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

Photo by Jodi-Renee Giron.
Photo by Jodi-Renee Giron.

Finishing Day

The one on the left in the picture above is me. The much more handsome gentleman on the right is my friend Nacho.

Nacho is an eight-year-old living in Denver. He’s an unbelievably smart little guy, a gifted musician, and the unofficial mascot of the Denver jazz community. He loves the Avengers and has a soft spot for Phineas and Ferb. He also has terrible asthma that occasionally threatens his life, but unless you caught a glimpse of his red emergency inhaler you’d never know it. You’d only ever see an affectionate kid with a biting sense of humor, an inspiring sense of wonder, and a craving for ice cream.

It’s a while since I last updated my virtual diary with news about this piece for Alarm Will Sound, but the last three months summarize to this: wall after wall after wall. It’s not hard for me to understand the reasons why. This semester’s uneven schedule and random engagements made it tough to settle into a writing routine. Composing for such a phenomenal collection of musical superheroes as Alarm Will Sound carries a lot of pressure, and it affected my ability to love any idea that came out of the pencil; nothing was ever good enough. I chiseled away at the diamond block encasing this piece as best I could, using art, free association, and any other technique I could conjure. Little to nothing worked.

Then something happened: Nacho went back to the hospital. (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…)