Monday, October 8, 2007

Interludes and random thoughts

I'm taking a break from the opera arrangement today to compose. I've tried to do both in the same day, but I always end up so fried after working on Pylkkänen that it's impossible to concentrate. Usually orchestration is pleasant work. I sit at the coffee table, spread out my score paper, pop on a set of DVDs – Scrubs, Friends, whatever, though The West Wing is particularly restful for some reason – and go to it. I enjoy it because it's automatic work for me. My music is so strongly built around instrumental color that by the time I get to the orchestration it's only a question of copying it out. I rarely have to stop to figure out how to score something or bang it out at the piano. Obviously with Pylkkänen it's different, because it's not mine, and I'm doing my best to respect his original scoring, which imposes a few more limitations than I'm used to.

The biggest problem is that I'm scoring directly onto Finale, which is something I never, ever normally do. I can't see the whole page, I'm more prone to make mistakes, and staring at the screen all day is wearing on the eyes. I'm one of what is likely a very small number composers my age who uses the computer purely as a copying device. I much prefer good light, a pencil and paper. It's old-fashioned, I know, but I studied with a long line of old-fashioned composers, people who grew up when they still had to write everything by hand, and only used the computer for clarity in copying, if at all. I work faster this way, writing a shorthand full score by hand, and then copying the clean version on Finale when I already know how it looks. I'm extremely visually oriented this way: I need to have everything in front of me in order to see and hear how things relate.

I can't compose at the computer, either. I have many friends who do, and produce terrific music, but for the life of me I can't figure out how. I hardly ever touch the playback functions, because it wrecks my sense of the music. I'll occasionally build a model for a section of music in MIDI just to check the pacing of events, or to check a tricky rhythmic bit, but only after I've already decided on the content. I may not have the world's greatest ear, but I do know from experience that what I hear is invariably more accurate than the computer's approximation, and my notation employs a lot of boxes and such that Finale can't play back properly, so usually I end up having to trust myself.

All this is just to say that it's frustrating and tiring to be tied to this piece all day, and I needed some time off from it. So I yesterday I also did my work quota for today as well, in order to have some head space for my own work. I'm currently working on the final eight of a set of twelve (natch) pieces for piano for my friend Risto-Matti, based on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I'm also putting the final touches on the text I compiled for my new choral piece for the Helsinki Chamber Choir, ad puram annihilationem meam, for which I'm close to working out the details with the publisher in Paris. The commission was for a spiritual piece with a largely French text, and after some searching, I settled on a series of excerpts from a tract by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called La Messe sur le Monde. I'm also thinking forward to another Whitman-derived piece for flute and harp due for next summer that I'm calling night, sleep, death and the stars.

I take a lot of what is, I hope, affectionate ribbing for my titles from my buddies, and get asked fairly frequently by colleagues and teachers alike why I saddle myself with so much extramusical baggage when I write. I can only answer that music is not, and has never been an abstract thing for me. I've tried writing technical exercises in the past – fugue, Renaissance counterpoint, etc – or thinking purely about musical issues, but I usually fail miserably. Writing for the sake of gaining technical skill just isn't sufficient motivation for me: If I don't have that visual/poetic catalyst, I can't work. Our macho western classical music culture, or academic music culture, at least, tends to make people who think this way feel like a bit of a wuss or, worse, a Romantic, but I suppose everyone limits themselves in some way when they write: pitch content, form, style, what have you. Since I try not to limit myself stylistically, it helps to have an outside factor dictate what the piece is "about" to me. I'm not into program music, and what I write ends up functioning abstractly as music, independently of the images I've attached to it, but getting the notes out in a coherent form always requires an external stimulus. Most of the composers I know are of the Sibelian "form arises from material" school. I respect this process, and even envy it, but it's not enough for me. Music only comes out when I've have a clear idea of what the piece is supposed to express, and sufficient time to figure out what form and language are necessary to articulate that vision. The abstract formal function of the various compositional elements comes much later in the process.

I'm funny that way. But I think a part of developing as an artist, on the technical level at least, is knowing what works for you, what helps you get the piece done, and what doesn't, and being comfortable with that, even proud of it. I used to beat myself up a lot for not being able to think in abstract musical terms, for needing that expressive crutch. It does impose a lot of preconceptions on the piece, and finding that perfect way of expressing it is a long, arduous, ego-destroying process, but it's what works. If that makes me a Romantic, so be it, I guess.


Jarkko Hartikainen said...

Hi Matt, and thanks for the new entries.

Excuse me for a second as I take a wild guess and claim that you are not totally alone with your extra-musical stimuli. I guess the rap you get about the issue depens on the titles. Titles are like fashion, and fashion dictates the tags you get as an artist. Choosing titles with poetic imaginery commonly associated with Romantism will probably get you called a romantic by the bullies, right?

And of course people name their pieces 'variations', 'trios' and 'sonatas' no matter what they are enchanted about (just imagine what probably went on in Mozart's head...).

As a person with a slightly different "taggage" from yours, I too name and associate my pieces with the world outside the margins of my music (paper). Whether as abstractions, impressions, allusions or metaphores, non-music continues to guide and enrichen the soon-to-be-(considered-as-)music I do, so it could find its way. Maybe the way different people do it can be quite varied and personal. Even form-comes-from-material, but maybe as the nature/animals/sport/you-name-it would do it, why not? I'd say that the most rational thing you can do as an artist is to use your imagination (and you can quote me on that).

It's an argument between the nerds and the wussies, that I don't want to take any sides in, anyway :)

The Man Who Wrote Trio parkour, En garde! and alone (sic), to name a few

P.S. Really cool pic from the Long Road to Þingvellir, by the way!

Matthew Whittall said...

You're right, of course. I don't think I'm alone in using non-music as a starting point. I do think that if you're open about it, though, you tend to attract a lot of criticism, however gentle some of it may be. There's a habit in Western music of obscuring the things that inspire us behind a cloak of abstraction. But as much as I respect people who write great pieces and call them concerto, sonata or, as with your piece, variations, a piece with a more unorthodox title that reveals something personal about the composer, however slight, will always command a bit more attention.

I love that pic. What a great day that was.