Thursday, March 10, 2011

New Music Commission: Texts

In addition to being commissioned to write the music for a new music commission, I am also commissioned to write the texts. When I composed in 2009 my "try out" piece on spec, Weavers of Light, I wrote the words as well as the music, then. Weavers does incorporate a well-known Wiccan chant as one thread, in one section, and I gave credit where credit was due. Nonetheless, I wrote most of the texts. So the artistic directorship of the commissioning chorus knows I can do both words and music.

Notes on the writing process (I intend to learn from the process as it goes forward, and make notes as I proceed, tracking the process mostly for my own interest):

I wrote two new poems in the past two days—Gates of Sleep and Meditation at Pescadero—a surprise to me, as I was not expecting to be writing any poems lately. One poem is clearly a reflection on memories from the recent roadtrip out to California and back; that's typical, that a poem emerges a week or a month after a moment in life, taking time to percolate or develop in the subconscious. The other poem is more directly tied to what's happening right here, right now.

I can see, however, where some lines of these poems could become part of the fabric of the new piece; there are lines that are topically relevant, and thematically connected. So, like many poets and composers, we cannibalize our own existing materials to make new works. It seems that the poems were part of the lyric-writing process for the new music.

I find I am more able to get my head into lyric-writing mode if I leave the house, get away from my usual distractions and orbits, go to a coffeeshop or restaurant, and write there. I wrote a lot of lyric material, and some melodies, when I was on my last roadtrip out West and back; and almost nothing since I got home. (Granted, the moment I got home I had Things To Do, and dove right into them.) It seems obvious to me, at this point, that to really be able to focus on the work, I'll need a change of venue. Fortunately, there are two or three good coffeeshops in town, within a few minutes drive. I can always find a place to sit and write.

Ideas come to me better when I'm outside, or driving, or just getting away from home. My creative output is almost always higher than usual when I'm camping out in the woods somewhere; I write a lot in my journal, make drawings, etc. It might even be worth it to take a short roadtrip again soon, just three or four days, drive up to the Upper Peninsula, check into a hotel for a couple of days, and write. I wish I had friends who had a remote cabin I could borrow for a week at a time.

To write music, as I've indicated before, I don't need to be at the piano. I hear melodies and chords and musical forms just fine in my head, with my inner ear. What I usually do when writing choral music, as a process, is write away from the piano; then bring the material back to the piano to finish it up, refine it, polish it, make it the best it can be. The piano is for finishing and polishing, and making sure it all hangs together musically.

The only kind of music that I must sit and write at the piano is, honestly, piano music. I'm sure there will be some improvisation time at the piano which will turn into a part of a piece. I do occasionally improvise and notate a piece while sitting at the piano, working it out as I go along. I have been working on a more abstract solo piano work, off and on, for a few months now; it's the kind of piece where I find sounds I like by improvising them, then quickly write them down. That's a slower process than writing lyrics, as it consists of compiling and refining scattered improvs into structured notation.

There are two issues with writing at the piano: If you are a good pianist, it's too easy to over-write, to write something showy or difficult, just because you can. Or, if you are not so good a pianist, you can get stuck in your own habits, your patterns of playing, and everything comes out sounding the same. Both of these tendencies can be freed up when you write away from the keyboard. It can give you a chance to hear things differently, and write outside your usual box.

Over-writing is the same problem poets have when they turn to writing song lyrics. A song lyric is never going to be heard separate from the music. It must synergize with the music, and isn't designed to stand on its own. That's not to say that some great lyrics cannot stand on their own, as poems; but that happens a lot less often than either poets or music fans believe. The problem most poets have, when turning to lyric writing, is that they want to show off all their chops, find great metaphors, really express themselves at the top of their craft—and all of that makes for really bad lyrics. In a song lyric, simplicity and clarity are paramount. Less is more: you need to say it as cleanly as possible, and not get lost in flights of technical fancy. Poetry and lyric-writing are not the same art. Even the best singer-songwriters get bogged down in this error, some of the time.

Some composers I have heard do get stuck in their musical boxes, and their music all starts sounding alike. During the application process for this new music commission, I was shocked when I heard some samples of the other composers' music all sounding very much alike from piece to piece. As if the composer only had one style in which they wrote. At that moment, I convinced myself I was not going to get this commission—and I am now very grateful to have been utterly wrong. I found out later that I was selected for this music commission because I am able to write in diverse styles; the desire for the finished piece is that it have several different moods and styles within it, that it have an arc, a journey, and not all be in the same style all the time.

Regarding sameness of style, I have the opposite "problem": most of my musical compositions sound different from each other. To be more specific, within a body of work, there are often similarities, ways of doing harmony and melody that I can hear as characteristically "mine." But I have more than one style of writing, more than one body of work. The same is true of my visual art, in particular, and of my creative writing. I've recognized several discrete and diverse bodies of visual art since I first became a visual artist: "pure" photography, especially outdoor photography; visionary and shamanic digital art assembled in Photoshop; and, now, a couple of distinct styles of drawing; and, more recently, three-dimensional visual such as the papier-maché work I've been doing, even though it often draws on both the photography and the visionary digital artwork for source materials. In my creative writing, I also recognize different bodies of work, each self-consistent and internally logical, but the style "rules" change from body to body.

I don't care if I have One Dominant & Recognizable Style, yet that is something galleries and critics ask you for—in fact I've been turned down by art galleries for having "too diverse" a portfolio—but rather, I'm interested in constantly exploring. One reason I am drawn to maverick artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and David Hockney is the restless nature of their art, their constant development of new materials and styles of work. I've tried to edit my presentation portfolio to present only one style at a time to submit to an art gallery; but that hasn't helped me get in the door, either. I guess my art is still too far outside the box for most galleries and critics.

I accept that. I no longer try to edit myself to conform to outside expectations. Life's too short to do anything but what you really most want to do.

If there is a thread throughout all my music, that ties it all together, it's perhaps that I hear melody first, and tonal harmony last. I do not feel tied to tonal harmony or counterpoint. I am just as happy for my melodies to be heterophonic as homophonic. If there is counterpoint, it's usually modal rather than tonal. I am drawn to certain scales and effects, certainly. There are certain complex harmonic relationships between melody and root that to my ear sound poignant and emotionally powerful. (Some of this is always subjective and idiosyncratic.) Some would locate those within tonal music theory, and I suppose that's valid enough as far as it goes; but I don't think of them that way. I'm also aware that I have habits of using scales and modes that are perhaps idiosyncratic, but also perhaps add up to a personal musical style or language. How do you sort which building blocks are critical to establishing a style, and which are irrelevant? I don't think it's entirely subjective, but it is partially so.

To return to the writing of texts:

When I was on the road I filled half of a notebook with sketches for lyrics. One or two songs might be almost complete. I have to review them, and see if they add up to a finished shape. Then I'll need to sketch out the melody, and start filling in the choral arrangement, and piano accompaniment. Sometimes the words and music come at the same time; so the sketchbook has a few musical notes in it as well. Western musical notation is like my second language; I've been fluent in it for as long as I can remember, going back to early childhood. (I am competent if not fluent in some other notational traditions, to a greater or lesser degree.) So dropping in a note or two alongside the words is enough to mark how they will go together.

For the immediate present I am mostly focused on the words, the texts, the lyrics. I need to get a critical threshold of these down this month. If music comes forward at the same time, so much the better; but it's not my main focus this month. I plan to give this most of my creative time, for the near future. Once I have most of the lyrics, compiling the music will go relatively quickly. I'm learning from past experience how best to support my creative process. I'm looking towards a hopeful future of being able to do this again and again.


I did get out to a coffeeshop downtown this sunny afternoon, and sat and wrote in the warm corner of the venue for an hour. I read through some of the raw materials given to me by some of the members of the Chorus, and found a lyric inside it. I wrote that down, then I started to write some music. I got about a page and a half of score, before I needed to stop.

I'm remembering now something that I learned while writing Weavers of Light: I can only work that intensely for about an hour before needing to take a break, get up, walk around, take a break. Then I can get back to work. But I have to stop frequently. Some of that is that I get incredibly wound up and excited, and I need to calm down. Another thing is that I have to stop and let my mind work over what's to come next. In other words, I need breaks from the writing to mull over what to write next.

I can only keep going without a break after an hour when I'm in a stretch of a piece where I already know what's happening, and all I have to do is fill things in and connect the dots. The chant section in the middle of Weavers was like that: I knew exactly what was coming, as each layer built on the last one, and it was just a matter of filling things in, filling out the known outline.

So I got about an hour of work done before I needed to take a break. I had a great cup of hot chocolate, by the way, with whipped cream on top. I know I'll be going back there at least a couple of times a week to work. it's a congenial environment for this part of the process. As much work as I can get done, as quickly as possible, the better I'll feel about beating my deadlines.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think this is something that many pop stars suffer from, the need to replicate what’s been successful in order to guarantee an audience and the sales they generate. I can think of several bands who have simply released the same song with different lyrics (at least it seems that’s what they’re doing) over and over again. We work so hard to find our ‘voice’ and then no sooner do we have it than it starts to work against us. My poetry all has a similar feel. I’m the first two admit that but I write what pleases me and I’m not fed up with it yet. Besides I don’t just write poetry and that’s where I stretch myself. It’s been so long though since I wrote any music that I can’t remember how similar any of it was and if I ever start again it will be with a clean slate besides I’ve listened to an enormous range of music since I stopped writing and what interested me in my teens and twenties is way down the list now. Carrie has a music-writing programme that I played around with a few years ago – I wrote this percussive piano piece (very Stravinsky) – but I simply don’t have the time to devote to it. I’m content to just listen to the stuff for now.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The replication of what's been successful is also a pressure many pop stars feel coming from both fans and producers: the fans want to hear more of the same, and the record company execs always are conservative because they want to replicate success next time out. If you are a diverse writer as a pop star, you can get some real pressure to just repeat yourself.

I've seen a couple of interviews with Tom Petty where he talks about the pressure he was under to do just that; ultimately, he resisted, and went his own way, and that in fact was the right thing to do, as it led to more success.

My own poetry doesn't have a single similar feel, as you know. It's all over the map. And I've been criticized for that. But like you, I write what pleases me, and that's just what happens. Since I don't write fiction, or have any desire to, I stretch myself in poetry and essay mostly.

I agree about listening to music. I listen to a lot more styles of music than I compose in. Even if nothing I wrote sounds like what I listen to, it all goes into the mix, even on subtle invisible levels. All input is good.

1:56 PM  

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