Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Process of Writing 7: A Little Music History

While still organizing texts into a central notebook, I see I had more fragments, even more almost-finished lyrics, than I realized. I've been able to sit down do a lot of thinking the piece over, but mostly still on the textual rather than musical level. There are some songs where I have the basic melody already written, and fit to the words, even though there's no accompaniment as yet. I sat down and played at the piano last night for awhile, playing with ideas for accompaniments and chord patterns for songs.

A basic limitation for this choral music commission is that the vocal parts can't be too hard to sing. I'm not writing an avant-garde proto-masterpiece here, I'm writing something that amateur singers can perform with a bit of rehearsal. One of the basic principles in play, during this writing, is to keep it simple. In the most positive sense, keeping it simple means keeping it naturally singable. The music will stretch the singers somewhat, don't worry, and they'll be asked to step outside their comfort zones from time to time—emotionally, at the very least—and I don't feel the need to "show off" as a composer. Quite the opposite. I am writing music in service to a chorus that wants an original piece to sing, and I am quite willingly and cheerfully tailoring my songs within this piece to be comfortably singable for most amateur choruses—with a bit of a push just outside the zone of familiar comfort and safety.

Still, I don't really write tonal music. I don't write straightforward ballad-form songs, and only one or two of the songs in the new piece will be identifiable as such. It's not that I don't understand tonal music; with all those years of music theory training under my belt, followed by years of jazz and rock and blues bands experience, I understand it only too well.

It's that I want to avoid obvious clichés—both in the text and in the music.

Nothing demonstrates the clichéd chord patterns of tonal music more clearly than standard rock 'n roll. After all, rock 'n roll evolved from two sources: one of them was African-American musical roots, the blues, rhythm-and-blues, and jazz; and the other source was the Northern European ballad form as preserved in the folk music from the southern Appalachian mountains, brought over and preserved by the Scotch-Irish-English immigrants who settled there. From Pennsylvania to Alabama, the hill music was dominated by the ballad form over all other lyrical forms. The vast majority of folk music is still performed in story-telling ballad forms, as is virtually all blue-collar roots-rock music.

Set beside jazz music theory, rock 'n roll music theory still seems simplistic, predictable, and often clichéd. That's not a criticism, to be clear: the chord patterns of standard pop music are always clichéd, and always will be: because that is what's ingrained in the public memory, and that's what is easiest to remember. Anyone can sing along because you already know where the music's going to go.

And rock 'n roll is nothing if not sing-along music: participatory, Dionysian, crowd-unifying, celebratory, mass-ritual music. There's nothing like a live rock concert to get a crowd of disparate people to all be thinking and feeling the same things at the same moments. It's the closest public ritual of Unity that we have, nowadays, to compare to the gospel revival-tent Pentecostal services of unity-in-worship. And of course, that's another one of rock 'n roll's musical roots: those gospel services. It was an old joke, and a true one, that in the old days, musicians played the blues all Saturday night at the speakeasy, then, without going to bed, took a shower and played gospel and hymns all Sunday morning in church. Celebration, worship, mass ecstasy: these are the rituals of the rock concert.

Knowing where the music's going to go, even to the untrained ear, is part of the ritual, part of the sacrament. It's one reason any teenager can pick up a guitar, learn three or four chords, and start a garage band. As a composer, my ears are always excited to hear a rock band do something a little different, a little unusual, break out of the three-chord rock-ballad mode. Lately I've been getting into the Foo Fighters, led by Dave Grohl. One thing I've always loved about Joni Mitchell is that her musical forms and chord choices are completely unpredictable, completely non-standard. In my mind, as I write lyrics and songs for the new commission, I do carry open-form models influenced by the possibilities evident in songs by these more out-of-the-rock-box writers. I've set myself a couple of goals and standards that I try to meet, for these new songs—and one of those goals is to push the ballad-form clichés into something that surprises a little, surprises both the singers and the audience. I don't want to make it too easy, and lose everyone's interest—starting with my own.

One improbable touchstone for finding this balance is Johann Sebastian Bach, who it must be remembered was a gifted musical entertainer simultaneously with being a composer of complex and even esoteric music. Bach knew well how to write pleasing chamber music for the background of social events, while behind the pleasant surface of the music lay his formidable genius for mathematical and numerological relationships and connections.

The lyrics I am writing, I use some of what I've learned from writing poetry for years, but pared down, lean, and shortened. Compressed to the essentials: keep it simple. The challenge is to tell a complex story within simple lyrics. Years of haiku-writing actually come in handy here: finding the way to evoke a layered emotion in as few syllables as possible.

I found I've written a couple of songs, too, that might not end up in the final version of the commission. Call them "illuminations": they are of a thematic whole with the overall commission, but they don't advance the "plot." (That all sounds more intentional than it really is.) One of these, for example, is a song about the climate and mood and weather in the Upper Midwest. In a Broadway musical, it would be called a scene-setting piece: it sets the mood of the locale of the action, but doesn't directly reflect on or advance the action. If these illuminations don't make it into the final score, I am fond enough of them to rework them into stand-alone pieces.

Sometimes it helps gets the creative juices flowing to write an illumination before getting serious about writing a piece more centrally important to the work. It's like finishing a sketched portrait before taking on the big painting. You do a couple of small pieces to limber up, then dive into the major work. In no way are they distractions, from the viewpoint of the artist (although patrons have sometimes misunderstood them, and the purpose of doing them), they're warm-ups and kick-starters. (Patrons, it must be said, care about the results, the finished product, and frequently misunderstand an artist working on parallel tracks to be merely distracted. It's true that many artists are scatterbrains, compared to business types: but that scatterbrained quality is exactly what allows the art to happen. The business mentality is linear, forward-moving, and object-oriented—and unlikely to make the sideways connections that artists make, which leads them to explore ideas far outside anything the typical businessman would consider, or even imagine.)

I have more I want to say about conceptual sources, about thematic guides, about examples of what I want to do. But i'll save that for another time.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Compressed to the essentials: keep it simple. That could very well we the motto of Gustav Holst who once observed a composer's most vital piece of equipment is an eraser. The Planets may be written for a large orchestra but if you examine the score carefully as I did many years ago you never get them all playing at the same time; he simply wanted a broad palette. I’ve just watched a long documentary about the man and was surprised to find there was much by him that I’d never heard of before although I probably own more than most people. His choral music is worth a listen to if you’re unfamiliar with it. Although on the surface a tonal composer when his daughter went to music college the only advice he gave her was to throw away any textbooks they offered her on harmony. I really didn’t realise how groundbreaking many of his works were; I guess that was his genius.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, I knew much of that about Holst. He's been one of my favorites for a long time. I've sung some of his choral pieces, over the years, inn various groups. I agree completely that he was groundbreaking, and remains underrated even now.

9:40 PM  

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