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.