From Idea to Song

It's been a while since I've written on here, and I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want this blog to be. I thought it would be nice to give not only a run-down of what I've been up to lately, but also let you guys know a little about my process.

People have asked me before how I write, implying that it's this great intangible and unimaginably complex art form, and I try to tell them it's a bit like architecture: sure, you have to have a vision for the whole of the project, but some days you just work on the support, or the details, or the elevator, or the air ducts and wiring. I know, I'm not an architect and I'm probably explaining it poorly, but the point is this: composing isn't some mystery, it's just work like any other creative work, a process with frustrations and setbacks, good days and bad. In the spirit of Chef Gusteau, I believe that anyone can write music, and have encouraged more than a few of my musician friends to give it a shot.

I just finished a sizable project, and I wanted to give you all a glimpse at my particular process and the way in which I go about turning poetry into poetry+music, a process that's a little bit science and a little bit craft and a little bit improvisation and a little bit luck. I've written quite a few songs for voice and piano at this point, so it becomes more and more science each time.

Without which, nothing: picking the poetry

Anna Diemer, one of my best friends and an extremely talented soprano, got in touch with me about six months ago about the possibility of writing a set of music for her upcoming Graduate recital. She had several poems by E.E. Cummings in mind and had already fleshed out some ideas for how she wanted the set to go.

Right off the bat, this was a bit unusual for me, as I've mostly written songs in the past on poems that I've read and am passionate about. I find it challenging when someone suggests poetry to me, because I don't know if I'll necessarily love the poem and be able to dive into it as readily as something I've picked. With Anna, though, I was willing to take a chance because a) I trust her judgment in poems and b) I've set some of Cummings' work in the past. 

Two of the three poems I gravitated to immediately and "adopted", including these two:

who are you,little i
(five or six years old)
peering from some high
window;at the gold
of november sunset
(and feeling:that if day
has to become night
this is a beautiful way)

and...

You are tired,
(I think)
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.
Come with me, then,
And we'll leave it far and far away—
(Only you and I, understand!)
You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and—
Just tired.
So am I.
But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart—
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.
Ah, come with me!
I'll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I'll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.

These were intended to be the second and third poems in the set, respectively, and they made sense to me as a pair; the first being a short meditation on sunset from a child's perspective (without being childlike), something hopeful but not cheerful, leading into the second, a vintage Cummings fantasy about moving past the ennui of day-to-day into an exotic escape, a metaphor for love and adventure, but also for finding the joy in the everyday. The two fit together, and they made sense.

The other poem (which is first in the set), I'll freely admit, was more challenging to me, not only because I had more trouble finding my own interpretation of the poem, but also because I didn't immediately see how it fit together with the last two.

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both
parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard
Humanity i love you because
when you're hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you're flush pride keeps
you from the pawn shops and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house
Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it's there and sitting down
on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity
i hate you

As you can see, not exactly in the same vein as the other two. I told Anna as much, saying I really bought the last two but wasn't certain about the first. She told me that the first was her favorite, and one that she really felt set up the other two, so I gave it another shot. The more I read, the more I saw that it does really fit with the other two; where the other two are about getting a perspective on the minutiae of life, this one gives context for why it's frustrating in the first place. The snarky sarcasm of the opening turns into frustration and outright anger, setting the reader (soon to be listener) up for a change in perspective, not just acknowledging the frustrations with humanity but giving us a way to see the good things too.

So, now the poems were picked and placed in order. What next?  

First steps: diving into the poems

...click to enlarge

The very first thing I do when I work on vocal music is double-space the poems, put them in small print, and print them out one poem to a sheet. Like this: 

This lets me sit down with a pencil and mark sections, important words, places where the music should come back across sections of the poem, and eventually musical things like key areas, motives, and sometimes entire rhythms in the space left above the poetry. I'm a very visual person, so this lets me see the whole of the poem while also seeing the details that I've put with the music. I'll typically carry this sheet (or sheets, in this case, for the three poems) around with me so that I can add notes or ideas wherever I am.

Part of the time working on the poems is spent with just pencil and paper, but a decent chunk of time is spent at the piano improvising, trying to come up with the sounds that I'm looking for. I'm not necessarily writing the melody or the piano part at this point; it's more of a middle ground between thinking about the poetry and writing the actual notes on paper.

...click to enlarge

By the time I'm done with a piece, the "blank page" of poetry looks something more like this:

It's a little crazy, with notations on a lot of different ideas ranging from the broad to the specific, but it's more of a sketchpad and less of a clear plan. The clear plan comes later.

 

 

 

 

Starting to become clear: writing the melody

When I first started to write vocal music, almost ten years ago, everything happened all at once: pitches, rhythms, chords, structure, harmony, motives, all in one big jumble. As I've gotten a bit older and gotten a bit more focused, I've come up with a better order of events. As I mentioned above, the first "musical" step in the process is to sit down with the text and improvise, coming up with the general sketches of sounds that I want. I'm thinking a little about overall structure at this point, but far more about the aesthetic, how I want something to sound and feel.

The first concrete music I write is the melody. I'll print out a piece of blank staff paper (once again, I like working with one-sided 8.5x11 paper and small staves, 14 to a page) and start to work at the piano on the melody itself. This is the point where all of those jumbled ideas from the sketch paper become actual thoughts.

An aside to talk about philosophy for a second: I believe that the singer and the pianist are equal partners in a song, each with different but overlapping roles to play in the delivery and amplification of the text. The singer is delivering the words, and the melody (pitch/dynamics/rhythm/contour/everythingelse) gives them a way to express both the meaning and the emotion. The pianist has the job of providing harmonic and rhythmic support to the singer, sure, but they also have to contribute in delivering the emotion, and they are often providing the subtext. Maybe the singer is saying one thing, but the pianist is playing something that feels very different, or that gives the words a new meaning; that's the best kind of song partnership, when one can't do without the other. This is why I love Samuel Barber's song writing so much, because the piano isn't just pretty filler.

So, that said, as I'm writing out the melody I'm also jotting down notes for the accompaniment. For the portions of music that are sung, I'll make notes on the rhythmic content and tessitura (range, high/low-ness) of the accompaniment, leaving actual notes for later. If there's an interlude, I'll either write down that there are 4 measures of interlude, or I'll actually take the time to write them in.

The first thing that happens is the rhythm, more often than not. I tend not to repeat words, or have long melismas, because the music is a vehicle for the text and not the other way around. Music is communication, and you can't communicate with someone if they don't know what you're saying! More often than not, the rhythm follows pretty closely the natural speech rhythms of the text, which means there are often time signature changes throughout the music to accommodate strong syllables lining up with strong beats.

Once the rhythms are written down (sometimes atop the poetry on the sheet of paper, sometimes in my head), then I'll sing and play at the piano to find just the right melody. It's trial and error, and I'll skip around in the text to write bits and pieces at the time, but by the time I'm done I have a singable melody from the start of the piece to the end. This melody is the "complete piece" in its very earliest form; all of the work after this point simply adds on to the structure that is now complete.

One more aside: starting a piece is easy. You have plenty of ideas, there's inspiration, you can write ten measures in a snap and really have a sense of accomplishment. Finishing any part of a piece, be it the melody, piano part, one section, or the whole piece, is hard. Really hard. Because there will be parts you can't figure out, parts you write and think are great only to look back a week later and realize are awful, parts you work on for hours only to throw away, parts that drive you absolutely nuts. I said above that anyone can write music, and it's true; I didn't say it was easy.

Piano time: digitizing the music

The next step is dropping the melody (and any already-written piano music) into Sibelius. For those of you who aren't musicians, Sibelius is one of the two primary pieces of software that folks use to put music into a computer, the other being Finale (which I've never used).

An aside for music nerds: I'm still working with Sibelius 6, hoping against all hope that the folks who left when it was bought by Avid come out with their new engraving software soon! In the meantime, though, it's tried and tested and I've used it so much that it's second nature to me now.

Once the melody is written, I have a framework for tempos, key signatures, time signatures, and sections of the piece that I must have before I put the music into software; otherwise, the software becomes a hindrance in the freedom of the piece, and I'm more inclined to (for example) not change the time signature because it makes more work, even if the music or the text calls for it. Having something written with pencil and paper lets me do that at will, and keeps the software from holding me back.

That said, I love the facility of having software that I know, because it allows me to work quickly and precisely. Once I have the melody finished from beginning to end, I'll start adding the piano part. As with the melody, I'll do bits at a time, not necessarily start to finish, refining and tweaking each measure both as I'm working on it and later on if I think of something that needs to be changed. Even though there's not a whole lot to describe about this part of the process, this is the part that takes the longest amount of actual time.

Oh, and that aside from the previous section, about it being difficult to finish a piece? Yeah, that applies here too, even more strongly.

Performer-ready: dynamics and polishing

Once the piece is in some sort of completed form, with all the notes and rhythms and tempos on the page, I'll print out a copy and go back to the pencil-and-paper editing method. Funnily enough, I wait to put the dynamics on paper until this step, because even though I have the general idea of them in my head I have to look at the piece as a whole to get the arc, the highest and lowest points. Dynamics are so much more flexible (to me) than rhythms and pitches, and even tempos (for which I always give both an expression and metronome marking), and so they come later. Sometimes I'll even wait to write in really really picky things until after the first performance, leaving some areas "blank" if I have conflicting feelings about them and seeing what the performers do.

This is also the first point where I show anyone else what I've done. My teachers in undergrad and grad school saw every step of the process, but now that I'm working on my own (at least until I decide to go back to get my doctorate!) I don't like to open my music up for editing or comment until it's nearly done. That's not to say that I don't consistently have my teachers in my head, making the suggestions they would have made in their lessons. Your teachers never leave, they just become a part of your process.

That said, once I do have it in a nearly-complete form, I'll ask Hailey Darnell (my extremely talented girlfriend, who also happens to be the pianist accompanying Anna on this recital!) to take a look through, check the music for unplayable parts or mistakes, and give her thoughts on it. I ask her to be picky and dig at it, because I want to be able to justify all the choices I've made, and to her credit she's a great editor. It doesn't do any artist any good to have someone tell them how good they are; we are all made better by focused and pointed (but constructive) criticism. 

Out of my hands: to the performer

Some of my friends/collaborators might disagree with me slightly on this one, but once the music is written and given to the performers, I try not to get in the way too much. This is especially true when writing songs for piano and voice, because I'm not conducting, I'm not playing or singing (hopefully!), and I'm usually working with people whose musical instincts and intentions I trust, which is very much the case with the three songs I just finished. Hailey and Anna have been rehearsing them hard, and with the exception of a few small tweaks here and there I've tried to let them take ownership and run with them. And they have!

You can hear these songs (and other works by Wolf, Poulenc, and Rossini) at their recital later this month!

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