thing (whensoever that ‘first thing’ ends up being) but after a half hour the sound goes off and it’s onto the computers. We usually watch some nature programme with lunch – whatever’s on (yesterday was The Blue Planet) – and then the sound goes off until teatime when we watch a half-hour comedy show, something I’ll have saved – and then the sound goes off till about 7pm when work ceases and I’ll watch TV through to 11pm when we go to bed. Today we both woke up at 2am and the TV’s off. I like to leave the images on because they catch my eye every now and then and distract me from the screen – as you know it’s not good to keep staring at a monitor for long periods of time – but it’s rare for me to stop what I’m doing and actually watch what’s on although I did a couple of days ago when a dance piece came on that quite captivated me. It was called Amelia – no idea why – but here’s a clip.

As for silence – I’m sitting in silence now. Carrie’s sketching out a design she’s going to burn into a wooden box as a gift for her father and you know what I’m doing. In the early hours I don’t tend to play music so as not to disturb the bird but once he’s up I have something playing almost constantly. I’m not afraid of silence and often find when I’m engrossed in something an album has ended and I don’t remember listening to it. I like to work to music although I can’t write to vocal music unless it’s in a foreign language. Carrie, whose grasp of languages is better than mine, can’t even do that – she finds herself trying to translate. I have an iPod-type-thingy but I don’t use it much. When I’m out I actually quite like the break from music, just for a change.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I know what you mean about not being able to play music with words in it while writing. I'm more like Carrie, though, having studied several languages specifically for music performance. (The Latin translation I did here was basically mine, for example; I said it was a version from other sources, but I was just being modest, I know most of the Latin text for the Requiem Mass by heart, from many different performances.)

Lovely dance piece. I never tire of dance. I love playing live music for dance concerts, which I've done a lot of actually.

Other than movies I mostly watch documentaries or music and dance films. There was new documentary on last month about Glenn Gould, for example, that was captivating.

But I'm more than happy to leave the TV off most of the time. I play music when I'm doing chores, or just want some sounds. Lately I've found a couple of CDs of von Karajan conducting Beethoven, so I've listening to those a lot.

And I sometimes fall asleep to music. But it's more soundscape than music that I like to fall asleep to, or the TIbetan Bells recordings by Wolff and Hennings. I'm so sensitive to aural environments that I tend to be very, very picky about what I have on. Silence is always better than something that distracts in the wrong kind of way.

9:47 PM  

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