Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Like a Leslie Goes

Fast or slow, like a Leslie goes.

Those seemed like familiar rap lyrics. But from what song? I could hear the heavy backbeat, the overuse of the syn-bass drum. You know what it's like, right? You hear something that is or that reminds you of music you know, and you wrack your brain to figure out exactly which piece, and nothing comes until you stop thinking about it, and you blurt out the answer in the middle of an ordinary conversation as a non sequitur.

... so then I was trying to decide between the blackberries and the raspberries, which weren't on special, and SHE'S COME UNDUN BY THE GUESS WHO! That's what it was!

I call these songs brain wrackers.

Well, no I don't. I only do now that I'm on the subject. I don't call them anything. Or I didn't use to.

Last March I went to Bard College for the first time in my life to be in the audience for a performance of several of my hand-wrecker 'tudes. Once I figured out where to park, and that things on map are much smaller than they appear, I approached what might have been the building with the concert hall, and I heard some hardass Modernist music faintly coming through a couple of windows. I got closer to the windows and heard a piano getting the crap pounded out of it — assuming there was crap in it to begin with.

It was my own Fists of Fury, which was to be performed that night.

How 'bout that? My first time at Bard, and the sound associated with it is me.

Hee hee.

The concert that night began with a big ensemble piece by John Hallé called Structural Adjustment. It was a very cool piece — a raucous affair with repeated upwardly-mobile overlapping scales and arpeggios, among other things. And it was a brain wracker. Those scales with those particular syncopations reminded me of something in some other piece I knew, but what?

At intermission I told John I thought his piece was great, and that I thought that his scale figures might have also been in an Earth Wind and Fire tune. Just which tune, I did not know. Repeated brain-wrackage yielded nothing. John acknowledged that he could have unconsciously used something in Earth Wind and Fire. Don't everybody?

I obsessed.

The next day, back at my own computer, I brought up the considerable EW&F playlists in iTunes and methodically went through them until — voilà! I found which tune it was. I hadn't heard the tune in many a year, which is probably why there needed to be so much wracking. And the scale figures are in the introduction.

And so in trying to think up a devastatingly clever title for this post, I got that little bit of rap stuck in my brain. Fast or slow, like a Leslie goes.

Aha! I thought. I often think in exclamations. It's Prince, or maybe TAFKAP in a rap break of some song. Those syn-bass drums make it kind of early, pre-lamo introspective Prince. And the voice doing the rapping was not that of Prince. Hmm, maybe NPG and Gett Off?


Defeatedly, I googled the phrase. Bullseye. It's Love Machine, performed by The Time, and on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack.

Beff and I actually paid money to see Graffiti Bridge in a theater in Worcester, where there were maybe six of us in the audience. The music was great. The movie was awful. It seemed like because Purple Rain practically printed money for the movie people, they let Prince have two more movies, on the house. It appears they then cut him off, and rightly so.

Good soundtrack, though.

Fast or slow is like Davy goes, too. If you have a bookmarks folder of examples of awkward segues, you'll probably want to bookmark this post.

The common prototypes for fast and slow composers are Mozart and Beethoven. Whereas Mozart would hold whole pieces in his head (if one of his letters can be believed) and the act of writing them down was a time-consuming nuisance, Beethoven labored and labored over his music, crossing out stuff and reworking it obsessively until he was satisfied with it.

A friend swears this is in an early sketch of the slow movement of Beethoven's fifth — which I can't verify since I don't have access to any of those sketches. But if it is so, looky there — that glorious singing 'cello tune with its quirky turns and fabulous shape — started as an ordinary rising sequence? Get outta town!

This isn't a binary argument; composers work at all speeds. The Mozart-Beethoven binary is often invoked to show that the speed at which a piece of music is written is not a good predicter of its quality. Mozart wrote great first drafts and rarely revised: Beethoven wrote lousy first drafts, but was a great reviser. It's also a bit ironic that Beethoven made a name for himself as an improviser, yet he slaved away endlessly at his written-down stuff. Perhaps it was the lead in his beer mug.

Schoenberg seems to have been a pretty fast composer, too — the first five of the Op. 19 piano pieces were written in one day (February 11, 1911). And Verklärte Nacht was written in three weeks. Both of them are pretty complicated stuff. In his article Heart and Brain in Music, Schoenberg uses a 2-bar passage of complicated 4-part counterpoint, containing a leitmotif together with its inversion, twice, as an example of something that was so hard to write it took about an hour. And to think, he could have had hand-crafted lenses made while he wrote the passage. Or his holiday snaps developed.

I cannot think of anyone in my circle of friends that could have written the Schoenberg example in less than four hours. Admittedly, it's not a big, big circle. More like an oval, really. With a slight bulge on one side. And peanut butter.

Compare to Webern, whose entire life's work fits on three CDs. Well, at the tempi that Boulez takes, it fits onto three CDs.

I myself have inhabited both fast composer body and slow composer body, and let me tell you they are the same body. The biggest difference between the two, in my case, seems to be two things: secureness with technique and familiarity with other music. And as a secondary factor, willingness to work without a net. Any factor can be both a laxative and a binding agent, depending on how it's used and where it's applied.

The laxative effect is also contingent on how many movements you are writing, and whether they are attacca. Couldn't resist that one.

When someone tells me hey you wrote that fast, my response is sometimes something like well, I didn't write all spring semester, so it was like diarrhea waiting to come out.

Sometimes I'm just not into the subtle thing.

Most of the time I'm just not into the subtle thing.

Both ASCAP and BMI have published handy helpful guides on how much you should be prepared to spend to commission a composer, based on duration and size of performing forces. There is no similar guide for BMI or ASCAP composers advising how long a composer should be prepared to spend writing a piece based on duration and size of performing forces. Suppose there were a guide and it said a four-movement symphony for full orchestra lasting a half hour should take eight months to write. So do I get paid half if I write it in four months? Do I get double for taking a year and a half? Why do union piano movers get paid minimum two hours wages to take ten minutes moving a piano from one side of a room to the other?

One of these things is not like the others.

My first piece (Opus 3) was written for band — my high school band, you go with what you know, dontcha know — February 16-20, 1975. Five days, seven minutes of music. I wrote directly onto the final score. The reason I could write so much so fast was that I didn't know anything. I was completely unaware of — or didn't care about — conventions, what was good, what was being stolen (all of it). I was just enraptured by the exercise of putting notes on the page. Nobody was judging me. Except, perhaps, the students who played it and hated it.

Within a month of entering college, I slowed down considerably. The ISCM World Music Days were in Boston, and school was cancelled so that we could go to the concerts. Heck, I was in one of the concerts — the chorus for Shifrin's Chronicles with the BSO and Ozawa. A whole week of just 'bout everything can certainly mess a young composer up. So I shifted gears entirely and played with motives and homely-to-ugly harmony.

Within a year I was writing a piece a week. Perhaps I was trying to get all my bad music out of the way so that only good music would be left to write, but that turns out not to have worked. I was writing solos and duos for all my friends, making checklists of cool effects I wanted to use, and every other week's composition lesson went like this. "I wrote another piece." "Is it finished?" Yes." "You don't want me to criticize it?" "No." "Lunch?"

By the end of my sophomore year, my teacher had had enough. It's time for you to start writing slow, tortured music. Be more thoughtful and critical. Let's look intensely at the music and see what could be improved.

It was good advice. I was more critical, more scared to put down something that wasn't like totally awesome. Scared, too, to revise. If I like what happens in bar 5 and bar 8 but not in bars 6 and 7, how do I rewrite 6 and 7 to make 8 still work? Because, you know, 7 8 9.

So in my junior year and the first half of my senior year, two of three composition lessons went like this. "Any new music this week?" "No." "Lunch?"

Pieces written in freshman and sophomore years: about 35. Junior and Senior years: 1.33.

But they were pretty good pieces. The ".33" is even published, along with the other .67.

Through grad school and at least six years following, I wrote very slowly. On the one hand, the example of Berg's Lulu was a pretty formidable one, and the music therein had the key to what I thought I wanted to do. On the other hand, I was attracted to the spiky instrumental writing of the so-called Uptown composers. Combining or reconciling spiky and Romantic seems to be what I was trying to do. Perhaps they really are two great tastes that taste great together? Or is it more like ginseng tea and melted cheese?

Plus, I had a pretty severe working method of using complementary all-combinatorial hexachords, and modulating from hexachord to hexachord by using common trichords. Which was a lot easier to do than it sounds. Like any technique, and like learning a language, once you've done enough of it, it's second nature.

And sometimes I played hooky from that particular method, and felt guilty.

Nonetheless, my list of compositions from about 1979 to 1991 mostly have composition dates begun and completed in different years.

I have to write my dissertation was a significant factor in that slowness. But not a huge one.

Then it snapped. After laboring eleven months over that first symphony, which I am fond of disparaging in these blog posts, I got to Yaddo with the intent of writing a celebratory piece fast, and there you go. Winged Contraption, full orchestra, 9-1/2 minutes, 23 days to write.

I had decided screw the charts and screw justifying every note — the polite connotation of screw, that is. I've got a vocabulary of harmonies that work just fine for me, and if I just loosen up a whole lot and stop fretting, I can write music faster, and perhaps it will even be better music. A-splode!

A partner to the newer, fresher, faster outlook was the étude project, which had a strict time limit of 6 days and no revisions allowed. Wow, seat of the pants stuff, refreshing, invigorating. It was as if after studying a language for eleven years, I was now speaking in it. Olé! Empfindsamkeit! Triceratops!

I also discovered how much work you get done at artist colonies. To top it all off, I began to give myself a measure quota per day while at colonies. For big pieces, 15 measures per day. For 'tudes, 20 bars per day. Always with the understanding that anything written can be discarded, of course. It turns out not much ever is.

Second symphony, 28 minutes, 3 months to write. Third symphony, 30 minutes, 2 months to write. Persistent Memory, 23 minutes, two writing bursts of 2-1/2 weeks each, 14 months apart. Piano Concerto, 34 minutes, two weekends followed by a year hiatus (I was The Chair), and two months of writing time.

Not every piece goes so swimmingly, of course. This spring, I had a Sondheim arrangement for solo piano to do — part of Tony de Mare's Liaisons project — and I convinced myself I'd get it done in a fraction of my February vacation. Nope. Once I started it I realized I was at sea. It wasn't finished in the February vacation, or in the April vacation, or by the end of the semester. It was finished a week after school ended. It is about 6 or 7 minutes and occupied me for almost three months. Talk about working without a net.

My colleagues, and some students, think I write blazingly quickly. It never feels that way. It feels more like slow and steady winning the race. Plus, there's that quota thing. And a solemn promise never to miss a deadline.

I will, however, own up to having written this one in 75 minutes. It was fun.

Davy, do you write intuitively or rationally? A subject for another blog post, not this one. But those are two more great tastes that taste great together.