Since the release of Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music (iTunes Store), a number of people have asked me about the process of writing choral music or, more specifically, my process. Here’s the story of one piece: “For the Future.”
I’m working on an orchestral piece, an overture. When I first committed to the project, I was awash with excitement and ideas. But next I felt overwhelmed by the blank canvas. It wasn’t writer’s block. Instead, I was like a mosquito at a nudist camp: seeing opportunity everywhere but having no idea where to start.
I realized that I was trying to solve too many problems at once and had too few constraints. Duration, structure, harmonic language, orchestration, vibe, etc. Everything was up for grabs, which meant I actually had too much freedom. I remembered something that Igor Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music.
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self… the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
I returned to my blank canvas. Which constraints would I impose? For no special reason, I thought of the Ravel string quartet in F major. That’s a piece I’ve loved since I was a teenager. (Last year, my wife and I invited a string quartet to perform the piece in our house. I sat about four feet from the violist. I had never appreciated all of the internal lines and motivic ingenuity of the piece before hearing it so intimately.)
Simply because of my love for Ravel’s work, I decided to pattern my orchestral piece after the Quartet’s fourth movement. (Not to mention “vif et agité” sounds like me most days.) I like his method of developing melodic cells, making something big out of something little. I like the way he sculpts the energy of the movement. I like hearing rich chromaticism as an embellishment of tall harmonies. So, I analyzed the movement, made notes about the aspects I wanted to emulate, and all of the sudden a path forward opened up.
Initially, I felt a little sheepish for deriving so much information and inspiration from Ravel. But yesterday morning, I was listening to the Sequentia recording of Hildegarde von Bingen’s “Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite” while editing a choral score and it hit me: hey, wait!, that’s the central melody of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body.” (Of course, he discloses as much in his program notes, which I read today.) So, maybe there’s nothing totally new in music, anyway.
Raveling? Unraveling? One way or the other, here we go!
I’m starting a new orchestral piece, a 4-7-minute concert opener. I guess you’d call it an overture. My dictionary just told me “overture” means “an introduction to something more substantial.” I have no idea what of more substance this overture should lead to (that feels more existential than it probably should), but perhaps I’ll find out by writing.
And—as an aside—I should confess that writing for orchestra is one of the most thrilling, most exciting thought experiments for me. Nothing makes me smile more than trying to wrap my head around sounds like this.
My new habit is to begin each project with a meditation on what I want to learn from doing it. So far, I know I’d like to work on orchestrating long diminuendo and crescendo passages with deliberate expansion and contraction of pitch ranges.
I’d like to broaden my vocabulary with orchestrating accents via adding/subtracting instruments, register shifts, and color changes.
I’d like to create a thrilling rhythmic ride for the listener, which results from a full but playable use of the percussion (and good choreography).
I’d like to write an explosive orchestral swell. (I have an example from Christopher Rouse’s flute concerto fresh in my ears.)
And … I’d like to play with hocketing. For fun.
Is all of this too much to ask? I guess I’ll find out.
For the last few days, in between other things, I’ve been writing some incidental music for a new play, written and to be directed by a friend of mine. He requested several short cues, each with a different mood. I’m trying to channel Vince Guaraldi and I’m looking forward to a recording session with a great drummer.
Usually I write slowly and obsess about each successive simultaneity of what I write, but this time I’m going for speed and flow. And fun. Fun matters more than I usually remember!
I’m also trying to work away from a piano keyboard as much as possible so as to change the mental balance of powers. Since the music needs to be idiomatic (dare I say “groovy”) on the piano too, I’ll end up at the piano—but not until after I have some solid conceptual, structural, and rhythmic sketches.
I’m working on a choral setting of “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver. This piece will be performed by the Mayfield Singers in Spring 2017. I don’t yet know what the piece will sound like or whether I’ll write for instruments, but I can tell you about my process for discovering what the piece will sound like:
- I’m starting, as I always do with text settings, by memorizing the text. I love the shape of this poem, the repetitions, the way Oliver dances just on the edge of simply saying things and producing poetry that sounds like poetry. Every word is easy to say. Nearly every word seems singable (“crotchety” will be fun). I found the poem very easy to memorize because its meaning flows so coherently from line to line.
- I’m reading each word and phrase, listening for beautiful sounds and tasty vowels. (“Dear star” … I can get some mileage out of that!) I’m looking for internal rhymes that have musical potential since there are no end rhymes.
- I’m looking for noisy stuff and hazards (lots of people saying “touching” could accidentally be “touch-ch-ch-ch-ching.” Of course, that could be a cool effect, but I’d want to commit to it purposefully). Also looking for words that could be clumsy or inelegant when sung—”happiness” might be one.
- Since there isn’t much implied structure (like even line lengths with an obvious rhyme scheme or uniform stanzas, etc.), I’m thinking a lot about architecture. I’m thinking about making the piece resemble, more or less, a sunrise in its arc.
- I’m wondering what the poem says about itself and its own music, and looking for words that may require particular rhythms to be intelligible to the listener. I see my role here as delivering the poem to the listener, and I want to make sure I do my job well and do no harm to the text.
For months now, I’ve followed the same early morning routine:
- Rise at (or before) 5:00 AM
- Drink warm water with lemon juice followed by herbal tea throughout my routine
- Pray, ponder, study sacred texts
- Write my “morning pages” to clear my head, give voice to my internal compass, and to get clarity for the day ahead
- Sketch musical (and other) ideas to seed my imagination
- Time and early-rising kids permitting, stretch and exercise and attend to mundane tasks, correspondence, etc.
It doesn’t seem like a particularly musical or composition-focused routine, but it has aided my progress as a composer immensely. In part, my morning routine is necessary to me because I’m an introvert—it gives me the quiet I need to recharge so I can be a pleasant, present social being for the rest of the day. In part, it helps me sort through the thoughts that are always buzzing in my head, which leaves me feeling more clear and purposeful throughout the day. And it seems to make my dedicated composition time more productive when I finally sit down to write.
Right now, I’m focused on two projects:
- A new choral piece for The Mayfield Singers in Palo Alto, which will be premiered in Spring 2017.
- An orchestral concert overture, which is mostly for me, but which I hope will be performed in late 2017.
The choral piece will be in the foreground for the next two months. I began my morning pages yesterday by asking: “What do I want to learn by writing this new piece?” Here are some of the answers:
- Extend my grasp of extended functional harmony. This is a major area of personal study right now.
- Commit to a vibrant heartbeat for the piece and don’t let it drop. I’m focusing on writing longer arcs rather than phrase-by-phrase, which I think has been a weakness of mine in the past.
- Explore solo vs. ensemble passages to help me master those kind of color choices.
- Make it fun to conduct and flattering to sing.
Process is progress. Progress is its own reward. One measure per day, no matter what!