Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Creativity & the Responsibility of Ones Integrity

A few days ago, I was about to chuck everything I'd written on the Shakespeare Sonnet, the song that opens my 'new' song-cycle. I wasn't sure why but it just seemed to be getting too complex. It wasn't that I didn't like it beyond what adjusting a few pitches could accomplish to make it sound better (if not “right”): it just seemed to be more complicated than... than what, I wasn't sure. Necessary?

But this is very close to what I was hearing in my head. Part of the process in writing it down is trying to figure out how to approximate what it was I was hearing internally. The fact that my piano technique and my performance experience are both highly limited makes this a difficult challenge with the considerable danger that the end result will be more limited by my limitations rather than a replication of what I wanted to get down on paper. If that were the case, borrowing a phrase from a pianistically challenged teacher of mine in college, everything I'd be writing these days would be about as interesting as “Jesus Loves Me” in whole notes.

After several hours battering against this particular wall – dealing with the Inner Editor (or Demon, which is usually just as applicable) – I stepped away from my desk and decided to ignore the argument. Instead, I curled up on the couch with a lapful of cats and thought – and, for a change, listened to some music, something I usually don't like doing when I'm composing.

When I showed one piece to a friend of mine, hoping for some constructive criticism about the technical demands, all he said was, “It's very difficult.” Yes, that I knew – I tend not to write easy stuff. It's difficult because, for one thing, it's not a familiar style for most of the performers I know around here. In many respects, it's also unrealistic because it would take more time to learn (being unfamiliar) and in the case of my orchestral work – like the Symphony – that involves rehearsal time which is economically prohibitive (considering a half-hour work will probably only get 45 minutes of rehearsal before its premiere).

So I write difficult music. I don't do this on purpose: that's what I hear.

As Elliott Carter said in any of several interviews I'd heard during the year before his 100th Birthday last year, “I don't put complexity into my music.” That's what he's hearing: the fact it's not the result of theoretical calculations that requires a slide-rule (as they said back in the days when slide-rules were forbidding aspects of a mathematical life) to appreciate (since most people thinking like this would not be able to say 'to enjoy'), is something most people who don't “get” his music can't understand. What he's hearing in his head is already complicated: trying to figure out how to make that sound palpable so other people can play and then hear it is something else. Because it's not easy to play or to comprehend is what makes it “complex.”

And it IS a matter of familiarity: I find myself frequently listening to his recent Cello Concerto, the Violin Concerto of 1990, the “Boston Concerto” (a concerto for orchestra written, obviously, for the Boston Symphony), all written since he'd turned 80, or the earlier “Variations for Orchestra” from the 1950s as well as the 3rd String Quartet (probably the gnarliest of his more gnarly compositions) and finding if I'm not exactly humming them later on, I can hear great swatches of them in my head and, when listening to them, anticipate what's going to happen next just the way I can listen to a well-known Beethoven symphony or late string quartet and know what's coming. I rather doubt somebody who might be unfamiliar with Beethoven's late quartets would be able to react much the same way during a first hearing.

The last time I was listening to Wagner's “Ring” with the score – courtesy of my collection of the Dover editions – it struck me how challenging this music must have been for singers dealing with the first performance. It was totally unlike anything they were familiar with and I'm not talking in terms of sheer stamina, the ability to stand there and bellow like a bull for four hours (as another teacher of mine once put it). This music is highly chromatic compared to the more conservative, largely diatonic style that was the going norm of the day, and most of the vocal lines (except for the really big moments) were not exactly what you'd call melodic or tuneful which is what most singers and audiences would be waiting for. No wonder they'd gone through a hundred and some rehearsals trying to get Tristan und Isolde ready for a performance and still had to cancel it!

Then something else occurred to me in thinking back to Wagner's “Ring” music: it's not exactly foursquare in its rhythms and meters, either: compared to The Rite of Spring of 1913 perhaps, but not compared to what most people were singing and listening to in the 1860s, before Brahms had finished his 1st Symphony which he would complete the same year Wagner finished the “Ring.”

People had the same sort of reactions to much of Beethoven's late music: too esoteric on the one hand, but too difficult to comprehend both as performers and listeners on the other. Technical challenges aside (given Beethoven's famous retort to the violinist complaining about his part in one of the late quartets, “What do I care for you and your damned fiddle?”), there are things going on in these works that are totally unlike anything anybody else was writing in the 1820s.

Most critics would excuse this by saying “well, he was deaf, you know,” as if that had any bearing on what he was hearing INSIDE his head. Beethoven could read music well enough so it's not like he couldn't figure out what the stuff sounded like he was writing down on paper. People who can't read music (by which I mean “see it on the page and hear it internally” the way people can read a book and hear someone inside their heads reading it aloud to them) find this difficult to imagine. I rather doubt Beethoven was throwing random pitches down on paper just to say “look, I've written a string quartet!”

My question, as far as being a composer is concerned, is “what am I hearing in my head?”

In most cases, I'm hearing – at least to start with – an “idea.” It's fairly abstract: I've decided to write a song cycle which means I need to find texts that will work with what I want to compose. Joyce Kilmer's “Trees” may be lovely to some people, but it's hardly appropriate for the music I want to write. Then I hear more specific details of what those words imply, musically – the constant slow spinning of the spider's web in Whitman's “Noiseless Patient Spider” or the incendiary rush of Rumi's “Say 'Yes' Quickly!”

What I 'hear' first is often more like an artist's sketch – a whoosh of the brush that suggests a shape that, only later, takes on something we might recognize. This especially became part of the process when I was composing music to lines of Li Po: I came up with musical gestures that reflected words like “shake,” “shout,” “ecstatic” or the last line, “I'll bend the river!” It was as if a germ had come to life, shaking and trembling the way an egg cell, once fertilized, turns into an embryo.

More often, at first it's more vague, more subtle and sometimes completely inscrutable.

In John Tusa's collection of interviews with artists about their creativity – On Creativity (Methuen 2004) – he asks Elliott Carter, “Does the word 'inspiration' figure in your work or is it something which is not a useful idea to describe what goes on when you compose?”

Carter replies, “If there is inspiration, it's not something that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it. The more I get into the piece the more the inspiration – well, I don't know exactly what inspiration means – but I would see more clearly and with more excitement and more interest new things... Once I've gotten focused on this thing, let's say the excitement of writing, it becomes more and more important as I write the piece. I think this is the way we would normally behave under other circumstances. If you were writing a letter or a novel, the more you get into the novel, the more clearly you see what you're trying to do and so forth.”

When I read that a few months ago, I realized how many years I had wasted waiting for inspiration to strike, coming to tell me what I should be writing and how it should be written. I sat and waited for inspiration and it never came. What I SHOULD have been doing was trying to figure out what I wanted to compose, then get it started even if I had no idea what was going to happen, knowing that, in the process of letting it settle in, it would (hopefully) come to me. It may not have worked or it may not have been what I was hoping for, but it would have been SOMEthing, rather than the silence I endured for over 15 years.

So, the Shakespeare Sonnet began with a few scribbled-down fanfare-like patterns. Even though it was the first song in the cycle, I also knew it was going to be one of the harder ones to compose (the legacy of Shakespeare aside): that's why I started with the easier ones, rather than getting hung up on details that might make me want to give up on it before it's even begun.

By the time I finally got around to the Shakespeare, then, the original scribblings had no bearing on what I now had in mind. First of all, I tried to focus on one layer of sonority at a time: the whole song is driven by its harmonic structure – the chaconne I'd written about the other day – so I needed to come up with that first. If that succeeded in doing what I wanted it to do, then I could overlay the vocal line on that. That is far easier than writing a melody and coming back to harmonize it (what if the implied harmony now doesn't have any logic within the song's structure?). I had a sense of how I wanted the vocal line to go – brush-strokes like “floating” and “stretched-out” as the poet waits to hear from his muse, then “pushing forward” as the text became more dramatic (especially considering the last line involves Time's “scythe and crooked knife”).

There were purely theoretical details to work out, similar to figuring out what chords I'd want to use if it were a traditionally tonal style. Then this had to be filtered through the purely emotional details: did it suit the nature of the words, the mood they were setting, the way the emotions of the text increased in tension or resolved?

(A friend on Facebook had just written "it's all about the brain." A friend commented that she felt "it's all about the heart." I added "one doesn't work without the other.")

One of the things I enjoy most about Elliott Carter's music is his “temporal counterpoint.” Rather than having musical lines moving independently against each other the way Bach might write a fugue, Carter often pits one tempo against another, writing it out in some kind of common denominator that allows performers to relate these independent strands of time.

It is the “perceived” tempo rather than the actual written tempo indicated by a metronome marking or the expression “allegro con molto.” One layer could seem to be very slow and sustained while another would be very fast and fitful. If you could isolate the one part, you might hear a certain number of fairly regular beats per minute, just as the other part may also have a certain number of fairly regular beats per minute. But putting the two together, it turns out they are not moving with the same fairly regular beats per minute. It's as if two people, playing two entirely different pieces, are being heard simultaneously. Writing that DOWN is what makes it look complex.

If Bach does it with quarter notes and 16th notes, we think nothing of it. If Carter does it with 5 dotted eighths against 7 quarter notes, we think “Whoa! How can you play that?!” He also shifts the real tempo which may turn one of those five dotted eights into the new quarter note pulse which gives it a new metronome marking of something like ♩= 87.5 and musicians throw up their hands and say “how can you HEAR such a thing!?” The trick is, if you're playing it at what seems to be a reasonable tempo to begin with and you follow the music accordingly, you're going to play it at ♩= 87.5 without having to think “now, how fast is ♩= 87.5?”

What prompted my Inner Editor/Demon to pop up into Full Destructive Mode the other day was realizing that, since my music moves along without any visceral relation to the foursquare meter of 4/4 at ♩= 60, I began to question how comfortable a singer would be who would have to be singing complex-looking rhythms that didn't have a DOWNbeat every four beats to hang on to. How comfortable would a pianist be to be playing a similar kind of line in one hand with a completely different and often conflicting kind of line in the other, without having a DOWNbeat every four beats to hang on to?

Was there a way I could simplify the music to make it easier?

I tried doing that and decided “that's not my music.” And while people could argue I should be writing what the audience wants to hear or what would be easier for the performers to play, I realized it was not the music I wanted to write. And if I couldn't take the responsibility of holding on to my own integrity, then I shouldn't be trying to compose music in the first place.

And once I got myself through that conundrum, the piece was finished a couple of days later, the way I wanted to.

- Dr. Dick

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