Wednesday, July 12, 2006

pen to paper

Warning: this post is more for me than anyone else. I’m early in the process of writing new music for my still to be formed band. I think it’s going to be a six movement suite (for lack of a better word) using some translations of the Persian mystic Rumi as the core of the work. One of my yoga friends introduced me to Rumi a year or two ago, and I was completely hooked in. There’s a rapturous, ecstatic quality to his work (this is a man who, after all, is traditionally linked to the creation of the whirling dervish). It’s well designed, but feels completely spontaneous, which is always a laudable goal for someone writing music involving improvisation. And, needless to say, it’s whupping my ass.

As I continue to gain experience as a writer, I find easier to avoid the old habits that tended to sabotage my writing efforts, say, five years ago. (Of course, I always find new bad habits.) And I don’t know about my peers, but I find when I hear music when I’m in the process of writing something the listening gets filtered through my own writing process- I tend to hear either the strengths or weaknesses of the piece as they relate to how I write. Below is my advice to myself (and to the few writing students I’ve had), based on my own mishaps and what I’ve been listening to lately. Much of it is borrowed; that’s probably the good stuff.

1. Have an idea of what you want. I'm not one of those people that can operate from a tabula rasa. Lately, texts have been an easy "in"; even if I don't actually set them, they give me ideas about colors, or shapes, or moods that I want to convey.

1a. Start writing something. SOMETHING. Even if it sucks. It won't suck forever.

2. You can’t overdevelop an idea. If you think you’ve tapped it out, keep going for another good while yet. The Brookmeyer mantra. I do think this piece of advice has it’s limits; I just haven’t found them yet in my own work. Writers rarely get the benefit of the seven-minute lull in conversation, where the universe seems to hit you in the head with an anvil and say “New topic.” Instead we often jump away when we’re just getting to the meat of what we’re trying to say. (Darcy has a great related post about compositional hooks)

2a. Repetition is not the same thing as development. There's introducing the listener to an idea, there's reminding the listener of an idea, and then there's clubbing the listener in the knees with an idea. Not the same thing. I can’t tell you how many student charts I’ve read that mistake one for the other. Even most successful minimalist pieces are shifting the ground under you even while it seems like nothing is happening (see Reich's music for sixteen musicians). It’s like watching a kaleidoscope, that's why it works.

Musicians are unusual in the arts in that we don’t often operate with an outside counterweight. A visual artist is limited by the size of the canvas. Authors and filmmakers have editors. Composers occasionally have a teacher or a producer, if we’re lucky. More often we're left to ourselves. As a result, you often hear music that badly needs an editor, or music where an internal editor completely overrode the better instincts of the composer.

3. Lyricists: avoid four-syllable words. They almost never work in a song. Unless your name is Joni Mitchell. Then it’s okay.

4. If you write an improvised solo, have a soloist in mind. Even if it’s not who ends up playing it. I’m lucky now that I’ve bounced the idea of this new band off a few people in Boston, and I think they’re in. So I write for them, at least in my head. But even I had no band, I’d write an alto solo imagining Billy Drewes, or a guitar solo imagining my friend Sasha. This helps me in two ways- it allows me to shape what’s happening behind the solo in a less generic way, and it keeps the soloist from wandering outside the piece. Some of this comes from Bob’s thinking, some my own. I think if you trust your soloists, even if you don’t know who they are, they’re going to give you better results than if you try to cage them. And most of the fun of writing a solo is hearing what you’ve never heard in your music before.

5. Don't try to do everything all at once. This is one of the (few) drawbacks about things like the BMI Workshop or college workshop bands. You usually get only one chart per few months performed, so you try to stick everything in.

That's all for now, I think. Further advice is greatly appreciated.

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