Saturday, November 01, 2008

Finishing One Piece and Starting the Next

Just an hour ago, as I begin writing this, I closed the notebook on a newly finished piece of music. The “Aria & Chaconne,” one of a set of pieces for violin and piano, is now basically finished – well, the creative part of it. Now comes the realization of the sketches into a final copy, and then sending it out to some friends who might be interested in performing it!

It seems counter-intuitive that a piece that lasts around 10 minutes should occupy so much of my time since late May, a little over five months, especially considering most of that time I’ve been able to work on it almost every day.

But for me, it’s a slow process and under the circumstances, I had set myself some serious stylistic challenges that I really needed to work out. It would have been easier to have ignored them or just written something, anything at all. But for all my lack of organization in my life, my compositional process is very organized which may require some explanation (how it works, not why I can’t apply it to my daily routine which is a whole different issue).

It began life actually a few years ago when I was thinking about a series of pieces I was writing for violin and piano, something John Clare, one of my fellow ex-colleagues and I could play together. What started out as a sketch for a section of the Symphony I was writing then, turned into a mellow, kind of atmospheric piece which ended up being called “Nocturne.”

Whether it was the first, last or middle of a set of three or five pieces didn’t bother me then: I just needed to get it done since we were also going to play it as part of a work-related event (as it turned out, no one heard it: part of a luncheon’s entertainment, everybody continued talking through it and the acoustics being what they were, most people probably didn’t know we were even playing).

After the Symphony was done, I got around to two other pieces – a Theme and Variations to open the set and then a lively scherzo that was part pseudo-Blues interrupted by some pseudo-Rock music (and given my lack of exposure to either and my entirely tongue-firmly-encheeked approach to the whole idea, that would be very pseudo...).

At the time, I felt there should be a substantial movement to balance the scherzo and the Nocturne, probably, oh, I don’t know – a chaconne?

I have no idea why that had popped into my brain.

It’s a very old musical process – going back to the generations before Bach – and not one that’s been of much use to composers since Bach’s day, except for things like Brahms’ 4th Symphony (which is more a chaconne than a passacaglia but if you want to split hairs about it, you’re more anal than *I* am...) or the piece that John Corigliano wrote based on material for the filmscore to “The Red Violin.” While I enjoy both works immensely, listening to them never sparked the “ooh, I’d like to do that” reaction.

First of all, a chaconne is a harmonically-based form. My musical style is neither traditionally harmonic nor does my musical style – which I’d blogged about in the early pre-kitten days here at Thoughts on a Train (for instance, here and here) – accommodate the kind of repetitiveness a chaconne requires (a harmonic pattern repeated over and over again).

But the more I thought about, the more I wondered if I could make it work. Somehow.

One of the things I dislike about many chaconnes is how quickly the obviousness and the boredom sets in – Bach’s great D Minor Chaconne, as ever, aside. Repetitive patterns bore me. Four-quare patterns of 8+8+8+8 measures bore me even more. So how do I not be four-square (or eight-square) or repetitively redundant?

And could I come up with a recognizable harmonic pattern – in my musical style?

However, the creative process then came to a screeching halt for two reasons: still living at my old mid-town apartment, new neighbors had moved in upstairs just before Christmas-time and were using the room directly above the piano for their bedroom and they also slept in until noon-time since they worked second shift (it was always great to have 9-to-5 neighbors who wouldn’t be home during the hours I’d be composing); then in February ‘07, my mother became ill and died, not the best time in my life to be working on a musical joke. Even though I moved out to the house by April, the piano didn’t make it out until July and then when I did start feeling like writing again, it was a song cycle setting some biblical texts my mother considered favorites which became a work for Mezzo and Orchestra called “Evidence of Things Not Seen” (okay, three reasons). When that was finished in February ‘08, I began thinking about getting back to the violin and piano pieces.

And after spending two years on a symphony no one is likely to be interested in performing, the idea of writing an opera just didn’t seem logical. True, every Presidential election, I keep going back to the idea of setting Euripides’ “The Bacchae” (essentially about the subjective, irrational mind subverting the objective, rational mind), but really, come on... I mean, I need to get something performed – and also something performable – something practical. And perhaps something for violin and piano might make more sense, rationally or otherwise.

The Blues/Rock scherzo was still not finalized, though it was probably 95% complete. The sketches for the Theme & Variations have yet to be realized. So instead, I started a whole new piece. Now, ideally, they could be played as a unit or performed independently, but it bothered me to have four pieces with no overlying structure. And being what would be called an “organic” composer – very different from being an organic vegetable – I set about figuring out how to make this Chaconne thing work.

It’s a much more involved procedure to talk about than I have time for, today. I really wanted to blog about it during the compositional process but it seemed irrational to be using creative time I could spend composing writing about what I should be composing.

But today, I just want to say – looking over 193 pages of sketches – that it’s done. Or basically done. The process of realizing the sketches is not all that mechanical and I need to get to it before I start looking at some of these pages and think “whaaaa’???”

And yes, 193 pages of sketches for a piece of music that is 137 measures and about 10 minutes long. 68 pages deal with just the structural planning and working out that tricky challenge of the “harmonic pattern.” Once I got to the actual composing part of it, that’s 79 pages for the piano part and 46 pages for the violin part.

Wait a minute, you say?

That’s because one of the challenges I’d set myself was this: I’d already written a Theme & Variations movement (where the variations move progressively in a logical, standard order) so, since a Chaconne is another variation process, I didn’t want to do the same kind of thing over again.

Normally when you’d see a title like “Song & Dance” that means a Song followed by a Dance. So my “Aria & Chaconne” would imply an aria or a lyrical movement followed by this Chaconne thing, right?

Only this time, I thought I’d do them simultaneously. The piano plays the Chaconne while the violin plays the song-like Aria. But the Chaconne is not the accompaniment to the Aria. The Aria is not the melodic variation based on the Chaconne’s harmonic pattern as definitions would tell you.

In addition to that issue – of two different pieces happening simultaneously – the Aria is straightforward in A-B-A form. The Chaconne is a set of 19 variations (well, okay, 17 variations preceded by the simple unadorned pattern and concluding with a similar restatement of the pattern) that moves toward the climax but then proceeds to the conclusion in reverse order, essentially turning itself inside-out. So as the violin works its way toward the ending, what was underneath it in the piano part is not the same thing it was the first-time around. While the climaxes had to occur together, working with each other and independently of each other at the same time, lots of other structural details had to work along the way – in both directions!

Yeah, I know, it seems a lot more complicated than what you’d hear. But that’s one of the things I like about art – it’s more than just an appreciation of the surface language. There also needs to be some kind of underlying depth to it to keep coming back to, something to discover you hadn’t heard before or realized the last time you heard or played it. I’m sure there are things as I copy it out I will realize that I was not aware of even when I was composing it.

This was something I found fascinating in the process of working out all these details: how much of it was already implied for me. Usually, there were several choices – unfortunately, making one that offered a continuity of further solutions didn’t always happen – and it was only a matter of picking the best one (hopefully, the right one), then going from there.

There were even times it felt like the piece actually WAS writing itself – but if it were, why was it still taking so long? There were other times when I just had to realize “no, this isn’t working” and then go back to some point and unravel the stitches to start a passage over again.

And in that way, I went through the Chaconne first, the skeleton, then working with that off to the side of my desk, filling in the Aria and stretching it skin-like out over this skeleton, making sure this point met that point, this phrasing matched that phrasing. Ultimately it will sound like one piece, because it is, not something that sounds like the violinist and pianist are accidentally playing different movements in the wrong order (“oh, I’m sorry, did you say the THIRD movement?”)...

But now I have a different project to tackle. Heh heh...

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

Ever since I was living in New York City in the late-70s, I had this novel in my mind. Yes, like many other people, I wanted to write a novel. There was a curiosity about the creative process – in fact, I think it’s good for composers to know what it’s like to try writing prose (it’s easier than having writers compose pieces of music – I’d even settle for having writers talk knowledgeably about music, but that’s another topic completely). There are similar issues to consider and I think one cross-fertilizes the other, though it may only be so much fertilizer by the time you’re done with it.

Needless to say, after thirty years, I never got around to writing this novel. It’s always been the same novel and it was always about a composer (working here under the suggestion “write what you know”) dealing with creative issues. But during the decades I’ve had this gestating in my mind, my narrator (like me but not necessarily me) has been growing older if not wiser and facing different issues. And now, some of my characters – whom I’ve been living with all these years – have been evolving in much the same way. It has become, in a sense, a “coming-of-old-age” novel.

Structuring it was a problem – just sitting down and writing from the beginning and working my way towards some end or other didn’t work for me. It was, first of all, not the way I wrote music, so why not experiment with structuring a novel similar to the way I write music?

A few years ago, a friend of mine was telling me about this project he’d gotten himself into: during the month of November, lots of people around the country (actually, around the world) take part in National Novel-Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. During the month, you write your novel. You start on the 1st and on the 30th, you stop.

The idea is to motivate yourself to write 50,000 words. Your novel may not be done in a month and maybe you didn’t quite make the goal of 50,000 words but the important thing is, you tried. And whether your novel is good or whether it’s crap doesn’t matter. It’s just simply the idea of creating something, the satisfaction of actually (finally) having done it, in addition to doing it with a dedicated sense of purpose, suffering through it while other people are doing it with you.

Now, back when the mania over Dan Brown’s novel, “The DaVinci Code” was raging – a book I had spent two years avoiding – I decided in advance of the movie coming out, to write a parody of it. This also meant I was actually going to have to read the thing, but it was summer and I wasn’t composing anything at the moment. So I sat down and just started writing. Now granted, writing a parody meant I didn’t have to worry about plot or development or structural issues and character development from scratch, but I did have to make the parody work on its own level: you should be able to read my book without having read the original source material and still enjoy it. And so I transplanted the premise to a musical level, curiously not knowing how the original was going to end before I’d even started the second chapter.

And soon, I had written “The Schoenberg Code,” a serial novel in twelve installments (so many musical puns in there...).

When I was done, I was amazed to have discovered it was 45,000 words long and essentially written in two weeks, but spread out over a little over a month. You see, I still had to read (and sometimes re-read) the original plus I had a job which meant not all of my time could just be dedicated to tapping away on the computer.

So I started thinking, if I can do 45,000 words in 2 weeks, basically, could I manage 50,000 in a month on an original topics?

That’s when I started mapping out my own novel, going at it from an entirely different viewpoint, creatively speaking. But last November was not conducive to putting everything aside and writing a novel. I was, after all, busy composing the song cycle, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which I wanted to finish by February and I knew if I put it aside for anything, I’d probably never come back to it.

But now, I, uhm... have no job and, by the way, I JUST FINISHED THIS PIECE OF MUSIC – so rather than going to Disney World, I’m going to write a novel.

And hey, look – it’s November 1st and the day is more than half-shot already plus I’m going to a concert tonight. And here I am, blogging 2500 words in the last two hours. Uhm, let’s see, if I blogged 2700 words last night about the Hallowe’en Party at Stravinsky’s Tavern and then 2500 words this afternoon about the newly completed violin and piano piece, why can’t I write 50,000 words in a month? At 2,000 words a day, that’d be 60,000 words, right?

And what luck – tonight, we set the clocks BACK an hour, so I actually have an extra hour to write my novel! Woo hoo!

Okay, time to get to work. NaNoWriMo is calling me!

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