Stung / 1973
During the 1973 Christmas holidays, my brother Britt took me to the movies to see The Sting. Scott Joplin's music, which underwent in part because of its use for the film's soundtrack a massive reappraisal, captivated me. The Entertainer was lovely, of course. However, it was Solace, a haunting, sad tango, which drove me back to the piano. (Two decades later, I used two bars of Solace as the thematic basis of one of the "Wedding Dances" in Bandanna. I also paid homage to Joplin in Heliotrope, one of my most frequently performed orchestral works, based on a snatch of the great Joplin-Louis Chauvin piano piece Heliotrope Bouquet.)
Having forgotten what my first piano teacher Adam Klescewski taught me, I re-taught myself how to read music. I sent away to Belwyn Mills in New York for Vera Brodsky Lawrence's just-released Scott Joplin Complete Piano Works and taught myself Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, and Solace by writing the letter names of the notes next to the dots on the lines and spaces.
I loved writing prose. But language frightened me: words were far too falsely specific, too easily (and willfully) trivialized by the clever. By contrast, music was abstract, meaningless in itself, and, simultaneously, capable of conveying the ambiguity and subtlety of the finest emotions. Whereas feelings could be evoked in prose, music could-if it was good-speak directly to the lizard brain.
Now, I feel, I hear music that in that moment encapsulates what I feel, and-with pencil on staff paper-I notate it. A lifetime dedicated to eliminating the "static" resulting from fidelity being lost in imperfect transmission between states has rendered composing reflexive. Then, the feeling and the music were already clear-sure, the emotions were puerile; the musical ideas with which I identified them owed a great deal to the music that I listened to. From the start, though, the Process-and my orientation to it-was clear: I would always aspire to be the sort of composer who wanted his listeners to feel something.
Now, I generally work out an entire movement of instrumental music in my head before sitting down at the piano to quickly "take dictation" by jotting down a roadmap in "short score." This sketch places all of the woodwinds on two lines, the brass on two more, the strings on several more, the way that film composers still do before handing the sketch off to orchestrators, who then (as Sid Ramin and Hershey Kay did so beautifully for Leonard Bernstein) parcel out the lines in the conductor's full score, or partitura. Once that is done, I move to the computer where, as I transfer the sketch into full score using notation software called Sibelius, I do a second draft. I do not listen to the computer's MIDI playback.
(MIDI is an acronym that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a method devised by engineers to enable computers and digital instruments to communicate with one another. It makes possible the digital synthesis of musical notation. This synthesis has become so sophisticated and ubiquitous that most casual music lovers are unaware that synthetic sounds now account for a large component of otherwise acoustic commercial music, including film scores, multi-media scores, and of course, pop music. As for vocal music, the use of live pitch detection algorithms has become so common in Western popular music that being a pop star no longer requires the ability to carry a tune.)
At the age of fourteen, I still needed help hearing complex contrapuntal textures. Back then, I recorded myself playing half of the orchestra on the piano on an open reel tape recorder and played the other half with the playback-a variation on what garage bands fooling around with early 8 channel mixers do. After a few months, I realized that, if I continued working that way, I'd never develop the sort of technique I aspired to. I made a conscious effort to overcome the need for it, and did. Sampling makes of many young composers nowadays collagists. That is neither good nor bad. It's sad that they can't hear it all in their heads, though: the human brain's still the best computer, and that's where all the good editing takes place!
Then, as now, I invariably sang my vocal music, accompanying myself at the piano. Then, I did it because I intuited that the singer and the song must be one. Now, I do it because I know that melody (and by extension all music, arising as it does from the act of singing) must be created acknowledging the physical effort required to produce it. How a singer feels physically when performing a phrase is a crucial manifestation of how he feels.
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