Sometimes a break from composing is required. But those needn’t be a break from creativity; in fact, I’ve always believed they shouldn’t be. I’ve also always believed that I need to be updating this blog a whole lot more. So, for the month of November (and maybe beyond), I’m turning part my efforts to my other favorite form of expression: short fiction.

You can take part in this little diversion simply by giving me something to write about. Send me the title of your favorite song, either by commenting on this post, on Twitter @gregsimonmusic, or using the contact page.This can be a piece of music in any genre, a pop song, or even (especially?) the title of something you wrote. For each one I receive, I’ll write a 100-word flash fiction with the same title and post it on this space.

Credit will be given for all suggestions unless otherwise requested. I’ll take suggestions anytime before December 1.

And since more exercise is never a bad thing, feel free to share this call around – new friends are welcome.

Photo by Thomas Hawk, CC-NC-BY.
Photo by Thomas Hawk, CC-NC-BY.

Let’s start here: you can write any music you like.

It is not my place to tell any other artist – musical or otherwise – what to express or how. Every composer I know, whether I have them on my proverbial iPod or not, pours heart and soul into every single note, and no one, including me, has the right to tell them that any aspect of it is incorrect or shouldn’t have been done. If you stand by your musical choices, then you are justified, whatever those choices may be.

When you talk about your music, that’s another story.

By virtue of the concert paradigm and the web experience, composers commonly introduce themselves through the written word before a note of music fills the air. They define their own context for the listener, often before he/she is given the opportunity to make up his/her own mind. And even if they don’t always, then maybe they should. It wasn’t that long ago that this happened, a needless controversy that could have been prevented if the composer had opted to talk. 

Between program notes and bio, a composer’s message is usually seen first and heard second. These two portions of the compositional process — the program notes and the short biography — are among the least celebrated, and yet they are present with a listener well before the downbeat and well after the double bar, the singular lasting documentation of what it was we were trying to express with a new piece and why we were worth listening to in the first place. And in those bite-sized media, every word carries weight and meaning whether the composer intends it to or not. Words matter.

A man who had never seen a TV before was given a plasma flatscreen with cable.

At first he was elated, and would watch TV for hours a day.

The half-hour blocks added up, 10, 12, 14 at a time.

We worried he may have given up on reading or walks, but were told to let the experiment run its course.

After a while, he walked in the park. He read a stack of books. He played the piano. Drew a picture. Cooked a lasagna. He never watched TV.

We asked him why he had decided not to watch television anymore.

He answered, “the pictures are sharper if I draw them myself.”

Photo by creepyhalloweenimages. CC-A.

To be an artist is to live in a house full of ghosts.

You build your art on the shoulders of ghosts. Your study begins with ghosts, tracing the lineage and contributions of the deceased before you pay attention to the living. In every discipline, you’re made to consult the ghosts for answers about your art – often you’re made to consult the ghosts before you even make anything. You are yourself compared at every turn to the Pantheon of ghosts – I recall fondly the three separate composition lessons in which three different teachers told me I would never, in my lifetime, be as good a composer as Beethoven. All of this results in a reverent, awed fear of the ghosts: a complex of intimidation that lasts a lifetime.

It turns out this inferiority to the past is an age-old concept that’s been pored over by artists of every field and medium. No matter the size or scope of what you’re writing, there’s a ghost at your shoulder who has done it better than you and constantly whispers in your ear to remind you of your own mortality. You might give your sweat, blood, and soul over to your work in the hopes of achieving a spot on the Walk of Fame once you kick it, but really… who are we kidding?

Photo by James Cridland. CC-A.
Photo by James Cridland. CC-A.

Dear composers,

You’re probably wondering why I gathered you all here today.

Some of you are probably pretty irritated; you were likely doing extremely important things, and here’s this under-the-radar composer calling you to the internets for a meeting. I’m sorry for the inconvenience; but I promise we’ll be brief.

Let me cut right to the chase: we’ve got a problem with competitions.

I can see some of you already heading for the door. Okay, so it’s not news. We hate competitions. It goes against what it means to be a creative artist to try to be the best creative artist. The time we spend proofing our scores for tiny collisions, double-checking guidelines to make sure we submit by certified mail and not registered mail, and filling out forms that certify that yes, this poet did die in 1803 is all time we could spend writing new music. Competitions are a distraction from making art and a wedge in a community that should be sticking together. And really, they’re unnecessary to making a career in composition if you’re smart and easy to work with.

So, if you’re one of those composers who doesn’t participate in competitions, you can go. Thanks for coming.

The rest of you – the composers who enter competitions – we need to talk.  (more…)

“Composing Diary” is an ongoing series detailing my misadventures in writing a piece for Alarm Will Sound. You can see previous entries here.

"Rust and Blue," by Mark Rothko. Presented under fair use guidelines for criticism.
“Rust and Blue,” by Mark Rothko. Presented under fair use guidelines for criticism.

Day 7

Still no title for the piece. Still no concrete subject matter. I haven’t yet discovered what this piece is about, speaking in strictly non-musical terms. There are a diverse set of reactions to this kind of block: I go through a cycle of freaking out, taking walks, watching hockey, trying to write, freaking out some more, taking wa- oh look, there’s another hockey game on, freaking out just a bit to round out the cycle…

I could do this forever. But I still have a piece to write. Gotta figure something out. The next strategy of breaking the funk is to fill my eyes and ears with idea food.

The great thing about being an artist is that there are ten million different ways to procrastinate that can still help you with the task at hand. When I’m paralyzed by severe writer’s block of this magnitude, my go-to coping mechanism is to consume art by others. This includes score study, of course – John Adams and I have gotten quite close this week. But the artistic landscape is so much more complex than the tiny swath of it which art music makes up. There are valuable creative lessons to be learned from graphic novels, short stories, cinema, you name it. Any artistic form in which expectations are set up, to be either fulfilled or defied; in which disparate elements are played against and in harmony with each other; any art that requires an investment of time and energy in order to be understood and appreciated holds a lesson for an artist in any other tradition. It’s why no matter how busy you are, I always recommend sacrificing time in the practice room or at the writing desk to read a good book, see a movie, or visit an art museum. As the incredible Alex Shapiro would say, that’s where the music comes from.

Today my attention is being given to a few different pieces. I’m getting back to tearing through my most recent Best American Short Stories acquisition. Shortly thereafter I’m moving on to a few Wilfred Owen poems. I think briefly about making a trip to the always-inspiring UMMA, but the freezing grey weather gets the better of me. Instead, I’m looking at some of my favorite paintings by the always incredible Mark Rothko.

Rothko is, in my humble and barely-educated opinion, one of the best American painters to ever live. I say this because… well, for one thing, it’s true. For another, I identify strongly with the idea behind “Color Field” painting. The Wikipedia article offers a great, detailed description of the history and tradition of Color Field. It’s a diverse and storied tradition with a complex heritage, but some threads emerge, including a primary one: stark, vibrant colors in contrast with one another. Within the abstraction of this contrast are hard-hitting, soul-shaking questions and emotions. And no artist exemplifies that theatre better than Rothko, who once said that his paintings were about, among other things, “tragedy, ecstasy, [and] doom.” Dramatic, epic catharsis conveyed with the use of a handful of colors – just like in music, every emotional reaction comes purely from contrast.

Tonight I meditate on one particular Rothko: Rust and Blue, from 1951. I’m not looking for anything in particular, having forgotten for the moment about my somewhat urgent quest for inspiration; I just admire the structure, the complex texture of each color and the story the painting invites. Why these three colors? Rothko was, especially in his later years, consumed by color, and would use countless unorthodox methods to get the right ones – what brought him to pit these three against one another? Once he chose his materials, what prompted the placement? The blue in the middle could have gone just as easily and with just as satisfying contrast on the bottom, right? And the title… “Rust and Blue” are two colors, where the painting has three. The rust is clear, the blue is clear, but the bottom color is… something else. Is it a blue? Sort of. Perhaps Rothko meant it to fall under the large auspices of that single word, along with the middle color. Perhaps he meant it as a subsidiary element, a supporting character to the violent juxtaposition of the two colors in the upper two thirds of the painting. Or maybe the answer is something else.

Of course, getting answers to all these questions isn’t really the point. At the moment, I’m more fascinated by the very fact that a painting with no concrete elements, only abstract ones, has the ability to ask such questions. The title, which is so often a way to cover abstract elements with a concrete blanket, is no help – all Rothko’s titles usually do is remind the viewer what they see. Everything is in the abstract. And yet, there’s a narrative. A story.

So tonight, it turns out, I’m inspired after all by the art I’m consuming. I’ve been fighting to get started, but telling myself that the starting place must be a title. I’ve been convinced for a long time that the right place to begin a story is the name, and that the elements follow from there. But with these piece, seeing as that hasn’t worked, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to work without a title, and tell my story completely through contrast and color. And like Rothko, I’m going to think in color.

Photo by Hamed Saber. CC-A.
Photo by Hamed Saber. CC-A.

Having sent off the finished version of my latest piece (Dragonfly for Neal Titus, a percussionist at UNC Greeley) a few days ago, I spent the weekend in that comfortable lull between pieces. The bizarre cocktail of accomplished afterglow and postpartum depression that comes with finishing a project is, altogether, a sweet one, and it’s important to enjoy the silences before jumping forward. It doesn’t necessarily count as “rest” – there’s not really such a thing for a doctoral student, I find – but for just a few days, it’s nice to have the answer to “what are you working on?” be a relaxed, peaceful, “nothing.”

But the weekend is just about over, and I’m jumping into the next project: a piece for the unbelievably-awesome new music orchestra Alarm Will Sound, to be workshopped and premiered as part of the Mizzou International Composers Festival, where I’m extremely lucky to be a resident this summer. This kind of project is a new one for me, never having written for an ensemble this versatile (or, for that matter, this awesome). Simultaneously, I’ve been trying to fill this space with words on a much more regular basis, both to encourage readership and to provide myself with much-needed venting therapy. Why not try killing two birds with one stone?

Without further ado, I give you the first installment of my Composing Diary, which will track my various misadventures in writing this piece, from the blank page to the finished score. Follow along if you like, and feel free to chime in with your ideas; I might learn something. (more…)