Documenting the ProcessOctober 15th, 2012
This morning, I emailed the first edition parts and score of my latest piece, Famishius Fantasticus, to the commissioning school. It seems like just yesterday I was freaking out about finishing the last commission, City Trees. It has been — and continues to be — a wonderfully busy second half of the year.
All I knew when I started was that I wanted this next piece to be completely opposite of what City Trees was. Whereas City Trees is lyrical and sentimental, I wanted to write something fast, fresh, and colorful. But right on time, my performance anxieties kicked in, and once again, everything I was writing sucked.
After watching a short video from Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile about keeping a journal to track small accomplishments and progress for creative projects, I decided to give it a try. So I opened up a new Word Document and was soon writing a few paragraphs in it nearly every night.
At the time, it was just a good outlet to vent about the day’s creative failures and celebrate the successes. For instance, here’s my entry after I decided on the title:
I like that I’m working in an octatonic mode – it works very well for abstract, modern cartoon music. I also kind of dig my working title for the piece, Famishius Fantasticus. This, of course, is a reference to Wile E. Coyote in the Looney Tunes cartoon There They Go Go Go. I like that it’s kind of an absurd title, much like the music, and I like the use of the word “fantastic,” which plays very well with the over-the-top concert-closer nature of the piece. No doubt people will have trouble pronouncing the Latin – I think that only enhances my own satisfaction in the joke.
And here’s a nice fat whine the very next day:
Oh, man, I was so frustrated this afternoon. I’ve been really consistent this week, waking up at 9:00 and working practically all day, less a few trips to the gym and other errands. But according to my white board, it’s taken me 15 days to write 1 minute of music. That’s terribly unacceptable, and although I’ve been consistent all week, I have tended to drift towards rehashing the material I already have, reorchestrating it, obsessing over it, and missing writing new material.
And also this single entry:
This day was awful.
But it wasn’t all just a big corner to cry in. One of the biggest things I learned from this process (but only in retrospect) was that it clearly identified the fears that often kept me from making significant progress. After reading over my journal again tonight, there are clear motifs that unveil themselves. Sure I whine about my deadline, but for a majority of the project, my road blocks were constructed mostly by commercial fears rather than creative ones.
Things are wild right now, which is fine for [musical] development, but could ultimately make the piece much harder than it should be. The last thing I need is to write another Grade 5 level piece that is too novelty that no advanced bands would take it seriously enough to program.
If this piece comes off as “novelty” then it will probably never make it onto any important State Music Lists, like the Texas PML. Is this piece really that kitsch? Do I really need to try and (perhaps cut the Raymond Scott stuff) and work more in a Shostakovich direction? Ugg.
Halfway through the process, I began questioning if the piece would be “too novelty” — a word I don’t like because I think it’s a cheap-shot empty criticism. People might also quickly associate this piece as “circus” music — another word I don’t like because people immediately associate a quirky march beat with a zany circus. When was the last time anyone went to an actual circus (and no, that Cirque du Soleil Beatles show doesn’t count.)? “State Fair” music would be a better adjective — at least then it has a compelling association with danger and carnies.
The moral here is that, for a time, I was way too concerned with writing more “scholarly” music and with what my colleagues were going to think rather than writing music that just excited me. I think a big game-changer for me came in after I watched an old-school video about author Ray Bradbury’s creative process, where he kindly reminded me 49 years ago, “[your work] doesn’t have to be the greatest, but it has to be you.”
Tomorrow, let’s continue in this direction – this wildly traditional classical nonsense. Keep it simple. And find a way to add a Mahler hammer. Sure, it may represent a guillotine or whatever in Mahler’s symphonies, but here, it’s all cartoon violence … This piece should NOT be intentionally humorous. It should be colorfully violent. The absurdist faux latin title will parallel nicely with the faux classical style. This is not a mockery, but a “hey, let’s not be too pretentious about this stuff”-ery. Let’s keep doing this.
After taking most of yesterday off, I decided to try to change my attitude this morning and to try and focus on making music that will astonish me and excite me … I began revisiting the ending. The ending, after all, is what I’ve liked so much so far anyway so I thought that maybe I could re-inspire the music by revamping it. So I decided that the Mahler Hammer needed a solo and that I’ll only place one hit at the end here so it gives the piece some kind of high point. And, like most Looney Tunes cartoons end, the piece ends abruptly with an augmented dominant 5 chord resolving to 1, a quick flourish to a major 3rd in the picc and flute, and capped with a “BUT-TON” ending that seems to yell, “HEE-HAW!” Perfect.
It’s really easy for real-life stuff to cloud our minds, creatively. I think it’s important to continue asking ourselves, “who am I writing for?” I’m not encouraging people to ignore their imposed restrictions — we absolutely have to fulfill (to the best of our ability) what our clients are asking for. But in order for our work to have heart, we must create for ourselves first. Only then can we create honestly because we will have inevitably put a piece of ourselves into it. For me, reminding myself of this has been the most effective way to move forward over those infinite creative hurdles.