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!