Letter to my students: Notes about composition and improvisation.

Hi All,

Thanks for an enjoyable and productive session Tuesday morning. This email is to remind you that you have a little assignment for next week's rehearsal: to make a sketch of an idea for a composition.

A few reminders:

  1. A sketch is just that --- some marks on paper that outline an idea. It is the seed of a composition; the start of a process. 
  2. An idea can come from anywhere. It can be anything. It does not have to first be musical notes. 
  3. Don't over-think this. Whatever you write will always and necessarily be only the outline of the music you will eventually make. It might help to think of there as being an elastic tension between the text (what is written) and the music (which will be sounded when we rehearse, develop and perform the music).
  4. Don't judge your ideas just as they're being born. Treat them with kindness and curiosity.

OK, that's the short version of this message. For more information, I invite you to read on…

To give you an idea of what a sketch can look like, I thought I would share two of my own. I wrote them in the last hour before a concert with my trio with Anthony Coleman and Ted Reichman, when I'd set myself a deadline to write two new pieces of music for the trio. One went on to have a successful life in music; the other has not.

Let's start with the one that worked.

"Something Good" (view the PDF here) is a recomposition of an existing piece -- a ballad from the 1965 movie musical The Sound of Music.  The song marks an important and exquisitely tender moment in the movie, where the Captain and Maria declare their love to one another (see the clip and hear the song here). As a child, I understood the importance of this scene, but the song confused me badly.

Despite the seductive veneer of the big-screen musical, this is a lyrically sophisticated love song, with its references to a "wicked, miserable" childhood and its claim that "nothing comes from nothing / nothing ever could". Let's just say that my childhood confusion over this song in some way shaped my concept of romantic love. (My thinking went: as I myself am clearly having a "wicked, miserable" childhood, and as "nothing" could come from "nothing"; then "something good" was probably not in the cards for me.)

And so it went for 35 years, until one day in conversation a friend cleared up my childhood misunderstanding. A revelation! The meaning of the song is that the good is inherent in all of us, no matter how miserable or broken or wicked we may feel ourselves to be. So my idea was to do a little arrangement of the song that represented these two perspectives simultaneously -- darkly and sweetly, ages 5 and 40.

Here's what I actually did: I picked out the moments of the song that most captured me -- little cells of melody -- and put them down on the page. I listen closely to lyrics, so it's not surprising to me that the melodic cells I chose had important lyric moments. Respectively they are:

  • Number 2 on the page: "Perhaps I had a wicked childhood / Perhaps I had a miserable youth / But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past / I must have done..." 
  • Number 3 on the page: "For here you are standing there / loving me"     
  • Coda: "Nothing comes from nothing / Nothing ever could"

Number 1 on the page is extracted from the movie version of the song, where the violins play a sweet and tender ostinato. (What a world these violins suggest to us…) To introduce darkness, I simply knocked the bass line down a half step.

You'll see that there is relatively little use of metric notation. I used note heads, but not stems, which means that the rhythm can be freely interpreted. I wrote "melodic fragments" to indicate that these should be played as such -- fragmented, a little dislocated, with distorted perspective. To indicate a desired cluster-y effect at number 3, I put sustain lines over the notes and included dynamic markings. In performance, we choose elements off the page and play them one off of the other: not necessarily in sequence, and not necessarily all at the same time.

And that's about it. Relatively little of what happens in performance of this piece is on the page. What's on the page is just enough to get the main two or three ideas across to the musical actors involved. Since I have performed often with Anthony and Ted, I know how they play. (Just as we all now know a little more about one another after the playing we've done together.) I definitely wrote this with my two friends in mind, but there's enough information on the page that, with a little explanation, other people can play it as well.

You'll see that nowhere on the page does it say "Improvise", and yet this is very much a composition for improvisers. The improvisation happens in three primary ways: 

  1. In how we play the melodic fragments: rhythm, timbre, articulation, space and silence, which notes we might leave out, how we might repeat others, how we might introduce other melodic fragments, etc.;
  2. In how we juxtapose the different elements on the page: each of the musicians are free to play any part of the page, but the page serves as a kind of a map -- we can see and hear where each other are during the piece, then we collect on the coda;
  3. In little pockets of the performance where we might choose to linger to expand on a point -- like a conversation. 

Listen to these two performances of the piece, and you'll see how it comes together in different ways. One with the trio with Ted and Anthony, and one in a duo with Anthony

As for the other piece (see the PDF here). Simply, it was inspired by a piece of graffiti I saw spray painted on the walls of the NATO base in Kabul. You can hear it performed at the Lily Pad  the same night I wrote it (the first song in the set). It's a simple arpeggiated pizzicato line for Anthony and Ted to improvise over. There would be stops and starts and hesitations. It worked, but it never really worked well enough and although we worked on various ways of shaping it over the next few months, it never found its way into our repertoire. And my point is, it doesn't matter.

This brings up two other ideas. One, about the failure that is inherent to the creative process. To achieve more success, you have to contend with more failure. It's important to become conformable with failure. Not every idea is going to go on to be a piece of music that you play again and again, and it doesn't matter. The alternative -- to strangle your ideas for fear of their unworthiness -- is unacceptable.

The other is about composition more generally, and why I'm asking you to write a sketch now. Why should you compose? First, as we discussed in class last week, improvisation can do things that composition can't do, and composition can achieve things that we can't do through improvisation. I see no reason why we should be limited to one or the other. Second, I think of composition as a natural extension of the idea of "your own melody". When you compose, you create a little musical world. You create a space where you can invite others to join you, to sing your song with you. I think of this as an act of strength and generosity.

OK. Since this has become a long message of lists, here is one more. Some things you might think about as you listen for your ideas:

  1. An idea does not have to be notes. At least, not notes the way we think of them in Beethoven. If a melody can be intensely personal, a note can be personal, too. Look for your own notes, and be willing to be surprised by what you hear. But also, look to your own emotions and thoughts and experiences, ask yourself what they sound like to you.
  2. You might think about musicians as actors on a stage. In theatre, a script tells you not just the words the actors speak, but also some of the how and why they are speaking, and what their relationships are. Directors and actors bring these instructions to life in performance. Do you want everyone playing at the same time, or one at a time? How much freedom will your actors have to move around? How do the musicians relate to one another, and to the text?
  3. Jazz composer Jim McNeely once told me that when he listens to an idea, he squints his ears and imagines the music as a dog might hear it. That is, not through notes and rhythms and notational language, but through all the other musical dimensions: high, low, soft, hard, screechy, smooth, long, short, dark, light, dense, clear… 

I find this last idea about dogs charming. And having finally brought this long message to the point of a Far Side cartoon, I will leave it there.

As always, if you have anything you'd like to discuss, you're welcome to write or call anytime.

See you all Tuesday morning. I'm looking forward.