Sunday, November 06, 2011

Process of Writing 25: Completion

A couple of weekends ago I completed the new music commission I have been writing since last January. It's all done, after several months of writing. The week after, one more song came to me, a lagniappe. This leaves me with having written over an hour of words-and-music, feeling like somehow I have become a songwriter. I've written an entire show. I've written an entire album's worth of new songs. There are 18 songs total, plus one. A total of 19, but I tend to think of it as 18 plus 1. When I set out I figured 18 songs would be a good goal. Don't ask me why 18; it's a favorite number, always has been, and even I don't really know why. The plus one, the lagniappe at the end, was an extra gift. I have to find a place to insert it in the sequence of songs. The sequence itself remains a little blurry. I am playing my way through the songs to see how smoothly and logically each segue works.

So I have completed the commission. On one level, anybody who doesn't know me doesn't care. Does it affect their lives? Hardly. Does it affect mine? Deeply. This is a milestone for me, to have been commissioned (paid!) to write music. To write more than music, to write words.

Looking back, I've always preferred to write my own words, even back in music school when I wrote Three Songs, which were art-songs, contemporary lieder if you will, in the long tradition of composers writing songs for solo voice and piano, ranging from Franz Schubert to Ned Rorem. Some years after Three Songs, for baritone and piano, came Five Winter Dream Haiku, for mezzo-soprano and extended-range piano. These Haiku were again my own poems. The piece has been performed, but not recorded. It's still a favorite of mine, a lost child that nobody cares about except me.

Milestones. This is the longest single piece (although it's a suite of individual pieces) I've ever notated, scored, written down the words and notes and music for. It's probably between 70 and 80 minutes duration in performance; that's not yet determined, but will come clear in rehearsal. That's a full concert of music, a full CD. It's not that I haven't written this much for a project before. After all, I have several recorded CDs to my credit, some of which are just as long. But those are recorded compositions that were never more than partially notated. This is the single longest notated piece of music I've written so far.

Each individual song was a complete piece. The overall work is modular, really, and there are two or three groupings within the larger commission that could be performed as smaller sets. For example, the three "Illuminations" pieces could be done as a discrete set. One could also do a selection from the main narrative thread of the piece, or from the "Stories" songs.

Towards the end of the writing process, I was on a roll. I wrote anywhere from one to three songs a week, averaging two songs for several weeks. I still have three or four lyrics and poems that I haven't set to music; perhaps I'll still use those, another day.

I can feel myself shifting gears. The big job of writing has been completed. Now the scores are being engraved in Finale, and I must proofread and make corrections, if any. I have to do some publishing organizational work. Some logistics in preparation for the rehearsal phase of the project. Administrative-level decisions.

I am relaxing from the big creative push. I feel like I can sit down and write new music almost any time, now. I feel like I've been working out, creatively, and those creative muscles are still easy to flex. I may now, for my own pleasure, sit down and continue to write songs. Somehow I've become a songwriter. That's what happens when you compose 19 songs in less than a year's time.

At the moment, the completion of this project, which has dominated my mind and time for almost a year, feels a little disorienting. Not in a bad way, just a little sidewise from everyday life. It's a big project, and now it's done. I've been thinking about it every day for almost a year. Now that mental time is getting freed up, and I feel a little like a baseball pitcher who's been winding up for a big pitch when sudden;y the ball is already in the catcher's mitt, with no apparent transition. How did I suddenly finish?

Well, I exceeded expectations. I wrote more music than the contract required, and I'm happy with everything I wrote. Perhaps not every song is of equal quality, but I love them all, and only time and distance will give me clarity about what I might have done differently, or better. Those things evolve in one's consciousness about one's own art only with time and distance. it is possible to be very objective about one's own art, but while one is still close to it, so soon after giving birth.

So I have some complex, mixed feelings. Part of me wants to get right on to the next big project. Part of me wants to take a break, and just enjoy the glow of completion. Another part of me, a familiar part, feels a little depressed that it's all done. That's the usual slight down I feel whenever I finish a project; it's also what I usually feel the first few days after returning home from a roadtrip. I want to get right back out on the road again. I want to get busy right away with the next project. That feeling of wanting to immediately start out again is an anodyne, I know, to the slight post-partum depression I feel upon completion. The best way to alleviate that depression is to get busy right away, to get right back on the horse and go off in a new direction. I admit I'm a bit of a restless spirit: someone who doesn't settle in place well. I always want to see what's over the near horizon. I like the big sky country because the horizon is far off, and inviting me to rush towards it.

So, I'm done with this major creative work. I will take a little time to catch my breath, then I'll dive into the revisions, if any, and the beginning of the rehearsal period. I'd like to do it all again, right now. I'm not remembering anything but the enjoyment I had doing it; I'm not remembering at the moment any hardships. It's all good.

Two of my favorite four-letter words in the English language are D-O-N-E and N-E-X-T.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

It's a wonderful place to be, Art, at the completion of a task well done, but there is that bitter sweetness, too.

The actor who feels bereft after the curtain goes down for the last time. Though as a songwriter your music and songs will play on and on, and that must be a great joy to you.


1:55 AM  
Anonymous Swanee said...

* In Hebrew, the words for "eighteen" and "life" sound very similar, so the number holds an important role in Jewish custom; e.g., monetary gifts are given in multiples of 18. I like to play with this in my knitting designs, such as when making a baby blanket for a Jewish couple who were adopting a Chinese girl; eight is an equally important number in Chinese tradition, so the blanket was 144 stitches wide and 144 rows long (8 x 18), and if I remember right your yellow shawl was also done over a multiple of 18 stitches. Good thing you got that menorah for your altar!

* And after my own completed writing project earlier this year, I went through pretty much the same emotions. When the book arrived last week, my primary feeling was, "gee, this looks familiar, but did I really write all that?"; your mileage may vary.

4:03 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Of course there completion and there’s completion. I finished Milligan and Murphy six years ago but with all the recent editing and proofreading it feels like I’ve finished it all over again but I don’t imagine I’ll be finished with it until I have the book in my hand which I should have by the end of the month. Likewise with you, until you’re sitting in the audience at the first public performance I guess there will be a ‘provisional’ hanging over your head. But I know where you’re at. I ‘finished’ Left ten months ago and it’s taken me all that time to change the things I’ve been thinking about, the things from which I’ll drawn when I get into my next book. A few weeks back I wrote a possible opening page and now I have to commit to a direction. Probably when Carrie goes to the States next I’ll start and see where it goes.

I have no real advise about what to do now in your case. You have more strings to your bow than most and so it would be relatively easy to start an art project or a writing project and give the music a rest. When I finished The More Things Change within a very short time – it feels like days looking back – I sat down and wrote a play that really did come out of nowhere and a few weeks later I’d begun the next novel. Go with the flow. You’re not the kind of person to tolerate idleness for long.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Bittersweet, that's it exactly. It's a good feeling, mostly.


I suspect when the whole piece is printed and bound, I'll feel something similar. That's fascinating about jewish custom; I didn't know that, but it certainly fits with my own sense of it.


I like "provisional," as that does rather accurately describe the feeling. I'm sure at the first performance it will all seem so much more real and actual.

I already wrote words for another song today. Nothing that's part of this project, but still, there it is. I guess I really have turned into a songwriter. I'll see where this takes, but I like that I wrote something today.

12:04 AM  

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