My friend, Tim Burns, dropped me a message on Facebook the other day. “How do you write good music fast?” It’s a question that I have never really thought about. I grew to accept it about my approach to composing, but never really thought about the whys and hows. I am sure I have said this before, and to my composer friends this is no surprise. I compose in furied stints punctuated by remarkable periods of stagnation. That stagnation can be somewhat frustrating, but it is part of the process I have come to accept. But how do I put all that into words? So after buying myself some time with a witty comeback about panic and coffee, I thought about how I really do it, and thought that I would share those thoughts here.
The first thing that I said was not to put down anything notewise until you know the direction of the piece that you are going to write. You have to know what it is you are going to write, even if you don’t know the specifics*. I think in retrospect, I would refine that answer and say that in my process I don’t write anything down until I know the character of the piece. I know what the piece is; I know how it will breathe, how it will live, how the instruments will interact with the piece. But I don’t always know the direction. The piece that I wrote recently, which may have lead several of you here **, had virtually no direction until I sat down and wrote it. The 12-tone fugue in the development was a total surprise to me, even in retrospect after I wrote it. Weird, huh?
For vocal music, I think this is easiest because there is text, and the music must emerge from the text, be shaped and owned by it. For my mileage, the text has to resonate on some level for me, even one that isn’t distinctly musical. The Modern Composer’s Toolbox© gives us the leeway to address issues like that in a plethora of ways, so an “unsungable” text *** is no longer a critical obstacle. I have always found that a text with no soul can never be overcome, even with exemplary music, so that must be where it starts. How can you write a compelling vocal piece, if the words aren’t compelling? I have no idea, I can’t do it. I have loads of saved favorites of texts that I desperately want to set to music ****. I have bought books because of one passage, or one poem that spoke to me. Most of them remain on a bookshelf, dog-eared or with bits of paper or note card stuck between pages.
For instrumental music, the question is more difficult. I grant that it’s much harder to understand what a piece is going to feel like without also knowing what it is going to sound like. But this is what I am doing during those long stretches when I am “not composing”. I have been tossing around a piece for violin and piano lately, and all I can keep thinking about is the first movement of the Barber Concerto. Not even the whole thing, but there is a moment after that most sublime recapitulation of the main theme of the movement: The violin and the orchestra keep fluctuating between recapitulating and developing, and the violin winds up on this stratospheric note, until the oboes come in with the secondary theme of the movement +. That’s the single moment in time that I am basing an entire piece on. Not notewise, not orchestrationally, not even tonally… that one snapshot in time from a great piece. That’s what I want my piece for violin and piano to sound like.
So while on face value, there is not yet a composition here, I am spending time getting to know a new piece on a much more intimate level than I would if I were just writing down the notes. I am reminded of a novel by one of my favorite sci fi / fantasy authors, Jeffrey Ford, called The Painting of Mrs. Charbuque. The plot is awesome: A wealthy woman hires a painter for a portrait, but the painter isn’t allowed to look at her; he can only ask her questions, whatever he wants, which she will answer honestly. The painting is about her, not of her. That’s what I am trying to do when I write. It’s why, by the time I get to sit down and write out the notes, that I have to move so quickly… how do you capture a shadow as the sun is going down?
- – - – - -
* Those unimportant details like tonality, tempo, and form…
** “Twenty-three Skiddoo” for clarinet, viola and piano recently won the 2014 Portland Chamber Music Festival composer’s contest.
*** “Wasteland”, by TS Eliot, anyone?
**** It was from this pile that I pulled pieces like the Anna Akmatova setting of Requiem, and the settings of the Paul Celan poems.
+ The moment I am talking about is at rehearsal 17, for those following with score at home.