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

No comments:

Post a Comment