Word 60 (Lecture Notes)
My new trio Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees & Ray Gonzalez premiered at Chatter a few weeks ago. Planning my introduction from the stage, I wrote out some notes under three headings. Then I restrained myself and said almost none of it out loud. Maybe it will make a better essay.
Before you hear this new trio, I want to briefly plant three seeds that might suggest how I think about composition and how you might direct your listening.
1. Music as Metaphor for/of Travel
Road trips have always been important to my creative imagination. Consider for a moment the rates of motion you experience when driving down a New Mexico highway. Direct your gaze at the mountains in the distance, and you might seem to be moving slowly. Direct your gaze at the road beside you, and you’ll appear to be moving quickly. Look around within the car, and you’ll find you aren’t moving anywhere at all.
2. Music Evoking Space
Acoustically any sound has four components: attack, sustain, decay, release. Conventional pitch-and-rhythm notation emphasizes attack. I’m interested in the other three. One can listen not just to the notes but to everything that comes right before, right after, in all the space between.
3. Eventfulness/Activity/Eventlessness in Music
The novelist Haruki Murakami has reported that he begins the first draft of each new novel with no plan whatever in mind. He drafts his way through from beginning to end, letting each development come as a surprise; he just begins, and trusts that information will emerge and self-organize.
My composition teachers always emphasized “pre-planning.” You’re supposed to know the length and width and shape of the piece, its form and structure and character, before you write any notes or rhythms. This clearly works for others, but for me the results were lifeless. My teachers encouraged me to “exhaust the material,” exploring and “developing” each idea by carefully considering it from every angle. I’ve preferred to go from one idea to the next, letting each one hang in the air for as long as it seems to want to.
The best composition lesson I ever got came in this three-word bundle: Repetition is Development. You can’t cross the same river twice, and you can’t hear the same musical idea twice, either, and one thing you definitely cannot do is go home again. By the end of the piece, you’re an older person than you were at the beginning. This is the whole game right here, the whole essence of what we do. Music stylizes and dramatizes the passing of time.
Thank you for joining us, and I hope you enjoy the journey.
Postscript is, I’m always looking for ways to close my pre-piece remarks beyond telling people that I hope they enjoy the piece. Submissions welcome.
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• Music as Drama
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• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues