Filling in the Music – Songs of the Earth: A Composer’s Journal

December 11th, 2012

The composer continues work on the Piano chamber cycle “Unsung Songs: Songs of the Earth”. A Composer’s Journal Entries: August 9-28, 2012 .

Thursday, August 9

Now that the preliminary sketches are done for all fifteen of Hurley’s poems, it is time to begin filling in the writing and copying them all out into a main score. Went to the piano and took out my sketch to II. Added a simple two measure introduction – and the rest is note perfect, no changes needed. Time to take out my manuscript paper, pen and ruler, the composer’s simple tools.

Friday, August 10

Went downstairs yesterday to begin copying out the main score, and soon realized that I do not have blank manuscript paper for this combination of instruments. Cut and pasted three different templates for the various pieces in this chamber cycle. Until I can Xerox them up, I might as well start to fill in the sketches.

Tuesday, August 14

A cool, overcast day, possibly rain tonight. Worked on XI last night and X this morning. Ten of the fifteen sketches are now fairly filled in. JD is coming by with her flute this afternoon, I want to ask her various questions and try various effects on the flute; I have also asked William to stop by for effects in the strings for Haiku VII. Have decided to complete the sketches before I start copying out the score. I left most of the compositionally difficult pieces for last, so the remaining five could take some time to complete. If no ideas come, will start copying out the main score. I have never found it helpful to stare at a sheet of manuscript paper – if there are no ideas at the onset, most often there are none even if I sit there indefinitely waiting. Better to take a walk or wash the dishes, paint a room or work in the gardens. The creative process, at least in my case – cannot be rushed or willed.

Thursday, August 16

Spent yesterday filling in more of the sketches for two additional Haiku. They are still in some disarray. In short, I am exhausted after writing so many pages of notes in such a short span of time, after exploring so many new sounds and ideas. Time to rest. Took out sheets of blank manuscript paper and will start to copy out some of the completed pieces. First I need to decide whether to name each piece – or just title them Haiku I, Haiku II etc. And then to choose names, if that is what I decide to do. Hurley’s poems will be written at the top of the score to each piece – and in the programs of any live performances – but I think descriptive titles for each might also be needed; listeners can better image the music, draw themselves a meaning to the music with a descriptive title. In fact as I was writing the music, I gave each poem a brief name, title, to help me musically follow the images and meanings of the words.

Even naming the various Haiku will not be easy, since the poems themselves are so short… Although in some cases I can use the entire first line of William’s poems. For instance:

Haiku I: Last Scents of Summer

Another task, more decisions. Maybe I will copy out the poems into the score now, but leave the titles for later, after I feel more rested from the miasma of thoughts and sounds now occupying my head…

Friday, August 17

Instead of copying out the main score, found myself seated at the piano working on Haiku XVII, filling in my sketches for the last pages. Hurley’s poem:

Autumn sees the sunAnd earth keels into balance…Moment of accord.

Most of the music is building up to the appearance of the sun – and the final pages are a musical image of the Earth restoring itself to balance. My idea was to begin with a low ‘A’ chord in the bass, without the third, serving as a fundamental tone of sorts – and throughout those pages introduce other emphasized held tones, mainly the dominant ‘E’ – although other tones not in the chord as well, as though the earth is attempting to find its natural harmonic structure with a degree of difficulty or wavering – until the very end when the ‘A’ chord is fully established with a quiet held C# , the third of the chord, as the final tone. i.e., the earth, the “key” is finally brought back into balance, has righted itself harmonically.

A cool, rainy day, the colors rich and deep – cool enough for me to briefly go outside into the gardens. Our neighbor Johnathan was practicing his saxophone; a simple blues melody was lazily carried on the wind as I strolled through the gardens thinking about the passage I was writing. While I was trying to musically bring the entire Earth into balance, sweet Johnathan was in his own happy unconcerned carefree musical world, all already balanced… The life of the classical composer. Sometimes I wonder at the work I have chosen…

Wednesday, August 22

Was struck down by an errant infection Monday; slept the entire day.Yesterday still too weak to compose, so I started copying out the main score. Finished copying out I (Last Scents of Summer) and II (The Harvest) and am now working on the third. Haven’t decided on a title for III as yet. This aspect of composing is one big decision after another: what instrument to give each line to, what note goes where, who plays when and how. Almost as absorbing and complicated as writing the piece initially, and often takes longer. I spent almost a half hour earlier tonight trying to decide whether the piano left hand should play two notes or one in a two measure solo passage. The more transparent the writing, the more each particular note, or lack of a note, makes a difference – in fact, one note can change everything, everything, everything…

Clarissa the cat is delighted that I am copying out the main score; she has ensconced herself on her favorite spot on the living room couch, a mere few inches from the score, in a small, modest patch of sun. Meanwhile I cover page after page of blank manuscript paper with beautiful notes and stems and rhythms and meters and phrases…

Saturday, August 25

Worked in the gardens; the moon two-thirds full and very yellow, like a large shard of citrine… Tomorrow will be another hot day. Taking a break from copying out the main score; finished copying out VI today, Morning Tea. VI is a flute solo, with mostly held notes in the viola and violin. No cello or piano. Changed the opening measures and extended some of the flute passages; spent quite some time trying to decide whether to give the violin a few measures of the introductory passage – the advantage would be that I could hold the treble c sharp in the violin while the flute continued the melody. However, the idea of this musical haiku was that the strings would represent the grasses and silence – a steady hum of sorts, or a mantra syllable, Aum… representing the day itself, without events, just archetype ‘morning’.

Then I thought, possibly the violin could enter on the treble c sharp with the flute – and then hold as the flute continued – or perhaps enter an eighth note later, sharing the pitch with the flute for half a beat. That way the bird, or flute, would be freed to fly off into the day on the next beat… However, that would again negate the mantra idea in the strings, so I finally decided to forfeit the held c sharp, and gave the entire melody to the flute.

Once I have copied out the main score I rarely make changes, unless I made a mistake copying from the sketch. Therefore every pen stroke is a commitment, and I do not take even the smallest decisions lightly. As I mentioned earlier, these pieces are so very transparent – especially those movements that are mirroring the simplicity of the haiku poem form – that even the most minor changes can alter and affect the entire piece… A fact that never ceases to surprise me… Even though there are myriad possibilities, infinite possibilities open to the composer – it does seem as though music unfolds in a certain way, and in a certain order, once it has begun…

Sunday, August 26

Working on IX, The Bear; added and subtracted a few notes, changed an octave in the flute part… am now expanding one section, a short cadenza for the piano, possibly with cello. This haiku, as haiku V, has an image of the wind, so I am experimenting with sounds and patterns in the piano that might suggest the wind. IX is a quiet wind, V is not… And I am trying to keep this piece simple, in the haiku style. Here the challenge is simplicity, i.e., not to overwrite…

Went briefly outside and found a note stuck in a cobweb, perched on the cable box to the right of our front door. It was written in pencil on a piece of unlined paper, most likely torn from a small notebook. It said: When I walk past and look in your windows I wish my life was yours. Our house is right on the sidewalk. Actually that section of the house is the back of our house – the front of the house overlooks the back garden, with a small covered porch with steps and columns as an entrance. In any case, the window boxes filled with geraniums and purple lobelia, trailing petunias and pansies almost brush your elbow as you walk down the sidewalk, with the topiary forsythia and dinner plate dahlias and other flowers on the other side of you. There are six windows framed in oak on that side of the house, spaced about three feet apart the length of the house, all except two without shades or curtains. And those two curtains are entirely sheer, transparent. Instead of traditional curtains or shades we have slatted wooden shutters on the bottom half of the windows, and many plants hung from metal brackets up the sides of the window frames.

There are potted plants on all the sills – and these numerous plants of all sizes and textures, and shapes and blooms serve as curtains of a sort. But it is very easy to look in the windows, and people often do as they walk past, especially when I am preparing for a concert and at the piano practicing or composing. Therefore I have done my best to make the house look magical and interesting. At Christmastime, I put small clear lights in those windows and Christmas scenes on the top and bottom sills, with various garlands and ornaments strung across the inside shutters; we also have an angel holding a lit electrical candle in one of the windows, and she moves her head and arms very slowly through the night. One neighbor said she walks her dog past our house so she can look at our windows, whether the dog wants to or not. More than one stranger has approached me and said they loved to look through our windows – but I found this note today extremely touching, and in a way very sad… I wanted to respond with a short note in return saying that every life is valuable and magical – but somehow could not.

Monday, August 27

Finished copying out IX and read through my sketch of XIX, another simple, short piece – and did not remember a note of it, nor had any memory of writing it… When I am physically feeling better, I will continue filling in my sketches of the longer, more complicated pieces. Meanwhile, I am enjoying this half-respite from struggling with my sketches, and the unending challenge of exploring new sounds and forms, new ideas and inner visions.

Finished copying out the main score to XIX – changed only a few notes. Tore up my sketch to X and will try again.

Tuesday, August 28

Finished copying out the main score to XI late last night. Rained, and I left the doors and windows open, the sound of the rain keeping the cats and I company as I wrote small notes and stems. JF took me to Stewart Park today, in the early afternoon – windy, low seventies. Sun but also many clouds, possibly bringing more rain. Just heavenly. Stood on the floating dock for a while and did Chi Gong with JF with the sun and wind everywhere around us. The water was choppy and alive, and kept changing colors with the clouds and sky; a few sailboats when we first arrived, the hills in the distance…

Began filling in the sketch to IV. The second section is in the strings, but today I added a piano part, rich resonant chords, deep ringing octaves in the bass, bells – no, more than bells… William’s poems are all of Autumn, and of the earth, and trees and gorges and hills… The piano chords in this second section, as in some of the other pieces I have written for this cycle, more suggest, represent the rhythms and tones of the Earth, the planet, itself…

10 p.m.

Spent the evening at Windgarth House, no renters there again until tomorrow. Cool and windy; a few ducks, a bonfire by the lake next door. Walked to the Point, the lake opening up before us, waves noisily hitting the shore… the hills… Back at Windgarth, standing on the dock – the moon almost full south of us, reflections on the water, pale and shimmering… A wonderful, illusive pool of light at some distance, just under the moon. As I watched the moving collection of light on the lake I thought, “That is what I want the opening of IV to sound like, to be, in the left hand of the piano, and in the accompanying voices” …I had been working on IV earlier today, and still had not written those passages, filled in my sketch. I stood there watching the light on the water for a long time, and as I gazed at the changing, moving dots of soft luminous light thrown on the lake by the far moon – I began to see the music I wanted written hovering somehow in the moving, changing light on the lake, as though a veil of sound in that light suddenly became visual instead of aural…

Came home and composed music until I was too tired to continue, all the while thinking of Windgarth and the light on the lake…

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