“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…)

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Photo by velkr0 – CC-A.

Way back in 2007, I had a conversation I’ll never forget with a Professor at an Important University. I had just accepted my admissions offer from the University of Colorado. Professor and I were talking about graduate school, the right choices for a young composer, and why I was choosing to go to Colorado. It was a heated discussion, as this person had some strong opinions about my decisions (not very positive opinions, at that). I didn’t pay much attention; after all, I was 21 and I knew everything. But among Professor’s diatribes, he/she said something that has always stuck with me: “Don’t be one of these composers that lives their entire creative lives in the academy,” said Professor. “Graduate with the Master’s and leave. Take time off before your doctorate. Go out and connect with real people, real working musicians. Grow up at least a bit outside of the university.”

And after I graduated, in no small part due to this conversation with Professor, I did.

Fast forward to last week. The ever-amazing Brain Pickings published a small excerpt from Susan Sontag’s diaries. (more…)

Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: “What does his voice sound like?” “What games does he like best?” “Does he collect butterflies?” They ask: “How old is he?” “How many brothers does he have?” “How much does he weigh?” “How much money does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him. If you tell grown-ups, “I saw a beautiful red brick house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, “I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.” Then they exclaim, “What a pretty house!”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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Here’s a little-known fact: it wasn’t long ago that, for a while, I seriously considered giving up composition and going to law school.

It wasn’t because I was tired of music – far from it. It wasn’t because I was worried about a professional composer’s questionable job prospects – because as I was informed by everyone I’ve ever met, I would make a terrible lawyer. It wasn’t even because I’m super passionate about the legal system.

I flirted with the idea of going to law school because I am absolutely disgusted with the state of copyright in the United States. (more…)

This evening’s adventure in internal struggle:

I’m at the finishing stages of a choral piece, a setting of two texts by the incomparable Federico Garcia Lorca. The piece itself is written, the notes and lyrics are into the notation program. For me, the last stage is to add and finalize the dynamics, articulations, and other expressive markings in the score – I call this “painting” the score (because it adds color to the music – get it???)

Lots of composers put this portion of the process nearer the beginning of the compositional timeline; I’ve never been able to, for a few reasons. Chiefly, when my music is freshly written, I don’t frankly know what the character of it is right away, save for general dichotomies like “loud/soft” or “quick/slow”. More to the point here, though, is the second problem: I can never decide what to paint with. Every dynamic and articulation is a choice. Some are bigger than others, obviously, but every one affects the music. The ones I really struggle with don’t just stop at the music; they can affect a composer’s relationship to the performer. (more…)

Photo by DMJarvey. CC-A.
Photo by DMJarvey. CC-A.

NHL hockey is back.

NHL hockey is back, my friends.

Let me repeat that.

NHL. Hockey. Is. Back.

Granted, it’s back from what was an absolutely absurd lockout which insulted the sport and its fans (if you want to learn about the lockout from people who really understand it, the Wikipedia article does an expectedly-great job of outlining the core issues). Granted, I’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen for the last three months that I’ll never watch another NHL game again; that I as a fan can’t be treated like this; that from here on it’s only the college and junior offerings (of which there are MANY in Michigan) that will receive my money and my fandom.

But I’m only human. Like a recently-dumped partner still on the leash, I’m back to following stats, watching highlight reels and predicting this year’s Stanley Cup winner (hint: not my San Jose Sharks). NHL hockey officially has its greedy little hooks in me again.

Yes, I am head-over-heels in love with the sport on ice, it’s true. But the reasons for my sheep-like flocking back to the NHL are more complex, and they have a lot to do with my reasons for being a composer. (more…)