Saturday, March 01, 2008

Evidence the Piece Is Done

There’s a kind of exhilaration when a composer finishes a new piece, mixed with a sense of farewell laced with the realization of course the piece is never really done. In my case, the song cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen” has only reached the conclusion of the First Step: the sketches are done. There’s still a lot more to go and the next process needs to be started immediately before it gets side-tracked: realizing the sketches into a more final form that gets it closer to the possibility of being performed.

Thinking back over the months it took to gestate, then the five months and eleven days it took to compose it, it’s not easy realizing how much time it’s taken to create about fifteen minutes of music. When I think there were times when I didn’t feel the urge to write or got bogged down in the mechanics of a passage that was taking forever to figure out as well as quite a few times I just couldn’t write even if I wanted to (my work schedule, getting hit by a flu-bug), I still have more time to compose than some of my friends do. Talking with a former-fellow-student from my Eastman days, now teaching at a major American music school, I mentioned “I can only write a few hours every day” rather than really concentrate on it for five or six hours like one might for a ‘real job.’ He paused and said with a kind of awe in his voice, “You write every day?” Then I realized, of course, he can’t. Because he’s teaching, sitting on committees, dealing with departmental business and academic bureaucracies, the only time he might have to concentrate on composition is during the summer. Suddenly I felt much better...

There is nothing like reality, though, to bring one back to the land of the living. Having put the pen down after saying “that’s it,” I realized – sniff sniff – the time was well overdue to clean the cats’ litterboxes. And so we continue.

Some of the mechanics of the process this time were slightly different: I did not put “the double bar at the end of piece,” thereby proving the work is now complete. I did that on September 13th, 2007, when I started it. After working out some pre-compositional details (before I realized it would become part of a piece, much less this piece), I wrote the ending first. So I knew where it was going which then gave me the courage to start from the beginning.

It’s designed as seven biblical texts laid into an on-going set of what I initially thought might become variations. This particular aspect of it didn’t materialize quite so directly, but the “variation process” is still there in the way the work unfolds. But the mirror element of the structure was implicit in that beginning and ending (or vice-versa) so I found myself, rather than starting at the opening and working my way to the end, going back and forth to wrote the parallel segments of the mirror: after the closing epilogue or postlude and the opening prologue or prelude, I went from the second text to the sixth text, the third text to the fifth text, the interlude between the third and the fourth texts to the parallel interlude between the fourth and the fifth texts before writing the central panel of this arch-form (the keystone, if you want), the fourth text.

While it’s all parallel in that sense, it’s not exactly perfectly symmetrical like a “well-rounded” archway because my dividing point is based on the Golden Section. That means the climax of the piece, which happens in the fourth song, is not quite two-thirds of the way through, not half-way through. It would make for a lop-sided arch but it’s not a visual arch that I’m going for. The proportions may not exactly be obvious to a listener. It’s only in hindsight you might be conscious of the passing of time and how you’d react to its various structural divisions along the way.

The process, then, was working from both ends toward the ‘middle.’ The goal had been to finish this fourth text – setting the lines beginning “Let not your heart be troubled” – on February 23rd. This was neither arbitrary nor having anything to do with deadlines or impending performances. Since it was setting some of my mother’s favorite Bible verses and the work came together, starting to take its final shape, on what would’ve been my mother’s 88th birthday, I wanted to finish it on the first anniversary of her death.

When I finished the one interlude (between texts 3 and 4), I should’ve gone immediately on to finish the parallel interlude (the one between texts 4 and 5). I had sketched out everything except these “cascading tissues of sound” that are part of the background texture when I thought, considering how time-consuming it can be to come up with hundreds of notes in 30 seconds’ time, if I can’t finish this element of it, I should move directly to the central text. I can finish that before returning to the purely mechanical process left to go in the interlude.

Technically, then, the real creative work was done as of February 18th when I completed the passage “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The remaining five days could be spent on this background layer: if I didn’t reach the goal, it would be less of a deal. It was understood this could still be one of those things that can be “filled in” in the process of realizing the sketches which doesn’t seem to be as much rationalization as you’d think.

Of course, I knew what would happen. I either needed long hours of schlogging to work my way through this passage or several days with fewer hours so as not to become so mentally fatigued from working on 145 pitches distributed among three voices over a span of about eight measures! Things bogged down and the concentration would not hold. By the time Saturday the 23rd rolled around, I needed just another hour or two to finish the last few notes, less than a second of music. But it was all down on paper by noon on the 24th: not too bad, considering.

The problem is, now that I’ve finished writing a piece, I’ve started thinking about “the next piece.” I don’t want to start concentrating on anything else now except realizing these sketches into a final full score. But the three violin-and-piano pieces need to be finished, left hanging since December of 2006, and I’ve been toying with a series of shorter piano pieces, like a set of preludes or something. Back in January, I got some ideas for a work for string sextet but nothing that couldn’t wait till later: I may take a few days, jot down some ideas and a few plans to put aside, something I could come back to in a couple years, for all that matters. There are also ideas for another symphony but I need to hold off on that since it’s too unrealistic right now, especially given the one I finished two years ago is still sitting on my shelf: again, jot down some thoughts and maybe it’ll gestate on its own till I have time or reason to come back to it. (And did I mention that novel I still want to write?? Sheesh...)

It is kind of exciting, needless to say, to have ideas in my head at all, considering how many years of my life there was nothing, a span of perhaps sixteen years where I wrote nothing and had no plans. So it does make me feel a little better, maybe even a little more secure about being a composer: self-confidence is a delicate commodity, amidst all the issues that one has to deal with.

But for the moment, after a busy week at work (101 hours over a two-week pay-period and that includes a day off!), there are other things that I need to get caught up on. One of which – sniff sniff – has to be done before company walks through my door... but then, that’s an on-going chore when you share a house with lots of cats.

- Dr. Dick

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