Process of Writing 20: In the Flow
While I was in the Twin Cities for a few days, two lyrics for songs came forward; more accurately, came clear, after having been thought over for awhile. Both of these were second attempts at lyrics for particular short songs within the "Stories" groupings.
I also began to get some clarity, one morning, on the Opening piece, which has been stuck for awhile. I mentioned earlier that I want the Opening number to be an attention-grabber, a summation, and a door opening into the world of the music. That's a lot of baggage for a piece to have to carry, and I was getting stuck because my desire for the music was bringing out my latent perfectionism. So I set the Opening aside to focus on other, shorter pieces, most of which will eventually fall into one of the two Stories groupings. Then, that morning, sitting in the living room of my friends' house where I was staying, I began reading some Native American songs, chants, and stories, and some ideas for the Opening began to solidify.
I still have more to do with this, but it feels as if the logjam has broken, and the writing is now flowing smoothly and easily. So despite all the bummer moments of the past few weeks, they have also been fertile and productive.
A week or more ago I wrote the words and music for a piece based on one of the stories given me by a member of the Chorus. It's the story of his youth thinking he was different but not going he was gay; of dating girls in high school; of his travel to Europe in college, where he came out to himself, and experienced the joy of being who he really was. While there, he dated men, and lived openly as gay. But when he returned home, he had to go back into the closet for awhile; his fraternity on campus, for example, was not exactly welcoming of gays. But he also started to notice how men he knew would meet at the gay bar in town, quietly. There was a hidden gay scene in that college town. The story ends with him not being fully out of the closet yet, but knowing there's a place now for him, and other men like him, and eventually, living openly will be possible.
I wrote this song as a waltz, following the metaphor of secret dancing between partners whose lives are partially hidden from view. I called it "Secret Waltzes," for soloist, chorus, and piano. Secretly we waltz around with each other, alone and not alone, our lives interpreted through signals coded to be private from the general eye, but obvious to anyone inside the scene. We dance our lives, both openly and secretly. We go to Europe, where the waltz was king. So there are several semiotic layers for making this piece as a waltz; and it's just plain fun to write a waltz.
I've written about three other lyrics in the interim, including two written while away in the Twin Cities. One lyric is a song against bullying, which I have now done the musical sketches for as well, and have only to set down the final pencil score. Another is a semi-nostalgic song about the "Glory Days" of high school, and how we both survive and are shaped by those days; that song I intend to write as a loud rock & roll song, again probably for soloist with chorus and piano.
I started but haven't completed the lyrics for a folk song-style piece, modeled loosely after some of the old classic folksongs. You meet your love in the apple orchard, you fall in love, you spend time together, then work or travel or death takes him away from you. It's a standard pattern for many folk songs—only in this case the lovers are two young men.
And I was inspired to write a simple folk/country song, again inspired by a story given me by a man in the Chorus. it's about wanting to live more openly and fearlessly. It's called "Fearless Heart":
I wish I had a fearless heart
I wish I could be brave and cool
I wish I knew which tale was true
The apple or the serpent’s part
I wish I could be wild and strong
I wish I could sing my own song
I’d never need to live a lie
i’d welcome every roving eye
I wonder if he’ll ever know
I wish I could just tell him so
This private garden makes a start
Someday we’ll build the wilder part
That day I find my fearless heart
I envision the music to be fairly simple. This will probably be a solo with simple accompaniment. A little wistful, a little bit country, a little gentle smile.
Yesterday, I suddenly began to write the musical setting, for chorus and piano, of the second Illuminations piece for the commission, "Seven Haiku About the Great Lakes." This is a linked suite of short pieces, essentially; some haiku set in as few as eight bars, others taking up two or three pages of finished score. I had written a couple of months ago a short series of seven haiku, taking scenes and vignettes from episodes around the Lakes. I was letting them sit till the music felt ripe to do. I had intended the musical style to be open, simple, evocative, and reflective. The musical touchstones were traditional Japanese melodies, perhaps obvious for a haiku setting, and the heartlands-inspired music of Aaron Copland, such as his opera The Tender Land. My own music is not in stylistic imitation, but inspired by the spirit of those sources.
As of tonight I have finished five of the seven haiku. I will finish this piece tomorrow, I believe. The style is a little more jagged and open than other pieces in the commission. The music is spare and almost minimal, in the sense that there is no extra time spent on anything, no variations, no development. Just state the moment and be done. The piano usually has no more than two bars to set the mood before the chorus enters with the text. And when the poem is done, the music stops.
I want to fulfill my desire and intention to write a range of pieces in a range of musical styles for this commission—which after all was the reason I was chosen to write it.
"Seven Haiku" is, along with "Silences Here," an Illumination: 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. These are place-setting pieces that hopefully give cultural context to the overall suite of pieces.
I feel really good about having written most of "Seven Haiku" in two days. I did sketches in my music notebook, then tonight copied out finished pencil scores for the first five of the seven haiku.
So I feel very much in the flow of composing right now. Despite the emotional/mental turbulence I've been experiencing, despite any physical exertions and rest and recovery, the lyrics are starting to come to me at a rapid rate; and the music for the lyrics soon after. I am approaching my ending deadline, so it feels doubly hood to be in the flow, and making real progress at this time. More to come, and soon.