Process of Writing 17: Something Simple
I'm writing something simple and pretty, now, to get back into the swing of things. After taking a forced break from writing caused by the surgery and the initial recovery period, during which frankly I didn't have a clear mind thanks to the painkiller and anaesthesia drugs, I'm getting back into it. I need to start small and simple. Like everything else, after this major surgery, I'm starting over from the beginning; everything feels new and different, not like it was before. The new life is full of new first times, new experiences. Like being reborn.
Death and rebirth. A vision of life in the desert. I know it's a cliché to use the rebirth analogy, but it's the one that fits. It's a cliché only because it's true.
The song I wrote these past few days is a solo for high voice and piano, with no chorus. I wrote it mostly sitting at the piano, which is not how I usually write. I wanted the accompaniment to be pure, simple, and lovely. So I checked everything at the keyboard, and made some chord and melody adjustments in the middle of verses.
The goal of this song is simply to be pretty. And I think it works out that way. I wrote it mostly at the piano because I wanted it to be non-dissonant, pretty, and harmonious all the way through. The vocal melody line is simple, very plain, while the piano accompaniment moves quickly through chord changes, almost like an old hymn. A bit restlessly, cycling through some changes, but always returning to home. The song is in part about restlessness, and the piano accompaniment reflects that subtly.
The song lyrics are a deceptively simple ballad, or almost-ballad, about growing up in a good place, but restlessly wanting to leave. It's a song about roaming away and returning home. The A section of the vocal melody, which tells the story, is in a major key, while the B section, which asks questions, is in the relative minor key. So we keep moving back and forth in mood between positive and affirming, and mildly-doubtful and questioning. This too reflects the subtle restlessness of the music's mood.
(I am as usual writing this sort of analysis after everything's been finished. These are the kind of analytical things that I notice afterwards, that I don't always consciously hold in my awareness during the actual writing. The part of my self that actually writes the music is pretty smart, definitely smarter than the part of the mind that analyses. I constantly see patterns in my finished creative work that structurally reflect the topic—which I didn't know were there till after I was done, and looking back over the piece. This is just as true for my poetry as my music. It can be a marvelous bit of personal revelation; for me, these little "a-ha!" moments are one of the great pleasures of the creative process.)
Looking back in my sketchbook, I wrote down the first part of this song lyric last February, when I was on the road out West, on my usual annual winter roadtrip. I was driving across the desert when these lyrics about leaving and returning to home came to me. Again, the theme of roaming and returning. Again, the pattern of leaving and returning home.
All I had to start with, a few days ago, was the first two A/B alternating lines of the lyric. I didn't know how to end the song. Then inspiration came yesterday, and for the last part of the song, it made sense to reverse the A/B into B/A for the third verse, which is also a coda, musically. Thus the last four lines of lyric reiterate the B minor key chords, then resolve into the A relative major key. Followed by a short restatement in the piano of the opening chords, ending on a note of peaceful and tranquil resolution.
It may sound odd, and it may only be that I am still emotionally fragile after the recent surgery: and when I wrote out the last few chords, and played through them at the piano, well, I shed a few tears, I felt very moved. The return to home after years of wandering is a pattern from my own semi-nomadic life, a pattern I've experienced many times personally, and so it's meaningful to me.
This song is more personal than I thought it would be. It's more of my own story than I thought it would be. This new music commission isn't only the stories of the men in the chorus, but my own stories as well. I cannot keep my own stories out of the writing, being the instrument through which the writing happens, and I haven't tried to.
I come from a good home
I left it behind
My people were loving
They did not mind
But I could not stay here,
I needed to roam.
I sought out a larger world,
to call it my own.
I left for a dream
of what could be
I made a new home,
a new family
But now I wonder
what I left behind
Did I take a wrong turn?
Can I change my mind?
Was I too long in roaming?
Can I ever go home?
I come from a long road
I needed to roam.
Here is the doorstep,
Here is my home.
The plan for going forward with the writing from here is to continue to write the smaller, modular pieces within the larger scheme. I still have to complete the opening movement, which needs to be like a symphonic overture: big and evocative, stating the overall themes of the score. It must pull the audience in, both in terms of the music and in terms of the commission's topic: that is, what it is like to live and grow up gay in the heartlands of the upper Midwest. It needs to be a grand overture, and I want it to evoke the Great Lakes region, my own homeland—and it's too big right now for me to able to deal with. I still need some more time to recover from surgery, and get my writing back in gear.
So I am going to concentrate on the smaller songs for awhile: collections of individual stories that will make modular suites of songs for chorus, duets, solos, and various mixes of all these forces. Short songs in various styles and moods, which will be strung together in garlands, to make suites within the overall larger composition. there will be two or three such suites of shorter stories, and for now I imagine they will be placed at the one-third and two-thirds positions within the overall structure.
So: start small, get back in the saddle, get used to writing again. After I'm warmed up again, and back in gear, that's when I'll tackle those essential larger-scale movements. This rebirth process after the surgery, when everything is new, like starting all over again—well, writing this music is not separate from that. It's all part of the whole.
I don't have much clarity on my (new) creative process yet. That's part of this re-learning following rebirth.
I may end up writing more at the piano than I did before. I don't know yet if I will be able to write with all the music playing clearly in my mind, like I typically have written before. I may have to learn all over again how to write music, now that it's all new again. Being able to hear all the music in my mind will probably come back, later—it can take months for the residual effects of the anaesthesia drugs to wear off—but I can't wait for that. The mental fog is not unexpected, and is common following any surgery involving general anaesthesia, no matter how minor. It can take time for the fog to burn off. Nevertheless, I want to write, I need to write, now: the internal creative pressure is back. The desire to work is back, even though I still tire easily. So I'll use whatever tools and means I must, to get back into the creative flow. Eventually the fog will clear, I hope, and I'll be able once again to write sitting at a table, rather than at the piano. Meanwhile, I'll do whatever it takes. You go what you gotta do, to get the job done.