Thursday, September 10, 2009

Intuition and Structure in Composing and more...

I bought a copy of a book called Performer as Priest and Prophet a few months ago, but hadn't got round to reading it. I first came across it at work, where my boss had a borrowed copy from the Hewitson Library. Something about it rang bells, and I bought a secondhand copy (it's out of print). However, with all the shifting around in the house due to the renovation of the kitchen, it kind of got shelved in more ways than one.

The book is by Judith Rock, a professional dancer (and former auxiliary NYPD police officer!), and Norman Mealy, a liturgist and musician (and occasional hymn-writer) - Mealy died before it was completed, but still had a great deal of input.

I only began reading the book this morning (in the bath - a great place to read: the mind seems more relaxed, and absorbs more, and is less distracted), so I can't really comment on it overall. But one thing struck me, and that was Rock's comments on intuition in the arts. (She wrote the Introduction.)

It made me consider how I write music. To an extent, I've tended to put down my way of composing. For the most part, I start at the beginning and finish at the end. Sometimes I do some chopping and changing on the way (particularly now that I work half between the piano and half between the Sibelius program), and at all times I'm looking for the right note or chord in relation to what goes before and after. But I seldom start out with a 'plan,' and sometimes the music just doesn't go - even though it seemed promising at the time - and gets abandoned before it reaches the end. Sometimes something that seemed promising is promising, but it takes a patch of time away from it to realise it. My piano piece, the one that wound up with the title, A Cowboy Learns the Tarantella, is a case in point. I woke up with the 'theme' running around in my head, went to the piano, jotted it down and then thought: that's pretty basic. But a few days later it came together, and 'basic' or not, it works. And Schoenberg Plays with his grandchildren - another piece that didn't in any way start out with that title (the titles tend to come later) - also started out with what seemed a great idea, but it just didn't want to work. It was only after I came back to it some time later than I saw the potential: same kind of material, but different approach.

I kind of find the music as I go along, rather than having it all worked out beforehand. Even with songs, it's as if a particular idea connects itself to the opening words, and we go along from there. It's very possible that a totally different idea could work - in fact, more than possible. What gets written on Tuesday may not have turned up on Thursday.

Structure suffers a bit in the process - I've discussed this several times in this blog - and there have been pieces, particularly pieces for larger forces than just a piano, or piano and voice, that have required some considerable sorting out. That's perfectly normal, of course, for any work, and I probably do it more with the piano pieces and such than I remember afterwards. It's just because they're smaller scale and more manageable in terms of tidying up structure.

What I'm saying is that I suspect far more composers work intuitively than we're led to believe by musicologists. The latter find all manner of connections in works afterwards; the composer doesn't think 'rationally' about these connections at the time; he or she tends to be so focused on getting the thing down on paper (preferably before it all blows away and he or she loses concentration) that he/she doesn't pick up a number of the connections.

But when you go back over your own work - particularly some time later, after you've forgotten the sweaty stage - you can often be surprised by what's turned up.

And talking of that, in one of the posts I just picked up regarding structure, I find that I was writing about a screenwriter called Blake Snyder. I'd forgotten his name altogether, but now realise I've just read a book by him called Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: the screenwriter's guide to every story ever told. It's a sequel to Save the Cat! the last book on screenwriting you'll ever need. When I got Save the Cat! on interloan, I thought it was the first of the two books I was getting; it was the second. This second title goes through about fifty well-known movies and shows how each and every one of them follows a structure that's virtually identical.

Now whether that's really true is another matter. Whether the scriptwriters sat down and said: here's the structure, what story can we tell, is another matter altogether. I rather think Snyder has come along, like a musicologist, and made these films fit his theory. In the end the book isn't very inspiring. I'd still like to have a look at the first of the two books, though I suspect it's title is a little overblown. Yes, certain facets of storytelling turn up again and again, particularly in the movies - and there's a certain satisfaction in that. But quirkiness in movies, oddball approaches, the thing that is different, is also satisfying, and it would be horrible to think that we would have to endure endless movies all plotted along similar lines forever and ever Amen.

(Incidentally, I've just seen that Snyder died just last month of a pulmonary embolism- he was only 52.)

Well, I've strayed a fair way from my opening, but that's what happens when you don't have to go to work for a couple of days, and can relax while blogging!

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