26 October 2016

First Movement Done

or, The “Projecting Creative Work Is an Inexact Science” Symphony Update

About yesterday’s post, which advised that the first movement was not yet done, and it would probably be a couple of days.  Earlier in the day (why, yes, that would have been about 5 AM) I composed the first draught of the ending of the movement.

It didn’t work, I knew immediately that it didn’t work, I knew the several ways in which it didn’t work, and I was not much worried about it not working, because I knew I would find the ending which does work, and before long.

That, too, is part of the composing experience:  at times, you do work, and you know that – as it stands – it is ‘bad work,’ but that the germ of the good and deserving work is right in there, and (provided you don’t just bulldoze it over) you will find and uncover the good work, and all will be gas and gaiters.

And I knew all that when I posted yesterday.

What I didn’t know was, that the good work would jump right out at me yesterday evening.  The first problem with yesterday morning’s work (which, really, was a pretty good quarter-hour’s work, for so beastly early in the day) was that, as the coda to the movement, it was too short.  (There was another problem or three, but this was the lynchpin problem.)  The coda needed 1. to feel like the ending, 2. to have enough mass of its own, that it sounds like the conclusion of the movement, and not “What was that? Oh, have we stopped?” and 3. even while it takes material from earlier in the piece, it needs to apply braking, and not feel like we’re still chuffing along.  As a result, the first movement, which I was figuring on running seven minutes and a half, actually runs almost eight minutes and a half.  And that’s fine (see: The musical result is what matters, above.)

So then, forget about waiting a couple of days.

The first movement is done.

I may wait a couple of days before starting the second movement.

Or, I may not.

And, the perhaps unlikely lesson?  Maybe the work you do at 5 o’clock in the morning won’t be the best work you’ve done;  but it could yet be the doorway to the best work you’ve done.

25 October 2016

Symphony Update: Approaching the end of the first movement

Probably I got just a bit ahead of myself; the news is nevertheless good.  To recap so far:

I made a start on the first movement 8 October, almost fully the first minute of the piece. Tweaked that, and expanded to about the 2-minute mark, the next day.

Over the following week, I did hardly any actual composing, but I thunk pretty hard;  the hard thunking paid good musical dividends, and when I did get back to setting pen to paper (whether literally or computer-figuratively) progress was yet greater.

That cycle repeated again, and this past weekend’s “realization-work” of the preparatory conceptualizing proved, in my view, very highly gratifying.

While the end of the movement is in sight indeed, the euphoric feeling that a sort of momentum will carry me across a sort of finish line, is actually rather misleading, and I would do my processes a disservice to be at all ‘disappointed’ that I haven’t “just finished, already.”  I am sure that the thoughts I have for the ending of the movement are good ideas, the “right” ideas;  but if I reflect a little soberly (or simply, “non-euphorically” – not that I should not feel elated at having accomplished so much with the piece thus far) I understand that, having accomplished so much so well over the two days of the weekend, I am again at a reflective phase of the cycle.

So, it’ll be a couple of days.  And that’s just fine.

12 October 2016

Symphony, first movement: how to proceed?

(As posted to Facebook 12 October)

"Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep...."
~ French herald in Henry V

(Symphony Update)

While no more notes have landed on the page since Sunday's session, there has been (in a musically pertinent sense) mental activity. Partly, I've thought of events/passages to follow (setting many of them temporarily aside, as not The Right Thing for measure # 58, where the score of the first movement presently stops); partly, I've been digesting the musical Stuff of what is presently composed.

This last may sound odd. "He wrote it; doesn't he himself GET it?" But recall that my goal this weekend past was a musical object possessed of a certain sufficiency, to serve as a lump of workable sonic clay. It was the result of musical caprice, an impromptu. In a word, I thought it sounded fairly good, and that it would be something to work with; yet the creation was, I won't say a speedy affair, but the idea was, do first, and reflect after. (There are many situations in Life where that is NOT the way to proceed, but I've found I can compose like this to no one's hurt.)

So one of the things I've done is, study my own score, reduce the pitch material to a compact phrase, the clearer to make further use of what is already in the piece, so that the composition contains, among other things, ample self-reference and musical affirmations.

That done ... I now go to paper. Just regular, blank paper, to sketch, arrange, fiddle with verbal and graphic scribblings with which my inner ear will associate a variety of musical elements and ideas, some of them more or less specific, some of them vague but nevertheless real. The broad idea is a kind of blueprint, although I caution you from considering it as anything as fixed as an architect's blueprint must perforce be. The arrangement, ratios, and content of these visual blocks will quite probably alter over time as I work on the piece; since of course what ultimately matters is the success of the sound of the music.

This sort of sketch is a kind of "pre-compositional" activity which I've used in the past, although by now, in quite the distant past. It is an ancillary process which was very helpful earlier in my composing, and which I largely internalized. It's kind of a fun "back to basics" activity which, I think, helps me to ritualize and affirm this formal embarkation upon the composing of a symphony.

So that's the tale for today.

Symphony: A start on the first movement

(As posted to Facebook 10 October.)

It's Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and I take this opportunity to thank so many of you for all the good, warm, positive vibes you have sent in response to my announcing the beginning of my symphony-in-progress. I got good work laid down over the weekend, and the first movement is nearly two minutes done (with the understanding that I still may tweak, modify, recombobulate the latest 15 measures). As I wrote, I am in no rush to get the movement finished, but I was keen to get a certain "critical mass" of the piece formed, so that it should be an independent object which exists not only in the ephemera of my imagination. I'll say I am really pleased with the start, which spurs me (in the best way) to make certain that the movement as a whole carries out that promise.

So what is different this week? The fact is, that the thought crossed my mind perhaps six times in the past: I should write a symphony. I know I've wanted to. Once, I even made several sketches (none of which I am using in the present piece, for whatever reason). The key difference at present is, I feel entirely capable of composing a symphony. This feeling, arguably, may prove illusory. But I am for the moment going to continue to enjoy living into that illusion.

Symphony beginning

(As posted to Facebook 8 October.)

In the perhaps optimistic expectation that life will carry on 9 November and beyond, I have started work on Symphony № 1.

There are layers of optimism here . . . starting a large piece, and hoping to bring it to its completion . . . starting it, with the apparent implication of a № 2 . . . writing a large piece, not knowing if or where it might be brought to an audience . . . &c. &c. &c.

But, over the past couple of days, a musical idea has taken root in my inner ear, and its only practical application is, for orchestra.

Other practical guidelines for the present project:  I'll write it for a smallish orchestra, and at a technical level which could conceivably suit a community orchestra.  Nevertheless, the musical language will be at a level to make it worth the attention of a professional orchestra.  The scale, too, should not be immediately forbidding to a community orchestra;  so let's say a 25-minute piece in three movements.

As there is no immediate (nor near-term) need for such a piece, I do not set even a soft deadline;  I'll work on it, as and when the Muse bids me.

25 September 2016

The Young Lady, Her Progress

The members of Kammerwerke first  wrote to me about a possible commission in January of 2015;  but earnest discussion of what it would musically entail did not begin until May.  I proposed a 12-minute duration for the piece;  and Kammerwerke asked of me that the piece should be written for ten musical peers (i.e., not for a solo quintet plus an ‘accompanying’ quintet), and that the piece should contain “melody.” I cast that word in cautionary quotes because two different people (even two different musicians) can mean quite different things by melody. We mutually decided that we would start by my writing a beginning to the proposed work, so that the group should have a concrete musical example; and we would discuss the matter further.

At about that time, I was walking in downtown Boston at my lunch hour, and I saw an energetic businesswoman walking up the sidewalk, talking on her cell phone. Suddenly, she seemed to have need of both hands, in order to fish something out of her bag. What to do with the phone? She popped it in her mouth, and I thought, there:  That's the name of the piece for Kammerwerke. The Young Lady Holding a Phone in Her Teeth.

Both the impression of restlessness, even impatience, and the peculiar (although, from a certain angle, practical) solution to the problem of freeing up her hands, set my musical mind working.  A vigorous rhythmic profile, to suggest the bustling activity;  wilfully independent voices, to suggest the apparent chaos of the street scene of a lunch hour in Boston’s financial district, or perhaps to suggest the contrast of the swirl of activity around the Young Lady, and the swirl of her internal demands.  Our Young Lady is a soul, and like any of us (however agreeably stimulating we find the bustle of such a scene) must have a center of calm and focus.

The piece is no linear narrative of these things;  it is rather a composition shaped by musical logic, with elements mysteriously suggested to the composer by reflection upon the experience of watching, and contemplating the sight.  And, of course, music intended to comply with Kammerwerke’s musical guidelines, which were quite reasonable, and which any capable composer might fulfill.

I began, then, with composing the first five minutes of my projected piece, and I sent that beginning to Kammerwerke in June of 2015.  While I waited for the group’s response (which would probably not come in until they had had a chance to sit down and read the piece all together), I sent the piece to Dr Jack Gallagher.  I had studied composition with Dr Gallagher at the College of Wooster (Ohio), and I keep in touch with him, periodically sending him my latest work, that he may know that his efforts to teach me something have not been fruitless.  Dr Gallagher’s response to the beginning of the piece was sufficiently positive, that I felt I should go on with writing the piece, regardless of how it might be received by Kammerwerke.

Thus by October of 2015, I had advanced the piece to the nine-and-a-half-minute mark;  so (as the final piece would be 12 minutes) substantially done.  (All this while, I might point out, I had also been at work on a number of other compositions.)  I sent the expanded score and parts to Kammerwerke, so that they should have the freshest version of the piece to review, while they were still considering the question of whether to commission the piece from me.  Again, they have had other programs to work on and to perform, and while I knew they would return to me, I understood that patience was of the essence.  There was a request to simplify the rhythmic notation of a couple of measures;  and as I considered it, I agreed that the musical result which I desired could be notated less “densely”;  and I modified those measures.

In November, word came that the group had read the Young Lady and that the reception of the piece was generally good;  there was as yet no pressing need to complete the score.

In April of the present year, word came that Kammerwerke would sit down to read the piece sometime between June and September;  with that in mind, I dedicated a week’s compositional efforts in June to completing the piece (as planned, 12 minutes and perhaps just a bit).  And soon word came from the group that they wished to go ahead and program the piece for their November concert, and that I was invited to rehearse and conduct it.

On 21 July we all together rehearsed the piece, and even managed to play through the entire score (under tempo, for the most part), and the piece made a good impression on the group.

Karl Henning

24 September 2016

15 September 2016

Letting the dross be dross

Tonight is our second church choir rehearsal, and Sunday will be our first service "on duty." An idea had been buzzing around the back of my mind, and when I acted on it last night, I made an enlightening discovery.

With our reduced musicality in the bass clef, I've thought about reviving an old, simple 3-part choir piece from First Congo days, setting five verses from Psalm 31; one of the very first pieces I wrote for Bill Goodwin's choir in '98.

Last night, at last, I rooted among the electronic folders and found the Finale file. (At such an early date, I did not yet adopt the sensible routine of saving scores as PDF files.)  Partly because a new Sibelius engraving would look worlds better, partly because I needed to allow higher notes for my tenors, now, than the bass part of back then provides, I set to creating a new score in Sibelius.

After about 15 measures, I found myself concluding this is rubbish.

At the time at First Congo, the piece was graciously received ... the centenarian mother of a correspondingly old parishioner had died, and this was a piece I wrote, probably quickly, for the choir to sing in her honor. But looking at the piece now with cool impartiality, whether the blame falls on the rapidity of writing, or on its being an early effort, or both, the pacing of the phrases is poor, some of the rhythms are rather stiff, and the harmonic traversals are uncomfortably arbitrary.

I'm sure I must have tried to emulate the simplicity and solemn gait of Russian liturgical choral music, but this attempt stinks.

So, I have discovered an early piece of mine which I am perfectly happy to leave in the dustbin! (Quite a few of my early pieces, on the contrary, I continue to own entirely.) Of course, I went on to write a great deal better for choir, so in the larger context the fact that an early attempt was a flop, is hardly either a surprise nor any disgrace. So the ancillary discovery is, how at peace I am with finding a failure in my files.

And another good thing is, I was not counting on having this piece in my choir's folders tonight.