Thursday, December 03, 2020

Composing as a Craft

During one of the many conversations I had with Seymour Barab over the years, he referred to his composing as his "craft." I was kind of startled at the time, but now I completely understand why he used that term, because so much of composing is craft. The act of composing is, in essence, taking (or making) materials, and assembling them in a pleasing way. Part of the craft of composing comes from removing the stuff that doesn't work, and reassembling the stuff that does work so that it can work better. It involves moving pitches around, expanding and contracting meter so that the music at hand is easy to read and easy to play or sing, once you get the pitches and rhythms learned. It involves manipulating textures (articulation) and dynamics, so that the musical lines you or I have drawn have a map to follow. It is important to keep the journey interesting. Like any journey it should have a clean start, interesting experiences along the way, time for reflection, motivation to continue, and it should come to a satisfying end.

I have been assembling material (arranging music) for half my life now, and only started working with my own material in the last twenty five years. I must have had a "backlog" of material rolling around in my unconscious from all of my playing and listening experiences, because melodic and thematic ideas kept bobbing to the surface demanding that I play with them. At that point composing felt like art, and I was kind of intoxicated with inspiration. My life with busy with school (I was studying composition), work (I had a graduate assistantship which involved a lot of grading, and had CD reviews to write), family (Michael and our two growing kids), practicing, quartet playing, and orchestra playing, but I got up very early in the morning and chain-wrote a lot of music.

People seemed to like what I wrote, but I can't say that people took my work very seriously. I guess I was writing lyrical music during a time when minimalism and/or avant-garde looping were the new-musical fare. Or maybe it was because I was a woman working in a field that was so dominated by men. Maybe it was because I lacked craft (you can never have enough craft), or maybe it was because I didn't (and still don't) live in a cosmopolitan place, or that I never went beyond a Master's Degree, and therefore, other than teaching at a community college, I am not part of the academic hierarchy.

Being an "outsider" does have its perks, though. I have had to make my own way, and seek out my own challenges. But most of all I have had time to develop my craft. Now, at the age of sixty-one, I feel like I can rely on my craft to do just about anything I want. Craft has been a nice companion during this Covid-19 isolation. It has allowed me to be able to work out feelings through the music I write, and I feel like I have a larger community of musicians who live in cosmopolitan places, but are also isolated.

So I have been writing music for musicians to play and sing at home. People do need new music to play, and I'm happy that my craft is sufficient to write music that people like to play and sing.

In my virtual world of Facebook and Twitter, I see that a lot of performing musicians have been writing their own music during this isolation. Some of them create their own publishing companies, and some sell their newly-written music through their websites, which, for the business-minded musician is the only way to make any money from writing music. I put almost all of my newly-written music in the IMSLP because it is an easy way to get music to people who need it (or want it) now. It provides a sense of instant gratification and a feeling of connection with other musicians, so it works for me.

I do have eighty pieces of music published by commercial publishers (some of it forthcoming), so anyone who wants to buy my published music can. My published music isn't my property, and I only get royalty checks every few years, because ASCAP doesn't issue checks that amount to less than $25.

I have written a lot of music these past few weeks, and feel almost like the reverse of the way I felt during my first bout of chain writing between 1999 and 2005. Now I am intoxicated by craft. Ideas come, and I can write them down in a coherent form fairly quickly, and it is in the craft of working with them that I get my jollies.

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