Category Archives: music - Page 2

Beginning Composition

There has to be something about playing the guitar that brings on a unique state of mind. It cries out for improvisation. It can be rhythmic and driving or melodic and wandering. Not to be a jerk about it, but I never saw anyone improvise on an oboe (not to pick on the oboe, mind you) the way I’ve seen people strum at a guitar. And maybe that’s the key. The guitar is a very democratic instrument. It welcomes all comers. In a couple of days almost anyone can learn three chords. Add in some truth and we get Bob Dylan, right? The point is that it’s a short leap from playing other people’s songs on the guitar to writing original tunes.

I remember when the light bulb went on for me. I was learning “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. I took the picking pattern (which is pure genius) and tried it with some different chords. It sounded cool. But the patterns wasn’t easy, so I changed it up. After an hour or so I had something that could be considered for the category of “song.”

Now I have no idea how the tune actually went but I can bet on the fact that it was in the key of E minor and that somewhere it had a B7 in it. I know that last part because I played it for my guitar teacher and he told me that I’d stumbled onto one of the oldest “rules” of music. Rules? There were rules?

He pulled out some staff paper and started to sketch some triads. He explained some of the basic terms. By the end of 10 minutes, I had I – IV – V – I memorized. I had now unlocked “Wild Thing”, “Louie, Louie”, and most folk and rock tunes. When he added vi I was on fire. The 50s were mine!

When I found out that there were rules for putting these things in order and that Beethoven wasn’t just a master of great ideas but a master of the framework of Western Music ™ I was floored. A huge door was now open and I was staring into the bright light of day.

All of this played into my mother’s plan of training me on the classical guitar quite nicely. The etudes of Fernando Sor became very important to me. I analyzed them (before I knew that I was doing analysis) and tried to recreate them. I dabbled in variations. I made a lot of noise and maybe a little music once in a while. But I practiced and studied them incessantly. Odd stuff for a 13 year old boy to be doing.

The thing about writing music and being a “composer” that set in early was the many toothed beast. Yes, the piano. For a while I honestly didn’t think that I could be a composer without learning to play the piano. Fortunately, my laziness and complete lack of affinity for the instrument changed that. I couldn’t do squat at a keyboard (still can’t) so I made a go of it with paper, my guitar, and my mind’s ear. I lost the fear that I would never do anything of worth because I didn’t play the piano and pushed myself along under the tutelage of my superior teacher.

The rules came slowly to me. Wanting to break or ignore them did not. By the time I got to conservatory I didn’t much care for the idea of learning more rules and practicing them ad nauseum. I was a trial for my theory teachers. I still enjoy the sound of parallel fifths (suck it!) in my chorales. But I had the rules drilled into me and when I broke them I knew it and could point to it. A student that can accomplish that has a place to start.

Once the fire was lit, it was hard to control. Many late nights from that first guitar lesson until I had kids were spent staring at a piece of staff paper or working something out with a piece of notation software. And in those moments when my mind is absorbed in the phrase at hand, there really is nothing better. It’s like most creative endeavors. The state of flow becomes as much a goal as the final product. Being in the moment. Loving the work. Waiting for that moment when the ink is dry and the next sheet of blank paper is put on the table. The beauty of a never ending process.

It’s fun to look back at how it all started. The kernel of so many life decisions held up for inspection. And the wonder that it still drives so much of my thinking. It’s still so present. I’ve been through three lifetimes since I figured out that B7 to Em change. There are so many ways to make music now that didn’t exist then and my excitement for creating has only increased over time.

When this weird tear I’m on is done running its course I’m going to have some things to say about tools. I swore I wouldn’t write about software ever again because it always turns into something ugly for me, but I have a new toy and it has changed the way I create in such a positive way that it’s impossible not to share. More on that soon.

Falling In Love

The one part of my PhD that I desperately wanted to finish was the artist’s statement. It’s an essay of sorts that describes why one creates. In a way, it’s a “Why do you exist” sort of exercise. I really, really wanted to do it. I’ve started it a thousand times. It’s difficult. There is so much that goes into why I do what I do and the lengths to which I’ve gone to sustain my creative work. It seems that many of the tough and counterintuitive decisions I’ve made over the last 20 years have all come down to being about my creative work. That’s hard to believe given how destructive some of my choices were. That’s all (mostly) water under the bridge by this point but I do want to take a crack at explaining myself to all seven of my readers (and two of those might be me). My little girl is making sure that this will never be properly edited. Let’s just turn on the fire hose and let it run. Here goes.

I wish I could remember how old I was when I decided that I wanted to take guitar lessons. My parents were savvy and decided to make sure that I had some skin in the game so they told me that they’d go 50/50 on an instrument. I did some shopping around at Woodsy’s Music in Kent, OH and figured out that a starter Yamaha steel string was going to set me back $150. That meant I had to come up with $75. It may as well have been a million, but it was near enough to my birthday that I had a head start. I also had an allowance of sorts and a job helping deliver papers 3 days a week. The icing on the cake was my super secret plan: saving my lunch money.

My buddy Jeremy helped me out by packing an extra sandwich in his lunch. I was making an extra dollar a day every time I didn’t eat lunch and the cash started to pile up. Before too long the glorious day came that I presented my mom with the cash that I had been saving in a coin bank shaped like a Tootsie Roll. She was a little surprised. True to her word, she took me to Woodsy’s that weekend and we bought the guitar and I was signed up for lessons. Classical guitar lessons. She was paying so my dreams of being Andy Summers or The Edge or Jimi Hendrix were on hold – or so it seemed at the time. I was just excited to have the instrument.

We went home and I took it down to the basement. I laid it out on my lap and strummed it in what was an attempt at rhythm. I can still remember it. The open strings rang out and I was struck by the volume of the instrument. It was a spruce top with laminated sides. The finish was glossy and then neck was narrow but chunky. It was a standard issue dreadnought and in the scheme of all of the guitars made in the world thus far it was utterly forgettable. But I fell in love.

The next week I had my first lesson. My teacher, Ken, was brilliant. He started off by getting me hooked. The first tune I learned was “Another Brick In The Wall.” He transposed it to the key of G and taught me different strumming patterns on the simplified chords. I was hooked. I took to it like a fish to water – at least intellectually.

I practiced almost constantly. I would sit in my room alone and strum to myself. I took the chords I learned and arranged them intuitively. Sometimes it sounded OK. But what I learned quickly was that I could make sounds that moved me. I could do something that made me feel very alive and in a way that only an early teenaged boy can understand I felt validated.

When I was introduced the the Frederick Noad book “Solo Guitar Playing” I memorized the exercises I was given weekly as though they were holy texts. In a very real way they became my practice. They were my religion. I intoned them as a way of keeping myself in tact in those horrendous days of adolescence. In the dying days of my parents’ marriage the guitar was my best friend. It didn’t ask any tough questions and always responded to everything that I did regardless of my mood. I could wail on it in anger and it screamed with me. I could touch its strings softly and it would sing me to sleep.

Practicing and lessons were the only non-negotiables in my life. Sports came and went. Drama came and went. Girlfriends came and went. The only real constant in my life was music. More importantly, guitar music.

I have talked with other musicians and heard the stories of how they came to their instruments. Many were forced into lessons (invariably Suzuki violinists (shudder) and pianists) or picked it up and were surprisingly good at it (clarinets and flutes) and just ran with it. I have known a few who shared the passion for their instrument with me and had the almost shamanic attachment that I do. Returning to their instrument daily meant healing and focus. I’ve started to understand that there are many who have a relationship like this with their work. Writers, painters, actors, and creators of all media fall into that trance and experience a renewal. I can’t explain it though I’ve read many books on the topic. I’m not sure that I really want to know what it is about six strings stretched over a piece of wood that excites every fiber of my being. The why doesn’t matter. It’s that it does that counts.

By the time I was 18 it was all over. I was completely in love with the instrument, its repertoire, and its potential. The world of music was starting to open up to me though admittedly through a fairly narrow and highly opinionated lens. My feet were on the path.

something about influences

It has taken years for it to sink in, but the pressure of the facts has finally created a gem. It occurred to me the other day as I was preparing playlists for my iPod. The music that I love as a composer and performer is very different from the music that moves me as a listener. Composing and listening are two different things.

This isn’t a particularly great insight. There certainly isn’t anything new there that will change the world, but it has made things a little easier for me in my creative struggle. Like any good artist, I compare myself to my influences. I know that I was taught from the earliest days of my career as a composer that I am not like Beethoven or Mozart. I am mortal. They struggled, yes, but I will struggle more. I will likely never see the world from summits of greatness that they now sit upon, but doesn’t mean I won’t die trying. And in the trying, there is the comparing.

in progress

It’s very hard to write a piece of music and not compare it to something that is near and dear. To wonder to oneself if this string quartet could sit on the same stage with Webern and not be completely forgotten. These thoughts are counterproductive in some ways, but in a more positive sense they can be used for inspiration. More often than not, for me, it comes down to acknowledging that what I do isn’t what my heroes have done. The pieces that made me want to dig in and try my own hand as a musician are only tangentially related to what I produce. Fripp, Villa-Lobos, Hedges, Belew, Miles, Copland, Cage, Brubeck, and Buckley all find places in my daily musical diet but I will never compose anything that could be mistaken for their work. And that’s OK.

This only scratches the surface of my inner monologue these days that is trying desperately to resolve the music of my influences with the music that I create. Or the even stickier problem of how I draw relationships between what I compose, the music that I love as an aural experience, and the music that is intellectually stimulating but less fulfilling as a so-called musical experience.

All of this means that I’m spending more time thinking about music than writing it. That has to change, but the dominant of my life right now has yet to resolve itself into a little girl, so I have other fires to tend.

careful study

I came across a link to this video on the birthday of the great Andres Segovia. I was struck by a few things in his playing. How little his hands move. How each phrase gets its due. Each note is connected so beautifully. The piece is played so effortlessly, but the craftsmanship is clearly on display. It’s beautiful.

The first time I tried to learn this piece was in 1988 or so. Wow, that’s a long time ago. But as I sat staring at my laptop all I could think was, “where was YouTube when I was trying to absorb and learn this piece?” So many options now. So many resources. It’s embarrassing. Watch the video:
Andres Segovia performing Asturias(Leyenda) by Albeniz

As a classical guitarist, I never gave a really fantastic performance. That is my opinion after many years have passed under the bridge. There were sometimes when I thought to myself, “Yeah! Not bad at all!” But never did I leave the stage thinking that I had created a real work of art. The real root of that feeling lies in my relationship with practicing and the private aspect of performance. The simple fact of the matter was (and is): I play better in the practice room than I do in front of a crowd.

Looking at this from years of remove is interesting because it really lays out some of the baggage I have with music. We’ll set aside my discussion of why I don’t like to play other people’s tunes for another time and look at practicing, a subject that is more and more on my mind.

carving away...

I spent the better part of my days between the ages of 18 and 22 in a practice room. The rooms were small with an upright piano, a chair, a music stand (if you were lucky), and a mirror. In that space, things were different. The mind was alone with the art. No one got in the way. There were no external critics or teachers, only the instrument and the hands. The kind of work that is done in a practice space is captivating. It’s also extremely private. It’s where a performer does the work that keeps the fear away.

Any time I got on stage, my hands got cold. I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers and it made for clumsy playing. That’s straight up performance anxiety there. And it was always a problem. The guitar is a quiet instrument so there is never any sound in the chamber aside from the instrument and the breathing of the audience. That can be intimidating. My mind would wander and muscle memory would take over. I would hear the lines in a less expressive way. In short, the performance became about getting off of the stage and not making art. In a nutshell, that describes why I could never make it as a performer in that setting. It’s heartbreaking to say, but most of the time, the fear won.

But the practice room is the place you spend your time when you want even your most mechanical and rote performance to be as musical as it can be. That’s a painful way to think about it and I guess that’s why I enjoy practicing more now that my audience consists of my wife and my dog. I enjoy practicing for its own sake because it creates a deep connection with the material, when taken out of the context of preparing for a performance. When practicing for oneself, it’s an entirely different relationship with the music.

In fact, taking the performance out of my practice has muted one very important piece of the musical experience and augmented another. The idea of sharing the sound with others is gone, but the engagement with the material is brought to a new level. Ideally, a great performer does both. For me, it’s nice to take the music on its own terms like literature. And that’s where I am with my practicing today, enjoying the narrative of the process of the piece. I learn, interpret, analyze, and play but it never leaves me. I feel richer every time I do it.