Dancing into Writer’s Block

Weeeell, I’m off and running with my latest compositional project! I’ve set two goals:

  • Use dance. I’m currently focused on Baroque dances, but I’m not entirely sure that’ll end up being the source down the road (more below). I’m mostly interested in rhythms as a thematic focus, in no small part ’cause I want to…
  • Leverage percussion. At this moment I’m just using a single percussionist, but I’m hoping that drums (pure rhythm) and mallets (marimba/vibraharp, for melodic/harmonic color) will both be a part of the project. A single percussionist, of course, can play any of them.

Like my “Brass Variations,’ this work will be a collection of “vignette’s” — short compositions strung together as a single work. I’ve yet to work out how I’ll string them together, but I’m toying with the idea of having a transitional theme which appears between them all. (If you want an example, see Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a piano work meant to collect 10 “illustrations” of works of artist/architect Viktor Hartmann in musical form, connected by a musical idea meant to represent someone walking from one exhibited image to another. If you’re like me, you probably know Ravel’s orchestration of the work better.) I’m intrigued by this idea, but there are a lot of decisions required to make it work in this setting. Does one really “walk” between dances? Or can one just push them up against each other, like I did with the “Variations,” or make them separate movements like in my string quartet?

But that’s down the road. The first task is to select and arrange the dances themselves. Since my goal is to explore rhythm primarily, it shouldn’t matter too much what era I select to look at. But selecting dances that are more current (hip-hop? …Cuban?…techno-trans?) means bringing in a bunch of compositional ideas that won’t really fit with the instruments I’d prefer to leverage. (Besides a percussionist, I’m looking at strings and piano.) Besides, the longer my stylistic reach, the more demanding the work will become. I’ve already discovered that learning the details of writing for percussion will be daunting enough — using strings are a concession to my need to avoid jumping on too many learning curves at once!

So, currently, I’m focused on Baroque dances that appear in many of the works of historically “Classical” composers like Mozart and Haydn. But it isn’t going well. I’m having a hard time getting things moving. I’m currently experiencing writer’s block! I have too much on my plate that is new, and I end up spending a lot of time just researching and listening. Despite the implication that “writer’s block” is a novelist’s problem, the experience is the same for any other artistic creator. As soon as one is confronted with a lot of early decisions, a host of questions push forward — will I regret this direction? …am I really capable of making this work? …will anyone care about the results?...SQUIRREL!!! 😉

“La Spagnoletta” was a popular dance in the court of Elizabeth I. It’s rhythmic style is a fast triple meter with lots of dotted quarter + eighth note figures.

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