Friday, September 29, 2006

Getting It to Work

Yesterday, just around noontime, despite the best efforts of the neighbor’s houndentenor and the various distractions of an urban existence, I managed to fill in the last of the missing measures for the last of the variations in what is only the first piece of a set of three or four for violin and piano. It was a quiet and short-lived celebration – after all, it’s only part of the whole work and I had to leave soon for work – but that also means I’m ahead of my non-schedule which means I might also be able to consider the possibility of four instead of three pieces after all. Being out of practice in finishing pieces is one thing, but earlier in the month it looked like it would take forever just to get this one done (and it’s only supposed to be about six minutes long). I’ve already got some ideas for the next one – even the very ending is sketched out already!! – and this one, while shorter, is also less involved.

But the process is not done, yet, since I should now transfer the sketches into something a musician could actually play from – the scribblings in my notebook are only the first step from getting it out of my head and into your ear.

Every composer – and I’m beginning to feel that I can call myself that, again – works differently and at this point in my life, it’s working differently for me than it was when I first started to write music when I was a kid. Writing about Dmitri Shostakovich as a budding young composer or about the newest prodigy sensation, Jay Greenberg, hurrying to write the music down that he hears constantly in his head, I get kind of wistful for those days, myself, when it all seemed so much easier. I just sat down, maybe at the piano, maybe not, and started filling up the page: it was nothing, then, to write a song or a short piano piece or 20-30 measures of something for orchestra in one or two sittings, usually written directly into full score without need of sketches or rough drafts or writing it out for piano before orchestrating it into its final form.

Now, it’s more like work.

I don’t even really “hear” the music in my head to begin with, any more. I hear other people’s music in my head all the time – difficult to avoid, when your job is to program and play other people’s music at a radio station which is why I'm now a Morning Composer, writing my music while the brain is supposedly still fresh and uncontaminated before I need to hear other people's music at work (though this morning the music I’d like to tear out of my skull is the song “Edelweis” from The Sound of Music, who knows how it got there in the first place) – so now, rather than downloading my own music in what seems to have become slower than the slowest possible brain-to-hand dial-up connection ever, I try to find the ideas, sort out the musical shapes and “gestures” (not as in “yeah, well, gesture this!”) – those fragmentary possibilities that could give birth to a phrase, a melody or a well-placed chord – and translate them into something that works.

Perhaps that’s why artists call something they’ve created “a work” because it’s hard work getting a work to work...

I find myself deeply involved in the “language” of my style: whether it makes me Me or whether it’s just the consistencies of a style that I’m fitting into, I don’t know yet. At times, it seems every piece is a struggle to figure this out, but I’m beginning to notice that certain aspects of it are becoming more “second nature” now, leaving me time to concentrate on things I hadn’t time to notice before. After all, if you’re struggling with noun/verb relationships, it’s nice, suddenly, to sit back and contemplate, “let’s see, if I were to use the subjunctive, here...?”

There was a moment yesterday when I sat back in surprise at something written the day before. It’s from a “shape” that popped into my head while driving home from the station one night a couple of weeks ago.

The theme of this set of variations includes a motive based on the open strings of the violin – “perfect 5ths,” they’re called in the basic musical language. I can use these same pitches in different ways: to put them in some linear context (not that it’s much of a melody), you can turn this “shape” (from the bottom up, G-D-A-E) from 5ths into 4ths (ascending with E-A-D-G which is actually the same pitches in reverse) or, condensed into a closer framework and changing the order of them, to 2nds (D-E + G-A) or any combination or order (ascending or descending) or transposed (translated) to any starting pitch: the shape of it, the harmonic core of it becomes recognizable but maybe only sensed (or not) in different contexts. The whole point of variations is to take something and turn it into something else that is both the same and different: finding its recognizable elements and yet doing something with them to make it sound not-the-same.

(Speaking of shapes, one of the most famous melodies that Sergei Rachmaninoff ever wrote is from his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” which is really a set of variations on Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice: and yet all Rachmaninoff did to create that tune – the famous 18th Variation when everybody sits back and oohs-and-aahs at its natural beauty – was to take Paganini’s original, slow it down and turn it upside down. It’s probably more luck than genius, but I would loved to have been the fly on the wall at the moment Rachmaninoff, with his great granitic face, discovered what he found by simple, academic manipulation. Sorry if it takes the romance out of the idea of “inspiration,” but sometimes that’s how it begins.)

So, getting back to my paltry little shape which will create nothing that people are likely to swoon at, if the violin plays this little “open-string motive” as a 2nd (say, A-down-to-G) followed by a 7th, which is a 2nd inverted (say, E-up-to-D) and plays it in harmonics, giving it a particular sound, I can support that with simple chords in the piano that would be, like, really cool.

I was looking for something I could mirror that with, having used it a few times now in different ways already, only this time reversing the role between the violin and the piano – the piano plays the “open-string motive” in widely-spaced octaves while the violin plays two-note ‘chords’ in between. Given my harmonic language, I knew there were many combinations of pitches that could “work” here: the problem was finding the one that not only worked and was most easily playable but sounded best in the context of this passage. When I was done – and I don’t remember that it took very long to come up with this – I had something that sounded pretty good. I then went on to the next bit and forgot about it.

The next day, I’m looking back over this and discover, much to my surprise, that the three lines I had written – the piano line and the two lines of the violin’s double-stops – created three distinct statements of this “open-string motive,” each one transposed to different pitches and in different configurations, but all based on the same four notes and their intervals. Wow – okay, so it’s a purely Geek Moment, but still, that was, like, really cool!

Not that anyone’s going to sit there and go “Hey, listen to that: it’s that same melodic motive used linearly in each part!” It’s nice it works in terms of the language and sounds better than maybe a dozen other possibilities I could’ve tried. But now I know why it worked better: it was more a “part of the whole” rather than just a part.

Which means, I think, that the creative process is working internally again: I’m not doing all the work myself.

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