One of the images — a rather visual one — that fell out of my reasonably strange brain was for a possible future moment where that single player doing the zippy licks would be mataphorically surrounded by the other three players, and I probably tried to frame such a passage affectively in several different ways — the player finds him/herself in the middle of a swarm of insects; the player is submersed in a benign liquid; the player is being scolded for something by the other three; the player is trying to convince the others to go along with his/her music, etc., among other things. Then I tried to illustrate, at the piano, one possible version of this passage that occurred to me where the player is reduced just to the one note, repeated fastly, and surrounded in register by a cloud of slowly-moving harmony. And just then, I got an aha! The way this potential passage fit in my hands, what with the right hand on the chords contorting just right to allow the left hand to play all those repeated notes while still being surrounded by the harmony — what a nice little ol' piano texture that is.
I remarked, "this would be a nice piano texture," to which the student dryly responded, "I think that's your department." "No, imagine a piano piece that started this way, and all the directions it could go in!" In the heat of a composition lesson, it doesn't occur to me not to end sentences with prepositions. I don't know what for. After just a slight pause, I remarked that my next piano prélude was going to begin with exactly that texture (cue shit-eating grin), and durned if I didn't do exactly that (with the hands switched). Meanwhile, that particular idea wasn't destined for the string quartet, and probably for good reason (one of them being: it's piano music).
It was a sort of felicitous mid-semester moment for me, as it had been rather a long time since I'd written a double bar — at least the kind of double bar that signifies that a piece is over. There had been little time during the semester afforded for writing (a big hunk of it got eaten by doing orchestra parts), and the compositional battery was still in recharge mode. I felt a sort of excitement about that piano texture and the possibilities I might be able to squeeze out of it, and I could hardly wait to have the opportunity and a block of time to sit at the piano and work it all out.
And to think, that idea came unbidden while I was trying to suggest ideas to another composer.
I did write the piece, by the way, and it was my first piano piece in thirteen months; it's also the only one that will ever be my eleventh piano prélude (because today, and for the foreseeable future, I am respecting the laws of ordinality). Which I now have to tell you is copyright © by CF Peters. Who knew at the time that that eentsy-weentsy little passage would start a musical argument that would eventually spawn the example to the left? (Answer: ask again later. The magic eight-ball is remarkably consistent on this)
I've written a few times in this little corner of the intertubewebs about composer process and various sorts of composer chops and all, and I've usually addressed grand questions, even though when it comes down to it, it's always about me. For one specific piece, I said that the process of spitting it out was a combination of biographical data, assignments I gave myself, and puzzle solving, and I also said in another post that often there has to be such a high level of compositional chops at work as to make the compositional chops invisible.
Call me irony guy. Okay, now stop. Okay, start again. And, and.... stop. I said stop.
I did note, though, that even though said compositional chops are the ninety-nine percent perspiration, they're ultimately subservient, in my mind, to the one percent, the inspiration, the idea. Pieces that are all chops aren't all that interesting, even when they have lots of pretty colors. See, that's me making a Davy Valu-Judgment™. And why do I prefer pieces that aren't just coasts on technique™? Apparently, I'm restless — not a big fan of standing still creatively; more pertinently, I have written a whole bunch of pieces that I no longer care for (or maybe never did care for) mostly because I am disappointed by how little of a challenge they were to write, or how they solved compositional problems in already familiar ways. Ooh, pretentio-man® is bursting at the seams here ...
Lame joke alert And since no less than the Paper of Record suggested that I have technique to burn, uh, how come when I do so, I don't get a warm feeling?
Rim shot alert Rim shot.
I also remarked in this little corner that perhaps chops can be taught, in a general way, and learned— while idea is a slippery concept that is difficult, if not impossible, to teach (and sometimes even difficult to recognize). Ideas — at least in Davy-a-splode™ manifestations — can range from the mundane to the searingly hot, and everything in between. So, since I've already entered The one percent solution as the title of this post, I guess I'll be soldiering on guy and try to make a stab at summarizing the different ways ideas have come to me. Since I have a PhD from an Ivy League University, that means I'll have a list of bullet points. Unless I don't. Incidentally, said PhD was awarded sixteen years after my original enrollment date, and that's not even the record.
A few things before I start this list, though. First, this list applies only to me, since this is, after all, my blog, and you can't have it — I know other composers, many of them really great composers, who get ideas in different ways. Second, despite any bloviating by me to the contrary, once the piece starts getting written, the wall between idea and technique is porous — especially as applied to ideas for what to do next based on what I just did. To wit, the process of collecting a bunch of things and shaping them involves both drawing on the experience of similar things already done and searching for different ways to do them. Unless, of course, you are dining with sea urchins and there is no available red wine; then there is no empirical data to support any kind of argument here whatsoever.
So I've made a brief pass through some pieces of mine that suck less than other pieces of mine, and I have tried to remember something of the ideas that got them started or continued. My personal bullet point list — in which there are many overlaps — list goes something like
- Ideas that react to the music or the ideas of others
- Ideas that come from the nature of the instruments or singers
- Ideas that come from perceived abstract properties of musical materials themselves
- Ideas that come from visual or poetic analogs
- Ideas that come from a sorting of many improvised possible licks while I am otherwise idle (especially in the half hour or so after I wake up in the morning)
- Ideas that come from dreams
- Ideas that come from conceptual sorting of disparate musical elements already in or set to be in a piece
- As an extension of the previous point, ideas that come from weird (or unweird) challenges from myself or from others
- Aha! ideas that come unbidden and unexpected
By "react to" I mean a few things (and there is a bit of an overlap with the penultimate point in the list) — composers (not just young composers) do a lot of imitating of music they love, or of things that they think will get them ahead, and I certainly have done my share of that. I also mean reacting to something that was said in a conversation about a piece or a bunch of pieces — in my case, perhaps setting out to disprove a pronouncement about what something in music must be, or what cannot be. Which sounds maddeningly gooey without an actual example. So here's one.
I recall having a conversation in grad school about the all-interval tetrachords rampant in Carter's first string quartet, and in lots of his other pieces, and a colleague — obviously not a Carter fan — pronounced that all-interval tetrachords are, by virtue of containing all the intervals with exactly the same weight, not inherently interesting or viable compositional elements. He continuted with the pronouncement's corollary — sonorities with unequally weighted intervals are much more interesting to work with.
Fine. That was a personal preference from a composer's own experience working with sonorities in his own peculiar way, and since he didn't like the way the all-interval tetrachords worked in his own music, they ... won't work in anybody's. Apparently, including Carter's. I may have mentioned he was not a fan.
So I put on my Myth Buster hat (actually, I have three of them, but that's not important; this was the purple one) and resolved to write a piece in which the main materials were said all-interval tetrachords, of which there are two: 0146 and 0137 — my Oh Yes You Can moment. Then came the idea as the vessel for the disproof: a slow, sad-sounding chorale for string quartet built from phrases that started with one kind of AIT and ended with the other; within each phrase it would work out that each of the four parts would play equally-sized chromatic collections on its way to the destination note. And the overall register shape would be like (more likely, stolen from) the Barber Adagio for Strings (large scale expansion, ascent to the high register, a-splode™, return to original registral area). Immediately I got a mental picture of the whole piece. Now all I had to do was refine my compositional technique (by writing the piece) to make it work.
Thus did I write out the bare bones of a chorale with pairs of chords as to the right and above, and with that expand-and-asplode registral shape — initial phrase chords in open noteheads, cadential chords in black noteheads (there were a whole bunch, and this is just the first six). The second act of composing was writing in the chromatic collections that would connect each voice, and then putting them onto the page in a convincing and expressive rhythm.
What resulted from this initial idea and the rather cumbersome process I used to realize it was a piece I called Elegy and which sounded even sadder than I'd suspected; and it is, to my mind, my first-ever piece that works. A noisy recording of the premiere of the version for string orchestra is here. This piece is not © by CF Peters, and it has the distinction of being turned down by them twice.
In sum, then, this piece's original idea came from a nyaah nyaah impulse. Obnoxious, huh? And once I was inside the piece, in order to make it musical, I had to be sure to write rhythms that made it seem like the parts were in some sort of conversation with each other — all the parts moving at roughly the same speed would get kinda dull. That's technique, learned in this piece.
In my rather voluminous set of piano études, there are plenty of pieces that more or less respond to challenges (or requests) from others, most notably from Rick Moody. For example, when Rick suggested use Jerry Lee Lewis licks, my head first filled with an image of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, and then almost immediately exploded with repeated right hand chords and glissandi and possible ways I could bend them to my nefarious will. I immediately wrote down a bunch of repeated C7 chords with the third missing and the root stuck a half-step lower, and in the four days it took to write the piece (while at an artist colony) I was pretty much crazy-eyed wild guy (I remember desperately needing a break at one point, tearing out of my studio into the hallway, and almost running right into the wall). This one is crazy enough actually to embed a video. So embedding said video was done, and by me.
Thus in this case the one percent came from a strong sonic image of already existing music with a sharp profile and well-known vocabulary of licks — which was willfully bent into shapes that I liked. The process was similar for Clave, in which Geoffy had simply asked for something using the clave rhythm. At first I had a sonic image of the easy listening music my father always played with the occasional bossa nova and clave rhythm going on (in, of all places, the claves), and while munching on that, I took a page from Nancarrow's book: what would it be like to overlap a bunch of things, all happening in the clave rhythm at different simultaneous speed? Immediately there came a sonic image of the opening: sharp chords in a slower clave joined by a bass line in a faster clave. Thus would successive clave things be faster and faster, and so on. And as I was writing it for Geoffy, who originally suggested a piano bop étude, naturally some bop licks trickle right on in and party down. Woo hoo!
Nature of the instruments or singers
Perhaps taking a cue from something Berio said to me in a lesson, after listening to an early vocal piece of mine (his exact words: Why do Americans always write so faecking syllabically for the voice? Write melismas! It's what the voice wants to do!), I learned to love writing melismas for the beautiful voices of Judy Bettina and Susan Narucki — in fact, I sought out any excuse, any excuse at all, to do so.
Thus, when writing some songs for Sooozie (her actual name, as far as I'm concerned), did I ask Joe Duemer to write a brief non-narrative poem destined for melismatic singing. Specifically, I asked that the words in the poem use a lot of open vowels, because they are best for melismas; I had already decided that I wanted to write something where the melismas keep getting longer (thus becoming, in my mind, more and more beautiful). Joe delivered a gem, and I piggybacked on top of it. In fact, when I read the first line, I got an instant sonic image: Days are like grass the wind moves over suggested, immediately, a brief trill figure that slows down. Thus does this idea also fit into the poetic analogs category.
Then chops kicked in, and it was time to shape the materials around the slow trill figure and the idea of gradually lengthening melismas. It was particularly fortuitous that in Joe's poem, the first two lines are also the last two lines, thus allowing me to make the final melismas musical variations on the first ones. And also fortuitously, the open vowel on the poems last word, silence, made for a lovely melisma that just would't quit. And the end of the longest melisma coincides with a four-part harmonization of the trill motive. Cool, huh?
So here a love of vocal melisma together with a visceral reaction to a line of poetry spawned the ideas that shaped this piece. The ninety-nine percent amounted to stir to taste. Recording of the Rome performance here. Guess what? It's © by CF Peters.
One of the principal operating textures of Persistent Memory came from the number of players in each of the string sections, as was actually stipulated on the commissioning contract 5-4-3-3-1). Thus came an idea for revealing each section as a traditional section and as the bones of the section: I could split lines into chords at phrase ends in which each section member had one note. Since I was going for sad-sounding music, it occurred to me that ending phrases with the lines splitting off into chords and all might sound like a kind of extravagant sighing; thus did a bunch of numbers on a contract lead to an idea for an important way of thinking of phrases and phrasing in this piece — as illustrated to the right.
Abstract properties of the materials themselves
Elegy obviously fits into this category — there are two all-interval tetrachords, and phrases have beginnings and ends (due to the limitations of space and, especially, of time), thus the phrasing structure.
Back in the days when the properties of pitch materials were more a fuori in my compositional thinking, I fabricated an idea for a shape of a piece in which register and hexachord would unfold in parallel (Pretentio-Man™, sit down). Specifically, I had thought of the A, B, and C types of all-combinatorial hexachords (stay awake! I know you can do it!) as having sonic analogs to closed, somewhat open, and very open. The A type is a six-note chromatic cluster, thus closed; the B-type is a diatonic major pentachord plus the minor third, thus somewhat open; and the C-type is a diatonic hexachord, do up to la, thus open in sound. I had imagined a piece built from hexachords in an ABCBA form would feel or sound like it was opening and closing. Or at least that was my fantasy. On top of that, I thought a registral shape of high to low/medium to all the registers, and back, would also be an analog to the closed to open and back of the materials themselves. So far, so good.
I will agree that, bereft of any actual musical ideas, this is kind of a pointless intellectual exercise; but hey, at the time I was in my I'm making it as a part-time word processor phase, and pointless intellectual exercises was a good way to forget the parallel pointlessness of that which I was paid to type. For the record, I had had other large scale shapes based on the same sort of premises kicking around, but I don't remember any of them any more.
Then I got an idea based on material from a piece I'd just finished — machine-gun repeated notes in the piano, originally a sort of ornamental thing in the previous piece now magically transformed into the principal musical material of a new piece. I've written about this piece (E-Machines) here, too. The idea that really got it going, though, was as appears elsewhere — Martler, his ability to play repeated notes, and his tape piece Night Machines. Thus, when the sonic image developed — machine-gun notes, scamper a bit, more repeated notes, more scampering, etc. — thus did I graft that idea onto that ABCBA shape I described before. And thus would my piece — maybe — feel like tight, opening up and retightening. Note the "opening up" in the second bar above, as the notes of a chromatic hexachord are slavishly arpeggiated. It is all mitigated by the rim shot-worthy tempo marking of Allegro Troppo.
Here I acknowledge how very artificial the whole process was, but I remind again that I was in I'm making it as a part-time word processor mode. And I was willing and able to accept that form is the vessel into which substance is poured, at least for this one piece. Maybe a few more.
Aw, man. Dry heave time. Again.
Now I can report to you that the first idea for Persistent Memory was just a tune, and it came to me while I was in the shower, trying to make up a tune with a good shape to begin Persistent Memory (this is the tautology ¶). I had been spending days trying to think of an appropriate opening for a long sad slow movement, and I had finally decided to start with the 'cello section, and in a manner that would grow upward in register. Thus did a five-note tune occur, in a particular shape, arching upward and finishing with a sigh (and thus a kind of breath). I also realized right away that it had the same shape as the head of the theme of A Musical Offering — I eventually did nothing with that knowledge, except mention it in a blog post (this one).
When I first wrote the melody down, I got it wrong (I wrote A# B D# E G). I realized that for my purposes, each interval would have to be different, and it would also have to be able to function as an arpeggiation of a chord I liked. In the first draft there those were two half-steps, it sounded E-hexachordy and augmented triady, and the trusty taste filter™ said that was bad. I fixed that. As to the cello melody: the first phrase ends by sighing (the Orpheus cellists did a very subtle portamento to the A-flat despite my bowing, and I think they were right). By the time another section entered, I wanted to increase tension that would seem to "necessitate" an entrance by another section, thus the idea to invert the opening melody to close off the solo cello section; inverting would necessarily create a large upward leap where there was once a sigh, thus increasing the tension, and thus also creating a framing space for the violas when they enter. © CF Peters.
When Judy Bettina suggested I write her some short encore pieces, I had already written Three Songs of Louise Bogan for her, which were pretty slow, chewy, and full of gorgeous-machen melismas. Obviously I would want to do more melisma-machen (read earlier in this post), but also something completely different. How about scat-machen? Woo hoo! I had never done anything jazz-machen, but I knew some of the chords that people had used in jazz. And just to make this self-challenge even more difficult, I indulged myself in a little pitch-mapping. Pitch-mapping is a puzzle kind of thing, wherein you assign all the letters of the alphabet to the chromatic scale (map A to C-natural; B to C-sharp; C to D-natural, and so on) and then spell things, and use the thusly mapped notes as a melody. Thus, when I spelled JUDY and her husband JIM (destined as the piece's pianist) and BETTINA, I got the melodies as detailed to the left.
This was an incredible chops-building exercise, as admittedly the tunes that fell out of the method were as arbitrary as could be. My job as composer (should I choose to accept it) was to make the melodies make sense musically, thus imbue randomness with meaning. And, incidentally, to be appropriate for the singing currently known as scat. Wow, I didn't used to be this pretentious. So I put my brain on swing it! mode and immediately had a perfect scat singing rhythm for JUDY JIM. Then came an answering phrase, BETTINA. Then it was my job to write what came next, and what the piano would be doing while those phrases were sung. And I did! And thus was jazzness born. Soon you die. And as usual, the excerpt is © by CF Peters.
Ideas from visual/poetic analogs
I'm sure a lot of composers are like me in that they sort of "see" music both when listening and when composing. That's not interesting in and of itself; the shapes seen are personal, abstract and impossible to describe. When shapes from the real world suggest some sort of parallel musical thing, though, that's interesting. And I already described how wind blowing over grass in Joe Duemer's poem suggested a speeding up and slowing down trill motive.
And there I was, in Bellagio, Italy. Somehow, I never get tired of saying that. There I was, in Bellagio, Italy. At the Bellagio Center, with a piano trio and a clarinet concerto to begin. And did I mention, there I was, in Bellagio, Italy? I had written my second piano étude — essentially a bigger version of the first one, and this time ABCDEDCBA (it's longer, as noted earlier) — and had written it outdoors, as had been the case for the first one. Davy, you wrote piano music away from a piano? Yep, and later I wrote a solo violin piece away from a violin! Scandalous! And all of my band music was written away from a band!
A detail that isn't anywhere near germane to this narrative is that I wrote the étude under a statue of a naked flautist.
It was July, and from my vantage point I had a nice view towards some of Lake Como and the surrounding mountains. Flocks of birds occasionally flew over the lake, and the image was quite relaxing — in stark contrast to the gritted-teethness of the étude. I marveled (sometimes I do things whose verbs are comics publishers — which is why when playing through minuets I always take the DC) at how so many flocks flew in perfect formation — and once, when I was in mid-marvel, one such flock broke apart into two pieces when one bird violated the formation and carried several birds with it. In short order, the flock came back into formation.
And zot's the way I like it (uh huh, uh huh). It occurred to me, and unsurprisingly so, that something (metaphorically) like that bird formation could happen with a tune played by an ensemble. Specifically, how about something moving in unison, that breaks into two parts, three parts, four parts, and so on, and eventually comes back to the unison? Why, I thought to myself, not? There's already an analog in Mozart opera ensembles, in which one singer becomes two becomes three, and so on.
I had been wracking my brain for good ideas for a premise to this piano trio, or at least for some opening music. It had been years and years since I'd written something that wouldn't be conducted, and thus did I embrace pulse in a way I hadn't done in, like, forever. And I wanted something appallingly virtuosic (these players were spantarific to the max) and, zot! again. An opening of quick unisons that gradually break apart into more and more parts, thus spawning the piece's first a-splode. The virtuoso thing allowed me to write quick, antsy, very syncopated rhythms that sounded to the performers like dark jazz, so thus was jazzness born again. I had the title Hyperblues in the back of my mind, as it sounded like, well, like hyper blues (note clever added space), but eventually I put it into the singular, and took the space back out.
I had gotten to Yaddo in the summer of 2006 with two pieces on my plate, and a five-week residency in which to write them. Luckily, at artist colonies, I tend to write crazy fast. One of the pieces I had to write was a piano quintet for the Stony Brook Contemporary Players, which would be destined for a great performance, rain or shine. Actually, two great performances. I didn't have any ideas for it yet, but I figured being surrounded by all that is Yaddo would get the creative juices flowing, since it always had.
I was awarded Yaddo's Tower studio, formerly an ice house, way out deep in the woods with views through a bay window into the forest and one of the artificial lakes built there more than a century ago. There was plenty of nature to surround — not to mention the occasional mouse turd encountered on a score page when I arrived in the morning — and all kinds of birds all around.
As I was setting up my printer, I saw a huge bird fly by very close to one of the windows. I rushed to the window to see what bird that was, and recognized it as a Great Blue Heron. Huge! What's more, there was another one, in the little lake, starting to take off and about to follow the first one.
The Blue Heron is such a bigass bird with ginormous wings, and the taking-off space was a bit tight for it. It looked very clumsy as it flapped and flapped mightily, mostly to no avail, and its head bobbed way up and down. But eventually, through sheer will and brute force, it achieved flight, still looking a bit clumsy, and when it reached the open space, it started to glide very gracefully.
Obviously (well, obviously to me, anyway) that was going to be (metaphorically) how my piece would begin. Tight, push-pull gestures and very close harmony, and desperate fast notes (flapping) that don't get anywhere at first, but that open up gradually into an open harmony and texture, with sustained tones in the strings, and occasional two-hand piano gestures to denote the flapping of the wings. Once I had this opening, the rest came pretty quickly. Thanks, Yaddo. The piece is called Disparate Measures for reasons that continue to elude me, and naturally, the first movement is called Flight.
Sorting and combining disparate improvised licks
I feel the need to break up the text with another video here, so here's one.
The piece in the video started out as yet another weird idea suggested by Rick Moody. As was often the case, I sent him a form e-mail (different from the foam e-mail, which is messy) with the text Time for another étude. Got any suggestions? He complied with the usual half-dozen, one of which was How about a prog rock étude? I responded Cool. What's prog rock, and how can it be the basis of an étude? He said he didn't know how to describe prog rock, much less how it could be an étude (that's your job, right?), but he did send me a CD of a whole bunch of stuff that had been given that descriptor — and the music was so different from track to track that I was completely baffled about what do.
More than a year later (or maybe four months), Geoffy was in town, and I knew he was a fan of prog (now we can simply omit the second word when we refer to it). I asked him what he would expect in a prog rock étude. His response was a nice, compact list: pretentiousness, fake counterpoint, pointless virtuosity, modal jazz harmonies, circular ostinatos, and block structures; maybe some other things, too, but those are what I remember. Thus did I have a manageable list of balls in the air for my mind to juggle (that's a clumsy metaphor, but at least I acknowledge it — and by the way, I also usually write oval-shaped ostinatos, so there was a challenge at hand).
Thus did my process for spitting this piece out become a little like one of those slot-puzzles. While walking around aimlessly, and especially while delaying the day's shower, I juggled some initial ideas into a workable bit of putty (that's a metaphor), and pretty much improvised the whole piece, left to right. The études had the no-revision rule, so it was a kind of seat-of-the-pants improvise-it thing. By the time I was ready to end, I realized I hadn't done any pretentious fake counterpoint — thus a fugato that goes nowhere to end the piece — followed by one measure copied exactly from earlier in the piece and stripped of its original context (block structure). I kind of like that.
Ideas that come from dreams
This blog's first post was about dreamed music, and there is plenty in it that I won't repeat here. But go ahead and read it until you stop. I can wait.
I had been afforded the opportunity to write a concerto for Amy Briggs — something I'd been thinking and drooling about for, well, almost a decade — and such a project started out as having the premise of the previous bullet point. I had had a long conversation with Amy about the sorts of things I'd like to have in my own personal concerto. I had written down the list, had started juggling the ideas and improvising licks in my head, and was starting to form a large-scale shape for the piece. Specifically, Amy's list had, but was not limited to
- the piano texture of Martler
- begin in medias res
- if there's a second keyboard, how about celesta?
- writing like in the Bach keyboard concertos, including ensemble trade-offs
- riffs traded with the percussion and riffs traded with the brass
- playing with the percussion and no others
- stride piano texture
Then, of course, I had a dream with music in it.
And this music, since I could remember it, was, by statute, destined to be part of the concerto. I dreamed lush late nineteenth century harmony, much like that of Gurrelieder, with orchestra and chorus, and — get this — the chorus sang the text The postcards are traveling home. The melody was a chromatic turn figure followed by an upward leap of a perfect fourth, and the harmony was saturated with half-diminished seventh chords. Funny that I recognized that while dreaming it, and funnier still (in a non-funny way. Irony guy again) that I remembered that.
Thus did half-diminished seventh harmony and chromatic turn figures enter the bullet list, and thus were there two more balls to juggle.
And thus was the opening Martler texture sprinkled with fast chromatic turn upbeat figures — which, I think, made it more interesting (see above on left). And thus is there a richly harmonized version of the chromatic turn in the slow movement, as at the right, saturated with half-diminished seventh harmony (the turn figure is in the first violins, and click on the example to expand it). This passage quotes the harmony from the dream as closely as I could remember it; but I added a clarinet, because it is what I do. Sunny hasn't barfed today.
Conceptual sorting of musical ideas already in a piece
Sticking with the Amy concerto here for the examples. Sometimes (well, okay — almost always) narratives that you couldn't predict become part of the piece, and you hadn't planned for them. Those are fortuitous things, because they give you another hook for the story (or stories) of the piece. At least two such things entered into Amy's concerto, unbidden.
In a transitional section where I was trying to set up the playing with percussion music, I came to a sustained chord in the strings with an E at the top of the sonority. I decided to shape the color of the chord somewhat by doubling the top E in the first oboe, sculpted with a crescendo and diminuendo. It's just something I do. That became a moment with a profile in my strangely strange brain.
Half a minute later I got to another sustained sonority with an E on top, and it occurred to me to put the oboe there again, but this time breaking into a sustained three-note melody, E, up to C, down to B-flat.
Fine. There wasn't any reason for the oboe to do that, except it sounds pretty cool. At this point, though, it occurred to me that I had just begun a narrative that could even continue across movement breaks. To wit, the oboe comes in five more times in the movement, always beginning on the sustained E, and always playing exactly the same three notes, never varying. The oboe is even present at the end of the movement, playing the same thing.
In the so-called narrative of the piece, then, it's easy to see I was thinking the oboe is stuck! How does it get unstuck?, and of course I would hope an intelligent listener would catch that I was trying to create a sort of long range tension in the narrative. The slow movement follows that ending I just referenced, and it begins with a long line first in the English horn that gets passed to the first clarinet, who passes it to — you guessed it. To the oboe. On the same E.
Naturally the oboe immediately follows the E with C and B-flat, but finally — finally! — continues! and breaks into a lyrical melody with, uh, more notes in it. Logjam broken, tension resolved, in a manner of speaking. And this is about fifteen minutes later in the piece than the first oboe lick.
Looking at the example above and on the left, note that another element that I hadn't planned on weaseled its way into the piece. The playing with percussion that I was setting up so carefully somehow turned in to a repeated ostinato in the vibes, crotale and marimba, that simply repeats a falling perfect fifth — and that ostinato ended up repeating 32 times (I counted ... or I made the number up). The beginning of that ostinato is in the example.
The ostinato sounded to Amy (in the MIDI) and to others (in the MIDI) like a doorbell (in the MIDI). A doorbell that never gets answered (in the MIDI). It simply changes, eventually, into something else.
Since the sonic image (in the MIDI) had such a memorable profile (in the MIDI), it was something I could ... work with! So the third movement — ostensibly the jazz movement — begins with the doorbell by itself, into which the soloist inserts the same chords it had played with the same ostinato earlier.
So, fine. What do I do with the ostinato this time? Huh? Huh? Idea! Pile up incomplete jazzness licks while the doorbell gradually turns into faster and faster notes, and have the brass come in and obliterate it! Cool! So after the obliteration, the jazzness movement begins in earnest. And retrospectively, this whole doorbell section thus functions as a kind of introduction. Also cool. No musical example, since it's too ... big. Thus I guess I tried to create a kind of tension where that stupid doorbell would have to be conceptually run out of town on a rail before the piece could begin in earnest. And all the sort of embryonic jazzness licks that happened then became the materials of the movement (uh, actually, they were originally heard in the first movement, but who's counting?).
Weird or unweird challenges
The weird challenges I've gotten from the Rickster (Writer Guy™) are documented above and here. In addition, the weird challenges that are the styletoods pretty much follow the same pattern: Why don't you write stride/bop/tango/funk?; procure recordings of stride/bop/tango/funk; listen to recordings; catalog the gestures that characterize the style mentally; do slot puzzles and putty sculpting in head with the gestures; write the piece; stir to taste. Thus is "idea" in these cases close to the conceptual sorting. Coming up with something original and characteristic is harder than this description makes it seem, though; thus does the taste filter necessarily kick into overdrive during the writing.
Other challenges and requests I've gotten involve specifics of piano technique, most of which are accessible to me only as an outsider looking in. I'm not a pianist, and even if I were, I lack the discipline and will to practice (except on even-numbered days when there is a full moon and there is no "r" in the month name). So when Amy suggested a staccato-legato étude, I wasn't in on the joke, if there is one. Okay, so there can be independent kinds of articulations happening simultaneously, and imagining music with more than one contrapuntal part isn't hard, either. It's what I do. Since I didn't actually know what I was doing, I relished the challenge.
Thus, immediately, I though such a texture would involve — at least for the beginning — a legato line in the right hand doubled two or three octaves lower by a staccato line in the left hand. Such a texture isn't interesting by itself (oh, Davy Valu-Judgment™, there you goes again), so rather quickly I imagined a jumpy type of accompanimental texture, shared in both hands in the available fingers — a kind of seasick salsa providing a jerky backdrop against which the main line, in the outer parts could push. Good! Fine! I was at Yaddo when I started this, so the notes came out pretty quickly.
About halfway through the piece, I had already been through two sections — accumulations of texture and slight shifts in texture, when I told myself the piece hadn't really gone anywhere yet (Here's what I said to myself, in silence: Hey Davy-Self®! This piece hasn't really gone anywhere yet!) and that I would either have to abandon it, or come up with some kind of focal moment toward or texture that would — uh, by definition — focus the trajectory of the piece. I had no ideas for that.
And, as I was at Yaddo, I was doing regular once or twice daily hikes around their paths in the woods. It was May, and it had been a very wet May. Thus did I wake up one morning with a tick burrowed in my chest. Aw, man, this never happened to me before. I popped it out, visited an emergency room to make sure it wasn't a deer tick, and was given a large blue pill. I e-mailed about this to Geoffy, who suggested I write a piano piece about a tick bite — parallel to the tarantella, which is a dance about a tarantula bite. Geoffy even had a title ready to go: Zeccatella, as the Italian word for tick is zecca.
Thus did the tick bite become part of the narrative of the piece. That missing focal point would be very fast licks in thirty-second notes that are, um, "caused" by my own tick bite. It's a silly story, yes, but in context, it gave me something I needed; and of course, after the dance is done, there's more staccato-legato goin' on and a big/little finish. As below.
Another weird, and extremely invigorating, challenge was the responds to jazz one. Greg Evans, who was the director of programming at Merkin Hall, was putting together a season themed around classical composers respond to jazz, and he offered me a commission to write the season's finale. He included a program of what other pieces would be performed on the same concert, and it included a set of tangos by Tony de Mare. Thus would I have to revisit tango compositionally. Woo hoo! I'd done this before! Uh, but now for ten instruments. Uh oh.
I wrote this tango movement at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, and I recall agonizing about the opening. I didn't want it to sound stereotypically tango-ish or habañera-ish. In fact, I think I wanted it to ease on in to the tango gestures and have it start ... um, mysteriously, I guess.
Thus, working without a net (but aiming for a net result. Rim shot), and coming up with some chords, and lots of silence, that would be the referential chord progression for the piece. I wrote down a simple rock and roll chord progression (above, right), and goosed the notes until the chords sounded more like me (left).
Then a long line enters, and I can write those in my sleep (apparently, I occasionally do). Not until a minute or two into the piece is it evident that it's a tango, when the defining habañera gesture enters for the first time (right). I was pretty proud of that idea, which came off to at least one listener as deconstructing the tango. Yeah, okay. Listen and make your own decision.
So what I like about the weird challenges is how I get forced out of my comfort zone and have to imagine solutions unlike any others I've used compositionally before. Bring on the next weird challenge.
Unbidden aha! ideas
We come to the portion of our program all readers have been desperately seeking, and that is the last one. Hallelujah!
So frequently, notions, textures, contrapuntal profiles, instrumental combination ideas, or big ideas for pieces will just happen when I'm not focusing on a specific piece at hand. The example that this blog post began with, like, forever ago, was one such example. They happen when I'm walking and thinking about pieces I like, or when I'm awake at night trying to get back to sleep or — as I've already noted — especially in the time between waking up and actually getting out of bed. I improvise licks in my head (a strange image if taken literally), or imagine how an existing piece would be different if something was changed, imagine the physicality of playing something if it came to the next level (whatever that might mean), and so on. And once in a while, an idea worth using — that is, one that successfully passes through that ornery taste filter — will pop out.
Hence an idea to use the "little" C minor prélude of Bach as a starting point, add a boogie woogie bass upbeat to it, and play it over and over, while over time changing the notes in the pattern and slowly expanding said pattern — this one is the one that does that, and twice. © by CF Peters.
And there are silly what if ideas that occur. How about a concerto movement in which the soloist plays only one note? (first movement of Locking Horns) What if every movement began with the same gesture or music, but went in different directions? (Locking Horns and Piano Concerto — and by the way, Stravinsky did it in his violin concerto, too). What if one hand played only white keys and the other only black keys? (Halftone and Crazy Eights). What if a two-note figure articulating a major second just got all antsy? (Secondary Dominance, Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange).
Now that I think of it, when I'm improvising these licks, and playing around with musical slot puzzles in my head, I guess the underlying intent is how can I do something both surprising and inevitable, and/or hasn't been done exactly that way before?
I'm pretty sure I'm not unique among creative types in trying to do this kind of stuff. And referencing the title of this post — I'm pretty sure that less than one percent of the so-called possible solutions I imagine manage to make it through the taste filter.
Now I know this is a long post, and self-indulgent. To quote Milton Babbitt, for the seventeenth time (at least), there's no one else I'd rather indulge. It rather went in directions I hadn't anticipated (just like music!), and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. And I now realize that — as I said eons ago — the wall between idea and technique is porous, and that, contrary to the premise I was working with, idea doesn't take a back seat during the process of composing.
Uh, Davy. DUH.
I don't give heartening speeches about the transformative power of art — although I certainly believe in it. Apparently, given the evidence of this blog post, I'm all about the idea, its shaping in time, and different approaches — stuff you can talk about. The magic that happens when all this stuff lines up just right— well, there's no manual that tells you how to get it every time. And besides, if I agree there's magic there, I can't tell you why or how.
Whatever it is I do, I seriously doubt any secrets will be unlocked by neurobiologists and phenomenologists and cognitive scientists any time soon. Or ever. (possibly because I purposefully tell lies on the survey form — who wouldn't?) 'Cause after all, it's more fun to be I don't understand how he does it guy.
By the way. I don't understand what composers do, not really. If I did, would I tell you?
When I was in a Brandeis faculty seminar entitled Consilience, after the E.O. Wilson book, and it was my turn to present, I answered a question in the back-and-forth afterwards by saying that for me, composition was about having at least one good idea and having the chops to shape it into a piece.
Objection, your honor. Bullshit.
Wait. I have an idea.