Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Process of Writing 21: Moving Along

The first poetry is always written by sailors and farmers with the wind in their teeth. The second poetry is written by scholars and students, wine drinkers who have learned to know a good thing. The third poetry is sometimes never written; but when it is, it is written by those who have brought nature and art into one thing.
—Walter Anderson

I take this to remind one of the primacy of folk song, folk music, porch music, words of the old ballads always renewed, old stories retold with variations, the stories and the songs of the people telling themselves around the fire in the dark, songs about the shadows out there, beyond the circle of the light. And so I keep coming back to the folk music sources for renewal, myself, and my music, my words, my art.

A few days ago, rather unexpectedly, I finished the Opening number for the new music commission.

Suddenly, after having set it aside for weeks, the key concept of the opening piece became clear. It came from doing some reading in an anthology of mystical writings, specifically in the section in the book of chants, songs, and stories from the world's First Peoples. I realized that the key to the Opening number, now tentatively titled "Great Lakes Prairie Dawn," was that instead of being a summation-and-introduction of the entire commission, a showy grabber like the razzmatazz of an opening Broadway show, it needed to be quieter, grounded in nature, in life, in people, and be a scene-setting piece. It would be grounded by the traces left in the land by the First Peoples of the eastern prairie and Great Lakes region.

It's remarkable how many tellings by First People from different places and times often seem so similar, so grounded in the same basic reality. That's the place to start, therefore.

So I wrote down a couple of loose pages' worth of short texts inspired by songs, poems, tellings, and stories from the Ojibway, Lakota, Potawatamee, and Pawnee peoples—not quotes, not imitations, but my own words inspired by theirs. Words grounded in thousands of years of living on this land. Words inspired by that long experience of the land, the sky, the way of life here.

What better way to set a scene for the commission than with the original wisdom of the region, rooted in the land, the sky, the geology and geography, the changing seasons, the elements of nature that to this day dominate our worldviews, those of us who live here. Midwesterners always have the weather to talk about, because, as the saying goes, "If you don't like the weather, wait a day, and it will be different." Sometimes you hear "hour" instead of "day." We don't have climate here, the way some places do, we have weather. San Diego and Seattle have climate; the Midwest has active, dynamic weather.

After writing out a flurry of short poems, short texts, short lines, I cherry-picked through them as I was writing out the musical lines. For once the music came before the words; mostly I found words to fit with the phrases of music that were already starting to tumble out. I assembled texts more by intuition than by planned outline. Some things got left out. An entire longer poem got left out, for example, and if I have time, I'll make it into a separate piece later. So the end result is a series of interlinked word-paintings set to music. Some are rather fragmentary. Here's a partial sampling:

eye of the day sees everything
with the eye of the heart
    we help each other
the sacredness of life
bound to the land
we live our days
bound to each other
with love
   with love

Earth, our Mother
   bring rain to wash us
Lake, our Father
   wind to cleanse us
sun is risen
   sun to warm us
day begins
   soil to give us life

sun is risen
day begins


The piano accompaniment, rippling like water underneath throughout whatever the chorus is singing, has its own thread, and quotes at the beginning and end of the movement a well-known folk song, "The Water Is Wide." I made my own arrangement of this song, with altered rather than traditional harmonies. It seems proper to begin with words about the land, and a thread of song about the great water, woven together.

I didn't expect to work on finishing this opening piece till later on in the writing process. Weeks ago, I had felt stuck because working on the opening piece was triggering my tendencies towards perfectionism, which are the fast road to feeling oneself blocked. I got stuck because I wanted the opening number to be an attention-grabber, a Big Deal—since, after all, it's the first thing people will hear, and their first introduction to the overall piece. I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself, and on the music, to be perfect. Once I realized that humbler, more earthy beginning was what was needed, I was able to proceed. Now it's done. I'm still not completely confident about it, though; I may revisit what I've written in a few days, to see if it has held up. If I have to rewrite it, I shall.



I finished the Illuminations piece "Seven Haiku About the Great Lakes" just prior to working on the Opening piece. These short haiku linked movements came out quickly, a compact set of individual pieces that are thematically related both musically and poetically. This piece, I confess, was a real pleasure to write. The poems came months before the music, but when I began writing the music, it all came together very quickly and smoothly, one of the easiest writing experiences I've had so far.

I feel like I am still in that creative flow, that the writing is going quickly, smoothly, and relatively easily. I think about the commission every day. It's percolating away in my mind even if I've stepped away to do something else for awhile. For example, I needed to clear my mind, so I went out for a walk with the camera in hand. When I got back, some answers came directly out of the pencil and onto paper.



Today I finished "Fearless Heart," adding a new verse as a bridge. In final form, it's basically a simple folk/country song, a shuffle, a simple little tune. Increasingly, I would like to have guitar, drums, and bass, as part of the musical accompaniment. I doubt that's logistically feasible. But some of these latest songs, some now finished, some with lyrics not yet set to music, seem to call for a versatile combo, able to play rock, jazz, country, whatever mood the music has at the moment. I don't know if this will actually happen. In my mind's ear, though, I can hear the arrangements for combo very clearly, even if I end up just doing it all with piano.

Initially I notated "Fearless Heart" as a jazz chart, or pop chart, at first. That is, just the melody line, with chords indicated, CM FM9 G7, that sort of notation. A few riffs written out, but when experienced musicians play to charts they know they have to come up with their riffs based on the chords: that's precisely when a shared musical tradition, such as jazz, is so useful in giving you guidelines about what to do. A folk song is the way I envisioned it, so that's the way I notated it. I can even hear it in my head, being sung in the voice of one of my favorite folksingers, with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums.

But that's not going to work for the commission. The commission is for male chorus, and piano. I doubt I'll have the option to add other instruments. So I'm going to have to re-notate the piece. I will copy out the solo melody again, then add a piano part. It will be a notated improvisation, as many of the piano parts for songs in this commission have been; this time, just more deliberately so. So I will re-notate the piece is a format more suitable for its intended use. But I'll keep my original version, too, and maybe teach it myself on guitar. Maybe it will get re-used in another context, as the folk/country song it was meant to be. Time will tell.



I've now finished two-thirds of the pieces necessary to complete this commission. Most of the main pillars of the construction are in place: beginning, ending, a couple of key central movements. I still have three or four pillar-pieces to build, and a few more smaller stories to tell. When this is all done, it will be an entire half of a concert, almost an hour of music. I am doing everything I want to do, with this, and not stopping myself from writing anything. If it doesn't get used, here and now, for this commission, it will still get used, somewhere.

Writing is what matters.

I feel like I've begun a songwriting career, now that I'm actually writing songs, real songs, like singer-songwriters do. It's an intoxicating feeling, and it makes me want to keep going: keep writing lyrics and songs, both simple and complex, both for chorus, and in the manner that singer-songwriters like Ellis Paul, Bruce Cockburn, Lynn Miles, Joni Mitchell, and others of that songwriting peer-group might do. Songs with guitars as often as piano. Not that I play guitar, but I have a good ear for writing music. We'll see what happens. As long as I'm in the flow, and things keep coming forward to be written, I'll keep going. It may take me well past this current commissioned project—and that's all to the good, as it might lead me where I want to go, now, artistically. Giving attention to what matters in life, and making art from it.

Art is always the replacement of indifference by attention.
—Guy Davenport

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