Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Next Step

After finishing the Theme & Variations that will open this set of pieces for violin and piano, my morning started off (once it officially started, cup of coffee in hand) by thinking about the next of the pieces. (I'll save copying out the finished one until I have a day when the creative juices aren't working that well: then it's time to get caught up on the paperwork.)

A composer’s mind needs to be receptive to any number of potential “next pieces” whether there’s a pile-up of commissions staring you in the face or just the free time to be able to concentrate on something new. My problem, after years of inactivity, is now dealing with all the things I want to write, a flood of possibilities for which (a) I have no performance outlet and (b) I may not have the luxury of time that I had when I was a grad student (without sounding too ominous, I’m not referring to “number of hours in a day” but more to “number of days in a life”). I should be so lucky to live long enough to write everything I'd like to write! If I could make it to 97 like Elliott Carter (who is currently finishing up a horn concerto before moving on to his next commission), that would be fine, depending. As it is, something tells me I might make it to January 18, 2038 – that would make me 88 then: nice round number for a piano-player – because I’ve gotten tons of spam ‘sent’ on that date (hey, if I’m going to look to modern technology for omens the way our ancestors looked to the heavens, gimme a break, okay?)...

The next piece is supposed to be the scherzo, something contrasting on the lighter side but not exactly what I’d consider a fall-down-funny kind of scherzo. Back in early August, in the midst of working out the details for the Theme, I kept hearing my neighbor’s rock music with its persistent beat. Then I was listening to some Sondheim – from “Sunday in the Park with George” – and heard that same beat in the background of the show’s title song. Noodling around at the piano, I found I could use that rhythm “my way” in a series of chords using 8 of 12 pitches and then realized, in one configuration, the remaining 4 pitches spell out Shostakovich’s musical signature, D-S-C-H! Well, to me, that was funny! Especially considering the violinist-in-question is using that motive as his ring-tone. But that’s where I’d left it at the time: come back to it, later.

Just the other day, wondering how to make that rhythmic pattern work as the middle section of the scherzo, my upstairs neighbor was playing the radio uncharacteristically loud, some mellow blues song just present enough to be noticeable. When suddenly, from the next door neighbor, I heard a loud burst of rock music in a completely different key – but it was just that rhythmic accompaniment warming up, then cutting out after a couple measures. At a different point in the blues phrase, the rock beat burst onto the scene again. And that was what I needed.

Before, I wasn’t clear what the opening section of this piece should be: too fast and scurrying meant I might also write something I couldn’t play (a very serious limitation to consider) and while various possibilities presented themselves peripherally, nothing really grabbed my attention. But the idea of something bluesy (and without being something borrowed, courtesy of Ravel’s sonata) was intriguing, especially since I’m not a listener of jazz or a lover of pop music in general to know how to do that. No, I don’t want to try to write real blues, just as I don’t want to write real rock music with that beat pattern: the idea will be to find some characteristics that I can use “my way” (without sounding artificial like One Big Tenor singing Sinatra) to create the mood, even if no one else really thinks of it as blues (not my point).

Years ago, I used to hear some natural sound and would automatically wonder how I could convert that into something musical, either recreating it with instruments as a special effect for a piece I’d be working on, or turning it into some kind of motive or theme. The high-point of this happened when a neighbor of mine inadvertently backed into my parked car and while she was apologizing profusely for the not terribly severe dent in my bumper, I was more interested in getting the right amount of percussion with the brass chord for the impact and a kind of rhythmic reverb with clarinets in the lower register. If she hadn’t known how weird musicians can be, she figured it out then.

But it’s no different than Beethoven watching a man galloping by on a horse and turning the rhythm of the horse and the bouncing of the rider into a musical pattern that became the last movement of what we know as the Tempest Sonata. Composers’ minds just work differently that way: anything is creative fodder.

So the A-Section of the scherzo will become some kind of bluesy melody that, near the end, will suddenly be attacked by this rock beat coming out of nowhere, as if a mistake (oops, sorry, counted wrong, came in early...). This may happen twice (more than that spoils the joke) before the violin just joins in. Then, after we’ve gone back to the bluesy melody, the piece ends with a quiet but taunting echo of the rock beat and the violin breaks off into a sudden “uh oh,” played pizzicato.

But part of the problem of free-associating when thinking about “something next” are the other ideas that distract you. While I’ve been toying with finding a soliloquy in Aeschylus’ “The Persians” and turning it into a vocal scene for mezzo and orchestra, the idea of what to do with these “Pieces for Violin & Piano” became more pressing. Now that there might be time to write four, I’m not sure the original idea of a central Chaconne/Aria works that well any more. There’s a span, here, that is spoiled by placing this scherzo second: but blues and the chaconne plus the opening variations and the closing nocturne then present too much of the same mood and tempo. Maybe I still need a contrasting faster section? Five pieces with the chaconne makes it too long, proportionally, given what's already composed – it would become a 21 minute work – but if I drop the chaconne and add the faster, shorter piece, it would now be 13 minutes and that might be more suitable. After all, it’s a collection of pieces, not a real sonata.

Then it occurred to me: the way I keep hearing the chaconne, I’m thinking it should be a violin solo with orchestra – it would be easier to sustain the chordal patterns and add variety to the variations – whether it’s 7 minutes or 12. Aaaakkk, put that aside – that’s way later! Let me finish these pieces first: then that... and the scene from Aeschylus... and then...

However, given the dreary day and the chill in the air, it’s time to turn domestic, do some chores and run some errands. Blah...

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