Monday, April 04, 2011

Process of Writing

Short notes and random observations about writing a new music commission:

Still early in the process. No guarantee any given sketch will make it all the way into the finished piece. Some I already know are the seeds of final pieces. Others just tossed out at random, as they come up. One or two sketches I'm pretty sure are orphans at the moment, one or two others I'm pretty sure will grow into final flowers. it's still too early to start being picky about them. Just write and write and write, and sort it out later.

Writing away from the piano is better than writing at the piano. If you write at the piano, you tend to fall into habits based on your playing skills and habitual kinesthetic patterns. If you're a great player, you tend to write complicated music that no one else can play, just because you can, and this turns into showy music that often lacks heart; if your piano skills are only adequate, you tend to repeat what patterns you already know. When you write away from the piano, it breaks these habits, and you're more likely to write down what you hear in your head, rather than whatever patterns your fingers usually fall into.

I don't regard my own pianistic skills as virtuosic. I regard them as adequate to the task. I can sight read okay, and I can play through many things okay. But I'm not going to give a recital of virtuosic showpieces any day soon. Probably never, in fact, as I don't value virtuousity for its own sake. Give me musicality over flash anytime. I'm not an accompanist, and I'm not trying to impress anybody.

(The Taoist wheel of cycling of light and dark. Only two things that are first-tier priority in my life right now: Writing this piece of music (light), and my unresolved medical problems (dark). Everything else is second-tier priority, at best. Wheeling together like white and black carp in the moonpool of living time, each chasing the other's tale in endless cycling.)

Filling up three sketchbooks at the moment. One small pocketbook in my shirt pocket for those moments an idea comes while I'm out doing errands, or driving into town. This notebook already more than half-full, lots of ideas coming up while driving out West on the roadtrip at the year's beginning. Five-stave music score sketched in by hand on some pages. Another two sketchbooks of music paper, filling up with both words and music.

One or two pieces written at the piano anyway. One I'm fairly certain will work. It has the piano part, the chords and patterns, pretty well down. Now I just have to find the right words and vocal lines to fit with it. Not force them to fit, but follow the idea as organically naturally as possible.

Hard to write these projects at home. Twice now have gone down to a coffeeshop by the river downtown, just to get out of the house, away from the easy daily distractions, find a place to focus. Have a cup of hot chocolate, sit and write for an hour or so. Just getting out of the routine is makes things more likely to happen.

Contemplating taking a short roadtrip away from home, just for a couple of days, so I can write. Maybe drive up to Escanaba, where I know a pretty nice hotel, check in for a couple of nights, write in the cozy room, or find a café overlooking Lake Michigan. It's still winter up there, though, still new snow on the ground from the storms now passing through here as thunderstorms that further north are still winter storms.

Still trying to acquire the Finale notation software which I'll need to put the music into before all is said and done. One of the two software notation packages that dominate the field now. It's practically expected that you engrave your own performance-ready scores nowadays. I was always a good music copyist, even worked at it professionally just after college. Did orchestra parts for a couple of Broadway-bound shows. When the show was put on in Ann Arbor, the friend of mine who played the male lead in the show really stood out; later on, I've seen his name in the actor's credits of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a Ferengi. Which made me smile.

Process of writing is more than putting notes down, putting words down. There's a lot of thinking-about-it time. Non-writers never seem to understand this. You turn things over a long time at the back of your mind before you ever write them down. Lots of folks think it's easier than it really is. It's actually pretty hard. You can knead that mental dough for days before anything happens. People have this weird mythical idea that creativity is an act of conscious will. But anyone who's ever stared at the blank page knows that the only place sheer will ever matters is in the daily discipline of willing oneself to go on writing.

Of course, people also have this weird mythical idea that you can fix all of your problems merely by thinking them through; in fact, there are a lot of problems in life that can't be solved by thinking about them. Creativity is not a "problem." In fact it's ridiculous to think of it as a problem to be solved, although people do just that, maybe because they've gotten too used to writing to prompts or in response to examples provided by an instructor. But writing is not a math problem, not a "problem" to be "solved" or a broken object to be "fixed." I see a lot writers act like car mechanics, approaching each assignment in that fix-it attitude. I suppose that's why a lot of self-help literature treats the enigmas of life as mechanical problems with mechanical solutions. I suppose that's also why a lot of people try to "fix" psychological problems by taking a pill. It's a pervasive cultural attitude.

Next task I need to do, on a purely organizational/management level, is sit down, organize all the sketches, start sorting ideas about the same piece onto the same page. That will probably mean copying things out onto fresh sheets, just so everything connected to one piece is in the same place. Things are a little scattered throughout the various notebooks at the moment. Well, that's fine—you write things down when and where they materialize, on whatever is handy. At least I was smart enough on this project to designate notebooks, rather than random loose sheets, when I set out in the beginning.

I'm still sorting through the stories given to via writings and interviews from the men of the chorus. Looking for patterns and commonalities. Even though it's late to still be gathering stories via interviews, there are a few guys who haven't responded to my invitations till now, so I'm gathering material. A few of the earlier interviews have given me some incredibly good material to draw on. One man from the chorus spoke to me passionately about how, when he sings we feels fully alive. All his problems go away. "When I sing, I feel free." That is going to go into the new music, and I even know where: it's going to be the core of the finale, the last movement, which I want to be about triumph, affirmation, freedom, validation. I want to end the piece on a ringing note of overcoming and triumph. "When we sing, we are free." I can't imagine a better ending, right now.

I'm also sorting through how much of this new music is "mine" versus "theirs." The commission is intended to be based on the stories of the members of the chorus, on what it's like to live as a gay man in the Midwest, what it's like to grow up "different" in the Midwest, how we're different in our Midwest culture from the urban-dominated gay cultures of either coast. Those differences do exist, but they're hard to graph out on paper. They're not math problems, subject to being diagrammed in symbols or formulas. The rural/urban dichotomies are only part of it. At the same time, this is my piece of music that I'm writing. I've been commissioned to write it, because they hired me tow rite it, and I'm the author of the text as well as the composer of the music. All those stories are going to be filtered through my own sensibilities, into my own lyrics—not as though I was channelling the lives of others, but as though responding to them. I'm writing this piece, even though it draws on them. That's a balancing act I'm finding to be mostly like juggling: sometimes easy, occasionally requiring a great deal of attention. The lyrics will no doubt contain quotes from individual members' stories—a memorable line, an evocative description or metaphor—but it's not a collage. It still has to come through as a more-or-less unified score.

So I must take the input I'm given, digest it, and re-express it through my own means and style and sensibility. I wasn't hired to be a secretary, I was hired for my creativity, and because I write in a diversity of musical styles. I was hired because of that diversity, not because all my pieces sound alike. My own intention for the commission was always to write both light and dark, life-affirming and anti-entropy, but also including the shadows in our lives, not denying them. I found out after I'd been hired that that was the artistic director wants, too. I want to do a diverse, complicated, multi-movement piece. And I can, and will. The writing is already starting to show different voices, different tracks, different moods and tones and styles. I'm pleased with that. It feels like I'm on track, although it's still early in the process, and much editing will no doubt still happen.

When you write for yourself, when you write for you own joy, you don't have to please anyone but yourself. When you write on commission, you have others to please, too. You're expected to meet or exceed your goals. I'm trying to do both. My personal ambition is to "satisfy the customer" by writing the best piece of choral music I've ever written. The only way I know to do that, though, is to focus on making each small part the best it can be, and together they'll add up, I believe, to a greater whole. You can't overfocus on the grand scale, you need to just do your best each moment, and let them accumulate. Forward momentum, as ever.

Writing on commission, I find I have less ego about it. It's a lesson learned from being a graphic artist all those years: You can't attach your ideas about Great Art to every project. You have to be able to suspend your own taste, sometimes. When a client asks you to make a change, you do it. You don't take it personally, you don't try to talk them out of it—except on those rare occasions when they sabotaging their own best interests, and even then, you have to at most suggest—you just do it. So at some point in this new music writing process, I expect to sit down with the chorus' key artistic staff and make some changes. Polish up or fix a couple of spots. Discuss the order of pieces, maybe do some re-arranging. Improve the overall piece. And to be honest, I look forward to that. If suggestions improve the work, I'm all for them. I doubt it will be much, to be honest.

I'm still looking for an overall title. Well, that will come. I have a basic idea and outline of the overall structure, the flow of musical movements and moods, the basic shape of the overall piece. I know on what note (as it were) I wish to conclude. I have a pretty good idea about how to open the piece. I have some ideas about musical-thematic echoes, a little phrase or melody recurring later on in a new context that gives it new resonance, new meaning. Bits and pieces of several songs within the overall piece are known. One or two songs are approaching some form of cohesion, if not completion. I need to go back over all the interviews and notes and writing submissions from the members of the chorus, pick out more gems to polish, see what fits where.

Forward momentum.

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