Seeking to Speak: Scrutinizing Strained Songs
Writing a piece of good music is not easy. If I had to estimate, I’d say something like 95% of the process is just failing in an impressive array of different ways. Then again, failing, done right, is not failing at all – it is learning.
Looked at in that light, I’ve been learning a lot lately. Those that followed Connect . The . Dots have some sense of the many false starts and frustrations that accompany my creative process and, though I’d like to say that the pieces I’ve written since then (If Winter and The Riddle of Isidora) have been easier, for better or for worse, the difficulty seems to have only increased. Perhaps because the Dots project helped me break through so many technical barriers, unleashing a whole wave of new compositional questions to answer, or perhaps because working so closely with such talented individuals only increased my sense of responsibility to the players and, by extension, to the audience, the complexity and number of considerations has only increased. But, as I said, it’s a learning experience and compromising the vision is certainly not an option.
One of the great things about constantly trying to write pieces that are simply beyond your abilities is that you find fun ways to get around your weaknesses…while also finding more weaknesses. The exact combination of things that create obstacles changes from piece to piece, but one of the parameters that I’ve been exploring more and more lately is color.
Unlike most other musical considerations, which can be explored and worked out in the abstract, color is one of those things that can really only be done with the instrument “in hand.” While there are many ways to pretend (through score study, YouTube videos, concert attendance, and the all-important imagination), by far the best approach is quite literally hands on, ideally with a trusted instrumentalist, not just because of practical or technical issues, but because color/timbre/sound is something that is really as much about identity as it is about music.
Maybe that last bit is really the big question: How do I, as the silent composer, create a score that is imbued with my personal sound, that is true to the artistic vision, and yet open enough for a performer to want to engage meaningfully to find their own truth and their own sound within that context? How can we, together, find a way to say something so true-to-intent that even the most foreign and unexpected sounds sound inevitable and irreplaceable in hindsight? It’s not my question to answer, really; it’s more our conversation to have, both in the private sphere, as composers and performers discussing scores and ideas and making changes (between my musical edits, various layout edits, and edits made to address various performer concerns, the current Riddle score is probably version 20-something–and that not counting discarded drafts), and in the public sphere, with audiences engaging with performers and composers alike to try to play, listen, inevitably fail but then learn and empathize together. Creating spaces for that to happen is one of the most important things that artists can do.
For months, I have been working with Tania Holland Williams and Heledd Francis Wright to find just what it is that the three of us have to say with that song. For years, Tania’s brainchild, the Davy Jones’ Locker concert series (pictures above come from the project’s facebook page) has been creating spaces for people to come together and meaningfully engage with musicians, composers, and one another. This Saturday [07.02.2015] DJL comes to The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury, UK. There you can listen to the world premiere of The Riddle of Isidora, hear Heledd give In Mourning new life, and discover a whole set of incredible contemporary works (set list below). Moreover, Tania, Heledd, and I (via Skype) will be on-hand to talk about the music and the process. To learn more about Davy Jones’ Locker, check out Tania’s article for Gramaphone here.