Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Process of Writing 10: Over the Thresholds

Taking a day off makes a difference. For the past two afternoons, I've been sitting on the porch notating final pencil master scores: pulling things together from the lyric note book and the music sketchbook, making them into a finished song. I'm on page seven of this particular song, with about a page or so to go. That's pretty productive, even by my own standards.

The new music commission is modular in structure. This is in part to give options for different lengths of performance of the same work. The modular design allows things to be moved around, or left out, at the discretion of the conductor of the Chorus, depending on the occasion, or on an individual performance's requirements and needs. I planned this modular structure from the very beginning. Frankly, it also makes it easier to work on writing the lyrics and music, because I can skip around and work on any section that attracts my attention, today, rather than feel forced to write within a linear, narrative form. And I can add things later, too, if need be.

There are two large sections within the overall piece, called "Stories," which are the meat of the stories I've gathered from members of the Chorus, via interview, submitted writings, poems, stories, etc. The "Stories" are modular. They're separated from each other by 4 or 8 bats of piano interlude: a simple C-major promenade melody, which is changed and varied each time, reflecting the mood of either what has gone before, or what is to immediately follow. So the piano interludes are connected to specific songs within each of the two large "Stories" groupings, but each song itself is modular, and can be moved around within the "Stories" groupings, if necessary.

So I am not even close to thinking about a final order yet for each of the "Stories" songs, and not setting any of the segues between modules into stone. It's more important, at the moment, and for the purposes of meeting my writing deadlines, to just write each song out in final score, then assemble the modules later. We will be determining the final order of pieces, naturally, after they are all written. I know what I want to begin and end the suite of pieces with, for this commission, and I already have the opening bars of each (the end echoes the beginning: as T.S. Eliot wrote in his sublime Four Quartets, "In my end is my beginning. . . ."). But the middle elements of the overall work are subject to revision and re-arrangement, and will be for some time yet.

"Deadlines" is a nasty word, when you think about it. Especially when you're writing to meet a contractual date, and at the same time fighting a life-threatening chronic illness. It's a bit of ironic humor the Universe likes to throw at you, to notice such things. I have multiple deadlines I'm working towards, at the moment: some of them creative, some of them physical and operational.

I guess my mind is sharper this week than it's been lately, as I seem to be finding more and more absurd and surreal word-play connections like that. Maybe the lingering effects of the anaesthesia from the minor surgery I underwent five weeks ago have finally worn away. Who knows? I'll take whatever mental edge I can get.

It's true, though: I do feel sharper these past few days. One of the side-effects of this chronic illness is anemia, because, ulcerative colitis is an inflammation of the lining of the colon (an autoimmune disease, for lack of a better classification, in which the body attacks itself, as with rheumatoid arthritis), which leads to bleeding ulcers in the colon. I know where the worst area for bleeding is, in my own case, thanks to colonoscopy results: the sigmoid colon. (Cue Olivia Newton-John sings, "Clinical! I wanna get clinical!") My doctor has given the clinic's lab a standing order to draw blood any time I want to go in, and do a hemoglobin count. I just got more results today. I'm still anemic, still on the threshold of needing another blood transfusion, although my count has gone up .4 points since the last blood test ten days ago.

To be honest, I would be fine with receiving another transfusion right now, as I've been feeling anemia symptoms for the past week: general tiredness, itching in places you can't imagine, which sometimes keeps you up late at night, and some other things. I've been feeling run-down and less than good, so I'm ready to fill up the tank, change the oil, get new wiper blades, the usual. Frankly, I'm tired of feeling like crap, of feeling run down and beat to a pulp all the time—which has become not an occasional, but an existential, condition. Let's make a change.

Getting another blood transfusion now would put me over the threshold into feeling better, one hopes, maybe with an even clearer mind. The brain likes blood, for nutrition, and all those little neurotransmitters. Getting another blood transfusion is always a risk: every medical procedure is a risk. And it's an invasive one. I know my blood type, but I like the fact that before each transfusion, they run a fresh blood panel and type-and-cross-match, just to be safe, just to prevent immune reactions, or allergic responses. Caution is never amiss, in these bloodsport games we play.

The other threshold I feel I've stepped over, right now, is the creative one. Namely, I've started in on the final pencil score. That is, the final writing of parts of the new music commission, committed to score paper in final form, albeit in pencil, in case I need to still make corrections as I go. At some point, I will acquire the notational software to engrave the score digitally, which allows for even easier editing and changing—but later.

It can take a lot of effort to build up the creative momentum to start writing final score, rather than keep writing sketches. There is a commitment required to go to final score—although you can still make revisions, still make changes—that makes the whole project more solid, more real, more ready to proceed. It's a big change of direction, of intent. Now, we're going to make this real, make it manifest, make it go off into the world on its own.

I was reading last night in Arthur Laurents' autobiography, Original Story by, where he describes the collaborative process of writing a Broadway musical (or "lyric theater" as the collaborators chose to call West Side Story). It takes months, even years, and a long process of revision during rehearsal, in order to complete a musical, rehearse it, and put it in stage. One of the fastest writing periods (prior to rehearsal) that Laurents describes took only four months—but much longer is typical.

I've now been writing hard on this commission for male chorus and piano (and maybe one or two other instruments, for some songs) for about four months, in fact, and I'm starting in on final pencil scores of some of the pieces. So I guess I'm not behind schedule, after all. I do feel an urgency to get as much done and onto score paper as I can, before the upcoming surgery. Because, between the recovery from the surgery, and the painkillers, and the lingering effects of anaesthesia, it's likely that I'll need a few weeks before I can get back to work on the music.

In the next day or so, I expect to be able to finish this one song from the "Stories" grouping, and begin work on another one or two. Once you cross that threshold, the flow is there—at least for awhile. Once you've set up the project and the process, you can get into a working routine, a pattern of working, that sustains your momentum for as long as your energy holds out. So far, so good.

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