Monday, September 17, 2007

To the Front Burner: Evidence of a New Piece

Considering I’m not one to do much that would pass for “cooking,” it’s surprising how many food analogies I use when describing the creative process: a previous post was about the “book in the oven” – and I really could post something now about having written (wow) its first paragraph – but now it’s time to mention an idea for a piece has moved from the back burner to become a work-in-progress on the front burner. Whether it turns out well done, half-baked or ends up in the dog’s dish (oh wait, I don’t have a dog... even the cats would turn their cute little collective noses up at this stuff), it’s definitely not going to be ‘fast food.’ I don’t want to put it on any kind of a schedule, but it’s going to take several months, at this rate, to get it finished. At least it’s started and so far I’m thinking it’s off to a good, well... promising start.

And it’s not even what I thought it was going to be when it first occurred to me back in the spring.

Originally, I was thinking a choral piece in five sections – with or without instruments – setting some biblical verses I’d chosen from those I knew were especially meaningful to my mother. But the idea of “just” setting biblical verses was not very appealing: it didn’t have any shape and certainly nothing to hold it together beyond its being a collection. I didn’t want a “suite” or medley – I wanted a single piece.

There was also the possibility of setting them as song texts – in other words, a collection of five songs with voice and piano. That would make the “medley” aspect of it more palatable.

Now, I haven’t done any real composing since mid-January when it became too difficult to work with the new upstairs neighbors at my old apartment. Not that they were noisy, their fights more late-night affairs befitting people who slept in till noon. It was that ‘sleeping in’ aspect that made it difficult for me to write, my piano directly under their bedroom. For the past five years, for better or worse, my five sets of upstairs neighbors have all worked 9-to-5 jobs which meant, once they were gone for the day, I could compose without bothering anyone (or being bothered by them). Weekends, often, were another matter, which sometimes proved to be a problem for me since it was the only time I could compose with a 9-to-5 approach myself. But by mid-January, all this came to a stand-still. Then, with my mother’s passing and the subsequent process of adjusting, then moving into the house and various minor health problems which precluded finishing the move – the piano only arrived from the apartment last month – I felt like I ought to be composing but couldn’t. This has happened before, for one reason or another, so I chose to sit this one out rather force the issue.

Yet I spent a great deal of the time thinking about what I ought to be writing. The idea of something for Mother (actually, for both my parents) was obvious, rather than just jumping in to write anything that came to mind. Those violin and piano pieces I’d been blogging about last year didn’t need much to finalize– the third piece was essentially done – and working on the Christmas project was an option since, soon enough, another Christmas will inevitably roll around. Then there was the novel I’d wanted to try – if I didn’t feel like writing music, maybe prose would work.

In the past few weeks, I didn’t spend a lot of time at the piano – noodling through some Bach Preludes and Fugues (at least, the easier ones), checking in periodically with works by Schumann and Brahms I used to play, spending a weekend evening visiting Thoreau, courtesy of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata. But even that I started to do less.

In the back of my mind was the idea of this choral piece – the Bible verses – and so I’d listened to a lot of choral music (mostly while driving around in the car), both new (from Harmonia mundi’s collection, Baltic Voices 2) and old (from the Hilliard Ensemble’s Josquin album) but not much in between. There were things I knew I’d need to work on stylistically for this piece, so it wouldn’t sound hackneyed. Then I stopped listening to it, for a while listened to very little music (rough to do, in my line of work), then went back to some of my favorite composers: Britten on the one hand, Elliott Carter on the other but again not much in between.

Some time (last summer?) I thought about writing something for the voice, looking into perhaps something ‘timely’ from Aeschylus’ “The Persians” but not finding the kind of text I was looking for. Thoughts kept going back to the scene with Andromache in Euripides’ “Trojan Women” which I’d already set back in my Eastman days (in fact, had spent a good deal of time working on it at this same piano in this same house when I was on vacations). But it kept making me think how I’ve always wanted to work on another great Greek tragedy, “The Bacchae,” and that was just more than I needed right now.

I was very much taken by the voice of Joyce DiDonato whom I’d seen in the Met’s broadcast of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (what an amazing voice). I listened to some of her CDs, especially the Wigmore Recital – which then made me think of turning the biblical verses into “recital songs” rather than choral pieces. Two people – how difficult could it be to find two people to perform my music? Not a choir, not an orchestra, not an opera company, just two people...

This summer, the deaths of three great singers also affected me: Beverly Sills in July and Luciano Pavarotti earlier this month, but mostly Jerry Hadley, an acquaintance of mine from our mutual days at UConn (I’ve written a great deal about his tragic death this past July). I also read Joyce DiDonato’s blog where she wrote about the recent deaths of her mother only a few months after her father's.

So all of these things – plus hearing John Adams’ very moving setting of Walt Whitman’s words, descriptions of his nursing soldiers at a battle-field hospital during the Civil War, “The Wound Dresser” – became ingredients if you will for something that needed to simmer a while (“gestate,” to borrow another analogy). In due time, whether I knew it or not, things would be ready for me.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

This past Thursday, the 13th, would’ve been my mother’s 88th birthday. In the past, I would’ve taken the night off to spend it with her, take her out to dinner, sit up late and talk. It was always difficult to get her something because she certainly didn’t need any stuff. This time, as the day approached, I started realizing how hard it was going to be, observing the day without her, so I decided I would take the night off anyway, even if all I did was sit at home.

The past two days had been spent waiting for the guy from Godot’s Delivery Service and the new mattress I’d bought the previous weekend, deciding it was time for an up-grade, considering all the mattresses in this house are older than 25 years. Even so, I woke up feeling a little less achey than I’d been recently (thanks to back trouble and the hernii), but (oddly for me) remembering a dream I’d just had. Normally I don’t have dreams or at least recall them, but this time I was standing backstage at a concert listening to Joyce DiDonato sing... my music! It was a piece I’d written and this was its premiere, and though I could remember none of the music itself, it reminded me of Adams’ “The Wound-Dresser” in its mood – slow, reflective, consoling. And she was singing – Bible verses. I couldn’t remember the words, either, when I woke up, but I thought, well, time to hit the piano.

Some of the verses I had written down for this piece-to-be included Romans 8:28 (“all things work together for good”) and lines from John 14 which my mother had read to my father as he was dying and which I, in turn, read to my mother as she began slipping away a few nights before her death: “Let not your heart be troubled... In my father’s house are many mansions...” Others, I was less sure about, though her Bibles are full of highlightings and underlinings. How to begin? Originally, Romans 8:28 was the first one, but I thought it might make a better ending, John 14 a better “keystone” (because it would have to be an arch-form).

When I compose, a lot of my reference material deals with the hundreds of possible pitch combinations which Allen Forte had catalogued into “sets” of 3, 4, 5 and 6 notes, each pitch translated into a number (C=0, F=5, B=11 and so on). Back in the early-80s, I wrote all these out on separate index cards, listing every transposition, a box full of cards covered with numbers. It helps when I’m looking for the “right” chord (theoretically) or trying to figure out what sub-component of this set might work best here or there. Since the move, not having composed for the past eight months, I opened this little file box for the first time, and saw a slip of paper where I’d written another one of my parents’ favorite biblical verses, one my dad had given to me 25 years ago when I was complaining about being stuck with some Writer’s Block: Hebrews 11:1 – “Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, have faith in myself and faith in what I’m doing.

And there it was in this card-box as I sit down to compose. It was the obvious place to begin.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

In a couple of hours, I had seven verses outlined in an arch-form graph and taken a not-very-promising motive (more a collection of pitches than a ‘theme’) which spelled out my mother’s name in musical notes – something I’d scribbled down on July 13th – eventually turning VIRGINIA into B-flat - E - D - G - B - C-sharp - E - A.

(Aside from those logical associations where letters equal a pitch, I could also use solfege, those syllables associated with notes – do re mi fa sol la ti do – which meant R = re (D) and I could be either mi (E) or ti (B). This left V and N. In some languages B and V are similar (in Russian for instance, the V-sound is written B), but I already had a B (ti) as a possibility. In German, B actually represents B-flat, and B-natural is called H (so you could spell BACH musically as B-flat - A - C - H). N was the problem. Through a cycle of assigning possible associations to certain pitches, then going on one-by-one, eventually N would be assigned to C-sharp. This is something Bach did a great deal of, famously with his own name, and Schumann did it as well, crafting melodic motives from his wife’s name and, before that, a girlfriend here, another girl-friend’s hometown there. Stephen Stuckey, an American composer who does this a lot in his own music, recently wrote a cello piece for Elinor Frey, which John Clare got a chance to record when interviewing them about the process of writing and then performing this work, called Dialoghi, based on a motive crafted from her first name.)

By working with this motive, I found which of these pitch-collections or sets would work best for this material: these will become the primary source for all the melodic and harmonic elements of the piece. Playing with some of these chords, I heard the ending and quickly scratched it out, soft chords progressing one to the other (but not in a traditional ‘tonal’ way) around the final text – now Romans 8:28 – sung on one sustained pitch by the mezzo, like a benediction. Then, just on a whim, I decided to superimpose my mother’s Name-Motive over these chords – and it fit!

A few hours later, I had the basic opening done, turning the Name-Motive into a similar motive with the pitches in a slightly different order (a derivation that will allow it to evolve in the process of the piece). A few more soft chords, but this time seemingly unrelated, swinging slowly from one to the other, more bell-like, with the idea that, while based on the same set of notes, these have less of the sound of a progression: in the course of the piece, the harmony will proceed from “seemingly random” to more distinct patterns of “harmonic progressions,” the way classical composers have worked with IV-V-I chords for centuries (not because they’re recognizable as chords per se but because they create the release of tension toward that inevitable resolution). It’s how my string quartet and the symphony proceeded as well.

In the next few days, spending at least a few hours each day composing, I’ve completed the first draft of the mirrored opening and closing sections (short texts with a kind of prologue and epilogue feel to them), and sketched out the skeleton for the rest of the sections in between. Taking what I’ve sketched already and how long that takes to perform, I figured out what the proportions would need to be for a piece based on the (for me, inevitable) Golden Ratio – it turns out it will be about 15 minutes long.

There is this moment, given the process of “simmering,” where even the composer may be surprised by what he has come up with. This is what we call “inspiration.” No one can explain where this comes from and any scientific theory that attempts to, if you dig through the mumbo-jumbo, has holes in it anyone else can argue about. It is something, perhaps, that has to be taken in faith – like faith, I guess. My parents would’ve been quick to say with a knowing smile, “There are no coincidences.”

In the midst of this, I sat down and listened to John Adams’ “The Wound-Dresser” for the last time until I finish my piece, mostly because I don’t want to imitate his style or the way he puts it together. But it occurred to me, hearing these words and this music meant to be the living consoling the dying, my piece now had a viewpoint: now, shaping these texts into a unified progression, these words and this music will be those of the dying consoling the living.

Even though Ned Rorem had used it for a huge full-evening song cycle he’d composed a decade ago (and possibly others have used it as well), I still decided to take my work’s title from my opening quote. Since it is a popular biblical quotation, it is, legally, fair game: “Evidence of Things Not Seen.”

And so at the end of that day, last Thursday, a friend and I stopped at the cemetery with some flowers from his garden, including one last rose from the bush that had started life as a flower taken from my father's casket spray, then went out for dinner to celebrate my mom (I had a piece of cheese-cake in her honor – she loved her cheese-cake). I returned home just in time for the arrival of M. Godot with my new and very firm mattress. That, among other things, may help explain why I’ve been sleeping better these past several nights.

Dr. Dick