Saturday, August 13, 2011

Process of Writing 18: Fits and Starts

Last week I was experiencing what I came to realize was post-surgery depression. I had a bad week, my emotions on a hair trigger, my fears and anxieties about the future very much with me. I was feeling a lot of physical pain inside, as well, discomfort, and unhappy tissues. I wasn't sleeping well, or comfortably, or restfully. I finally talked it over with the surgical nurse, and was reassured. Post-surgery depression is common. So are the physical sensations I've been feeling, with this kind of surgery. I still have an extended recovery to go through, but at the same time, six weeks out from surgery my outside scars are basically healed and I'm cleared for more strenuous physical activity, including bending, walking, lifting, more exertion. I'm cleared for more normal levels of physical activity, even though I still have limitations and some tender spots. Yet things are better, even if sometimes I still hurt for no apparent reason. The past couple of days, I've indeed felt some pains that were annoying and unpleasant, but i strove on anyway.

Meanwhile, I was so tied up in knots that I got almost nothing done, creatively. It was a very stale, stagnant week. I found it very unpleasant. That's an understatement.

Then, the weather improved, cooling off and drying out, so that I could open the windows at night for fresh air, and sleep more deeply in the cool night air. A couple of days ago, I started pounding away at the piano again. Patterns and changes, little lines of melody, some few words. Little fragmentary ideas towards a small piece.

When things are coming only in small fragments, what you have to do is write down the fragments, and have faith that they will all stitch themselves together later.

At some point, it's like crossing a threshold, and suddenly a pattern emerges, or comes clear, or reveals itself, or is discovered, and you know what goes where. Then it's just a matter of sorting your fragments into their proper, final places. The pattern self-organizes, or you become aware finally of the pattern that was there all along, but only on a subconscious level.

I wonder now if my way of writing music is permanently or only temporarily changed by this surgery.

There is a definite before and after. There is the way I wrote most of the music before surgery, which was sitting at my worktable, away from the piano, and hearing the sounds inside my head. Since the surgery, I'm finding that way of working very difficult. I've only been able to write a few times since the surgery, and mostly at the piano.

The first piece I completed since the surgery, some two weeks ago now, I had to completely write at the piano, and then go back and check by playing through it again. In fact, a day or so after I thought I'd finished the piece, I was playing through it one more time, and found a couple of errors that I then fixed.

I'm told there can be cognitive effects that linger on for a long time after surgery, caused in part by the trauma of the experience itself, and the exhaustion that results from the trauma, but also caused by the lingering effects of the anaesthesia drugs and pain medications. Most of those meds flush out of your system fairly soon, but tiny amounts can still linger in your system for months after. I've heard plenty of stories of people feeling mentally fogged for months after their surgery, then suddenly their minds clear. It's perhaps simply a matter of time.

Right now, I feel at times like writing the words and music for the new commission is an uphill struggle. It can be quite hard on some days, adding to the overall frustration of the new life, post-surgery. Everything is new, now, again: diet, physical limits, self-image, creative process.

I'm working on a short song today. One thing noticeably different about the creative process is that the music is coming before the words, and the lyrics are revealing themselves only as I write out the vocal parts. I'm not writing the words in advance, this time, as I have usually done up till now. The lyrics now seem to emerge from the music, Or, it's a gestalt, all happening at once. That's different. I'm also having to write all the piano parts for this piece at the piano. Also, I'm writing the piano parts first, then the choral parts and lyrics come after I have the piano part down. It's emerging, so to speak, backwards, in terms of writing process, compared to previous pieces. It's a short, angry, rhythmic piece for full chorus. It's part of the group of gathered Stories, although where it will fall in the Stories sequences of collages is as yet unclear.

Maybe my own frustration and anger, since the surgery, is leaking into this piece, but I find myself fairly passionately intent on the writing. The words come out when the melody's already down, and so far they're questions. I think it might become a song about the bad things people say and do to each other when they're in a relationship. The most memorable sentiment, so far, and the opening line, is, Can you love me enough to let me go? Some of the words I've gotten are the kinds of questions people ask each other when they're trying to work out how to love each other. I suppose this isn't just a gay problem, but a problem every person has, sooner or later.


Late at night, now, I shall not complain. I'm five or six pages into this piece, which isn't all that much music, to be honest, as this is a fast tempo piece. It's fast-moving, with a driving, insistent rhythmic pattern cycling between 6/8 divided duple and 6/8 divided triple (3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2). (You can also think of this as 6/8 + 3/4.) So five or six or so pages in, I'm only approaching the midpoint.

But suddenly it's getting easier to write. I knocked out those modular fragments over the past few days, mostly at the piano, and just now, the parts have started to fall into place. Like most of the individual songs within the Stories collections, it's not a long piece—but it's an intense one, driven rather than soaring. Now that I know the overall form, I can at least sketch out the scaffolding, and fill in the details as I go forward. I'll perhaps finish it sometime tomorrow.

The words are still coming after the music comes. I now have the words for the first two sections—the overall form is starting to look like A, B, A-modified, C—and the rest will follow. At least I know how many syllables per line now.

That's another interesting thing about writing these lyrics for this commission: Many of these song lyrics have uneven, variable line lengths within each stanza, although each stanza has the same overall form, with a varying number of syllables per line. I am letting the words be through-composed, even though once I have a poetic structure for a given lyric, I tend to stick to it. (A good example of this lyric style is a song completed just before the surgery, "Silences Here.")

The flexible line length makes the lyrics seem more natural. More like speech, or the sort of high-end Broadway song which seems half-recited and which propels narrative, rather than being a strictly-metered ballad-form that becomes too metric, too predictable, too sing-songy. I also prefer slant-rhymes and off-rhymes to pure end-rhymes. The rhymes sometimes fall within the line, too, rather than at the end.

And so we go on. Progress is being made, even if I still feel stuck from time to time.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

It's fascinating to read about your progress, Art, which is not to say I don't commiserate. It sounds awful at times, but the outcome is wonderful, at least to me it is. You create music with lyrics attached and to me that's amazing. All I can do is write.

Two things jumped out at me here. The first when you write:

'When things are coming only in small fragments, what you have to do is write down the fragments, and have faith that they will all stitch themselves together later.'

I recognise this process myself and I try to trust it otherwise I tear my hair out. I cobble and put things together later.

The second, the possible title of your next piece: 'Do you love me enough to let me go?' is striking.

You're right, I think it's an issue that applies to all of us at some time or other,gay or not.

It reminds me of the story of King Solomon.

Two mothers are fighting over ownership of the one baby. Solomon says I'll resolve this for you. I'll cut the baby in half. The real mother steps forwards and says, 'No. Let her have the baby.' Then Solomon knows, as do we all, who's the real mother. The real mother loves her child enough to give him up.
Thanks Art.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the great comments, E. I appreciate being reminded of the Solomon story, it's a famous one that's relevant.

At the moment the tentative title for this piece is "Can You?"

I'm keeping a diary of events and feelings related to the surgery, recovery, and so forth. I'm gradually editing it, posting it, and I've got a list of friends who I keep updated via email. I'm not trying to be too systematic about it, so if makes sense to mention things in context, as I did here, I do. Thanks for the commiseration, it's appreciated.

1:38 AM  

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