Archive for August, 2007

One of the toughest rules I’ve had to deal with as an administrator is “Never make them guess what you’re thinking.” In other words, always explain your decisions and your vision as clearly as possible. The rule is an important one, because I’ve learned the hard way that students and teachers, in the absence of facts, frequently guess wrong: they will often assume that I don’t know what I am doing, or I have some selfish motive, rather than guessing the perfectly valid reason for the decision I’ve made.

This has been a hard rule for me to abide by, because I put a lot of thought into all of my decisions, and I hate having to take the time to go back and explain what I’ve done. It seems like a poor use of my skills: instead of moving forward with the next challenge, I’m stuck rehashing my train of thought on the last one — the past in slow motion — so that someone else can understand it.

In my ideal administrative world, everyone who works with me would do their jobs as well as possible, and assume that I am doing the same. Some students and teachers fit this — admittedly selfish — ideal, but others need to know exactly what I am thinking and why at all times. I have to avoid feeling like they are just gumming up the works with their questions and do my best to give them the explanations they crave.

I understand their concern – I have been very suspicious of Authority myself in the past. It’s easy to see Authority as Power. Now I see it more as Responsibility: when you are in a position of Authority, your decisions mean so much more. A small mistake can have severe costs, so you worry and worry over every decision before finally making a commitment. When people feel powerless, though, they can be justified in believing that those in positions of authority aren’t to be trusted.

So I’ve learned this transparency rule, although I’m pretty terrible at following it.

How does this rule interface with composition? While obfuscation for its own sake is generally unattractive to me, I usually like to give music the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes a composition has motives I can’t guess, and demanding that it fit my preconceptions isn’t beneficial to anyone. So I try to be a good servant, following the music’s orders.

After all, music has even less patience for explaining itself than I have.

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I’m coming down the home stretch with Dark Circles, which I’ve written about here.

As I do my final revisions, I find myself thinking through the music in four different ways:

  1. Look at page, listen to midi
  2. Play the music on the piano
  3. Look at page, imagine music
  4. Close eyes, imagine music

Way one is the easiest, and consequently the most seductive: with the least amount of effort, I can make substantial progress in the piece. Way two is a little more challenging, circumscribed somewhat by my technical limitations at the piano. But in some ways the piano is more familiar to me than the English language, so meandering through on the keyboard helps me discover things about the music I might not have found otherwise.

Way three is even more challenging, and much more revealing: that’s when I really hear the weak spots (I like to think that my pieces are only as good as their weakest moments) and I can zoom in and correct them.

And way four? By far the most delightful. Way four is when I have the most Aha! moments, the times when I realize exactly what needs to be fixed and how to fix it. Of course, way four requires the most concentration, the most effort. But it really is the most rewarding, in terms of psychic satisfaction.

The pieces I am least satisfied with are the ones I spent the least time simply imagining, with no page, screen or keyboard in front of me.

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I have a friend whose first job out of music school was playing in the Air Force Band. A grueling schedule in many ways, but she put in her time and got an honorable discharge four years ago. Since then, she’s moved onto other challenges.

Now she’s facing the possibility of being required to return to the armed services — for shipment to Iraq.

Not exactly the gig she thought she was getting a music degree for.

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I’ve taken a few weeks’ hiatus from blogging, and I’ve been surprised at how good it has felt to disappear from view a bit. I’ve spent long periods of my life in hibernation, so the last two-and-a-half years of keeping a public accounting of what I’m doing and thinking has been very challenging, and mostly beneficial. But I still love hiding away for a while. And I definitely need it from time to time.

What have I been doing these last few weeks? Traveling some, visiting relatives – by my unofficial count, I think I saw 26 of them – but also spending a lot of time sitting alone, thinking through things, trying out different sounds in my head. Spending this much time alone pays double dividends: I make nice progress on my work, and I stay sane.

I seem to have a very limited tolerance for social interaction.

In June, I made a list of seven pieces I would work on over the summer. Three of them are virtually finished: I just have to make the parts and proofread. Another three received a smattering of attention over the last few weeks, but still have a long ways to go — they’ll get more substantial work later. And one – Exit – has taken a considerable amount of my time, progressing very slowly, at times exhilarating and at times immensely frustrating.

Exit is the latter half of a pairing of pieces I’ve been dreaming of writing for ten years: two pieces that would frame a concert (the other is called Entrance). Both pieces use spoken text. Both tell their stories in the second person — a terrific narrative challenge, to be sure. Entrance tells of something that happened to one member of the audience years ago, and relates it to the concert she is about to hear. Exit takes another audience member on a whirlwind excursion through the rest of her life — everything that will happen to her following the concert. Both stories are fictional, of course, filled with wheels-within-wheels narrative. And the two narratives are linked, although very sparingly. I’ll be posting both texts later in the fall.

I’m using actors for the spoken parts, so the notation is a bit of a nightmare: I have to create musical frameworks that will hold together regardless of how much the narration speeds up or slows down at any given point. Each musician will cue off of specific words in the text; the overlap of instrumental parts will create a constantly shifting harmonic fabric. I’ve done this kind of thing before, but it doesn’t get any easier with experience.

Working with actors on a piece of music is very liberating, and very scary. Playwright Edward Albee once confessed an envy of composers, for the way they are able to indicate all of their timings down to the last millisecond. Musicians count time in precise subdivisions; actors just feel it. Working with actors always stretches my ability to convey my ideas, especially in the realm of precision timing.

Another stretch is visual. I know exactly how I want the piece to sound, but I have to give a lot more thought to how I want it to look, because actors occupy a different realm of visual space from musicians. It’s not the same kind of imagination I am used to.

Entrance and Exit will be premiered in November, but I really have to finish writing them in the next couple of weeks, because the performers – both musicians and actors — will want a couple of months to acclimate themselves to the unusual demands. They are all going to be doing things they weren’t trained to do in school. Fortunately, several of the people I’m working with have a long familiarity with my work, so they trust me not to ask them to do crazy things that won’t work. That trust is precious to me. I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that everything I am doing is thoroughly considered – the timing, the look, the notation – everything.

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