The voices! The voices!
I finished composing my dissertation in September, 2009. Since then, my output has included a few beginners’ piano pieces for my students and nothing else. I have many practical excuses, which bore and frustrate me. Since graduation, my few attempts to compose something meaningful have simply lost steam in the process.
But, I have been fortunate to teach music at UMass Lowell for the last two years, as well as to pick up several private piano students. It’s all rewarding work, and I love it. I would also love to switch from adjunct work to a full-time, salaried faculty position. This seems to require that one be active in the field. Apparently, teaching music is not a field in itself. Being active means composing new works and having them performed. Really, this is what I’ve always wanted anyway. It was just easier in the nurturing environs of academia.
Recently I’ve been able to compose in privacy at a decent Steinway grand at UML. I’m a “piano composer”—I like to physicalize sound at the piano, and the better the instrument, the more inspired I am. The difference between this and past attempts at composition is that now I’m trying to observe the process from the perspective of an impartial witness. That’s hard to do when I’m me, but I think I may be on to something, at least for this composition. It entails taking time later to reflect dispassionately upon the events.
1) An idea:
“…see, it’s about never arriving! It’s functional tonality, with every indication of harmonic progressions that move to C, but you never play a C, not in a IV chord (just F and A will work), not in a vi (just A and E) not even at the end, and that’s the piece! Frustrate! Create a wretch of a character—yeah! let’s call it “Wretch” (how cool is that?), or maybe some modification on Riley’s “In C”—and let it spin toward C for the entire piece. Maybe some altered predominants, maybe leading-tone augmented sixth (oohh, sounds cool!), maybe other modal borrowing, I don’t know, but C—pitch-class zero—will never, ever show up, and the listener will be frustrated and sad at the end, and that will be good! Yeah! Thank you. Thank you.”
At the keyboard, jotting notes that fit the conception, maybe sketching a formal diagram. It begins with just a melodic line, and it snakes about and then spins around B & D, then the F-B tritone, and quivers and shakes nervously a bit…and then this, right, okay, and then this, but not G yet, I don’t think. That’s frustrating, right? That sure keeps you wanting C. How clever! What an idea! But should they want C from the very beginning, or maybe just increasingly throughout…? Anyway, and then!….
3) Sputtering out (a few days later):
This thing isn’t going anywhere. I don’t like listening to it. It’s flashy and absolutely flat. *Sigh* – Here we go again.
On the other hand, I can sit at the keyboard and improvise nice sonorities. Let them repeat however many times, let them change when they’re damn good and ready, no sooner. Vanquish worries and relax, and at some point start putting notes on paper, and only when the timing is right. I don’t need to worry about voice-leading, about spelling, about line. That’s all there in the intellect, anyway. Or at least it should be.
This yielded music that I like, at least so far. What’s tricky is deciding at what point during this process “pulling it all together” becomes helpful, if it’s helpful at all. Do I heed the voice in my head that insists, “Put in a double-barline already!” There are also other voices: “But what’s the harmonic scheme?” “This part is apropos of nothing!” “Simply everybody is writing slow music these days.” “It’s a bit amorphous, hmm? I mean, if that’s what you’re after.” “I think this is the best thing you’ve ever done!” Those voices can be useful at times, but it will also be necessary to squelch them.
Most confounding is that this rather organic approach, with which I’m now having some success, might not be an absolute. It may be inapplicable for other compositions. The next one might require a completely different approach. If that’s the case, what lesson do I take? “Develop the flexibility to wholeheartedly delve into a composition from any and all necessary angles, and also, sometimes, get out of your own way.” Or something like that.