Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Process of Writing 16: Resuming & Silence

Three weeks after surgery, I began writing again. I didn't expect to be able to work on the new music commission for at least a month after surgery. So, like my recovery and healing itself, I seem to be exceeding expectations. I sat with my sister in a restaurant yesterday afternoon—just to get out of the house, having had somme cabin fever—and some lyrics came to me for the Opening piece.

The Opening is hard to write. Sometimes it's best to leave an opening number till last. You need to grab their attention with the first music and words. The piece needs to start out with a bang, as it were. Sometimes the opening doesn't come into focus till the rest of the work is finished.

It depends on the piece, though. When I write a multi-movement work such as this new music commission, what I said above is true. When I write a solo piano, though, often the reverse is true: I have a solid opening, and don't know where the rest of it is going till I get there. Arrival is an ending, and sometimes you don't know you're at the end until you've arrived there.

Poetry is the same way. I usually start with an image or phrase, something that comes to me and/or grabs my attention. I begin to write freely, just following the brush. Eventually the poem's form reveals itself. Eventually an ending is arrived at.

Yesterday, sitting in the quiet restaurant, words started to come for the opening piece. I still have only a few, and will need to polish them. I had had the first section of the work down, an a capella introduction followed by a piano interlude with vocalise. The piano part quotes the folksong "The Water Is Wide" as an anchor for the rivers and lakes of the Heartlands to appear in the piece. An opening number wants to make a statement, and this opening wants to evoke the dawn of a new day over the Great Lakes country; but it also wants to talk about the major themes of the overall piece.

Three weeks away from the writing changes my perspective a little. I find my perspective has shifted, in part because surgery and post-surgery are life-changing events: even in a few short weeks, my outlook on life seems radically different than what it was. This is likely to reflect itself in the music. I may pare some previous ideas down to their essence: trim all the fat, cut off the tailings that lead to no useful paths. I may walk down a path I had planned to walk down already, but seeing it with new eyes.

After all, I've come through a near-death and rebirth. Everything seems different now. Everything seems new. At the same time, I've been through death and rebirth before. So in a way I'm used to noticing the changes that happen when part of you dies and the rest goes on, reinvigorated. So it's a mix of familiar sensation and brand new perspective.

The day before going in for surgery, I completed one of the pieces that I call illuminations: not strictly about the central topic of the overall work (living and growing up gay in the Midwestern heartlands), but about the setting, the context, the overall sense of geographic place. There are going to be two illuminations, maybe three, in the overall work. These pieces are about the Heartlands in the Midwest themselves. They're about where we live, and why we live there. They are meant to give a frame in which the rest of the commission rests; to illuminate the back-story behind the more personal stories. The story of the land itself.

This illumination will appear second in sequence, and is a longer piece. It's about the silences that sometimes spontaneously happen, at quiet moments, when everything drops away, and the world takes on a quiet strength. It's during these silence that one feels the aliveness in the land and sky, the sense of Presence that can be felt anywhere in the world one pays attention to finding it. This has often been for me, a near-mystical experience, sometimes shared with others, often felt in solitude. I have done my best to write about it and evoke it.

“Silences Here”

the world steps back
into a kind of distance
in the silence
hawk flies
from storm to tree
all the world’s
an open sky
and every stillness gathers
into one.

Some nights
when snow is thick
around the weathered hilltops
and deep valleys
then we
from sun to sea
fill the world
with starlit trees
till winter candles gather
into one.

Some days
in early summer
lilacs fill the evening air
with their sweetness
we sit
our sunset yard
till it’s dusk
too dark to see
fireflies rise and gather
into one.

[repeat first verse a capella, with extra measures for silences, at half-tempo]

The first verse of this song lyric wrote itself, more or less. I was thinking about the theme of this illumination piece, and remembering many moments at dusk during my youth in the Midwest. The words came from there.

There was one evening when my family was visiting friends who had a cabin at Lake George in Michigan, an hour's drive or more from our home in Ann Arbor. One long summer day we visited, I had been sailing all afternoon on the lake, on a catamaran under full sail, tacking back and forth across the blue water. In the evening, after supper, we all stood or sat around on the porch. The sky was full of that soft light that happens in summer, just after the sun has gone down, a sort of soft blue glow. The lilac bush next to the porch was in full flower, intoxicating the dusk air with its perfume. I stood there, feeling deeply at peace. Fireflies began to emerge as the light failed. I have no memory of what the conversation was about, just that we talked and laughed quietly, in convivial pleasure, as the light slowly failed, the lilacs filled the air, and the fireflies started to leave their glowing trails in the still air.

Something very quiet and peaceful grew inside me, as the moments wore on till full dark. I felt filled with a quiet, sustained, silent joy, which somehow seemed infinitely large even though it was contained within my slightly sunburned skin. Some silent opening happened inside me, filling me up, even as I continued the light talk and watched the fireflies, and took in the lilac smells. It was a time I felt completely at peace, filled with some joy or something like joy, a moment to be savored and remembered for a lifetime.

I put as much of that evening as I was able into the third verse of this song.

That kind of peaceful silence is what I have tried to evoke here, in this song. That sort of moment. Many of us who live in the Midwest have experienced just such moments, of a summer evening.

The other two verses followed quickly on the heels of the first one, once it was done. I kept to the same irregular syllabic count per line (mostly), creating a de facto poetic form. A few lines of the music came with the words, and I jotted those down in my sketchbook. Then when I was finishing this piece, the day before surgery, I was able to pull that all together, the sketches and memories and feelings, and free-compose the rest of the music onto the page. It came together rapidly, with relative ease, making for a very satisfying creative afternoon.

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