Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Love, Grief, and the Creative Process

May 2, 2013: Good, steady progress was made this week. Movement four, tentatively subtitled “At a Loss for Words,” continues to take shape. I estimate that I have about half the orchestration done – which, frankly, is quite a bit more than I anticipated at this point. It is amazing what one can do when you pretty much throw yourself head first into a project. I have spent several hours a day working on this, sometimes in large four-hour blocks, and other times by squeezing in 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there when possible. I can’t remember the last time I have worked so furiously, while still managing to love every freakin’ second of that work. Well – almost “every freakin’ second.”

You see, it is my personal opinion that the creative process needs moments of frustration and grief. The “oh crap – I don’t know what to do next” moments, or the “What am I thinking?! This is amateurish schlock”  moments, or perhaps the “I can almost see where this is going – and yet NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE” moments, or even quite simply the “AAUGHH!” moments. Those are my personal favorites. These moments are critical, as encountering them often indicates you are stretching your creativity. These are the moments that define new ideas – new creative sparks that help grow your art. And yes – they are difficult. Frankly, if the process flows too easily, it likely means that the composer is relying too much on his or her own bag of “tried and true” techniques –  comfort food, so to speak.

I have encountered several of these moments already, and lost quite a bit of sleep as a result. Many of these moments have been directly linked to the orchestration, in part because there are So. Many. Possible. Combinations! OK – that is one reason, but that alone isn’t the reason for having such “moments of frustration.” I like to think that I know how to orchestrate, and if I chose to I could throw down a traditional orchestration in a relatively short amount of time – even shorter than what I’ve already accomplished. The reason I have already had several moments of grief  is because I am intentionally stretching my orchestration chops. I have rejected quite a few first drafts, instead actively working to stretch beyond these first ideas to my second – or sometimes third idea – in order to come up with combinations that not only sound good, but also reach beyond my normal groupings of colors. Something unique, perhaps special – at least within my own body of work.

The search for a more unique sound was especially pronounced on the first few pages of the orchestration, all originating from page 1 of my short score. I went through several versions of the opening arpeggiated gesture – trying out different combinations of sounds, thinking them through in my head, over-thinking them through in my head, second-guessing myself, editing them, adjusting, etc. – before coming up with a combination that satisfied my need to be both fresh-sounding and still idiomatic for the instruments selected:

IV page 1

Movement 4 (draft), Page 1 – orchestration of the opening arpeggio

Admittedly, while the process felt like a struggle, the above combination of instruments is not all that different from my original design. The harp, piano, vibraphone, and crotales were all part of the first draft. The addition of the two woodwinds (flute and oboe) came next, followed by the addition of the string pizzicato as an accent. The “Aha!” moment came when I added a single horn – half-stopped at first, then gradually unstopping (the current notation does not quite match this, but it will be edited). By having this change in color, I also hope to add an additional “out-of-tune” quality to the opening moment, as the horn starts a bit flat and then gradually comes up to pitch. This is not specifically noted as of yet, but will be edited in. This is a bit of an experiment – in the end, I may make additional adjustments (perhaps adding some string support to the horn).

It was this moment – the addition of something a bit out of tune – that was a huge stretch for me. I typically have a difficult time with anything “out of tune,” a side-effect of having perfect pitch (ok – I don’t want to sound like I’m COMPLAINING about having perfect pitch…but it is true that it makes writing out-of-tune elements a challenge for me. So there). However, now that it is in the opening gesture, it is an important motivic element to the ENTIRE movement. It now has to be present in more of the movement – otherwise it will sound like the horn player is simply not in tune. So, following this moment we get the next two flourishes on pages 2 and 3:

IV page 2

Page 2

IV page 3

Page 3

The “detuned” element returns with two horns now, as well as in a small string-glissando on page 3 (only a half-step, mind you, but the players will be instructed to move VERY slowly through that half-step). These gestures finally culminate with a larger tutti moment on Page 4:

IV page 4

Page 4

The detuning element at this point is removed from the work for the time being, although it will return at a few more key moments. Specifically, the final “song” will include detuned elements as a way of creating a more distant, longing quality in the music.

To many reading this, you might think that adding an out-of-tune element to the orchestration is not that a big deal – old hat, even. But to me, it is definitely a new area to explore. I have never actively pursued non-standard intonation before, as it always sounded off to my ears. As a way of adding color, though, it is a new, wonderful arena for me to explore. As mentioned earlier, this is a personal challenge. It is definitely causing me quite a bit of grief.

And I’m loving every moment of it. Call me a masochist.

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2 responses to “Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Love, Grief, and the Creative Process

    • Wouldn’t it be great if all composers did this? Of course, as a musicologist friend told me – there is still room to interpret the composer’s words…

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