Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Long, Hard Schlog

Over the past several months – since May, actually – I had been working on what would seem to be a short piece for violin and piano. But that was not the “first stage” of the process: there are what I call pre-compositional sketches that started in late-April, though most of that was worked out over a two-month span from Memorial Day to mid-July. Then, a month ago, I finished the “second stage” of its composition resulting in a “sketch.” Now, I’m getting ready for the “third stage” which is transcribing that sketch into a finished piece, the post-compositional work of writing out a final draft, something I could then send out to musicians so the work can eventually be performed. Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.

During this process, I had thought about “blogging the work” but found myself usually too brain-dead at the end of a day slaving over a hot piano or too depressed after a bad day when nothing seemed to be working.

But that is also part of the process. Part of me was saying “I don’t want to spend valuable time writing about the piece when I should be writing the piece.” And then, if you’re working “9-to-5" on a nine minute piece of music, daily reports can get pretty monotonous and, if there’s writer’s block to work through, whiney.

Since I finished the “Aria & Chaconne” on November 1st, I took the rest of November off to do something else – write a novel. Well, officially to write down 50,000 words toward a novel. This, too, is only the first stage of the creative process: editing it is something else. Again, I thought about “blogging the process” but came up with the same excuses even though the process is slightly different. Here, dealing with words instead of music, it was more “I tried to write 2500 words today so I don’t feel like writing another 1,000 words about it,” in addition to the usual argument, writing about the piece as opposed to writing the piece.

There’s also something different, I discovered, in writing a novel: I could easily have posted everything I wrote – the 2500 words plus the additional 1,000 words about it – and done an on-line novel-in-progress. But writing the first draft is different than presenting a complete work to the public (even if it’s only a few friends reading over it). Since I was not writing the novel chronologically from beginning to end, without that context of where it’s going it might be to easy to form the wrong opinion or a negative reaction to something – “well, of course that doesn’t make sense, that character (or event) is introduced somewhere else.” In most cases, these episodes I was writing were not self-contained – they’re part of an on-going narrative flow that I have in my mind. But I digress...

Creativity is a very private act. It’s not easy and in some cases not very rewarding.

For most of us, it’s not going to bring in the kind of income we could live off of. When I was teaching at the University of Connecticut in the ‘70s, one of my colleagues, a very respected if not very well-known composer, told his financial advisor as they were filling out the annual income tax forms that he made a little over $400 from his compositions that year – performance royalties – and yet he wanted to put down “composer” rather than “college professor” in the little space provided to list your occupation. The argument ran along the lines “but you earn your living as a teacher” countered by “yes, but I spend most of my time composing.” The advisor looked back over the forms with a raised eyebrow and said “Yes, but if you only made $427 from writing music, why would you DO that?” “Because I’m a composer and I teach so I can afford to compose.”

This made no sense to the financial advisor.

In fact, it doesn’t make much sense to anyone who’d consider themselves a practical person, a realist or just plain normal.

But I am none-of-the above.

When I found myself without a distracting job – listening to everybody else’s music for one thing, and most everybody in my profession’s negative attitudes about the kind of music I liked to compose – I decided to take my time and work out the details behind this new piece of music.

One of the reasons I spent about sixteen years not composing – whether through Writer’s Block, distractions from my job or perhaps depression – was the amount of work it would have taken for me to deal with the changes that were evolving in my compositional style.

As a student, I wrote spontaneously and without effort, being fairly prolific if not very discerning (discernment is not a student’s job: a student’s job is to write as much music as possible and learn by doing).

As I got older and had to deal with composing while earning a living, I found I needed more time to write but what I was writing was better. While teaching, there was little time to focus on composing until the holidays – summer, mostly, but I also remember creating a very involved choral piece starting from scratch on Thanksgiving Day and having most of it sketched out before it was time to meet some friends for dinner. Working for a radio station was a year-round involvement and hearing other peoples’ music in my head all day long left little room for my own.

Where I could sit in a practice-room and compose while other students around me were pounding out their Chopin, singing repetitive warm-up exercises or blasting out long-tones on their trombones, eventually the least little noise became an unnerving distraction. The neighbor’s dog would start to bark and I would throw my pen down and complain “How can I work under these conditions!”

If I had a half-hour between classes, I could find a practice room and work on a few more measures. Years later, it would take me three hours to get back into the “zone” before I could even begin to compose from where I’d left off the last time, and then at the end of whatever time I had available before needing to go to work, I might have a fraction of a measure worked out and often found, the next day, that I would probably erase half of that (yes, I know – decomposing).

As my style changed from the simple, spontaneous “whatever-sounds-good,” “play-it-over-till-you-find-the-right-note” method of composing to something more integral, more organic and much more systematic which started to produce something that sounded less like “everybody else’s music,” I realized the amount of work it took to do this – learning new rules or, in my case, making new rules – was more than I had time or, to be honest, interest. It wasn’t easy, any more: now what? So I thought I will do what I did before: put it aside and wait for inspiration to strike. In a few years, I realized I did not even miss composing.

It took several more years to figure out why life wasn’t going very well for me: I wasn’t composing any more. All my life, that’s what I wanted to be. So I started working at it again, slowly at first. I’m still recovering from that long dark emptiness.

Over the past eight years, once I started writing again, I began coming to terms with the technical apparatus I needed to compose.

It’s hard to explain: if a pianist just sat down and played whatever he liked but never bothered to practice – working on “technique” like scales and arpeggios, let’s say, or learning the notes and how they fit together – the pianist wouldn’t be very interesting to listen to. Talent at this level is called “facile.” There is a “facility” that may be impressive but it lacks depth or communication.

That’s what takes the work.

And so in the process of writing my Silmarillion-inspired rhapsody for violin and orchestra (taking its cue from the opening story of the Creation of the World through Music), I began seeing what I needed to do. In each successive piece – the String Quartet, the Symphony, the song-cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen” – I set different challenges and learned a little more. It took a year to write the quartet, two for the symphony but only five months for the songs and each time I had to spend less time worrying about the foundation.

The first of the violin and piano pieces, a “Nocturne,” began out of something practical – I needed a piece John Clare and I could both perform in a relatively short time – and I had a passage that I wrote for the symphony’s last movement that seemed to make a better violin piece than a theme in a symphony. It was one of the few pieces I’ve written in the last 25 years that “just happened.”

Eventually other pieces were to be added to this to make a set – not a sonata, as it turned out, though if I’d thought more about it at the beginning, it might have worked (I joked with John about calling it the Nada Sonata). But I wrote some variations (the challenge here writing something emphasizing a more melodic element) and then a “scherzo” (still maintaining my ‘system,’ but trying for something light-hearted and, a real departure for me, a take-off on blues and rock elements). These were very different from the “mood piece” of the Nocturne and I wanted something else that would be even more different as a contrast. Perhaps the last movement or maybe – since my structures usually have their climaxes in the middle of an archway, like a keystone – in the middle of five pieces.

What became the “Aria & Chaconne” went through the same gestation as everything else: the idea came in a kind of flash but how it was going to be worked out was always the challenge. What a composer (or author or painter) sees in a flash of inspiration rarely takes a flash to realize. Most people cannot comprehend the amount of time it takes for an artist to get from Inspiration to Final Artwork. Sometimes it can be very long, but always much longer than it takes to hear or read or view the piece.

And if your job is based on bean-counter-friendly bottom-line principles and weekly deadlines, it’s impossible to compare. It’s not that one is better than the other: they’re just different.

So a few years after the initial idea (not a flash so much as a flicker) for the Chaconne, I started working out the logistics. My style would not easily encompass the restrictions a Chaconne by definition expects, so I had to find ways of “stretching” that definition to see if it could still work.

After a few days in April, I settled into the longer work of trying to find the right pattern. This involved lots of trials-by-error but often it got me one step closer to something I liked. Three weeks into this part of the process, I was fired and so suddenly I was relieved of two things – an income aside, there was the limited amount of time I had to compose before needing to go into work, and the distraction of hearing all this music I was playing on the radio. Now I could listen to only music I wanted to listen to when I wanted to listen to it. I had discovered a long time ago that usually when I’m composing, I try not to listen to a lot of music to allow my own music a chance to gestate subconsciously, something very difficult for the brain to do when it’s constantly bombarded by everything it hears, whether you like it or not, whether it’s the Pachelbel Canon or Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Instead of spending three or four hours a day composing, I could spend eight or nine. And now I lived in a suburban house with no immediate neighbors and no distractions beyond the sound of lawnmowers.

So now I had the time, the lack of distractions, as well as the place to compose and, most importantly, to THINK.

This led me to explore many more options than I would have had time for before. Rather than settle for “okay, this can work” just to get it done, I started thinking “but what might work better?”

Three or four times, I had come up with a “final solution” but decided “not yet.” A little more exploring, a few more attempts and tweaks and then a month after I was fired, I had a plan, finally.

So far, other than this nine-chord pattern, I hadn’t written a note of music.

An interesting thing happened during the next process. A Chaconne is also a set of variations on this pattern: the pattern doesn’t change, basically (though I found ways around that so it’s not so literal and became variations on itself as it progressed), but the melodic line in the violin, in this case, would be a theme-with-variations over this pattern and its variations.

Now, the first piece in the set was already a Theme-and-Variations movement. I didn’t feel I wanted to do that again. What I didn’t have, though, was something really flowing and lyrical. My style is primarily “harmonic” and I had to really work hard on developing a sense of linearity (if not melody in the traditional sense) and the combination of those lines into something called “counterpoint.”

Somewhere along the way, I decided the Chaconne, with its rigid structure, was going to be the piano part and the violin was going to be this lyrical flowing song-like part – in essence, two simultaneous movements. And so the title became not “Chaconne” but “Aria and Chaconne.” Usually, that means the Aria would be followed by the Chaconne – as in “Introduction and Allegro” or “Song and Dance.” In this case, they happen together.

Another interesting simultaneity here, I discovered later, is that of stylistic approach: if music is either emotional (Romantic, Dionysian) or structural (Classical, Apollonian), the violin Aria was Romantic and the piano Chaconne was Classical.

The next challenge was, then, working out the Aria so it still belongs to everything that’s going on in the Chaconne and is not just a haphazard thing slapped on top of it (easy enough to do). So I worked on how I would make these two pieces belong to each other. I mapped their structures out – the different phrases of the Aria’s A-B-A structure over a string of 19 repetitions of the harmonic pattern that is the Chaconne (though each one moves through different pitch-levels like it’s constantly modulating so it doesn’t sound like “OMG it’s repeating again.” Climaxes on various levels, large and small, had to match. The one became integral to the other.

Now, another thing I realized early in this process was the other three pieces were just three random pieces. There wasn’t much connecting them. And by that, I mean the harmonic-melodic material which I tried to explain in earlier posts. The Variations and the Scherzo were based on one set of six notes (from which all the harmonic and melodic material was derived) and the Nocturne was a different set. Unfortunately, these two different sets had little in common, theoretically.

Since I had now planned the set of five pieces with the Nocturne at the end – this means there’s a 4th piece still to compose – and planned the proportions of the Chaconne to fit a span based on the Golden Section - blah blah blah - as No. 3, it seemed logical to combine these two six-note sets (a hexachord, if you’re into the jargon). Since I’m dealing with the simultaneity of the violin’s Aria over the piano’s Chaconne, it seemed logical to have the first two pieces’ hexachord form the basis of the Chaconne and use the last two pieces’ hexachord in the Aria.

The structural places, then, these shared climactic points, needed to form a consistent harmony. Forming one of these basic chords gave me three or four possible pitches for the violin part, so I wrote these options down first and then tried to place these in the flow of something that worked linearly, created out of its own hexachord.

Of course, the whole trick of being an artist is to take something difficult and make it look easy – that’s what performers do and that’s what composers should do.

The idea of the structure is to support what you hear (the surface), not draw attention to itself by saying “wow, this is a really complicated piece: see what I did here?” That’s why so many people get lost reading what composers write about the technical aspects behind their music (and if you think what I’ve just written is mumbo-jumbo, you should read this which explains in more technical terms what I am trying to express at all).

So now that the piece – or rather the pieces – is... uhm, are done, I have 193 pages of sketches to turn into a final draft: 68 pages of pre-compositional sketches, 79 pages of sketches for the Chaconne; 26 pages for the outer sections of the Aria and 20 pages for the middle section of the Aria. The piece is 137 measures long, lasts about nine minutes and took a little over five months to create.

And so now I’m ready for stage 3 – copying it out into a final draft.

It hardly seems productive when you figure the amount of time spent on the final “product.” What’s the term, “cost-effective”?

To repeat a story I’ve told in here before, back in the ‘70s I heard Elliott Carter – who turns 100 next week – tell an audience that his Variations for Orchestra was his most frequently performed work, more in Europe than in the United States. Talking to an audience before a performance of the work, he mentioned he’d calculated the amount of time it took him to write the piece compared to the commission he was paid to compose it: basically, he earned less than twenty-five cents an hour (Wow, we were thinking). Then, in the back of the audience, this bejeweled society matron stood up and sniffed contemptuously, “Mr. Carter! You mean to tell me you write for MONEY!?!”

That is not why those of us who create want to create. You don’t go into the arts to get rich. You might be lucky, but it’s very rare. But I know of nothing, myself, more satisfying that closing the book on a new piece I’ve just written and saying “Yeah, I wrote that.”

But after Stage 1 pre-compositional, Stage 2 compositional and Stage 3 post-compositional, comes Stage 4 – turning it into live music-making so that, Stage 5, an audience hears it.

For each creative artist, each stage requires a certain amount of courage. The last two are not always the easiest.

Dr. Dick

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