Monday, September 26, 2011

Process of Writing 23: Feeling of Accomplishment

That's what I'm feeling tonight: accomplishment. I just finished watching the televised presentation of Richard Strauss' opera about opera, about words and music, and the love of them both, titled Capriccio. This production featured Renée Fleming, and was superb. I'm a big fan of the waltzes from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, which are the waltzes I return to when I want to listen to an uplifting waltz. For me, Strauss was the culmination of the Austrian genre of the form. Capriccio is delightful, a modern meditation on art that is presented as a salon, itself a meditation. It doesn't have a Big Ending. Like real life, it just ends. It even ends on the questionL how can you choose between words and music? which is the greater art? The unstated implication is that it's the fusion of words-and-music which is the greater art: something I have argued for a long time. I found the "message" of this opera to be not only congenial, but close to home, near to my own thinking.

Since, after all, I now find myself writing songs. Music for the new commission that is words-and-music. I am writing both, and they do combine together. Am I poet? Am I composer? I am both, and like the character in the opera in the end I do not have to choose between them, but can love both.

That's the other sense of accomplishment I feel at the moment: I completed three more songs for the commission this week. I had only planned to write two this past week, but then I was surprised. As sometimes happens to me, a piece was gifted to me—I have no better way to state it—and was written down, more or less fully formed, in a few hours. It happened this way: I had finished one song, and was in the middle of forming and writing the second one. I went down to the farmer's market Saturday morning, to buy the vegetables that I like to get there, fresh each week. The apples are starting to come in, too, and I bought a couple of fresh crisp apples, that I have also been enjoying. On the drive back home from the market, some words starting coming into my head, followed by some musical phrases; next thing I knew, I had a complete piece in mind, and all I had to do when I got home was write it all down. Which took about three hours. And when I had accomplished that work, I took a break for awhile, then went to back to writing the other piece I'd been working on. I finished that the next day, and turned them in that night.

One of two pieces I had been working on is "Alone," which is part of the commission's primary set of pieces, that are a universal story about living in the Heartlands, about leaving home, about life alone, and about the return to home. This is one of two interwoven narratives for the commission. The other narrative thread consists of several individual pieces, which are individual Stories, many of which were directly inspired by the stories told me by the men of the Chorus. This has been what the commission has been about, of course: telling their stories of what it is like to live and grow up gay in the Midwest, in the Heartlands, the heart of the prairie and Great Lakes states. The commission has all along been designed to be modular, so that for any given performance any set of pieces can be used: all of them, or just a few of them, or perhaps just the pieces from one of the two interwoven narratives.

"Alone" is a song of loneliness and isolation. Of feeling like you're the only "different" one in your town, or your school. Of being different, and knowing you are, and knowing no one like yourself. I wrote it as a solo for baritone and piano. The style is mostly tonal, mostly intended to be simple, pretty, and song-like.

The second piece is one of the Stories pieces. I had the idea for this particular piece some time ago, when I was reviving once again my interest in folk music. I wanted to write a very simple folk song, reminiscent of but not directly quoting the great tradition of the Child Ballads. Back in my music school days, I had done extensive research on the Child Ballads, including going back and reading the original multi-volume publication of lyric variants; these ballads are at the root of a lot of traditional folk song in the US, especially in Appalachia. They are ancient English and Scots ballads, with many variations and a long history.

I set out some weeks ago to write something new in that ancient style. A variant, if you will, on the traditional ballad about finding one's lover, about being in love, about life and death. There are whole genres in the tradition of ballads about lost lovers, about those who have died, and whose ghosts the surviving lover encounters in dream, or in the night. For example, "She Moved Through the Fair," or "The Unquiet Grave." I wrote a basic sketch of the lyrics a few weeks ago, but I struggled through several rewrites to get the tone and rhythm and rhymes just so. You want to evoke the formal constraints of the ballad tradition, and still write something new.

What's unique about this new ballad, which for the commission I titled "Folk Song," is that the two lovers are both young men. I also invoked the ballad form of the calendar-poem, with the verses counting through the four seasons. If you know the Child Ballads, there are a lot of music-historical details I worked into this new "Folk Song" that evoke the tradition, that are homages or reflections of the ancient ballads. Having spent some scholarly time on the Child Ballads, I put in a couple melodic quotes and lyrical evocations that only genuine folkies are likely to catch; it will be fun to see who catches them and lets me know, if any.

Here are the first two verses, and the refrain (chorus) for "Folk Song," just to give a sense of it:

When trees burn gold in autumn
and the river runs cold and blue,
I first met my own true love
under orchard trees rough-hewn.

I gave my love an apple
and he gave one to me,
we kissed beneath the golden maple
and made our vows to be.

    To be true to each other,
    to live forever, clinging,
    like the vine that loves the tree,
    like the river flows to the sea.

I want to point out that the refrain breaks the strict ballad form, both in meter and in rhyme-scheme. I deliberately made the refrain more "modern" in sound, in a folk-music style, but a different one than the Child Ballads. Playing this kind of musical games is great fun for the composer. If no one else catches on, that's okay. It's one way you keep yourself interested, and amused, when writing lyrics and music for this kind of piece.

The unexpected piece, the one that came to me on the drive home from the market, is the most modern-sounding piece in the entire suite of pieces for the commission. The piece is for tenor solo with chorus and piano; all three elements interweave, one element leading at times, at other times following the others. The pianistic style is modern, polychordal, using overlaid whole tone scales at times—more or less reminiscent of the style of some of my more complex and evocative solo piano pieces. By contrast, the solo and choral vocal parts are very simple, almost chant-like, occasionally monochromatic, holding down one note while the piano goes off into its own musical galaxy.

The piece is called "Night," and falls into the category of the pieces I am calling Illuminations. It's a piece about living in the Heartland, evoking common experience. It's not specifically a piece about living as gay in the Heartland; but the purpose of the Illumination pieces are to give context, provide background. They speak most directly about living here in the Upper Midwest, about the sky, the lakes, the forests, the land itself.

The words for "Night" came to me very quickly. Once I had them down, I spent a few hours writing out the music, and then it was all done. Here are the lyrics for "Night":

walking the dirt road
at the edge of the field
moonless night full of stars
millions of stars so bright
I can see the dirt
I can see my boots
road rising into the sky
celestrail road

edge of the lake
mirror still waters
night full of stars
silver light filling the sky
and reflecting in the lake
stars above, stars at my feet
mist rising near the shore
celestial lake

i was, as I said, surprised to get this song, but I'm very pleased with it. It's going to challenge a few singers in the Chorus, mostly because of its musical style. But in fact, the choral part is very easy, and all the reference notes needed to find your pitch are in the piano part, mixed in clearly against the backdrop of the more modern gestures and chords.

So now I'm a songwriter. I've been writing all these songs. This week I wrote the most music I've ever written in a week. I've been in the flow, on a roll. Even though I am now approaching the commission's deadline for completion, if I continue to have songwriting ideas, I'm going to keep writing them down. I've never thought of myself as a songwriter before, but the process of working on this commission has really cemented that label in place for myself. Who know? Maybe I'll keep writing songs. Certainly if any song lyrics come forward, I'll set them to music, sooner or later. (I won't be moving to Nashville, though.)

This is a whole new world that writing this commission has opened up for me. A whole new level of writing words-and-music. I will at some point sit down and talk about my touchstones: those other songwriters who have influenced my process, both for this commission and in general, that have inspired me and given me direction during this long process. I'm too busy writing the songs to get into that now, though; so, later for that.

During this writing process, I've gotten in the habit of keeping a pocket notebook in my shirt pocket, in case an idea comes to me while I'm out and about. I'd say that 90 percent of the final ideas for the commission came that way—many of them while driving, as did "Night" just now. I think I'll keep that habit going, in future, and have a notebook with me for those moments when a song comes forward to be written.

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