29 October 2016
This is how the program note must perforce begin: Like many another composer, from the first that I listened to Debussy’s exquisite Sonata, it has been my wish to write a trio for flute, viola and harp — a sound world which is at once rich, and delicate. I remember clearly the afternoon when I was in the Andrews Library at the College of Wooster, listening to an LP recording while following the score. The Debussy trio is a kind of event in my musical life.
Decades later, I set to writing just such a piece. How?
First, I said to myself, “Forget Debussy.” (If I have not been clear: I love a great deal of Debussy’s music, and this piece in particular; so this is not any statement of artistic hostility.) The aural beauty of this combination of instruments was revealed to me by the Debussy piece, but the last thing I wanted to do was, write “my version of” the Debussy Sonata.
Second, the palette thus scraped back down to the wood, the answer was obvious: write your own piece, and these are the instruments to employ in the piece.
The title is a double pun, and yet the second pun did not occur to me consciously until I set to writing these notes.
The first pun adapts an au courant phrase for a metric of the individual’s environmental impact. My idea is that, befitting the ensemble’s capacity for delicacy, we want an airier impact. And “footprint” in music suggests the dance, which ties in to the before-today-unconscious second pun.
One of the ballets Prokofiev composed for Dyagilev’s Saisons russes in Paris, a sort of celebration of the Workers’ Paradise at a time when the West was still intrigued by the new socio-economic system in Moscow, is « Le pas d'acier », The Steel Step. This may seem a contradiction. I am quite a fan of this ballet; but I do not believe I had it in mind when I wrote my trio. Why it may seem a contradiction is, I find the counterpoint between the two titles (Steel Step, Oxygen Footprint) quite winning. I almost wish I could say I HAD meant it.
Because, in a sense, we might consider my piece a sort of ballet suite in miniature, starting at a vigorous pace and with a frequent emphasis on syncopation. By stages, the music makes its way to a kind of dreamy-yet-insistent gigue (jig). And the becalmed-intense emotional core of the piece has a distant family resemblance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
And with observing that Debussy and Stravinsky once sat down together, to play the four-hands rehearsal reduction of that celebrated ballet, these program notes have come full circle.
27 October 2016
Began sketches for the second movement while rolling into Boston on the Red Line. These sketches record ideas which I was turning in my inner ear while my head lay on the pillow last night, so work actually started 26 October.
That is all.
26 October 2016
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
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
(As posted to Facebook 12 October)
"Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep...."
~ French herald in Henry V
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.
(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.
(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.