13 May 2009

Q & A

A virtual neighbor asks (generally):

So why do you composers compose? That's not a flip question, but a sincere inquiry into the nature of the creative impulse. Is it something you just like to do because you do it well, or something you feel compelled to do (as Hans Sachs says to Stoltzing, "The bird sings because it must.")? What is your creative process? Do you say to yourself, "I think I'll write a string quartet," and so you sit down and write it, or do you hear "string quartet" sounds in your head? Does the music flow on the first draft, like Mozart, or is it a laborious process of writing and re-writing and trial and error? As someone who couldn't compose music to save his life, I'm fascinated by this.
I reply:

Not to seem to offer a flip answer, but yes to nearly everything. Most of what you’ve written has an echo in my own experience. I like to compose, it’s an activity in which I take pleasure for its own sake; once I found that I felt I could do it well, that was an immediate additional layer of pleasure . . . and the driver for can I write the next one better still in some way(s)?

I find it difficult to settle on quite the right way to express the compulsion angle. Dale Moore, a voice teacher at Wooster, would tell his students frankly how difficult it would afterwards be to build a career in music; so that if they felt at all that they could be happy majoring in something (anything) else, they should — that they ought not to major in music unless that was the only course of study they would be happy pursuing. In my case, I went to Wooster to the sole end of studying music, three years after I had been graduated from high school. I went with the thought of studying clarinet performance, because that was most of my musical experience until then. I had puttered with a few sketchy compositional notions (and I had done quite a chunk of arranging for school musicals and marching band), but I had not had any opportunity to pursue any directed study of composition . . . and the thought really did not occur to me, until Jack Russell (my first-year theory teacher, and also the director of the Wooster Chorus) made the suggestion. But once I set to studying composition, I was engaged . . . and I came to feel that this was pretty much what I was made to do. Anything else I might do, could probably be covered by any of a hundred other people on the planet . . . .

As to specifics, any and every variant happens on a case-by-case basis. After the November Evensong, I was so pleased and grateful to the St Paul’s choir, that I set to writing a choir-plus-clarinet setting of a specific text. Or, at times I hear a fairly ‘abstract’ musical idea, and later ‘attach’ it to specific instrumentation. Likewise with the flow . . . there’s a range from the just splurge out onto the page experience to knock it around again and again until it’s gotten right. Nor would the listener necessarily be able to twig which method was walked through, judging by the sounds of the musical result.

Lovely mini-reunion with old Wooster pals this week. I fear I may have given too thoroughly negative an impression of Buffalo days, so as an emendation to the minutes:

There’s a piece I am very pleased and proud to have written, I felt it was a fine musical success at the time — though the score I have long since lost, or, there was no score as such, the piece was largely improvisational, and there was no score, there were only the six parts. I had written, I forget, maybe twenty-thirty brief musical excerpts for each player, and left the order in which to play them up to the performer; I had different excerpts for a beginning, middle and ending section; and finally, I had brief, composed passages for the very start, and the very end. The piece was called Ambiguous Strategies.

A dear old Wooster friend, Jeff Wallace, pursued dance studies after Woo (or, mostly post-Woo); and we had a semi-unspoken agreement in principle to do some sort of collaboration. Cutting to the chase, Jeff came to Buffalo to perform an interpretive dance to Ambiguous Strategies. The performance went well, and was well received.

Happily, Jeff made a videotape of his performance, so there is (somewhere) a document of the piece. I am very pleased that it happened, and I am curious to view the video . . . it would theoretically be possible to ‘recreate’ the piece from the video, I suppose, but I do not really have much interest in doing quite that.

I had rather write something new.

Reading (the English translation of) Het Apollonisch uurwerk. In many ways, impressive and enjoyable. I am apt to wonder, though, if just perhaps, when Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger write of Nadia Boulanger that she had a brilliant mind and an overbearing character, there may be some slight degree of the p. calling the k. black.

1 comment:

J.Z. Herrenberg said...

Good to see you're enjoying "Het Apollinisch Uurwerk", Karl!