Haendel à la “Asturias”

This is sort of fun. Nasty to play, but at this point, I pretty much expect myself to write stuff that makes me go, “Oh shit,” and wonder how the hell I’m going to play it. I really do wish I had better technique, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get it really, at least not consistently — and that’s probably the bane of every composer (with the exception of freaks of nature like Rachmaninoff). You write something that pushes your boundaries, and you want to take it to the woodshed … but then along comes a shiny new idea, and you need to work that out, so you do … and while you do, the next shiny new idea pops up and before you know it, you can’t play the first damn thing you came up with anymore because you’re already four ideas further along from it. 😦 It’s my own goddamned stuff, and I have to go back and relearn it from the sheet music! Cosmic injustice!

I can’t remember who it was, but some big-name pianist from the early 20th century once described a buddy of his who was also a great pianist, but who then got sucked into composing, and as a result, he couldn’t perform anymore because his technique went to hell. I’m also reminded of the stories about how Scott Joplin used to get his ass kicked in cutting contests by other pianists playing his own music, which I find perversely reassuring.

This is the real reason why people like to learn as much technique as early on as possible — not for some bullshit pop-sci neurological reason, but because it lets you ignore your technique when you get bitten by the composing bug and still sound vaguely passable. I’m still really conflicted about the fact that I’m writing a bunch of music that probably will never get heard because I can’t actually play it well enough to get an audience.

Managing themes

Going to write down the main themes in a given piece, and them start working up wandering developments for them to see what I have to work with. Can’t make something big without first checking to see what ingredients you have to work with.

Musings on long pieces

I tend to like not overwhelmingly programmatic music. Excepting opera of course, which is about as programmatic as you can get. By “programmatic,” I mean stuff where the music is supposed to tell a story, like “Erlkoenig” or something. The typical example of it is something like “Peter and the Wolf,” where you’re supposed to lean forward and say, “Oh the oboe is the duck!” or even “The Four Seasons” where the dripping icicles are the pizzicato and the fierce strings are a summer storm. I don’t mind it, but I’m not entirely crazy about writing it. If I do slip bits in, it’s usually pretty hazy and not that organized. For example, the middle part of Thunder and Stars where it goes into Gb got bombastic because I had just watched Curiosity land on Mars. I didn’t write it about or because of the rover, though. I was just in a really good mood when I got to that part of the music. Moon of Memory is a bit sparkly because of a very distinct and distorted memory I had as a kid of an offshore moonrise, but I didn’t write about that family vacation, just that one disembodied memory.

So it’s not like either piece tells a definite story. I very often will just write and let my ear tell me where I want to go next, with occasional glances at the map of music theory. But lately, I’ve been getting a bit antsy to write something longer, something approaching ten or fifteen pages where I have to break the piece up into multiple sections, revisit themes, and let myself noodle around. One of the things I know I tend to do is just set up themes and knock through them one by one without more than a few measures of transitional glue to move from one theme to the other. I imagine that’s fairly standard for new composers. Eight bars, then eight more, then two measures of “let’s see what’s around this corner,” and then oh, look! another eight bars and another eight bars!

I’m halfway between admiration and impatience with the willingness of the good composers to just take their damned time and spin their wheels in a circle for a bit, letting the audience sit and wait until they’re good and ready to move on. Granted, sometimes it gets irritating. I will never lose the suspicion that these four-movement-forty-five-minute epic symphonies of the late Romantic period are just goddamned egotistical musical masturbation. Sure, some of the bits are nice, but a lot of times, it’s just some guy just banging on and on and on and on, and Jesus Christ, aren’t you done yet? Yes, you’re very good. We know. Holy shit, wrap it up already. My ass is asleep.

For an almost-fifty year old, I sound like the classical world’s worst nightmare of the brat youth with the short attention span. But let’s face it, a four-hour movie can be paused and come back to. A 800-page book can be closed and resumed later. A piece of music generally has to be apprehended in one go unless you pause between movements, and when one movement is long enough to make your back ache, that’s going a bit far. There’s a very fine line between spinning an epic, and being that guy with the fat ego at the party who won’t shut up because he’s convinced everyone must be hanging on his every word.

Now, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself or appear to.

I do still admire these composers’ confidence that they will say what they want to say, take as long as they want to say it, and the audience can damned well sit there and listen. At least I admire it when it’s not taken to extremes. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m reeling out 33-page monsters — at least not without distinct stopping points where a listener can go get a cup of coffee, hit the john, or get up and have a stretch. But I do want to let myself take some damned time over my ideas and not rush to the next theme because I’m afraid I might drop dead before I get to it.

Which means that I need some unifying idea. I’ve been mulling the planets — and the real planets, not Holst’s versions of the planets, which is very nice but not about the planets so much as the gods they were named after. Venus is not the bringer of love, it’s a seething hellpit hot enough to melt lead. Mars is not a war planet; it’s a serene, dusty place whose salad days are long finished, the surface of which looks like a crime scene photo. Jupiter is stately and mysterious but active and swirled with colors like a close-up of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It’s not the King of the Gods. And what about comets? Asteroids? The Oort cloud? The Kuiper belt? The heliopause?

Might be fun.

What’s going on

You know, I think I’m running into something that I recall Ben Folds mentioning: that when you start becoming aware of larger things and reach an altitude where a new vista of ideas presents itself, you sort of suck for a while as you integrate these new ideas into your music.

I want to have some of the balls of the great composers when it comes to being content to noodle around and spend time on their ideas, instead of moving through them like powerpoint slides where you don’t want to let one get stale before moving onto the next. They are often happy to sit on an idea for a bit and suck the juice out of it before moving on, to just noodle and let people wait for the next thing.

I value my tendency to brevity. I like to follow the TV screenwriters’ advice to start as close to the end as you can, and when you get there, stop — and not to sit in one place for too long. Nevertheless, there’s a leonine confidence to figuring that one’s ideas are sufficiently good to just sit on them and let the listeners wait until the composer is damned good and ready to move on.

I’m also concerned that I haven’t yet mastered the level I’m on now and that I shouldn’t be eyeballing the stuff on the next level quite yet. However … I get bored easily.

I’ll just move ahead as I feel like it in the end. The nicest things about doing music as I do it include: I need satisfy no one but myself; a full belly and a roof over my head are not dependent on it; I can stop, start, and proceed at my leisure; I need not go in a linear fashion from start to end; and no one will die if I don’t get it exactly right. Hence, if I suck for a bit while new ideas soak in, so be it. 🙂

B. Cb. B! Cb, damn it! Is not! Is so!

I will never again write ANYTHING in GbM ever again. I mean, I will never again write anything in a key that can be written as easily with sharps as with flats. It’s driving me crazy. I keep thinking there are two B-type chords in the stupid piece, a Bb and a B. This makes me go digitally dyslexic while playing it when I invariably reach for the wrong flavor of F (Gb! No, F#! Wait a minute, F!) and end up with a tritone in the middle of the piece that is the musical equivalent of a hair in a bowl of soup.

This is unimaginably irritating. I mean, I can write anything in pretty much any key signature without much caring. Putting the “Pompe vane” variations in F#m to keep them at their proper sounding pitch was quite simple. (Of course that was only three sharps, so no major eyelid twitching moments in that one.) But this thing just drives me up a wall with those two chords that my faulty brain insists on classifying as a Bb and a B.

And it just keeps going. I get lost in a particular part of the piece where I’m going back and forth between a few chords because I can’t intuitively grasp their relationships in a millisecond. When you bounce between an Ab and a Db, you know you’re sort of going V-I-V-I. But when your brain keeps turning the Db into a C#, the gears in your head grind a bit when your brain doesn’t know WTH is going on with an A-type chord moving into a C-type chord.

It’s not a C-type chord, you faulty box of malfunctioning grey goo. It’s a D-type chord!

As long as I can record a demo of this thing at some point, I’m counting it as a victory. And I still don’t know why the first six-flat piece didn’t screw me up like this. I should write out the chord changes.

This may be the sort of thing where being musically literate actually gets in the way. Paul McCartney doesn’t have this problem I’ll bet. He doesn’t know an F# from an F-you. He just reaches for that black thing, yeah that one there …

Time to catalogue the bedposts in the second six-flat piece

I’m at the point where I need to start working on this thing as a completed piece, which means listing the spots that I dent my shins on repeatedly.

I would mention the parts where I need to voice the chords cleanly, but that’s like making notes of where not to buzz as a harpist; at some point, your entire life as a pianist will reduce down to chord voicing, just as 90% of your life as a harpist is not buzzing and 90% of your life as a string player is intonation. Yeah, I need to voice my chords better. I also need to breathe and shower.

So, there’s the parts that I haven’t bothered memorizing in anything other than an untrustworthy muscular way. There’s the fact that I can’t play it in my head. There’s the stuff toward the end that I can’t actually remember because I wrote it and then just let it be and backed up to this missing six measures. There’s the coda, which I changed and then maybe played through once, and I’ve never really sat down and worked out the fingering.

Anyhow, at least I’m ready to do this and hopefully to record it. That means it’s time to list the bedposts.

Starting in on the five sharp one

For some reason, over time, I mentally practiced the living bejeezus out of this one. I think it was challenging but fun, and I just ran through it in my head a lot. Also, I recall working on it over the winter holiday, and when I fly home there is no piano around, so this sort of kept me from going nuts from the lack.

Anyhow, I’m almost looking forward to going to bed in a second because it will give me the chance to work through this some more. Mental practice is so enjoyable and fun. I don’t know another word for it. I’ll pound through this a bit; it will probably take me some time to get it into a shape I find acceptable, and then we’ll see where I head from there.

I’m going to need a bigger hard drive, and possibly a laptop with a lot more RAM. That will come in time, though. For now, bedtime … and practice time. 🙂

And tomorrow, hopefully the Audacity book will get here. I’ve been having fun learning how to work with it so far. It’s really nice for a free program, and I plan to wring it dry.