Friday, January 22, 2010

Inspiration: Composer Salon Live

The next Composer Salon is on Monday February 1, 2010 from 7 pm to around 9 pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn). And the price is right for our troubled economic times: FREE! The Lyceum is literally above the Union Street M, R Train stop in Brooklyn. The Lyceum does have various inexpensive libations including different beers, wine and other non-alcoholic beverages, as well as coffee and baked goods. If you are a composer/musician in New York City area, regardless of genre, style, or inclination, I hope you can come out, meet some new and old faces behind the blogs and comments and listen or join the discussion.

Salon Topic #4:
“You need a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high, that is not in ourselves, in order to do beautiful things….”—Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo
“Basically, music is not about technique, it’s about spirit.”—Terry Riley
As some of you know in June 2010, I'll be premiering one section of a new collaborative project based upon the writings of Thomas Paine, To Begin the World Over Again with Numinous, dance choreographer Edisa Weeks, and her company Delirious. The full project will take place in the spring of 2011. In my research and reading for the project, I read David McCollough's wonderful book 1776, a riveting account of that pivotal year in American's revolution against England. And while the book only talks about or mentions Thomas Paine briefly, both occasions were stirring. One was an account of the retreat of the American troops from New York City to New Jersey and the famous crossing of the Delaware River. Thomas Paine, who as an aide to General Greene, was among the retreating troops. Inspired by the American's incredible resolve and determination against frigid weather and a seemly invincible opponent, Thomas Paine began writing the words which eventually became his American Crisis. Whose famous words, "these are the times that try men's soul's" echo the graveness of the times then and have been appropriated by many since then. The other account in 1776 was an aside about how Common Sense, which was published on January 9th, 1776 (not the 10th as is commonly thought), was read to the soldiers of the fledgling colonial army and how the moving words of Common Sense changed the conflict in the minds of those soldiers (as well as in the mind of General Washington) from a struggle against the meddlesome but generally welcomed rule of a benevolent crown to a war for freedom and independence against a foreign invader. I thought about how the words of Thomas Paine inspired the Revolution and recently it got me think more generally about inspiration itself. 

 (trumpeter Wilmer Wise and percussionist Warren Smith at FONT concert, 
The Chamber Music of Ornette Coleman January 14th, 2010)

Last week, I, along with my Pulse colleagues Darcy James Argue and JC Sanford, were a part of the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) where we were commissioned by founder Dave Douglas to write 'arrangements' of Ornette Coleman tunes. Before our concert was a performance of composer Charles Wuorinen's brass music. At the conclusion of the Wuorinen concert, I was talking with a fellow composer who remarked, something to the effect of how they were "amazed at what different music is in people's heads." This was not meant as a direct criticism of the Wuorinen music we just heard, but rather a general wonderment at how different people hear different things and how that manifests itself in sound and music. Certainly Charles Wuorinen's soon to be completed opera Brokeback Mountain will sound completely different than Gustavo Santaolalla's score to the movie? And what a different creation is the movie when compared to the Annie Proulx's short story? How does the same short story inspire such different outcomes? What inspires someone to compose the way they do? I also thought about the great music Darcy, JC and myself came up with in reimagining Ornette Coleman's music into something new. What inspired us to hear Coleman's music in such a way that, while certainly referencing Coleman, sounded less like Coleman and more like Darcy, JC, and me? It is really fascinating to contemplate (well, at least to me anyway) and I thought the idea of inspiration might be an interesting discussion for others in the Composer Salon as well.

I. German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said,
“always at the commencement of work that first innocence must be reachieved, you must return to that unsophisticated spot where the angel discovered you when he brought you the first binding message.”
How do you approach the start of a new composition? What inspires you to begin a composition? Is it purely the working out of musical material, an extra-musical association, or a combination that inspires the beginning of a work?

II. Composer George Crumb states that in composing
“there’s always a balance between the technical and the intuitive aspects. With all the early composers, all the composers we love, there was always this balance between the two things…that’s what all music reflects.”
How do you reconcile and balance the two forces? Do you really need to?

III. Composer Alvin Lucier, in his essay The Tools of My Trade, speaks of a temptation, when first conceiving a piece, “towards greater complexity” in his principal musical idea, but eventually reducing the idea to its’ minimum. This idea of reducing ideas to only their barest essence (and the difficulties inherent in that) is also spoken about by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Mark Rothko and many other artists, writers, musicians (as well as philosophers and theologians). Do you fight the temptation of “greater complexity” in your own music? How do you do it? What ways/techniques help you achieve the 'right' way to convey your musical idea(s) in your composition? When do you know if it is 'right'?

If you are a composer or musician or music lover in the New York City area, consider coming down to the Lyceum and joining the discussion, or if you don't live in New York or can't make it, adding your thoughts in the comments. Hope to see you on February 1st!

Previous Composer Salons
Composer Salon #1: The Audience
Composer Salon #2: Future Past Present
Composer Salon #3: Mixed Music-Stylistic Freedom in the 'aughts


Caitlin said...

Hi Joe,

Wonderful that in a discussion about inspiration, you cited a discussion about musicians being "amazed at what different music is in people's heads".

I'm in the middle of writing a new show for my jazz orchestra, and, as always, I feel that my block is not a lack of inspiration, but trusting that an inspiration is worthy of my attention. Recognizing what a wonderful thing it is to have the different music from inside people's heads, and to have the chance to be influenced by all of this.

And as for the source of inspiration, well, maybe it's a Canadian thing, but I feel like that's not something I want to talk about. Just as awkward teenagers don't want to tell you who they have a crush on....

Numinous said...

Hi Caitlin, thanks for reading and replying. No I don't think it is a Canadian thing, well not exclusively. I remember watching an elementary teacher years ago during a book read aloud quietly (it was amazingly and very effectively in an almost whisper) admonish kids who were interrupting the story as breaking the "magic of the book." I often feel like to share publicly TOO much about my inspiration or thoughts behind a particular piece is to break a bit of the mystery and "magic" of the piece; that revealing TOO much takes something away, much like that old Native American idea when photography was new, that a picture of someone was taking a little bit of their souls/spirit. Finding that right balance between sharing some of the inspiration in order to make connections with listeners (and in some ways, the piece itself) and the beauty of keeping some aspects mostly private and special is something I have to work through with each composition.

Look forward to hearing the new music sometime this way soon.

Chris Becker said...

"Simple" musical ideas are the result of a lot of hours spent playing, studying, and thinking about music. And upon closer examination, what is appears to be "simple" can contain a whole world of expression.

Did Rothko really take away complexity in his paintings to create the work we are familiar with? Or did he come through the other side after exploring many other avenues and techniques for expression?

I wonder if "clarity" is a word that might be helpful here. Clarity of expression (in the writing and performance) means your music will resonate with listeners on many many levels no matter how "hard" it is to play.

...well, that's what you hope for anyway.

Here's one of my "simple" pieces of music. Composition and improvised passages (by Daniel Kelly) edited in the studio to create the final product: