Monday, August 01, 2011

In His Own Write

What is running through the mind of the man in the shadows?
"Full of broken thoughts
I can not repair."

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

This past Friday, I had a gig (rare for Fridays, trust me) as part of a guitar duet for a private party. My guitar playing wizard-friend was kind enough to hire me. The people who hired us were especially nice and so was their stipend. Thank you.

What's cool about these guitar duet gigs is the creative nature of the warm-up material. We do some pretty spontaneous pieces right before we officially start. It's a good way of getting us in sync and a chance to explore ideas without subjecting the people there to any discordant experimentation.

I launched into "Night in St. Cloud" ( inspired by an Edvard Munch painting), a piece that I started many moons ago and have never finished. It has repeated figures and a chord progression that has been haunting me for years. Recently, it has resurfaced and I have been scribbling on it during my morning coffee-guitar-composing bliss before work. We fooled around with it and the ideas generated on the spot got my creative gears moving.

On Saturday, I went upstairs with the purpose of retrieving summer clothes, but digressed to root around in my music files to see if I could find the original sketch. I didn't find that piece, but what I did sent a shock wave through me. When I came downstairs, I was struggling to find the words to explain this to my wife. She's used to my endless, inarticulate attempts to quantify the unquantifiable: the wild horses of my emotions and the discursive nature of my thinking. This is why perhaps I am a musician because ordinary language fails to deliver meaning in its most vivid sense.

Intense creativity or graphomania?

I knew that I had written and sketched some music over the years, but I had no idea how much. Not only the amount, but there was an almost an eerie graphomania about it. Among the traditional and non traditional scores were these graphic elements involving charting all sorts of pitch, timbre and special playing techniques and resultant quarter tones, etc. I knew I went through a deeply cerebral period, but seeing all this stuff, it was as if I was seeing a side of myself that I never quite knew existed.

"And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all."
A famous example of this compulsion.
There are different definitions to graphomania, so to clarify, I mean this from a psychiatric perspective not in the pejorative Kundera sense. As I understand it, graphomania can be an automatic, obsessive desire to scribble meaningless symbols, figures or arcane languages into some kind of journal. This has nothing to do with whether or not one considers oneself an actual "writer," but the writing act is of itself the purpose, the mania, if you will.

There has always been an element of physicality in music for me. The sheer adrenaline fueled muscle movements of some ripping guitar scales or the quiet calm-inducing world of a simple pencil noodling on manuscript paper. There's certainly a tactile and graphic art element to it. Quite intoxicating really.

How obsessed did you become?

While part of all this is explainable- an artist needs his tools and I don't see myself as imbalanced as a whole (although I've had my moments), I can easily step back now and see the manic edge to it all.

You must own one of every kind, right?
When an idea digs roots into my brain, I go to extremes. For example, I didn't just use ordinary pencils. I had to have Dixon Ticonderoga 2/HB soft. I wouldn't go so far as to buy cases of them, but they were plentiful. And no matter how many I had, I worried and thought about buying more. But it didn't stop there as I found myself collecting every brand of pencil that I thought could give me right strength and blackness needed for a clean and legible manuscript. Whenever I was out at a store, a little search down the aisle of the office supplies was essential. My wife would roll her eyes at what she would call my excitement over pens and pencils.

Why, I need all of these, of course. And batches of them. What if I run out?
Then there were mechanical pencils by Pentel: every thickness of lead from the .03 to .09. Even the various varieties of softness of lead. I loved the tiny little leads all snug in their five-sided (?) plastic vessel. You see how cool all that is? Or have I got you shaking your head already?

When I would inevitably lose or misplace one of the Pentels, it would drive me insane. Plus, I hated to loan them to anyone. It felt as personal as loaning someone my guitar. That's not going to happen, amigo. Hands off.

I own a few of these. After all, I may run out!
Then there was the manuscript paper. Some I made, some I bought and every bit of it I kept. I bought manuscript tape-this is like Scotch tape only with a staff on one side. I even contacted a stamp making company to see if a rubber wheel could be manufactured that imitated Stravinsky's staff making tool. I bought journal style, pads, everything. All this stuff kept in a special shoulder bag and transported everywhere just in case inspiration or time opened up. Typical scenario: I would arrange Bach for guitars while my wife would go about her social work business. She'd drop me off and I'd blissfully sit for hours at a restaurant or in the car, as long as composing or arranging was possible.

The Other Stuff

  When I see blank manuscript, I feel a sense of obligation and potential. What music wishes to emerge? What new sounds wish to join the world?  A friend of mine called once referred to "the tyranny of the blank page." What the fuck was he talking about? I couldn't wait to fill up those magnificent lines with notes, beams and all the symbols of notation. I even bought a book about proper notation. At one point, I really knew my stuff and would point out to students the flaws in their scores.

There was a point at which composing was like heroin: I needed it every day. It was my refuge, my solace, the one place where I could take off all masks and leave judgement outside. I could dream anything and shut off skepticism cold. However, this comes at a cost.

The emotional state after baring your soul to music in a room alone does not translate well to the outside world. An author once told me that after hours of writing, he would find it difficult to reconcile the inner world of being excited by his work and the outer realm of his body. The two would be "out of sorts" and it would take some time to realign them, so to speak. After several solitary hours of writing, I would show up for a rehearsal and someone would say, "You've been writing, haven't you?" Or the silence would give rise to, "Are you ok? You're kinda quiet."

The worst was during the five or so weeks of hell before Christmas when all my free time seemed to be taken up by household and yard decorations. Regarding this festive busyness, a friend once dubbed it, "Christmas hell." Besides the domestic front, I was employed by a church and you can just just guess how little composing time I had. The little I could squeeze out was constantly being intruded upon. I was hateful and loathed this time of year.

I used to sneak down to the university when the house I shared with two other guys got a bit too public for any solitude. One time, to my utter surprise, my roomie knocked on the practice room door, informing me he had two girls out in the boat and wouldn't I like to join them? I was so entranced by the opportunity to write that I said no. He of course tried a million times to get me to go. The girl I had met earlier was surely cute. Why did I turn this down? Because sometimes solitude and music is all that is needed. A man has a soul as well and this needs nurturing.

One time, after a particularly brutal and unsuccessful attempt to find the right notes during a practice room session, I had to take a break. I was minding my own business when a young girl must have observed what she thought was emotional distress and offered advice, "Cheer up! It's gonna be OK." My face must have said everything. It slips my mind as to what my response was, but even I don't take dry periods that seriously.

 Big Brain, Little Brain

The period of intellectualizing composition was to prove to others and myself that I was intelligent. There was a certain teacher at the university who represented academia for me; something that I have felt both at home and at odds with. Her students would slowly begin to transform into little academicians and at lessons, I would see this process taking hold everywhere. Slowly, this began a hold on me.

I wanted to prove that although I sometimes have the personality better suited to a California surfer, I was capable of understanding music on these "deep" levels. It's funny what trends and zeitgeists you get caught up in. Some of my friends are not as malleable as I am when new ideas seem to be flying around, catching the mind in an interesting way, but I can easily get quite caught up in a group outlook. Eventually, I will reject it, but a disciple I will be until the idea runs its course.

Gee, Arnie, that looks groovy, but can ya dance to it?
The trouble with intellectual music is that it's peer writing. You are not writing to reach an audience, but rather to impress other academics in your field. Eventually the penny dropped and I began to realize the course my writing was taking was going down a dead end. We (the students and I who began our composing passion back in the day) were holding on to Schoenberg and post-serialism with a big dash of John Cage and George Crumb for color.

When I finally came down to earth, I wrote much more simply-something that reflected my emotions rather than trying to impress anyone. Not wanting to fall victim to what an old college professor said about "scores gathering dust in drawers," I wrote for every group I was in: church choir, flute and guitar duet and a bazillion guitar ensemble pieces. I was not going to write string orchestra pieces when I knew damn well that the chance of even hearing a run-through, let alone a performance is impossible. That to me is setting you up for failure (much like mein old prof-fessore).

I became obsessed with being published and after several rejections, I finally achieved that goal. Yes, that's me. Is it everything I expected? No, far fucking from it. That will have to be a separate blog, dear readers.

This is a Happy Ending (but it costs extra)

Eventually, my passion for it abated and I felt that slow re-entry into a relatively normal life. Sometimes it felt like all I was doing was sketching new ideas and never completing pieces. This is the hard part- having a workable, finished product. Everyone has ideas, even stupid ones, but I never wanted to be someone who simply ran their mouth and never took action. I felt that, in this regard, I have been successful.

But on the other hand, I have reconciled myself that "success" is not something in the stars for me. I see the walls of my limitations pretty clearly and I don't think this is being negative on my part. Although I have many ideas, these have to be quality controlled and quite often I follow these diversions until I see that I've gone once again down the old proverbial rabbit hole. My mind is circular in its path and my burden is to fend off the endless possibilities that my mind generates and arrive at what is organic and suits the purpose of the piece. I never suffer from a blank page, but rather, it can be filled with shit. So, shit quality control? Sorta.

Maybe one day, I will begin to try to fathom the endless piles of music upstairs. It does haunt me. I hate the state of chaos and incomplete pieces, which is why I am slowly chiseling away at "Night in Saint Cloud" again. But I come to it with a without a desperate edge, as I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do it for pure pleasure.

That's why I did it in the first place.

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time."


No comments: