The Composer’s Craft, Part 1 (of many)

Working my way through Blake Henson and Gerald Custer’s book The Composer’s Craft.  So far, much of what’s happening in the beginning of the book is philosophical and aesthetic – it’s tackling the root issues of why people like me sit and decide to write music in the first place.

The reader is encouraged to journal about his/her composition process along the way. Many questions are tossed in at the end of each chapter for the user to reflect upon (most likely through journaling).

So….here’s what I’m writing about now.

Why do you compose ? For whom do you compose – yourself, others, or both ? If you have yet to write your first work (and don’t worry, that’s coming), to whom do you imagine your first musical words being directed ? If you could say the things you have always wanted to say, but never managed to find the voice, who would be listening ? Finally, is securing a performance the end of the compositional process, or just part of it ? How much does being performed matter ? Why ?

Future end-of-chapter assignments include compositional exercises involving composing things discussed in the chapter. I look forward to them.

For now, the first reflection begins. Why do compose music ?

Long story. You need the background information first. I’ll try to summarize as much as possible…but it will be a little long.

I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by people like Mozart and Prince, who, in large part, wrote music for themselves without regard to public opinion.  I spent a large block of time with Prince in my ears while I created websites and did graphic design for a home business in the late 90’s. I found my own creativity was jarred by the musical ‘stuff’ put out by the purple one. I still love his music now.  The significance of this might become more obvious as I go on typing.

I tried my hand at composition for wind band for the first time in 1986 while a freshman at Baltimore School for the Arts.  Shannon, an Oboe player (10th or 11th grade I believe at the time) said “it sounds like something from a method book”.  I think I tried to write an additional piece sometime later that year, but never followed through. I toyed with some additional ideas over the years afterward, though. I spent time arranging music through my next few years of high school (there were 5 of them…I failed 9th grade due to immaturity), training my ear up to hear everything. I began to listen for the ‘details of the music’, as I called it.  Melvin Miles Jr. was heavily influential in this area, as I got to see/hear Morgan State University’s Magnificent Marching Machine repeatedly throughout my high school years after leaving/being kicked out of the BSoA.

My four years at Walbrook High School (did I mention I repeated 9th grade after being kicked out of the BSoA ?) gave me plenty of writing opportunities. Jacob Saulsbury was very generous with allowing me time in front of the band for every and any arrangement that came to mind based off some song I heard on the radio that was currently popular.  I remember making a decision in 10th grade, choosing between being a professional arranger (I liked it and was wondering what I needed to do to get picked up by Hal Leonard…) and becoming a band director eventually.  I chose the latter and worked toward it gradually.

Meanwhile, Gloria Street, my piano teacher, started me fresh in my 9th grade year at Walbrook and made a successful (moderately) pianist out of me by my senior year.  Michael Jackson once said that melodies are ‘eternal’ and ‘out there in the air’.  Our job as composers was to pull those melodies out of the air and put them on paper. Somewhere between 1989 and 1990, maybe earlier, I began hearing those melodies pass overhead and started pulling them out of the air.  One such song was Storm and Shadows, composed in 1991 for the NAACP’s ACT-SO competition that year. I won third place in music composition locally (an utter shock to me, since I didn’t expect anyone to pay the song much attention).

While little composing was done during the ensuing decade (1991-2000), I did a lot of arranging for band. At Bowie State University, I became the de facto head arranger from 91-95, teaching myself to also create drills for marching band in the process (with a bit of help from Mr. Sanders Milligan, former director at Bowie State and Winston-Salem State Universities). I’d developed my ear more.  Every arrangement was treated as an original composition – I was leaving a piece of my soul in the band room, in the stands and on the field. Those who played the music I’d arranged – my music (though I was not the composer) – gave me life. Like Will Smith’s character in Hancock near the end of the film where he found himself gradually being able to jump higher and higher until with one leap he finally took flight, my arranging has been my release of many of the things in me that I’ve been unable to express and share verbally.

Without realizing it, I’ve been composing all along. Every time an arranger takes the work of another and prepares it for an ensemble, that person is engaged being both creative (choosing voicing, instrumentation) and re-creative (adapting something already in existence to fit a current ensemble situation).  How do I make 40-55 instruments sound good ? Unlike FAMU (during that era), I didn’t have 128 woodwinds on the fact, I barely had 28!  What was the best use of them ? I had to create ways of purposing them to fulfill what I needed in order to have heard what I thought needed to be heard.

Fast-forward a few years.  I took time off from college, stagnated trying new things and went back to college to complete my music education degree (I am presently, the last music education major to graduate from Bowie State University). I got the job I wanted (teaching high school band….with choir thrown in for extra and unexpected flavor).  My church choir directing background combined with other choir experiences prepared me for this somewhat. I arranged for both groups feverishly and regularly. My understanding of the role of different instruments and voices grew.  My understanding of a what a good ‘ensemble’ sound should be continued to develop more over time (thanks in large part to the influence of Anthony Townes, Director of VPA Bands at Northwestern High School in Prince Georges’ County….and a graduate of Morgan State under Melvin Miles). I even managed to get the school decent band festival adjudication scores during my last year there (2004-2005 – first decent scores in 20+ years at that time).

My next nine years (to the present) have involved understanding the origins of sound and where the journey to high school band (and choir) begins. As a middle school band director, I’ve had the honor of starting many students on various instruments and seeing them continue playing many years later (even a few of my piano students from the general music classes continued to play). Teaching students to play is also an exercise in pedagogical training for the teacher. In the past nine years, while starting students, I’ve come to understand better the fundamentals of how instruments work, what type of sounds they should and should NOT be producing and how best to help the student achieve these sounds. These have also been lessons for me, as I’ve found myself demonstrating frequently.

In the quest for musical perfection as a director, I’ve found myself studying more and more of the works of those whose music I chose for my students to play. As I exposed myself to more, that part of my brain that did arranging began hearing new melodies, motifs and themes. As such, I began to write them down or record them (in my somewhat poor singing voice) on my iPhone.

I need to insert an important break here. Something tremendously pertinent to the issue at hand is my theological/religious background. My musical development did not occur in a vacuum. I am a Christian who holds to reformed theology (Calvinist, Covenantal, Trinitarian, Presuppositionalist for those whom these terms mean anything to….) –  as such, I lean toward most things being ‘black and white’ – a trait common to the craft of music at its’ fundamental levels (a note is either ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ – it cannot be both. A and Ab are not the same note.). Music, while having quite a bit of diversity, still, at its’ core, has many absolute truths.  One cannot be in-tune playing A438 when the rest of the ensemble is tuned to A440. The second space of the treble clef is A. Not B. Not G – A.  I seek to adhere to things which correspond to the reality we live in and not simply a possible reality. I, therefore, could not be an atheist, since pure naturalism has a million gaping holes when it comes to discussing the issues of morality, presuppositions, metaphysics and even abstract concepts like beauty and  love which go way beyond simple chemical reactions in the brain. I cannot be an agnostic because there’s too much evidence on the side of intelligent and purposeful design to say ‘maybe’ or ‘maybe not’, which amounts to a practical atheism. The fundamental premise of agnosticism is ‘we can’t be sure’, which is, in itself, a denial of what scripture says on the issue (we can be sure, as there is ample evidence all around us). Any honest ‘agnostic’ cannot remain agnostic.  I cannot be a Deist, since they too engage in practical atheism….and the fruit of atheism is not beauty, but despair. Not love, but selfishness. Not mission, but ultimate purposelessness. If all we are are cosmic accidents, why study music ? Why seek to solve academic and scientific problems ? Why grow beyond what we currently know ? If it doesn’t ultimately (not just personally) matter, why invest time in it ?  What are you truly accomplishing ?

But deep inside, everyone knows that God exists. The beauty of a symphony is proof of this. The sense of justice needing to be served at the sight of some wrongdoing nags at all of us and we long to see the scales balanced. As musicians, order and organization matter. These did not randomly come to be. They are evidence – God’s fingerprints, if you will  – that the universe and all that is in it are intelligently and purposely designed.

Second, I believe that we, human beings, were created with this diversity to demonstrate the glory of God in all that we do. Psalm 19 says that the “heavens declare the glory of God and the sky His handiwork” and that there is “no place on earth where their voice is not heard” (vv. 1, 3, 4).  Beauty, creation, purpose, organization (see Psalm 104) and order are part of God’s revelation of Himself to humanity. All things were created and exist the way they are to convey to us something about the God who made them.  Different plants, different animals, different elements, different human beings with their own individual physical characteristics, DNA and more.  Scripture declares human beings, unlike animals, to be created in the image and likeness of God. Indeed, in all of creation, you don’t see bears growing an advanced society and seeking to build/create better bear-habitats. You don’t see monkeys marching for further primate-American rights.  Creation, advanced order and organization, morality and a few other things capture some of the ‘image’ of God spoken of in scripture, unlike the rest of things or animals in existence.

Now to tie all of these things together and answer the question (yes, I’m long-winded in person as well).

I compose for myself. The act of composition is me bringing to life something stuck inside of my head, heart or emotions. Something ephemeral passing me by the in the air that I just happened to pull down from the sky and commit to paper. A part of me bubbling inside like an overflowing rice pot and now has spilled onto the stove of staff paper (how’s that for an image).  Before each piece of music that bears my name as composer or arranger is performed or rehearsed for the first time, I silently pray in the moments before the baton reaches ictus “Please, Lord, don’t let this sound bad.” Music I write, therefore, must be good. My soul is not filled with poor things. Therefore, what is poured out on paper to be performed must not be poor quality.

Prince has at least 50 fully recorded videos, dozens of songs and a few full albums recorded and stashed away in his ‘vault’ at Paisley Park Studios.  They cover decades.  Prince hasn’t released them all (some have snuck out of the vault as bootlegs, others have only only been performed live, some made their way onto albums like Crystal Ball.  They are, reportedly, songs he wrote for himself that he likes.  That’s it.  Art for the sake of personal aesthetic pleasure.  I grew to understand this a little about myself during the mid-90’s when I also DJed. I made it a habit (much to the consternation of older, more experienced DJs) to buy music I liked and spin that at parties versus some of the things I considered garbage. Thankfully (for me), my tastes were shared by those around me and those I serviced as a DJ.

I compose for others. Music is a universal language which brings people who’d otherwise kill or maim each other, into the same environment to enjoy a thing of beauty and sometimes become participants in that same thing. Those who play music I write are, to an extent, co-creators with me in the labor of music.  No two performances are identical, therefore each performance is a new creation to be shared with the world.  The digital age has given us the ability to archive and share again and again that experience (although nothing compares to a live performance).  As I sit and listen to the Dallas Wind Symphony, North Texas Wind Symphony and the Keystone Winds all play Holst’s Second Suite in F with varying ranges of expression and interpretation, I hear something new every time I listen.  Why did Jerry Junkin choose to play this passage this way ? Why did Jack Stamp choose to slow down the March compared to Junkin and Corporon ? Why does each conductor choose the particular phrasing style for the last movement that they chose ? Somewhere, there are thousands if not millions of people asking the same questions and listening intently with every rewind of the music to hear something new. Somewhere there is someone else with their eyes closed, headphones on, placing themselves in a time and place far and away from their present worries and cares. I want to be the person who brings them there….or at least provides the gas for another driver to get them there.

Finally, I compose because in doing so, I demonstrate a small part of God’s awesomeness. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” – 1 Cor. 10:31, ESV. The implications of this passage are simple: whatever you do – from the mundane things like eating and drinking (see parallel passage in Col. 3:17) to the important (like running a country), all of these things are to be done as though they are being done directly to and for God (and they are). As a Christian, my talent, while mine, is ultimately a gift from God. It was not given to me for the purpose of bringing glory to myself, but to Him. It is He who designated this place, this time, these influences and these circumstances and experiences so that I would be moved to write what I write. I had no choice over my parents, where I was born, where I would grow up and whom I would encounter along the way, but all of these things have shaped me into the individual I am and provided me a unique vantage point from which to write. God did this. As such, I seek to communicate His perfections and diversity accurately by doing good work. Composition and performance are, as it were, an act of worship.  I cannot write trite material simply to fulfill a contract and get a paycheck. Where would God be seen in such a thing ?  A friend of mine once said that bad art lies about God. I believe this is true.

I can skip the second question, since I have published my first work and had it performed (May 21, 2013) with myself as conductor. Who was my first official public musical statement spoken to ? Quite a few people. On the earthly side of things, this was an accomplishment for me.  A huge one. There was a certain impact and achievement level that comes with turning 40 that I was seeking to accomplish and part of that involved getting these wonderful ideas out on paper and into the air for others to hear. This was something of a ‘first’ for me. Could I actually do this ?  The answer is yes. Resoundingly, yes.

Have I gained the respect of my peers ? Yes.  It was a statement to them as well. Have I had my students be a part of the creative process ? Yes. It was dedicated to them (I even took comments and suggestions from them for revising some parts of the song).

And being performed….it matters. If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it ? Yes. Does space have a sound ? Yes. A composition unperformed is akin to stopping ten feet below the summit of the mountain, two inches from the finish line of a twenty six mile marathon or only saying “I”  and not “do” at the altar.  Garritan sounds are not life. They are artificial. Macbook Pros and GarageBands sounds don’t breathe. They have no heartbeats. I need people to perform and enjoy the music I write for band.

Another facet of me: I rap. I’ve been doing rap and hip-hop production for 20+ years…..and I also DJ (I mentioned that already).  In my brain, I find myself writing a method book on DJing along the lines of Standard of Excellence Book 1 (in fact, there are already dozens of DJ tutorial videos online that teach in the exact same fashion that books like SoE, AoA and others are set up).  In practice, I see other DJs taking sound clips and things and using them in the same fashion that a pianist takes short motifs from other composers and artists and uses them to create his/her own music. I see them practicing for hours on end on one technique the same way I see myself or my students practicing a technical exercise or difficult passage for hours on end.  These ‘two sides’ of the musical coin make a lot of sense to me.

With all of these things going on, I have a lot of ‘sound’ going through my head at any given time. Organizing it into something coherent and individually beautiful takes time and focus. But the end product is always something that brings my soul joy.  So I sit down, fill myself with caffeine, launch Finale 2012 and begin.

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