Thursday, November 22, 2007

Musical Paleontology

For the past several days I have been reconstructing a cantata written by someone who died recently. I never knew this person, and I barely know the person who asked me to notate and "flesh out" the melodies that he wrote for his texts. Since the melodies are notated only with letter names of notes (everything is in C major), there is much left to the imagination, but it is surprisingly easy to understand what his musical intentions must have been. The rhythms and harmonies are almost implicit. I don't know if it is from the handwriting, the texts, or the physical way the pages look, but I have been able, without question, to come up with plausible musical material.

It reminds me of the first project of this sort that I ever took on.

One of the perks of being a violist in a rather rural area is that it is relatively easy to find people to play chamber music with. At least it was for me when I started playing. I was so grateful to my chamber music partners for keeping musical company with me, a rank beginner, that I started making arrangements to kind of earn my keep in the ensemble. The viola seat in a string quartet is kind of like having the "answer key" to a puzzle. You can hear, see, and feel how a composition is put together by looking at it from the inside, from its inner voices. It was rather easy and really quite a bit of fun to make arrangements of pieces to play at weddings and parties, and it gave our quartet a certain caché to have our own unique arrangements. I must have made 50 or 60 arrangements before even thinking of myself as possibly becoming a composer and writing music of my own.

The turning point for me came when a local business owner named Gene Hoots, who owned a restaurant called the "Burger King" (named before the chain copyrighted the name) asked one member of my quartet if he could make arrangements of some of his songs for our string quartet. Of course this request was forwarded to me since I was the in-house arranger. The project (for which I was actually paid!) ended up being huge. Gene gave me a whole case of cassette tapes of him playing the piano and singing his country songs, along with piano pieces that he thought of as being "classical." I painstakingly notated the ones that I thought had some musical value, and I arranged them for quartet. After working for a while on these pieces, I realized that there was often a lot of "me" in the arrangements, and I realized that, whether I liked it or not, I had a "voice" as a composer. After completing the project I began writing some music of my own. It was then that I decided it was a good time to learn something about composition. I was very lucky to find an excellent teacher who was able to teach me what I need to learn, while incorporating what I had already taught myself through my experience as a performing and arranging musician.

Our quartet ended up recording the songs, and Gene put them on the jukebox (yes, there is still one) in his restaurant. He also sold the CDs at the counter. I imagine that there are several hundred copies (I think that he made a thousand of them) sitting around in pick-up trucks around the state. We also performed them a few times, sometimes with Gene at the piano. I guess the recording never made Gene famous as a composer, but it certainly made him and his friends and customers happy.

1 comment:

Gottagopractice said...

That is a very cool story. Funny how sometimes things just happen.