Thursday, May 26, 2011

Keeping It Real

Soon this morning, I'll get started on some spring cleaning. The big wood porch is the first job--what a mess! A full winter's worth of crap and construction debris. But while I'm waiting for my final round of coffee and toast, I wanted to offer some of what's on my mind these days, what I'm wrestling with in music composition.

In my teenage years and through my 20s and 30s, I wrote songs. At first these vacillated between really elaborate, epic productions that could never be fully realized, more like operas really, and simple two or three chord songs for guitar. In my 20s I toyed with writing a pop album, but after years of work on it, I was dissatisfied. I felt like I had sacrificed my original musical goals for the remote possibility of commercial success and wound up feeling like a fool as a result.

From that point on, I consciously started writing extremely simple songs for guitar and voice--numbers intended only for myself to perform and that would satisfy me as my primary audience. In a quick informal inventory recently, I found I can recall the names of over 30 of these--finished songs that I'm proud of and like to sing--and there may be a dozen others that I'm forgetting. All of them were recorded on cassette tape with the lyrics written in steno pads. They're all stored now on a shelf in my studio.

I occasionally played these songs for others and people liked them, but I never really tried to "work up an act" or perform them regularly. The point of them was not just to refine my art but also to come closer to what I thought of as the kernel of the musical experience--a music therapy, if you will, a magical music that emanates from the core of a human being and enlarges that person's experience of himself and the world.

That experience remains a challenge for me in my concert music compositions, as I am constantly seeking that same vitality, the visceral, elemental, magical expression.

In 2008 and '09, I found myself, by accident really, returning to songwriting for what became the album Three Rooms. The delight, the sense of satisfaction in writing those songs was amazing. It was like finding something you had thought was lost years ago--or more, like suddenly regaining the use of a limb that had withered.

This morning, I'm thinking about how many famous composers from history seem to begin their careers very close to notions of music as song and as virtuoso display, but later move more toward music as architecture--and by that I mean to imply not just structure, but totality, a music designed to be lived in and explored. Bach and Beethoven come to mind, but also Mozart, Schoenberg, Webern … . I see Eliot Carter's shift to abstract music in his 40s as a feature of this same phenomenon, the mature pursuit of a greater music. The composers involved in this journey who have not left behind the elemental power of song are often the most admired.

So that is my ongoing challenge: to find the music in my lungs, in my body, and to expand that way of being into the very fabric of the universe, to enlarge my own sense of the human experience. And to keep that sense of vitality and renewal in the act of music composition.

Coffee's ready and I'm done with my toast.

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