August 19, 2012

What it's like to compose music

I'm aware that the title to this post would tend to leave you with the impression that I, your humble blogger, consider myself to be "a composer". That is not actually the case; I consider myself to be a pianist. After all, all three of my degrees were in piano performance, and when I was active as a college faculty member I taught piano, not composition. I don't compose epic orchestral works that get performed by major orchestras; I don't teach composition at a conservatory; I don't belong to ASCAP, and I don't compose obscure, dissonant chamber works with titles like "3 Mind-scapes for bassoon, guitar and piccolo" which receive one performance ever, probably at an academic conference devoted to new music for an audience of sixty fellow academics, most of them bald, bearded middle-aged men with halitosis. See? Not a composer: that's me.

Yet it's also true that I've composed and arranged a great deal of music over the past twenty-five years, some of it commissioned, most of it performed. I really, really, really love writing music - most of the time. If this distinction puzzles you, consider: are you a professional chef? Probably not, unless your name is Mario Batali. But you cook food, right? You can't order from Pizza Hut every darn night. See? You aren't a chef, but you cook food.

It's like that.

Now, if you're not particularly creative and have never tried to write any original music but have wondered what it's like to be a compo---   ...uh, I mean what it's like to write music (whew! that was close!), I'm going to describe the experience as best I can.

The guy on the left? Hot stuff every 7 years, baby
When it comes to composing, the laws of physics apply to me: a Glenn at rest (not composing) tends to remain at rest, and a Glenn in motion (composing) tends to remain in motion. Remember Mr. Spock from Star Trek? As a half-Earthling/half-Vulcan, his sex life followed the normal Vulcan pattern, namely: spending six years out of every seven completely disinterested in and abstaining from sex; followed by a seventh year of being mad with sexual desire and doing little else but siring new Spocklets for twelve months.

In the same way, I go long periods without even thinking of writing music, and being unmotivated to do so. But once I get started on the project of a new work, get outta my way! I become obsessed, sitting at the piano for hours at a time, caring nothing about meals, chores, trips to the bathroom, family members; other words, "the real world". Nothing matters but capturing the musical ideas in my head and getting them on paper or into a computer as fast as possible.

I'm entering this "seventh year of Vulcan sex" phase right now, as a matter of fact.

I'm writing an opera.

A friend of mine, a soprano who has a Lutheran background and has long been fascinated with the story of Martin Luther's wife Katharina von Bora, has asked me to write words and music for a one-woman music drama about "Katie", as Mrs. Luther seems to have been called. The libretto is complete, and I've begun setting it to music.

This work, which will be the fourth opera I've written in the past twelve years, will be about an hour in length, divided into three scenes depicting Katie 1) as a young nun about to escape the convent in which she'd lived all her life; 2) as a married haus frau years later, caring for her famous theologian-husband; and 3) on her deathbead, having outlived Luther by seven years, looking back on the choices she made in her life.

Katharina Luther, née von Bora
I've begun with Scene 2. Since I would like the music in the first scene to foreshadow motives from the later portions, I need to work those out those musical ideas - otherwise, obviously, I'll have nothing to reference earlier. That's why I don't "begin at the beginning".

Let me tell you: when you begin composing after an extended period of having been inactive, it is U.T.T.E.R. T.O.R.T.U.R.E to get the ball rolling. The mental muscles required to manufacture quality musical ideas turn flabby, dull and sluggish without exercise, just like physical muscles. The old cliché of staring at a blank sheet of paper in despair is common, and just as nightmarish as you might expect. 

It's not that I can't think of musical ideas - you know, melodies, themes, rhythmic patterns; chord progressions, and so on - I can! It's just that, intially, they all sound like "Eensy-Weensy Spider"!!! Banal, trite, derivative, yep - all those words apply to my "inspirations" when I first attempt to resume composing. I come up with music that would have sounded corny or passé a century ago. I start wondering if I will ever - EVER - get past the mental block.

But here's what I've learned: this is the point at which "untalented" people; that is to say, people who believe they lack any "creative gift", simply quit and give up. Why keep at it when all you can come up with is "Eensy-weensy Spider", right? But the epiphany I acquired about creativity is this: "creative" people are, in general, the ones who DON'T give up. It's all about persistance, my friends. It's also about having high standards: a good composer must be ruthlessly honest with him-or-herself. You can't settle for music which your conscience tells you is a pile of crap. You have to keep at it until it's not crap any more.

Composing music is like panning for gold: life passes you by while you drearily pick through pan after pan after pan of sludge, muck and worthless silt. But then one day, you gasp in disbelief: you rinse away the muck and there it is: a glittering hunk of solid gold!

Composing music is like being a dog with a bone. You become obsessed with worrying the bone: oblivious to everything around you, you gnaw and chew, gnaw and chew, gnaw and chew on that useless, tasteless, meatless thing until suddenly: CRACK! You've broken through and reached the succulent, rich marrow that was waiting for you inside.

See, I've learned that if I am patient enough, eventually I'm rewarded with a musical idea of merit; a shining nugget; a vein of marrow. I never know where the stimulus might come from. Sometimes it's physical activity. Jogging outdoors in the fresh air - really working up a good sweat and raising my heart rate - often has the effect of cattle-prodding my imagination and starting the creative juices flowing. Sometimes it's attending a wonderful concert and being moved by hearing great music that touches me, in which case it's not that I imitate that music; it's just that I get inspired to be a part of the world in which such life-affirming miracles occur.

And once that first quality idea appears, the flood gates open and a cascade of ideas is swamping my brain. Too many to keep up with! Can't write them down fast enough! And not only have I found the harmonies, motives and rhythms which are perfect, perfect, I tell you, for the passage I'm working on, but better yet: I see the structure and shape of the next several pages spreading out before me! I know where I'm going!!

And it's GOOD!  It'll WORK! HUZZAH!

Let me be crystal clear: nothing you can do in your life can top the thrill of thinking up a musical idea of merit and beauty and giving it permanence by writing it down.


I've sung principal roles in opera in the United States and Italy; I've written a book and had it accepted for publication; I've played piano recitals that brought audiences rising to their feet and cheering (I wasn't bad when I bothered to practice); I've played concertos with orchestras; I've taught students who took my teaching to heart, worked hard and became fine, contest-winning musicians.

But nothing approaches the giddy, intoxicating thrill of completing the last bars of a song, a choral work, a piano solo, a musical, an opera or whatever and realizing that not only is it good, but now it exists on paper and on the Internet. It will still exist long after I'm gone. There was no such music before I began it, and now it exists because I finished it.

Remember this song? "I get no kick from champagne/Mere alcohol doesn't move me at all/So tell me why should it be true/That I get a kick out of you"? I know Cole Porter was writing about romance there, but I'll bet you five dollars he got his best kicks in life from writing his music.

So I've completed nearly a hundred bars of this embryo of an opera about Katie von Bora. Heck, it's not even an embryo yet; more like a fertilized egg that's just begun dividing.  I'll update you on my progress in the coming months. There will be lulls; there will be down-times when I'm convinced I've composed myself into a corner and can't get un-stuck; there will be doubts and stress and frustration.

And when it's over; I'll miss working on it the way a proud father misses the child who's left home for good.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from the customer service line at 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

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