Meta-Observations on the Process of Composing

Like everyone online these days, I belong to several meme-sharing groups in social media. (It’s a fundamental waste of time, but, hey, as a retiree, I have nothing if not that!) The most recent of my favorites goes a bit like this:

  • 8:00 AM: Too tired to think
  • Noon: Too tired to think
  • 5:00 PM: Too tired to think
  • Midnight: How do dragons blow out candles??

I was just observing to my wife this morning that I seem to do my best work elsewhere besides at my workstation. The most consistent of such behaviors is lying in bed staring at the ceiling, though this posting was mostly inspired by an epiphany realized in the shower. (Yes, I’m still working on the 4th movement of my chorale suite, “Kindergarten” — there’ve been some changes to the lyrics, but nothing musical to share yet.)

I seriously doubt “Too tired to think” is my reason, though I’m sure those of you with “day jobs” can relate to that. For me, it’s about trees and forests. I suspect if I were a theoretical mathematician, it’d be the same — I’d stare at a series of steps in my logic, and, although I make progress, it’s slow-going. But wander off from the obsessive micro-perspective, and the reasons behind it all, and the overall structure, reappear.

With music composition there are quite a lot of small details to chase at the micro level — voice leading, rhythmic patterns, underlying tonality/melody/chords, not to mention lyrics in my current project. I sometimes spend hours chasing such, making sure that the vocal lines actually sound and look like something someone would say (or, in this case, through the abstraction of singing it). But without structure and reason, you’re staring at a massive collection of puzzle pieces that have the barest of reason to fit together.

For those of you interested in the music processes, for me, key changes provide a structure that frames the pieces of the puzzle. That was my epiphany — suddenly, from a music perspective, the three verses of this movement have direction and purpose. But even more important, such a flash of idea plunges me back into the micro work with renewed vigor. Some of these ideas are accidental — I was sure I wanted the key changes between verses, but an accidental piece of tonality I was using at the end of the 1st verse’s intro — a little snippet I had become completely enamored with — suddenly made sense as the transition between each verse, and the determining factor in each’s direction.

Thankfully, I haven’t yet bounded out of bed (or jumped out of the shower) to chase such flashes. My memory is still good enough, and my patience strong enough, to tuck such into the back of my mind for a time when I can more comfortably do something about it. That process has so far never failed me, which is why I’m writing this even though that musical epiphany described above is still very fresh in my mind, but as yet unrealized in my piece. But I still struggle to get back to sleep. It’ll be easier if I can work out the dragon/candle problem…

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