New Band Commission, part 4: Cooking up ideas

also Friday, December 10 (but later)


When I write music, I usually use one of three methods. Sometimes (rarely), a song feels like it comes to me almost fully formed, sparked by some word or idea, and I just have to work out some of the finer details before I have the whole thing on paper (computer) or recorded and ready to share. For songs like this, it usually becomes a single-day project where I forget about everything else and just spend the entire day writing because I feel like if I put it aside for a day I’ll lose the spark and never be able to get it back. This was my process for writing “Sister” and “Only Good.” Both of those songs were written on days where I had other plans but ended up getting a spark of inspiration and then spending the entire day (and maybe even an hour or two of the next day) creating the song, only taking breaks for meals.

When I’m not lucky enough to have a piece write itself, I can sometimes pretend like I’ve already written it and just try to “remember” what it sounds like. I sit quietly and try to imagine that I’m listening to a recording of the piece. When my mind is very clear (this is easiest first thing in the morning when I haven’t heard any other music yet), I can close my eyes and listen, and sometimes the music will start playing. I’m often tempted to write it down as soon as I hear it, but I’ve found that I need to sit with it until I can hear it really clearly, because if any of it is “fuzzy” or unclear, when I start to write it down (either on paper or on my computer) I might end up taking “guesses” to fill in the holes. Once a musical idea is written down, it’s much harder for me to go back to “remembering,” even if what I wrote down doesn’t feel right. (For some reason I don’t have this problem with lyrics, which I can write down and erase freely as I go, but musical ideas get “stuck” more easily once I’ve written them down.) I used this “remembering” process for my piece “Lunar Vigil.” It was very hard at first because I hadn’t written that kind of choral piece before, and I was trying to capture the feeling of floating in space without it feeling cheesy.

The least “magical” method for writing music sometimes feels like cheating, but it can sometimes lead to more inspiration. I call this “manufacturing” because it feels very analytical and not necessarily artistic. I might create a number code related to the idea of the piece, and create some melodies using that code (1 is an A, 2 is a B, 3 is a C, etc.) to see if I like the sound of anything. Or I might take (borrow, steal) some musical material from a piece by someone else and twist it beyond recognition into something I can use for my piece. Often, manufacturing involves creating some “rules” for myself, sometimes randomly and sometimes related to the idea I’m trying to convey in the music.

I find that I struggle to be creative if things are too open-ended. “Write a piece about anything” would be the least helpful prompt for me, because the possibilities are endless and overwhelming. But if someone were to give me lots of rules…“Write a piece that only uses 4 notes, and they have to repeat, but they can’t repeat in the same order, and you can only use objects found in your kitchen cabinets.” Now that’s something I can do!

If I am writing with lyrics, the rules might be about the rhyme scheme (in “You Could Write a Book” every verse had to end in a word that would rhythm with “book”), or if I’m writing a children’s song there are lots of rules about how rangy the song can be, or how complicated the lyrics can be. If the song is part of a musical with a plot, the rules might be about what needs to be accomplished by the character by the end of a song. (Do they have to convince someone of something? Do they need to decide something?) For instrumental music, there are rules about ranges of instruments, keeping the players busy (I wouldn’t want someone to be bored playing my music!), and in the case of a middle school band piece balancing excitement with making sure the piece is not too difficult.

I can also make up arbitrary rules for a piece. After meeting with the bands, Cliff and I were talking, and I mentioned that I had just had parent teacher conferences at my school this week. Cliff said that he has student-led conferences for kids in his advisory, and among the 12 students in his advisory there might have been only two kids who got anything less than straight As (and even that was just a couple of Bs). On my drive home I came up with the idea that one possible for a rule for the piece could be that I have to have lots of As. I’ll save that for now and use it if I get stuck later.

As I was driving home I also started thinking about the flickering candle idea. What would that sound like? Something quiet and simple, like maybe a long held low note on a flute. Of course, there’s only so long you can hold a note on a flute. Maybe it’s two flutes trading off. That can be super difficult if you’re trying pretend like it’s just one flute. So maybe we don’t pretend, and we make it obvious that it’s two different players by playing two different notes. A back and forth between two notes. That sounds like breathing. The higher note is the inhale and the lower note is the exhale. As I imagine this back-and-forth flute breathing in my head, I picture it happening in the dark. The players would have to count breaths in order to keep their place. What was it I read in that book about breath? The ideal speed for breathing is 5.5 seconds for an inhale, 5.5 seconds for an exhale. Maybe that’s how long each note is. This is a good rhythm to meditate on. Imagine if the whole audience starts breathing along with us. It would be a like a group meditation. Maybe this last part of the piece could actually be a nice moment for the whole audience as well as the band, to take a moment to clear our heads and put aside the stressful things that are on our minds. And then maybe our breath makes the candle flicker…

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