Archive for the ‘Music’ Category.

The perils of composing music

There was a time when I was young that I planned to be a composer. The dream was to go to school, become a teacher, compose music for my ensembles (and others) and to compose for movies and the concert hall. During high school, I tried a hand at writing. It was there that I got a piece of advice about composition that I’ve never forgotten, from my choral and music theory teacher Dr. (then Mr.) Giersch: “Don’t write to your own capabilities.” What this meant was don’t write something that I could play and limit what I could create, but rather write to what I wanted to hear, and let a performer figure out how to do it. I’ve never considered myself a virtuoso on anything (even as a vocalist, which was my major field of study), in particular on piano, where composition happens. That one piece of advice freed me from having to “play out” what I wrote, and the piano became a tool rather than an obstacle.

In college I composed more, while pursuing my music education degree. I was exposed to a much wider world of music than what I could explore on my own. As a member of performing groups I experienced music creation at a new level, which allowed me to incorporate this into composition. Each semester the School of Music had a New Composers concert, where students (composition majors or not) could debut works, with help from established ensembles or ad hoc performers. I contributed several items to these concerts. I appreciated the help and encouragement of my professors, who would provide instruction or their ensembles to perform my work. The highlight of my compositional career in school was having a choral work I wrote performed as part of the Concert Choir tour one fall (with a performance of it at my old high school, no less).

After school I didn’t write as much. The writing became more practical: arranging music for school ensembles, or arranging small ensemble versions of Christmas carols for community events. When the time came and I left teaching, my drive to compose also slowed. I moved into the IT field, and music became a sideline rather than a creative impulse.

My first chance to get back to writing music came with the advent of the ManWeekend excursions. It had occurred to me that the majority of us had sung with the Dreamers, our college fraternity’s a capella group.  Since we were there, I thought we should use the resources to work out some new arrangements.  So for our 2008 weekend, my buddy Tom and I arranged some new charts to try out.  It was well received, and we repeated it for this past weekend.  It was fun sitting down at the keyboard, working out parts and shaping a song into a five-part arrangement.

Some more recent events, however, made me think about really composing again.  Tom had recently had an original elementary band piece published.  Libby, a colleague from the Choral Society is having a new piece premiered for our winter concert.  And more significanly was reconnecting (via Facebook) with my old friend Mark.

Mark and I had been friends for our entire time in school, from K through 12.  When we walked to elementary school, junior high, or the high school bus stop, I’d walk to his house which was on the way.  When we were walking to middle school, he’d walk to mine.  We were both creative types, we loved to draw and write, we listened to much of the same music and watched the same TV.  Mark had begun in music in elementary school, learning the saxophone (he moved on to tenor sax, mainly due to his height).  I sang in choruses in middle school, but decided on music as a life goal later, in junior high.  Mark and I played in the marching and concert bands, and he was always in the jazz band (he became quite prolific on sax, while I was a middling clarinetist at best).  And we took the aforementioned theory classes together.  After graduation, he moved to Boston to attend Berklee School of Music, and after that we’d started down our own paths.  I lost touch with Mark, and we’d only occasionally run into each other (I recall attending a surprise birthday held at his parents’ house one fall years ago).

When I’d connected with him on Facebook, I’d seen that not only had he continued in music, but continued as a composer.  A WORKING composer, as in that was his job.  I felt humbled – life had pushed me here and there and the concept of writing music as a career was replaced with other things.  But here was Mark, still writing, and being asked to write by other people.  The seed of composing was germinating already, but seeing what Tom and Libby and Mark were doing made me really try it again.  Maybe not as a career, but for myself.  So I’ve begun writing again.

Its interesting getting back into the feel of it:  Having the tune of a piece sitting in your head during the day, thinking, “maybe I should shorten this line out” or “that chord progression is messy, maybe it needs to go here” or “maybe I can juxtapose that line with this other line in the next section”.  Its the kind of analytic thinking I do when I’m working on a software app, but in a creative way with my music.  It’s both exhilarating, and frightening, in that it will sometimes dominate my thinking to the detriment of other things.

But what will composing get me?  There was a time in history where composing was labor.  Bach may have written some musically important works, but the truth was he needed music for his church services.  There was no Theodore Presser or J.W.Pepper he could call or go online to, and order up choral works for the upcoming Easter service.  If he wanted music, he had to make it.  And if he didn’t want his patrons, musicians, or parishioners bored, he’d better write some new stuff.  Composers were craftsmen, at the employ of a monarch or court or church.  When the romantic movement came along, then musical composition could be a means of expression, rather than a necessity for some patron.

There is still the idea of “composing-as-commodity” in today’s world, for films, television, and (pardoning the vernacular) shitloads of advertising music.  When recordings became a profit center, music and music writing also became commercialized.  But so-called “art music” is still being written, but mostly as an adjunct to a related career, such as conductor or professor.

So should I go for it, leave the world of computers and tech and write music for a living?  Nah.  I’ll write for myself, to please and engage myself.  If others can enjoy what I write, well, that’s nice too.  I take for inspiration the story of a major composer from American history.  While he loved music, studied music in school, and wrote prodigiously, he never taught music, never toured as a performer, never took the podium directing an orchestra.  Charles Ives, considered a pioneer in composition and the grandfather of modernist music, worked as an insurance agent, becoming quite known in that realm as an innovator in estate planning.  All the while he worked as a church organist and wrote some of the (at the time) most bizarre and revolutionary music, quietly, for himself.  It was after his death that he came to be recognized for his modernist vision.

Ives also helped me understand the piece of compositional advice I’d received in high school.  In 1915 he wrote his Piano Sonata #2 (Concord), a tremendously difficult piece to perform due to the unconventional way it was composed (no barlines, clusters produced by holding a piece of wood on the keys, a running time of nearly 45 minutes).  It may very well have lived as a purely academic exercise, but performers took on the challenge, and it was first performed by John Kirkpatrick in 1938.  The lesson for me here was to write what I wanted to hear, not whether it was acceptable or agreeable to the listener, or if it was “technically difficult”.  A performer will take on the challenge if he/she wants, and listeners can like it or not.  But write what makes you happy.

I have a page here on my site where I will put music I either write new, or have written before.  Feel free to have a listen :