Friday, June 03, 2011

Process of Writing 12: Stirring Up the Muck

Nearly done with one self-contained longer song. This is one of the planned pair of songs about the light and dark aspects of growing up in the Midwest heartlands. The light song is about community and continuity, the support of a tight-knit family and circle of friends, the traditions that can keep you going, that can support you in your struggles against the rest of the world, no matter what they take. The dark song is about oppression, about the tribal requirement for conformity and suppression of individuality, about hiding your true nature both to avoid getting hurt but also out of internalized self-hatred. The two songs mirror each other, and will echo each other with some shared musical material.

I've been working on the dark song. It's been rough going, because of the feelings it stirs up.

I've taken to calling this Heartlands/dark song, which is for full chorus and piano, "The Voices In My Head." It's a transcription of those voices of internalized self-censorship (the most pernicious variety there is), of internalized homophobia and sissyphobia, about all those fears that can keep you in the closet. (It's not a song about bullying; I plan an entirely separate song on that topic. A song that might be rather brutal for me to write, given my childhood history of being bullied, but perhaps also cathartic.)

The musical style of this song is what we could call dark, jagged jazzy pop. Swung rhythms, choppy lines, finger snapping on the back beat. Hip and cool, with some atonal clashing notes thrown in at critical moments. One thing you learn from studying both Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein is the use of polychords to highlight moments of intense emotion. Throw in a stabbed discordant note outside the song's modal gamut and it can create a stab of fear or danger in the audience's hearts.

This sort of darkly emotional song lyric demanded to be written in fixed meter and rhyme. I found myself varying where the end-rhymes fall from verse to verse and chorus to chorus, which are also in different meters, but nonetheless using rhyme to bite down hard on building tension through repetition and echo. I also find myself using internal rhymes and slant-rhymes at the ends of lines to make the patterns clear but not always predictable. End-rhymes that are too predictable veer towards sing-songy cliché. The variations in the patterns serve to give a sense that we come at the song's topic from several different directions, implying a multitude of dysfunctional inner voices, that inner chorus, giving out negative self-talk. This is reinforced by giving the melody and verse to a different section of the chorus each time. Here's the first verse and refrain:

You got to fit in
Don't ever stand out
Don't think for yourself
Don't stand up and shout

Being different's a sin
It won't get you friends
You know what that means
It's a means to an end

R: Don't laugh
   Don't cry
   Too much
   You know why


Five verses total. The final one is a remix of the previous four, lines pulled and repeated from what has already been heard, sung by full chorus with a certain angry edge to the performance.

Form follows function: the idea is to make the musical setting be the perfect container for the lyrics, to reinforce and heighten the metric patterns that are the tensioning core of the song's emotional matrix. Okay, in simpler words, that means that the style of the music needs to match the mood and tone of the lyrical content. Form is dictated by the lyric, in a song like this.

I find myself irritable and impatient today. It's partly because the weather has reverted to cold and dreary after a few glorious days of sunshine and warmth. Today was not a very good day. I did get some work done. This song is almost finished. When I felt stuck on moving forward with the music, I went back a few pages and filled in sections of the piano part and choral fills, to "paint in" the sketched outlines. So it's moving forward. But I could only work on it a little bit today. I kept needing to take breaks.

I slept in late, and the dreary weather made me want to go back to bed as soon as I got up. The temptation of the cocoon of blankets already warmed by body heat, versus the chilly house with chilly floors cold on the bare feet first thing in the morning. Enough to make anyone want to go back and curl up warm again. I had intense dreams again, too, and for awhile had difficulty sorting what was dream and what was waking. The cold damp brings back that interminable winter cough as well.

There's no doubt in my mind that working on this song is partly what's making me feel irritable and impatient today. Working on this dark material, which is a story I know only too well, is bringing up memories and feelings from my own life. Stirring up the muck from the bottom of the pond.

The next song I work on will have an entirely different mood, which will be a break for the composer. When you're writing songs that stir up some darker memories, you need to take a break and write something lighter in between.



At some point, I intend to journal, in these notes about this writing process, about what i regard as my creative touchstones for the songs I am writing for this new music commission. I have had to repeatedly go back and recharge myself with the music and idea touchstones that have inspired me for this piece, particularly in terms of style. I will get around to that when I have a chance. There are four or five important touchstones worth talking about, but they deserve a longer, more in-depth look than I give them at this moment.

These touchstones serve me by helping me keep myself focused on the style, technique and musical tone of the work at hand, and they also stand in rebellion against the other musics I am dealing with right now: those ongoing medical and musical factors that have occasionally been interfering with this current writing. Today, for example, was definitely an uphill battle against interference and annoying invasions in my mind. I mostly get impatient and annoyed as a direct symptom of feeling frustrated. Naturally, these feelings all go away when the writing is going more smoothly.

yet sometimes you just have to square up against the resistance and just push through. Keep walking into that hurricane, that emotional headwind blowing hard off the turbulent, seething sea of darker memories and emotional shadows. Just keep pushing through till you get past the worst of it, and out the other side. It's no wonder working on this darker song has made me feel tired, though. When you stop to consider it, it makes sense that you'd feel wiped out after doing this kind of process work.

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