Friday, September 26, 2008

Sitting quietly, doing nothing

After a short period of reflection and doubt, I'm back in action this week, with a renewed sense of purpose. Maybe I'm buoyed by the knowledge that, if this composing thing doesn't work out, my proximity to Russia makes me eminently qualified to serve as Vice-President of the U.S. Or maybe my piece is just going better now. At a concert last week, a stopped to chat with a colleague, and he asked me archly, "So what happened?" I must have looked puzzled. "With your piece! I'm dying to know." I find it comforting that, if nothing else, I at least provide some mild entertainment for my peers.

Whatever the case, I feel like it's back on track. As I explained to him, making a public admission that your piece sucks and you intend to scrap it makes it much harder to continue down the wrong path. Taking the piece down to its simplest components had the benefit of revealing something about those materials that I hadn't seen earlier: a fundamental rhythmic incompatibility that was blocking the music's progress. I was trying to reconcile two completely different sets of ideas under a single rhythmic impulse, and it wasn't ever going to work, at least not the way I was doing it. On the one hand, I had a set of very free, floating, quasi-diatonic ideas that, while rhythmic and repetitive, were non-periodic in their repetitiveness. On the other, I had very rigid, diatonic, periodic materials. Although constructed around the same 16th-note pulse, I was never able to make one become the other, because while the rigid material offered the possibility of change, the free materials were completely static, objects that offered no way of turning into anything else, and in combination with the developmental materials, had the effect of the stopping the piece in its tracks every time I introduced them.

This contrast between static ideas and developmental ideas, and the recognition of which is which, is one of the central difficulties of composing for me. Unable to reconcile the two in this piece, I decided to just render all the materials static, to not develop any of them in a linear way. Rather, they're constantly rearranged and juxtaposed differently, changing the perspective on each idea as it encounters another set of objects. The result thus far is like a sonic mobile, with blocks of ideas floating around freely between the two players. They sometimes play together as a sort of meta-guitar, with the Baroque guitar acting as an extension of the theorbo's upper register, sometimes they circle around each other freely. The whole thing has a kind of "suchness" to it – an unhurried, aimless sense of balance, an absence of need to change the materials in any way, their true nature having been revealed – that I find appealing at this moment in time. It turns out that I really wanted to write yet another slow, meditative piece.

I also have the troublesome Baroque guitar at my disposal for the next couple of weeks, so I can get my head around its odd tuning: five courses of strings in a re-entrant tuning (reading top-down) of E-B-G-D-A, where the D and A sound in the same register as the E minor triad. This cluster tuning creates some difficulties in imagining voicings, so having it around to experiment with will make things easier.

In line with the idea of "suchness", I took up a friend's invitation to join him last night at the local Zen center to sit zazen and hear a teisho, a teaching speech, by a visiting sensei. It was a new experience for me, as I'm mainly a solitary practicioner and consider religious expression a deeply private matter, to the point where I found a short group recitation of text mildly alarming. I found it very reassuring to hear some of the things I've been working on in my own time confirmed, and may just continue with the idea of group practice. I definitely enjoyed the feeling of being one person among many sitting in silence, doing nothing.

There's a "suchness" to life here, a feeling that each day, no matter how busy, spirals inevitably toward silence and stillness in the end, even in the city. It's embedded in Finnish culture, the value of silence ("silence is gold"), and conversations have a way of settling into enjoyable, unplanned lulls that don't require breaking. In fall especially, there's a drawing inward that happens – to people, to the earth, to the air – that makes one especially aware of silence and its place in life. (Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote a beautiful NY Times piece about silence in boreal Finland.) Some, myself included, would say that this craving for silence and privacy can manifest itself in extremes of social non-interaction, but it's still nice to be part of a culture that places such great weight on the importance of silence as a counterpoint to activity.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Resistance is futile

I've been trying valiantly to work on a new piece the past few weeks, a shortish duo for Baroque guitar and theorbo, the first notes I've set to paper since finishing a biggish flute and harp piece in June. It's been tremendously difficult for some reason, not least my lack of familiarity with the instruments. I came up with a pretty chain of nine chords that oscillate ambiguously between A minor and B minor... and then proceeded to write some of the dullest music I've ever come up with. Every note has been a trial, and the whole process is getting slower and slower, which means that I've hit the wall with this particular line of inquiry.

One of my old teachers (and what is the study of composition but a years-long accumulation of choice quotes from teachers past?) once told me in an e-mail that mental resistance was a sign that you've taken a wrong turn. I've been banging my head against the wall with this one, hacking out what started as pretty patterns of even, running sixteenth-notes within my chords. The intent was to create a sort of pulsing, minimalist chaconne of seven variations, with an intro and extro of slightly different music.

But it's not working. The rhythmic structure isn't holding together, the patterns aren't that interesting, and the textural difference between the variations just isn't great enough. Sometimes it takes weeks just to get to the point where you admit that an idea isn't viable, or that you just can't get your head around it at the moment, for whatever reason. Maybe you're pressed for time, or the concept isn't as clear as it seemed when you started, or wasn't as developed as it should have been. I have a tendency to overcomplicate things at first, which may have happened here. I also thought I should write something rhythmic for a change, but perhaps the piece wants to be yet another slow, meditative one. Whatever the case, I now need to start over with something simpler and more direct. The chords will probably remain, as they're the one spontaneous element that I feel has real potential. They arose in a moment of improvisation at the keyboard, when I was getting used to the tuning of the instruments, and I have a sense that those chords are the piece, just not in the way that I thought.

My next attempt will be a series of boxes, with the two parts in independent rhythms, floating figures creating a more ambient soundworld. I'd planned on amplifying the players and experimenting with some live reverb and delay, and the technological aspect may take on a greater role. I'm definitely a stranger in a strange land here: unfamiliar instruments, unfamiliar processes, a much simpler harmonic language than anything I've used in the past. The whole experience feels very foreign, far from my usual mode of working, which is actually quite apt. I'm calling the piece The wine-dark sea, after fond memories of my honeymoon trip to Crete last year (see here for the precise moment of inspiration, if that sort of thing holds any appeal). At the time, I wrote about being surprised that the landscape there didn't resonate in a musical way for me. Still, I felt I needed to address some aspect of the experience, and I latched onto the sea as a catalyst, especially its ever-changing shades and densities of blue, which these chords, shifting slowly and gently from one to the next, seemed to evoke. However, what started as a tensely rhythmic piece may become a blissed-out dream recollection of a wonderful trip.

It's also a possibility that I'll return to the original idea and discover that I was right all along, but I doubt it. I went for a walk to clear my head, and thinking the matter through, I realized that my mind had given up on the idea a long time ago, and I've been flogging a dead horse. Despite being more or less back at square one, and with a deadline looming in a few weeks, that decision is a powerful one in the act of composition, a gut-level recognition that tears you away from a mistaken concept and gets you closer to the truth of the material, and thus the piece. There's a sense of liberation in walking away from an idea that, if I just pushed it to its conclusion, would do the job but nothing more, in order to find something special, different, memorable. Within reason, the goal of art should be never to settle for anything less.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tuesday, Bloody Tuesday

A sauna with friends, followed by Raclettes; drunk on two bottles of Riesling, a bottle of sherry, some Glenmorangie and that SNL video of Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, I look at my schedule for Tuesdays this semester and it reads thus:

12:00 METH

15:00 ANAL

18:00 HOL

I'll leave it to you to decide the first two; the last is choir rehearsal. Props to David at The Late Review for the post title. Serious thoughts to follow this week, I promise.