Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Elusive Right Note & the F-sharp

Over the years, I’ve frequently told how, in my lessons with Samuel Adler, my teacher at Eastman, he’d play through something I’d brought in and say basically “good, that’s good – that should be an F-sharp, though,” pointing to one note somewhere in the harmony or maybe in the melodic line. I’d play back through it with an F-sharp there and, damn, it really did sound better! I’d look at him and ask “why?” and he’d shrug his shoulders and smile.

It was always an F-sharp.

There was never a passage where he’d say “That should be a D-natural” or “try a G-sharp there.” (Pat Long, who also studied with Adler and is now teaching composition at Susquehanna University, said his note was a B-flat. Always a B-flat.)

For the next ten years or so, whenever a new piece would start, the opening pitch would often be an F-sharp. Many of my pieces began with a single note spun out over several measures, usually changing instrumental colors until it would unfold or spring out into some gesture that would then become the material for the piece. But they always started and then usually came back to end on an F-sharp. I didn’t know why. It’s like, that was my pitch.

I figured Scriabin had his favorite key – F-sharp Major – which for him had various mystical properties: this was perhaps my way of tapping into the same emotional potential.

Then, for some reason, with the string quartet and the symphony, both written in the last five years, that pitch became an A. When I began “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” the pitches I started playing with as potential musical gestures - motives or whatever you’d care to call them – also started pointing to A as a focal pitch.

When I started work on the string quartet almost a year to the day after September 11th, 2001, it was several days till that “opening shape” came into focus. The first two notes had now become an A and a B – in my musical shorthand, using numbers on a blank page instead of pitch-notation on a sheet of manuscript paper, that became a 9 and an 11, the kind of symbol for 9-11 that no one would hear but which resonated with me as the quartet began taking shape as an emotional response to the terrorist attacks on that day. But after I’d found the first four notes that seemed right, writing the answering four notes took some time to figure out. I had settled on an F just so I could move forward, but it didn’t feel right. Then I thought I’ll substitute an F-sharp for that F and suddenly I could see Sam Adler smiling over my shoulder: that was the right pitch!

Last summer, when I was thinking about writing a piece in my mother’s memory, I tried turning her name into a musical phrase. Some letters, of course, corresponded to musical pitches automatically: G and A, for instance. For some pitches, you can use another language’s equivalent, the way Bach could spell his name because H in German was really a B-natural (and to make it confusing for us, B is really a B-flat) and S, as in Shostakovich, is in German E-flat. Then you could also substitute D for R because in Italian, D = Re. I is easier, because you have Mi (E) or Ti (B), and with three I’s in my mother’s name, I manipulated it to use both of them so as not be repeating the same pitch so often. In Russian, the letter that looks like B is pronounced V, so I used B to replace the V in Virginia, but I was also using B for one of the I’s... so I arbitrarily chose the German B (really, B-flat) instead.

This left N. What pitch could correspond to N?

For other letters, composers who play these name games find different solutions. By taking notes that are otherwise unassigned, you can spin them out until you find something that could correspond to the letter in question. Some composers simply leave them out. But I had created such an alphabet back in the ‘70s when I was writing my piano piece Poetries, and though I couldn’t find it in my piles of archived sketches, I followed the same process and came up with a C-sharp. So N was now assigned to C-sharp.

Thus my mother’s name, Virginia, became B-flat / E / D / G // E / C-sharp / B / A. For symmetrical purposes, I broke it into two four-note fragments.

It was months before work on the actual songs began: before that, I was thinking more in terms of a choral piece. But on what would’ve been her 88th birthday, the songs took shape and I began working on the opening and, since it was planned to be a mirror of the opening, the closing as well, setting two short parallel texts as a prelude and postlude to the songs. Ultimately, it became a single movement piece rather than seven individual songs, but the seven different texts are laid into the orchestral continuity so as to create both an interrelated cycle and a continuous piece rather than seven songs in seven separate movement, pausing between each one.

Since I write using 6-note sets as my musical building blocks – very loosely, compared to the so-called serial or 12-note style associated with Schoenberg – I looked at these 8 pitches trying to find 6 notes that create a “set”. After working on a number of possibilities, some of which seemed to have less potential than others, I chose two that offered me what I thought would sound best and be different from ones I had used in the very intense string quartet and symphony of the past few years.

This Name-Motive was not intended to be used verbatim constantly. In a way, I thought of the piece unfolding as a set of variations on that motive, but it quickly became more imbedded than obvious in the whole context of the piece’s unfolding. But at points where I wanted it to surface, I started realizing in the past month or so that that “N” was giving me a problem: the harmonies that were working did not work well with the C-sharp of the motive.

Playing several of these instances together – from different parts of the work – I realized that a better pitch instead of the C-sharp would be... uh oh...


Fortunately, I had not been so strict with the Name-Motive and the pitch-sets I wanted to use because by changing it now I would have to go back and start the piece over again using the new pitch-class set! And I am so very close to the end of the piece, now!

This problem was not something that would have surfaced in September when I was playing with all the various possibilities. But by going back and changing just a few spots where the Name-Motive was in the foreground, it could still work out. In fact, in each situation I went back to, the F-sharp sounded like an improvement.

There are lots of intangibles in creativity. It all works differently for each different person. How to explain to someone else why we choose what we choose is not that easy. You can analyze it to the smallest degree, but there is still no easy way to explain what makes it “right.” What sounds right to my ear might not sound any better to someone else than the other notes I’d tried. But there comes a point when, for whatever reason, you try three or four (or forty) possibilities and that one sounds right, not just okay, you begin to think about a lot of things differently.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More Evidence the Piece Is Almost Done

It seems like forever since I last blogged about composing, but then it seems like almost forever since I’ve been able to really concentrate on composing: today was the first time in months I’ve been able to put more than a few hours a day on this song cycle, Evidence of Things Not Seen, which I’d started back in September. These days, I’m resigned to the idea of being a “slow, methodical” composer, but it’s more rewarding to spend the time finding “the right note” rather than just settling for the first choice. Unfortunately, I can spend a whole day on one beat of music only to come back the next day and scratch out the whole thing. This is known as decomposing...

These are the songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra based on some of my mother’s favorite biblical verses, a work that should be about 16 minutes long, despite the fact I’ve been working on them almost five months, now, not counting several months of gestation before the idea even began taking any kind of practical shape. It’s an “arch-form” and my approach has been basically to compose a song on one side of the arch, then writing the mirror song on the other side, rather than starting at the beginning and working my way chronologically through to the end.

So I started the third song, a setting of Psalm 23 on November 2nd, finishing it on December 17th. This is mirrored by the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season,” the fifth song which I started almost immediately and then finished on January 6th. By that time, I was coming down with the flu and just didn’t feel like doing much of anything , though I managed to sketch out the two interludes that surround the “keystone” song, lines from John 14 (“Let not your heart be troubled”).

Each song’s orchestral part is really a kind of variation in an on-going process, rather than seven individual songs. In some respects, it’s as if the orchestra exists on one plane while the vocal part is another that nests within it. These two interludes I’d been working on since early January, though, were tricky: the first of them is really an extension of Psalm 23's underlying accelerando (a background harmonic layer that gradually speeds up) that overlaps with what becomes the different harmonic approach that will become the next song. In the psalm setting, this layer needed to be worked out very carefully, moving slowly enough to have its own harmonic direction. By the time the interlude begins and the beat-pulse has gone from three pulses in a bar (four beats) to three pulses in a beat (triplet eighth-notes), by the time this layer dissolves into thin air, it’s moving at 12 “pulses” per beat or a wash of sound that needn’t be quite so detailed. Still, just plopping notes down on the page often yielded some pretty “un-right” notes, so I went back to systematize it, using the six-note group that is the basic building-block of the piece as a scale rather than a source for chords.

But to avoid all the weaknesses we used to be on the look-out for when writing traditional harmony and counterpoint in 18th- and 19th-Century tonality (a.k.a. “Common Practice” as we like to call it), I had to go back over this very carefully, making sure it worked – and that means working theoretically as well as aurally. Sometimes I couldn’t find the best pitches in what was “permissible” theoretically, so I went with something that sounded better and usually found if it wasn’t the exact same grouping, it was one very close to it and so it still had some kind of logic to it. Very often, I found this laborious process more successful than just sitting down plunking out notes that I thought should sound okay: very often, with a little extra effort, I found pitches that (at least to my ear) sounded better. It’s like a poet who might trim and prune a line, trying to find the right rhythm (if not rhyme) with the right word that didn’t end up being trite or confusing (bonus points if it now had some inner logic you hadn’t noticed before). These are all things the casual reader or listener may not even notice, but to me, it’s the difference between getting it done and getting it right.

Of course, whether anyone else thinks they’re the right pitches is another matter. We’re all wired differently and I can’t account for what one person out of all those who might listen to it would agree or disagree. Stravinsky joked that while he was pounding out the “Rite of Spring” in his Swiss apartment, trying to find just the right note for a chord or a passage, his neighbors were probably convinced they were all the wrong notes. But it is my creative integrity I need to satisfy, first – not that I don’t care about the listener. I figure if I write something that I feel is the best I could manage (rather than just filling in the space on the page with whatever came to mind), then I hope that it goes directly to the listener as an emotional response, making sense on the one hand, however we might perceive that, but also making direct contact with the soul on the other.

This was something that struck me very strongly after listening to all five of the string quartets of Elliott Carter recently in New York City: here’s a composer – one of the most significant composers in my creative thinking the past 30 years (since I last heard all of the Carter quartets in one sitting, when there were only three) – whose music is considered the most complex, cerebral music in what is hardly the mainstream of today. He could be much more popular and much more frequently performed if he wrote in a more accessible, populist style as he’d started out. Even at 99, he is still composing in an uncompromising style – but there are people out there (more than just me) who love it, so he’s being successful if he manages to complete this creator-performer-listener continuum with champions like the Pacifica Quartet who can convince listeners to take this music on face value as music, not as a mathematical puzzle.

Coming back to my songs after having listened to a great deal of Carter’s music before and after this concert, then, has only strengthened my decision to keep working at it till I’m satisfied with it without giving in to those doubts and inner demons one constantly hears imbedded in the white noise of life (you think anyone's going to be able to play that? why don't you write something people might actually like!).

And so yesterday I finished the first of these two interludes I’d been working on the past month (in all, a little over two minutes of music). Before I began this gradually accelerating “scalar layer,” I sketched out the main aspects (the foreground) of the companion, mirror interlude which continues the keystone song, the climax of the piece, overlapping with what will become the fifth song, the setting of Ecclesiastes, with its background layer that gradually decreases in apparent tempo (the foreground is a steady tempo while the background seems to slow down over time). Since I spent 17 days writing about 811 notes that go by in less than a minute, it seems odd to consider this a “mechanical” aspect of writing, but it’s like, I suppose, Georges Seurat painting hundreds of little red dots mixed in with hundreds of little blue dots to create a purple hat on one of his characters in “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte” – the concept is there, the end result is basically in place all except for the exact notes. It’s just a matter of working them out.

While it was coincidental these songs took shape on what would’ve been my mother’s 88th birthday, I’d long hoped I would be able to finish them on (if not before) the first anniversary of her death. That is only two weeks away and at the rate I’ve been going, it seems an unlikely prospect, having been slowed down by innumerable flu germs as well as a herd of 800 dots.

Next, if I kept to the regimen I’d established early in the process, I should resume work on the background of the second of these two interludes, the transition from the keystone song back to the Ecclesiastes setting. But if that’s really “mechanical work,” I’d rather finish the creative work at least by February 23rd, so I’ve decided to plunge right into the longest of the individual songs, a setting of the lines that begin “Let not your heart be troubled.” The harmonic element here will be simpler than the surrounding interludes, and the vocal line not so involved, either. I’m not making any bets about completion, but at least by the end-of-day today, and seven hours of largely uninterrupted work, I had the complete text “distributed” rhythmically over the span of about 54 measures (maybe 3½ minutes of music). I know where the harmonies will change even if I don’t know what most of them will be, yet. The climax is already worked out and a little different now than initially planned after I realized the word that occurs at that point has a bad vowel to be singing on a high note (since it’s King James, it’s a little difficult to say “oh, I’ll just change the text a little”). A few words earlier, a high note would make sense on a vowel that would be much more reasonable on a High-A, but the real climax is in the harmonic and tonal resolution, not how high or how loud the voice-part gets. So yes, I think that will work out well. We’ll just have to see if I can finish it in two weeks.

Then, even if it’s past the 23rd, I can always go back to complete the “filling in” of the next interlude's missing background layer. After all, it’s still a sketch – all I have are pages and pages of a very rough draft. I’m just hoping it’s marked clearly enough that I can make sense out of it to start putting notes down in score format!

(This reminds me of Bartok’s comment about his viola concerto, the piece he was working on when he died. It was basically complete, just a mechanical matter of realizing the sketches. But when Tibor Serly took the manuscript to start work on it after Bartok’s death, it was difficult to figure out the continuity of the sketches or even the orchestration! To this day, no one could actually prove this is or is not anywhere close to what Bartok had in mind, even though they’re all supposedly his pitches!)


-Dr. Dick