Thursday, May 29, 2008

Breaking through the Cloud Cover

Sometimes, creativity can be as unpredictable as spring weather in May: rainy days may outnumber sunny ones but even on a cloudy, on-the-verge-of-a-dreary day, the sun can break through, burn off the day’s damp chill so those seeds you’d planted a week ago, wondering if they’ll ever start to germinate, suddenly sprout.

It may not have been the most productive 8-day weekend (though not the worst of past birthday vacations, either), but as I start shifting my lifestyle schedule to see if I can compose in the evening as well as in the early morning hours, on Tuesday night (Day 7) I finally made that breakthrough discovery how I can implement the basic structural idea for this new piece. By Wednesday morning (the last day of my vacation) I had worked out enough of the requisite variables to see yes, indeed, it does work – and now the composing process can actually begin.

This is a part of the process often referred to as “pre-compositional” or as a friend of mine at UConn used to call it, “the laundromat phase.” He could work out the structural details and other “figuring” while the sounds of washers and dryers blocked out other distractions. For me, great stretches of uncomplicated, undistracted (and ideally very quiet) time are very important, even though it might look (and feel) like nothing is getting accomplished. Sometimes, going for walks might help, if nothing else to rid the brain of the daily distractions that keep it from focusing, behind the scenes, on the creative work at hand.

My distractions the previous weeks were, the stress of daily life aside, focused mainly on imminent change, since I’ll become the new Afternoon Guy at WITF (giving up my evening time-slot) until we hire and train a replacement for John Clare who’s relocated to San Antonio. Losing a friend was one thing, though at least he got me started on Facebook where it will be easier to keep in touch (and speaking of distractions, yet another way to waste tons of time on the internet - thanks, John...).

One of my primary concerns about having to go to work earlier is losing that fresh, morning time to compose. After the long hiatus of not composing for some 16 years, I have fallen into the schedule of writing in the morning then going to the station in the early afternoon. Will I be able to work in the evenings? Will I be too brain-dead to function creatively? I’d forgotten that when I was teaching at UConn and faced with 8am theory classes, all of my composing was done in the evenings, often till late at night, after a full day’s teaching.

One of the ways I like to refocus energies is simply to read a book. Ordinarily, as much as I love to read, there isn’t much time that I can dedicate to it beyond a few pages (or maybe even a few paragraphs) before I go to bed. This may be, while looking through a list of 1,001 books to read before you die and discovering I’d read 118 of them, I can’t really remember much about many of them – the barrier of years aside, sometimes it just goes in one eye and out the other.

I’d wanted to reread Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – I’d started the new John Woods translation a couple years ago and had to put it aside – but it took too much concentration and I opted for something easier, more direct in the line of story-telling, dragging out another new translation waiting for just such an event, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s version of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Ultimately, I decided on Harold Kushner’s Overcoming Life’s Disappointments which I finished on Monday, but that will be a whole blog-post in itself.

Needless to say, thinking about dreams and how they have a tendency not to come true – dreams here in the sense of life-goals, what we want to be when we grow up kind of dreams – then ultimately the affect those shattered dreams can have on how we view ourselves in an age when “you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold,” generated a lot of off-line thinking and had, overall, a very calming effect on what I can only describe as a stressful couple of months.

But I also found myself at my grandfather’s desk, slowly working on the score for the songs I’d recently completed, and copying over, once again, the opening setting of lines from Hebrews 11, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The new piece was to be nothing complicated, just another piece for violin and piano. It was meant to be the last of a set that included the Nocturne which John Clare and I had performed in 2005, and two companion pieces written a year after that – a Theme and Variations which would be the opening piece and a light-hearted little scherzo I called “Blues Interruptus” which I’d blogged about before. Curiously, these last two pieces are still in the sketch stage – the Variations haven’t been written out in standard notation yet and the scherzo still has some finishing details that need to be filled in (it had been derailed by distractions from new neighbors just as I was completing it, followed by my mother’s death, when composing anything just didn’t seem suitable, much less a light-hearted little scherzo). Whether there are four pieces or five (another short, fast movement might work for the overall balance) ultimately, the ending was going to be more serious and fairly substantial, capable, like the others, of being performed on its own but still working into the overall fabric of the others (less, I think now, of an issue). I figured 8 minutes should be about right.

I had envisioned it as a chaconne, thinking how I would work out the harmonic pattern and how that relates to the overall structure. A month ago, I had scratched down some ideas, mostly text, and came up with a graph of the form, at least potentially.

When you put “chaconne” and “violin” in the same sentence, the inevitable result is Bach – and how ironic, as I work on this piece, I end up replacing John Clare as the pre-concert presenter for Odin Rathnam’s three century survey of solo violin music, ending with the Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita, one of the greatest works for the violin (with or without further accompaniment) and the most familiar, if not the greatest, example of a chaconne.

Basically, a chaconne is a type of variation-form: rather than a theme in the bass (called a passacaglia) that repeats over and over with melodies and variations unfolding over it, a chaconne uses a harmonic pattern, often a very simple one involving a descending bass line that articulates a movement from tonic gradually to dominant, then back to tonic. Having played the cello forty years ago and twice had to play the Pachelbel Canon – which is really a chaconne – the idea of playing the same thing over and over (and over and over) again bores me to tears (listening to it is bad enough), so I decided I didn’t want it to be too literal.

Now, given my style which makes ‘free’ use of all twelve pitches (but is not serial and not necessarily atonal, either) - you can read more about that here and here - I wanted to create a harmonic progression that involves both standard triads and non-standard “trichords” (three-note chords that are not standard major or minor triads but could be built on other intervals than the third), moving in degrees of tension to cadence, ultimately, on a major or minor chord. But I also wanted each statement of the harmonic pattern to be “in a different key,” in a way, not repeating the same pitches. So the pattern needed to be open-ended and yet there had to be some sort of resolution at the end which would give it the same sense of closure you get in tonal music.

Tuesday night, then, I felt I was ready to sit down and schlog through a bunch of potential six-note sets (collections of pitches that can be used in any order or combination), ending up going back to one I’d used prominently in the string quartet and symphony. This set will give me a major and a minor triad a whole step apart; its complement (the other six pitches) will give me a major and a minor triad a tritone apart. But this time, I’ll use them differently than I did in the earlier works (keeping in mind the 4th sections of both works are also free-wheeling chaconnes).

When I realized that I’d already been there/done that, it occurred to me that was no reason not to do it again: after all, Bach wrote many chaconnes just as Brahms would later use the approach (either as a passacaglia or a chaconne, which by then had become almost interchangeable) in different works, like the finales of the Haydn variations and the 4th symphony, to name two. There are other ways to solve the same problem, just as I had taken the possibilities I hadn’t followed in the string quartet and applied the same structure to the symphony.

After a few hours of fussing, similar to other hours spent with the idea of not necessarily being productive, I came up with first one detail that worked and then another. How to “articulate” the progression so it made sense in nine chords, still sounded like it went somewhere but leaving it open so, in fact, the next statement of the pattern could resume, basically, in a different key; how to distinguish it, with a climax on the fifth chord, so that it’s more than just a movement to the dominant, then back to the tonic.

The idea of writing something that, because it uses all twelve notes constantly, sounds “atonal” to someone not used to the style but would use a kind of tonic-to-dominant motion means I’m going back to what drives that motion in standard tonality: not the fact they’re basic chords in a C major sequence, but because they follow a pattern of relative tension and release, things that underlie much of Western art music regardless of style or surface language.

So I thought, this time, I would try a “deceptive” resolution – like going from a D Major triad to an F major triad – which sets up the next half of the phrase to both resolve the tension to an extent but still continue pushing it forward (since it’s not closed, overall, by returning to D Major). This constant pushing away from and always returning so immediately to the same D Major chord, say, is what I find so boring about the standard form, locked in to simple four- or eight-bar patterns that takes a genius like Bach to circumvent. Not being a genius like Bach, I need to look elsewhere for my solutions to “variety” within a scope of overly obsessive “unity.”

So I had a progression that, by itself, seemed to work: it was satisfying and had potential (how I use it in the composition will be another issue). I ran it through the nine different pitch levels each pattern would require to make “tonal” sense of the combined statements, each phrase climax being on a chord that has at least one common tone with a D major or D minor triad. But since this pattern resolved, more or less, to a minor triad, I had to make sure I could end up in D major at the very end which would require a subtle change in the pattern: would it work, or would it involve just saying “oh, the heck with it, I’ll just write what sounds good once I get there”?

To do that, then, undermines the whole concept of organizing the pitches in the first place, if I’m just going to write what “feels good.” Beethoven, writing in a tonal idiom, was more organized than someone who just sits down and writes whatever comes to mind that sounds good.

Since it was getting late and I was feeling tired, I put it aside. The next day, I returned first thing in the morning – now getting to bed earlier, I was at the piano not long after 7am – and continued working out the different statements. This was a fairly mechanical process, like copying out a phrase first in E major and then in G Major. And then I was at the end: here we go.

No, it didn’t happen that easily: it was not mechanical. Nor was it arbitrary. What was sounding reasonable did not work with any logical, technical explanation. I tried to find ways of making it work, but it involved going outside the single set of six notes I’d been using consistently all along. Some were too remotely related to work and the ones that were close enough, technically, didn’t sound good.

Then I realized by switching two trichords around, I had a connection with that deceptive chord that used the same original set - eureka! That’s what I’d hoped for in the first place. Better yet, since this is the climactic last statement of the pattern, it created something different in that deceptive triad which points up the change and its imminent resolution (sort of like listening to Ravel’s Bolero until, near the very end, he swerves off onto a different chord than the one he’d been drumming into your head through the whole piece, what should be one of those wow moments).

And yet it was the same set of notes that I’d been using all along! I didn’t even have to fudge!

So when I tranpsoed it to resolve to the D major chord at the end, I realized it will, in fact, work. Now the composition can begin.

Of course, it was the last day of my vacation and there would be no time to do any more work that day, but at least the pre-compositional phase was over and now I can concentrate on filling in the rest of it during those times I do get to compose when I’ll have less time to focus in the midst of the distractions of reality.

A couple days ago, all I had was a pile of bones. Yesterday, after the skeleton of the piece had been arranged and connected – leg bone, thigh bone, hip bone, how the pattern would lay into the structure – the muscles were now in place and ready to go, how the music would move from one point to the next, giving it a sense of direction, just as bones aren’t going to do much without muscles to guide them.

Now all I have to do is add the rest of the body – the tricky part: crafting the skin, getting the blood to flow and, with any luck, blowing life into its soul so it connects with the performers and the listeners.

It could take weeks or months, depending on the time I can focus on writing it and how successfully that time works. But it’s easier when I think the piece is essentially “composed” – other structural and musical ideas already jotted down are like a collection of body-parts ready for use here or there – so that now all I have to do is fill in the notes.

- Dr. Dick

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