Great pieces are inevitable

Great pieces are inevitable.

Let me explain what I mean by first explaining what I don’t mean.

I don’t mean that if a composer, artist, or writer sits down and creates something that it’s certain to be a masterpiece. Oh, if only that were true.

No, I mean all great pieces have a sense of inevitability. It begins, takes the listener through an experience, and then ends exactly the way it’s supposed to. Voila. To quote Salieri from Amadeus, “Displace one note and there would be diminishment.

Great pieces of art, literature, or music seem effortless, natural, or logical, as if they were conceived that way from the very beginning of their inception. But if you ask the composer how the piece was born, you’re more likely to get an answer like “I beat my head against the wall for seven months.”

The greatness of the best artists, composers, and authors discourages many from trying to create their own work. “I could never create anything that perfect,” they say. “Every time I try to write, it’s never any good.” I wish I could play like that. I wish I could compose like that. I wish I could paint like that. I wish I could sculpt like that.

Not everyone can create art that will change the world, but to stop trying because the first efforts are less than wonderful is the wrong approach. Would-be creators must realize that when we read a marvelous novel or hear an amazing symphony, we are experiencing the final product. We are spared having to read the passages or hear the harmonies that didn’t make the final cut. And because we experience a great work from beginning to end, people might naturally think it was written from beginning to end.

But there’s tons of errors and mistakes and loose ends and rabbit holes and dead ends during the creation of a work. And the beginning is rarely where the piece actually started. Before there’s a finished product, there’s a buttload of editing, rewriting, and throwing out the trash. Only Mozart (here we go with Amadeus again) wrote music “as if he were just taking dictation.” The rest of us mortals write our first draft and then put ourselves through an emotional wringer: “well that sucks…that’s bad…this might work…that’s awful…I have no original ideas…I peaked when I was 14…what if I took this and moved it here?…then maybe I could salvage that…but if I do that, then this will have to…” etc.

Over the last year, I’ve written some silly poems for my kids a la Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. It’s a lot of fun and quite rewarding. I like my finished creations, but I’m telling you they don’t come easy. It took me a long time to identify exactly why a good poem is so satisfying, but I figured it out: it’s because it’s inevitable. Success of a poem often hinges on economy of material. The last word of a poem not only completes a thought or idea, but is a natural consequence of a rhyme set up earlier. Only that word could satisfactorily end the piece. Displace one word and there would be diminishment.

If you read one of my poems, you might think I’m a terrific poet. I assure you I am not. Well, maybe I am! I don’t know. If you measure my worth as a poet by how naturally poetry comes to me, then I am a disaster. But if I’m measured by the quality of the finished product, then maybe I’m not terrible. In any case, don’t think for a second that I can sit down and write a few lines and poof there’s a poem. My process is laborious and painful. I constantly refer to the rhyming dictionary. I can’t toss off rhymes in freestyle rap like Lin-Manuel Miranda. My mind’s not that quick. It takes a while.

But even Miranda has to work at it. His early sketches of HAMILTON are filled with corrections and missteps. That show is the result of years of development, rewrites, and workshopping. There are whole songs, awesome ones, that had to be cut because they didn’t move the story along. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, but they don’t come out of his head ready for the publisher; they will be rewritten and reworked, and a lot of them will be thrown out completely.

And when he writes, even he doesn’t know where his story will go! He originally imagined his novel Misery would be shorter, but to his surprise his protagonist Sheldon turned out to be more resourceful and determined than he (both the character and the author!) originally thought.

The secret to being a creator is to create. Getting started is the hard part. The only way to do it is to make yourself do it.

When I compose a musical passage, I usually have a pretty good idea where in the piece it’s going to happen. But sometimes while I’m struggling to figure it out I realize it would be better somewhere else. When writing poems, if I have two rhyming words there’s usually a logical antecedent/consequent order. BUT…sometimes it occurs to me that an idea is clearer (or funnier) if I reverse the order. I think these “a-ha” moments could be mistaken for inspiration, but they only reveal themselves as a result of concentrated effort.

Frank Ticheli wrote that composing sometimes feels like the music reveals itself, as if it directs where it needs to go and the composer is simply following its natural inclination. When that happens, it is indeed a marvelous thing because the resulting product will likely feel natural, logical, or inevitable. The final piece was there the whole time, just waiting to be discovered.

So it may be inevitable that a piece turns out the way it does. It’s only in retrospect that we realize where in fact the final destination was, and that all the wrong turns we took were necessary to find it. The final product might appear as a straight line, but the journey is anything but.

This essay, which I hope made a coherent point, probably took you 5-10 minutes to read. It took me many hours in eight sessions to write. It takes great artists months, even years to write works that take minutes to consume. So if yours isn’t perfect right off the bat, you’re in good company.

Composing in the desert

You often read about artists and composers who are inspired by nature or their surroundings. Many are convinced that the quality and the type of art they create is a direct result of the environment in which it was created.

If this were true in my case, the music I’ve written lately would be brown, drab, boring, and just flippin’ ugly.

Against my better judgment, a few months ago I accepted the offer of a commission for a grade four band piece. I did this after less than a month in Kuwait…not enough time to really know how much time I would be able to devote to creative work or whether or not I would be able to concentrate on it. As it turns out, I’ve had plenty of time to dedicate to writing music since I can decide what to do with whatever spare time I have. (I miss my family terribly, but it’s easier to get work done when your four-year-old isn’t barking at you to run with her every two minutes.) Plus, I’ve found solace in the Starbucks that’s mere yards from my “pod” (living quarters); it’s a little slice of home here in the desert, and if I don’t look out the window it feels pretty much like a Starbucks back at home. I grab some coffee and a chair, plug my MacBook into the wall with my three-octave MIDI keyboard and voila, I’ve got my own studio.

So, with some free mornings and hours open to composing, I had plenty of time to write Keynote Address for my old chapter of Delta Omicron. I’m very pleased with the way it turned out, and I think it stands up to any of my other personal favorites despite being written in some of the butt-ugliest country you’ve ever seen.


New pieces

I guess things are picking up a little bit.  There’s less than two weeks remaining for the Adjutant General Captains Career Course, leaving only nearly a month until I report to Pershing’s Own.  It will be a great relief to get back into music full-time.

 In the meantime, I did manage to finish a couple of new pieces; pieces that had been on the burners for probably waaaay too long.

The Roarsville Rag is a short grade 4 written for the Rohrersville Band.  I’m really happy with the way it turned out.  I wanted to introduce three melodies that combined for the finale, and I think they really come together well in a satisfying finale.  Once the ending was written and I had all the melodic material ironed out, the expositions were easy.  Two criteria were not met, however: I wanted to deliver the piece last year for the band’s 170th birthday, and also make it a grade 3.  But I discovered that once you decide to write a rag, you’re pretty much locked into writing a fair amount of syncopation.

The other piece I finished was Montpelier Dances, a very difficult woodwind quintet composed with the Montepelier Winds of James Madison University in mind.  I met them at Midwest in 2003 when they gave a clinic.  I decided then that I would write a piece for them, but I cannot remember if I actually told any of them of the plan.  Oh, well.

Anyway, the piece is in five contrasting movements, and each movement features one of the instruments in virtuostic fashion (each movement even features a short cadenza).  Please go to my website and give it a listen; there’s a pretty decent computerized performance until I can get the real thing.

Soon, I’m sure I will beat myself up for not being more productive during this time away from crazy work hours and the wonderful chaos of a house with kids, but for now I’m content with pulling out two slow-going pieces.  There’s no shortage of new ideas to tackle, though, and I think I’ll get started soon (after I do my taxes)!

NBA/Merrill Jones results

I haven’t written anything for a while in this forum, but there’s a very good reason for that–there’s not a whole lot to report. I’m in the purgatory of Army schooling, and it’s not a music-rich environment to say the least. But after a few very slow months, an eventful day today…

Two days ago I received notice that Black Tie Blu-bop didn’t win the NBA/Merrill Jones Band Composition Contest and that my submission would be returned under separate cover. Fine. But today I get a letter from Frank Wickes saying that the committee thought my piece was “excellent” but exceeded their Grade III/IV requirement (an accurate assessment–it’s a solid Grade V). So he forwarded the score and CD to Wingert-Jones for publication consideration even though the piece didn’t win! What a classy thing to do; I sent a quick email of thanks. W-J should have a look in a month or so. Even if it doesn’t get selected, it was a meaningful gesture from the judges not to simply throw out the piece as ineligible.

This good news led to a friendly call to Dave McKee (Virginia Tech marching band and symphony band director, and good friend), who said that Grafton High School‘s performance at VMEA was fantastic. It totally slipped my mind! Hopefully Darren will come through and get that recording to me.

Though I haven’t been productive, I’m still at least trying to write. I figured I would be able to write a lot of music while I didn’t have the distractions of home during the course, but I was mistaken. I talked with my wife earlier and I think she’s right: I have the time to write, but without the immersion in and exposure to a musical environment, I’m not getting anywhere. Note to self: never apply for the Rome prize; you’ll only waste everyone’s time.

At least I am nearly done with my woodwind quintet and there will be much rejoicing when it’s finally finished. I don’t see another one in the forseeable future.


While we were waiting for permission to take the field for rehearsal the day of our World Bowl performance, the band spent a fair amount of time hanging out in one of those huge concrete tunnels that leads directly to the playing field from the outside.  And when you’re waiting around with nothing to do for over an hour, and you have a horn in your hands, you’re going to noodle.

Our trombones and horns started playing Mahler 3.  At the time, I was out on the field, but you could hear this huge sound coming from the tunnel, even though this was a reasonably large stadium with a lot of ambient noise.  One particular passage coming from that huge echo chamber sounded like something that would work well in the Meyerson lobby in Dallas…wait a minute…let’s think about this…
And that’s sometimes the way things happen.  Just a couple of notes in succession of people just fooling around can catch your ear in a unique way and start the creative juices flowing.  I had no intention of entering the Dallas Wind Symphony fanfare competition again; I thought the success I had before would be tough to top.  But just a week has passed since that moment and I have a decent start on a piece that only has to be two minutes long (but it is due in two weeks–can I work that fast?).
So, dear reader, you may expect a posting of my next fanfare effort, Galaxy Portals, coming soon.

Kid tunage

Yesterday I did something that I said I would do a while ago, but finally got around to it. I wrote a short piano piece for my son. It is the first of what I hope will be a series of pieces for both he and my daughter (if she decides she wants to play). I don’t think this will blossom into anything like Bartok’s Microcosmos (in scope, quality, or significance), but it sure was fun! It’s nice to just step back and write something short and simple without having to work out a large form or mess with orchestration. Of course, writing for just piano (and a relative beginner, at that) is challenging enough without adding further restrictions.

The working title for the compilation:

Daddy’s Book of Kid Tunage