Saturday, December 31, 2011

Composing is Like Knitting Socks: You Don't Always Succeed on First Try

I am at a sort of crossroads, and what better time to write about it than the eve of a new year? I have struggled over the last few years to keep two careers going and have succeeded in my teaching and writing, but not so much in my composing and playing. It is hard to do justice to twin passions and harder still when each field--music and writing--is so ripe with different aspects and possibilities. What I mean is that each of these fields already requires us to be multiple things at once. If you are a writer you are probably also an editor and maybe even a writing teacher or coach. If you are a musician you might simultaneously teach an instrument, play an instrument and compose not to mention writing and publishing words about music. Each of these fields by itself has multiple layers. I have taught writing workshops to women eager to record their lives and piano, theory and composition to five and ten and forty year olds eager to express themselves through music. I have written and published profiles, interviews, essays and the occasional book review. But I have not been composing or playing piano with anything remotely resembling seriousness and I want that to change. I have also not even begun to take advantage of the possibilities of this blog and if I have a new year's resolution it's to do better about posting and composing and explore how these two mediums can feed each other.

I spent the day cramming, skimming and underlining in my Blogging for Dummies book and am consequently inspired and a bit daunted. But I know the best way to begin is to just begin, give yourself permission to experiment without self criticism until you have something you can really work with. I am having the same challenge with my composing. It isn't going well. I have been trying to write a piece for flute and piano off and on (very off and on) for two years mainly because I know someone who plays the flute and therefore have at least a chance of having it performed. But I can't decide what I want to say with this piece or how I should say it--what language to use--and that plus being extremely rusty is making it nearly impossible. I have already started and scrapped several pages of music because it sounded too much like a jazz/pop thing when I want to write something "serious." Then I tried a contrived non-tonal scale which sounded quite reassuringly modern. After weeks of playing with it I have decided I don't like this language at all. It sounds like something I'd write to please some composition professor somewhere but it doesn't sing.  I want to be able to sing what my soul is yearning to sing through this music, but I don't yet quite know how to do it. I've never before written something totally and completely just for me.

Of course the real problem is that I shouldn't be worrying at this point about anything other than putting notes on paper daily, regularly, without fail.  I should be playing and experimenting and not worrying at this stage whether my style is unique, whether the flute can really play what I write or any other of my myriad distracting concerns. The thing is to just do it. It's like learning to knit socks. At first you can't imagine how you're going to get all four needles going at once, or how you'll keep the thread from slipping off the double-pointed needle. But after lots of false starts and bad, misshappen efforts it gets easier. My hope is I can learn to compose again, find my voice again--croaked and even ugly though it might be. I don't know why. It doesn't matter one whit whether there's another piece of music in the world when there is already so much beautifully written by other people. But I can't help myself. Something in me compels me to try, so try I must.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Beginnings

My very talented neighbor, Ken Hamilton, owns a recording studio called Razor's Edge Sound. For my 40th birthday, (in 2005), he gave me an hour of studio time to create a short piece. I thought I'd experiment with something on the commercial side. The result is this quickie piece that sounds a bit like the theme to some TV show in the 1980s. I called it "New Beginnings" because it marked a new phase of my music career, a return to some composing and to teaching composition as well. (Check it out here: It's taken me quite a while to explore my various options for sharing my music and as far as that goes I'm a beginner too. I just signed up on yesterday and I'm only just now really starting to "get" how to use Finale, the professional level very complicated music notation software I bought two years ago. (It took me over a half hour to figure out how to create triplets the first time I did it. I didn't really figure out my mp3 player either until just recently.)  If keeping two careers going at once is hard, it is even trickier to find time for all these new-fangled inventions. But of course they are oh so cool and indispensible once you get the hang of it.

I can't help being old fashioned. I earned my Masters in Composition in 1993--just when the web was launched. What a strange new world this is! We've got so many tools at our fingertips--libraries of sounds and research tools that were unheard of when I was in my 20s. I still remember poring over "Books in Print" volumes in the library, writing down articles that might have something to do with what I was researching, walking to a card catalogue and physically thumbing through to get to the periodical I needed, or filling out--in pencil--forms for interlibrary loan, then waiting weeks for the photocopies to arrive in the mail.   I have to admit though, that easy as things are now, I sometimes miss the old ways. When I would thumb through the card catalogue I always found something cool that I didn't know I was looking for. I know that happens with web research all the time, but the internet just doesn't have the same pleasantly musty smell, nor the thrillingly sensual feel of running your fingertips over those old, well-thumbed cards. I like the smell of books too, and while I love the Kindle my students pitched in to buy me, it just doesn't have that satisyingly musty aroma. Maybe they will come out with digital smellinet versions for old foggies like me....

Meanwhile, Kevin and I were talking this morning about the absurdity of all of this, of people who work one mile apart but miss out on a lunch date because one sent the other the invitation via a Facebook message and the other just didn't get around to checking the site in time. Something similar happened to me recently. Although I am on Facebook and I enjoy it and think it's a great tool, I don't really care what people are doing every second of the day, and I don't think I'm alone in my disinterest. So I tend to visit only once a week or so--usually when something from Facebook plops in my email inbox. What a strange world we live in where we miss connecting because we failed to open up a particular webpage! Remember the telephone? You could call someone up and talk in real time and make an arrangement faster than it takes to open your browser, click on the link, scroll through your friends list.... Then there was this really cool invention called voicemail where you could leave your message in case they weren't home when you called. For that matter, remember when you actually knew who your friends were?!

We also got to talking about the new Roland Digital Piano I've got my eye on which uses actual, real hammers instead of weights so that it really, truly feels like you're playing the real thing. According to Kevin drummers also now have real drum heads on their digital drums instead of the old drum pads from the 80s because they feel different. Drummers count on the rebound of the stick off the drum head for multiple hits and they hate the old drum pads because they don't rebound and it takes an extra effort to play multiple notes in quick succession. I guess there are just some things you can't improve on.

That really old dude Shakespeare (remember him?) hit it on the head in The Tempest when his character Miranda sees a man for the first time and exclaims "Oh Brave New World that hath such creatures in it." Only in our strange, brave new world there's a new creature every day, with a 100+ page virtual manual to navigate! Lord Bless us if we occasionally forget that new doesn't always mean better! It just means beginning again, for the 100+ time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Birdy Bitchfest

It’s spring in Texas. A pair of Mocking Birds have nested in our neighbor’s tree—just over the privacy fence that divides his yard from ours. The birds recognize no such division but consider our whole backyard their nursery. As such it does not belong to us and we are trespassers every time we water the thirsty grass or even when we dare to fill the birdfeeder and birdbath. From my back bedroom office window I watch the mother and father’s cautious approach to the nest. Worm squiggling in his or her beak, bird parent settles on the fence, cocks an eye at me gazing with the same intensity I do mornings as I watch my sixth grader walk the half block to middle school. Only when they are sure no one sees do they venture into the tree with the prized breakfast. We have much in common. They fear the cat that roams our street, and the human and canine and feline inhabitants of this house. I fear other predators who may be lurking in shadows, watching and waiting for my daughter, for other daughters and sons.

Yesterday I heard a raucous aviary remonstration while I was trying, unsuccessfully, to read a book. I went to the patio door to see what was amiss. There I found my cat peering keenly through the window at one of “our” (we feel a sense of ownership) mocking birds who was assailing her with bitter invective, casting, I am sure, aspersions on her character. It was a true birdy bitch-fest, a sight to behold—or rather—to hear. This went on for about an hour and a half during which I heard not a peep from the babies in the tree. This worried me. I thought perhaps the outside cat had got them and the inside cat was being made to pay for the crime. So I gingerly let myself out only to have the angry parent launch a new assault on this well-meaning citizen. I was relieved some time later when the parent resumed feeding operations and left me and my cat alone. As soon as the aviary curses subsided the babies began to cry again in earnest. All is well with the world!