Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Running with Chickens

Yesterday, having just a couple hours to work on these pieces I’m writing for violin and piano, it occurred to me how much my approach to composition has changed since I was a kid. It used to be such a spontaneous thing, scribbling everything down as fast as I could – in the days before computers – whatever it was I was hearing in my head or improvising at the piano. I was always hearing music in my head. As I got older, it was less clear – incomplete, in a way, like it was missing details that would need to be filled in. Then, when I was in my mid-20s or so, it just stopped. Now all I hear in my head is everybody else’s music. It’s very strange but for me this has been “normal.” When I was a student, I figured this is the way it would always be, my mind spinning out music that I would just transcribe from what I could hear in my head. I wasn’t prepared for the fact it could stop.

Because I never really “studied” a lot of music when I was very young, just listening to it and maybe reading through scores or playing it at the piano, I never absorbed anything beyond the surface. Perhaps I was listening on a deeper level than most listeners, comparable to the difference someone might have “hearing” the music when it’s just there or of “listening” to it more intently in the foreground. But I don’t think I was getting how a composer like Beethoven took an idea and turned it into a theme or how he got still more mileage out of it, developing it into something larger that grew out of that idea. I wasn’t listening to Wagner or Rachmaninoff and figuring out how they made those harmonic changes – I hadn’t studied enough theory to know the specifics at the time so I couldn’t understand the details. There were my favorite composers and I imitated those, superficially, something that’s normal for most young composers, and piece after piece of mine, consciously or not, was “inspired” by something or someone who’d floated to the top of my listening habits at the time.

It’s not that I was trying to write a new piece of Mozart or Beethoven or Vaughan Williams or whoever caught my fancy: I wasn’t good enough to understand everything about a composer's style to be able to do that. In fact, when I started composing (or at least putting notes down on paper for the stuff I heard in my head), I hadn’t had anything beyond beginning piano lessons and some basic theory training, more than just learning to read music, becoming aware how it was put together, getting a grasp of the language of music on a “see Dick run” level.

That all started when I was in 1st Grade and writing pieces suspiciously like the little teaching pieces in my Michael Aaron piano books since that was primarily all I knew. I was 6 or 7 years old when my father got all excited because he saw that I was writing some music down on a piece of notebook paper, creating my own staff-paper: but what I was doing was transcribing a little song I was working on for that week's lesson (I can still remember it was something about a froggy) and I laughed because I was just copying this little song, it was no big deal. But it was maybe only a few months or so before I was actually writing down something of my own (and that, I can't remember!), working the same way children do when they learn the alphabet, then copy out a sentence from a book and then write their own sentence.

I had been making up my own “stuff” (for lack of a better word) ever since I could remember, sitting at the piano and just playing, certainly by the time I was 5. That was why my parents decided it was time for me to start taking piano lessons. I remember sitting at the piano and pretending the otherwise empty living room was full of people listening to me: I didn’t just have imaginary friends, I had imaginary audiences (well, that hasn’t changed). But I also remember I didn’t like practicing the piano when I had to get the notes just right: it was tedious and became boring and I think I actually played the piano less than I did before, just enough to put down that I practiced at least a half-hour a day. Even then, I knew I wanted to become a composer because, as I explained to my parents’ friends (“aw, isn't that cute”), if I wrote it myself no one else would know whether or not I was making mistakes!

That does not mean I was a prodigy or that I would grow up to become a famous composer. I was by no means a genius (man, there’s an over-worked word), I was just a little kid with a little bit of talent, what they’d now call a “gifted child.” And as far as I could tell, this was normal: it’s what I did naturally.

It’s also all I was interested in. There was never a time in my life I didn’t want to be doing something associated with music – and by that, I meant “classical music.” I never once had any interest in the music everybody else was listening to. When I was in my 30s and playing a board game called “Trivial Pursuit” (the Baby Boomer Version) with a bunch of mostly fellow musicians, 90% of the music questions were about rock-n-roll songs and here were classically trained musicians who knew the third line of the fourth verse of some song by a group I’d never even heard of! I grew up on the music of the “Russian 5" like Rimsky-Korsakoff (the first composer I’d been fascinated by when I was 3) or Beethoven, not the 4 Aces or the Beatles. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a real childhood, but looking back on it, maybe I did grow up in some parallel universe, after all.

By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had written tons of childishly simple symphonies and orchestral pieces, three of which the Harrisburg Symphony played when I was in high school, and by the time I had gone through three music degrees (I am, in fact, fully doctored “up to here,” holding my hand about neck-level, not just playing one on the radio), there had been a good bit of choral and chamber music written when I was a student, especially at Susquehanna University where I was the only composer in the department and lots of my friends wanted me to write pieces for their recitals. By the time I got my first teaching job at 25, I had written about 100 pieces, 40 of which I’d actually heard. A couple of years into teaching at the University of Connecticut, I had written my 5th opera (well, actually one of those was incomplete: the first half of a setting of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was still longer than some of the operas I’d completed).

There was a facility that came along with this gift. If I needed something for my composition lesson on Thursday, I could sit down Wednesday night and write something to take in and my teacher would go over it and say basically it was okay. He tried to get me to change things or work things out but I probably resisted because I liked it the way it was. When I went to Eastman for my masters, I remember thinking how cool the story of Cain and Abel would be to turn into a chamber opera, a kind of biblical parable opera like Benjamin Britten (another one of my favorite composers), so I wrote out a libretto from an old English mystery play, sat down the day after one of my lessons where I’d discussed this project with my teacher, Samuel Adler, and then showed him a complete 30-minute opera the next week. When he was surprised I had written that much music in a week, I shrugged my shoulders and said “well, it was Thanksgiving weekend and I had nothing else to do.”

If the music is in your head like that and that’s all you remember, it’s a very scary thing when it suddenly stops.

I don’t know why it did and I certainly had no idea that it could. Because it was easy to do, almost without really thinking, I never had to work hard at it and probably never bothered to learn any real ‘craft.’ When this natural intuitive process slowed down and eventually stopped, I felt perhaps I needed a more scientific, cognitive approach but that seemed too much like work and I didn’t like what I was coming up with. I figured if I just stopped writing, then eventually something would kick in, my “inner composer” would come back to me and I’d get over this “writer’s block.” Between that and a number of other things which could be lumped under the generic term “mid-life crisis,” when a whole lot of other changes you weren’t expecting hit you head on, it was a decade I’ve pretty much forgotten, getting up and going to work and going through the motions of life.

This is why I’m concerned about all the attention being shoveled on Jay Greenberg, a 14-year-old who’d written his 5th Symphony and a string quintet when he was 12 that’s just been released on Sony. It’s great to hear your music well performed and to get the best training you can – one degree of separation: he too is studying with Sam Adler – but hopefully he’ll be aware (which is different than being afraid of) this constant inner music he’s subconsciously creating might some day go away. It’s one thing to have this nurtured by others, it’s another thing to care for it yourself. All the pressure that’s on him, now, to become the Greatest Living Composer Since Mozart may be enough to make that small inner voice go silent. Or it could grow strong and resilient to withstand all the changes and challenges that will happen to him as he matures as a person as well as a musician.

The quotation in this blog-heading comes from a French philosopher whom I firts heard of years ago while reading Proust, and though I’ve only read Henri Bergson’s writings tangentially through his influence on Proust, this aphorism is something I can relate to now only after having gone through so many changes in my life. Looking back on it, I realize how many of these changes happened without my really knowing it, while others presented themselves like speed bumps or blind alleys. What I did earlier takes on a different perspective which I now absorb until I become one of my own influences (the cliche-spinner in me starts thinking perhaps it’s like looking beyond the thread of continuity to see the whole fabric). Maturity is not just about “getting older” or, as a friend says, like fine wine, getting better (me, I’ve turned to vinegar long ago): unless you’re going to stay stuck in your rut until the walls beside you are so high you can’t see over them, you continue to absorb and adapt and change as needed – and that’s very scary.

So here I am, having gone from being a spontaneous composer to one who now has to work out every tiny detail. Years ago, I wrote a complicated choral work about 8 minutes long with several simultaneous texts (and languages) with five spatially placed sub-groups that required three conductors, composing it all one Thanksgiving Day; more recently, I spent two years writing a symphony that’s not quite a half-hour long.

Before, I would sit down and transcribe what I heard in my head, maybe fiddling around here and there trying to find a better note or chord and settling for something that was okay if not finding exactly the “right” note without ever really knowing why it was the right note (“it sounds better”). Now I work out the details first because all I hear in my head are snippets, shapes, what we call “musical gestures” and really nothing more than the raw materials of what could become a piece. I can spend weeks going over a passage trying to get it from being acceptable to being right. I worry that I have become too “scientific” a composer with a system of specified rules (even without using lots of razzle-dazzle terms to delight the theorists) which could be used in place of some larger creative impulse (too often, I think, composers rely on a system to do their creating for them). On the other hand, I'm aware that tonal music (the music most people think of when they hear the term 'classical music') has its own set of rules and razzle-dazzle terms but because the music is familiar, we accept it without question. I'm finally learning there are lots of similarities between the way that system works and the way mine could.

I'm also learning to combine some kind of intuitive artistic approach with a kind of scientific discipline, now that I'm beyond the “see Dick run” level or, at this point, “observe, if you will, how Dick utilizes these particular leg muscles, combined with the following involuntary neural commands, in order to propel himself forward at increasingly greater rates of speed following an extended period of stasis.”

It is difficult not to be bogged down by the memory of that earlier facility when I look at 50 pages of sketches and realizes all I have so far for the first of these violin and piano pieces is 20 measures or 50 seconds of music. I’d been working on it since early May, aside from being sick for a week and only being able to write a few hours a day even when I do feel like it, not to mention interrupted by some 45,000 words of The Schoenberg Code and other bloggings and this crappy summer heat (the neighbor’s doberman with his amazing barking stamina has been less of a hassle, though, this houndentenor I call Woofgang).

You develop a sense of perspective so you’re not beating yourself into a bleeding pulp, not gaging your success according to the American love of Fast Everything, entertainment like “American Idol” or satisfaction with just getting something done without thinking it through (which is how the government now runs its own policy). It occurred to me, several years back, when a clay-mation film came out called “Chicken Run” (and, I’m sorry, I’d been using the expression “poultry in motion” for years though I would never have thought to copyright it). During the inevitable TV special hyping the film called “The Making of Chicken Run,” the director explained how they create these clay figures, set them in a particular pose, snap a frame, adjust the figures for the next frame and snap the picture before going on to the next one, until you have a smoothly moving animation that, geez, couldn’t you do something like that with computer graphic software a lot more easily? Well, yes, but it’s the look they’re after, that particular style that says “this is by the creators of Wallace & Gromit” – just like a composer who’s working on his or her own voice and style – and that love and conviction for that voice and style helps them get over the fact they spent an 8-hour day creating a few seconds of film.

Well, now that I’m on my second cup of coffee and I’ve gone from Proust to Chicken Run, it’s time to hit the piano and start working on a few more seconds of music.

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