During the year I stopped writing words, I wrote a bit of music instead. Not songs per se, but notes on lined paper, like some sort of powder-wig fancy lad. I used to do this when I was in high school, as I detailed here a long time ago, but hadn’t given much thought to it in 20 years or so. I gave composing up because it was damn near impossible for me to turn paper notes into the kind I could hear with my ears, being neither a talented multi-instrumentalist nor the sort of person who could gather together a small wind ensemble.
The advent of sophisticated composition apps changed that. A few years back, the desktop composition application Notion came out with an iPad version that’s nothing short of stunning. It allows you to not only write music but also hear how it sounds, with a ginormous number of orchestral sound samples to choose from. For someone like me, who has music theory knowledge but can play no more than one-handed piano on a good day, it’s a godsend.
I played with these toys throughout 2015 and wrote a bunch of pieces of varying quality. I enjoyed doing it because it offered me something writing words didn’t at that time—the ability to say multiple things at once. A lot of the pieces I wrote contain some element of independent themes, each set in their own meters and modes, with the “action” occurring based on where they meet and where they diverge.
Music is math plus air. In the things I wrote, sometimes the math and air added up and sometimes they didn’t, but the shades of meaning in the failure seemed more interesting to me at the time than the cut-and-dry world of words.
I didn’t share these pieces widely at the time for a multitude of reasons, the biggest being my extensive knowledge of myself. I know that my standard pattern of feelings about the things I do unfolds thusly:
- Unchecked enthusiasm about how good the thing is, bordering dangerously on hubris
- Annoyance and deep resentment that no one else likes it
- Terrifying realization that the thing I made was not very good after all
- Sense of humiliation for sharing it in the first place
So rather than go through all these stages step by embarrassing step, I opted to not share the pieces, at least not widely, save for the occasional Facebook post for friends and family. I may have put some links of Twitter, but I don’t recall doing so and suspect I was too afraid of junior high-level mockery if I did.
Now that some of this stuff is almost a year old, I think I can separate the wheat from the chaff. Most of it is the latter but there’s a few examples of the former. Since it was all originally shared online either sparingly or not at all, I thought this would be a good time/spot to bring the better pieces together so they could be ignored in one place.
For some idiotic reason, the first things I wrote were full-fledged orchestral scores (more on that below). Trying to do this after years of not writing music was like staying out of the pool for several decades before attempting to swim the English Channel. Having learned my lesson, I mostly stuck to writing stuff for small, manageable ensembles thereafter, such as this first piece. It’s written for an nonet (seven winds and two percussionists) and is based on a trip I took to the Fresh Pond Columbarium in Ridgewood. Years ago I wrote way too many words on that trip and I think this piece captures the experience in a better way, if a more abstract one.
A walk through Mount Olivet Cemetery was the impetus for the following piece. (Picking up on a theme here?) At the crest of a hill where you can see out over Queens and off toward Manhattan, there is a small plot of land that bills itself The Japanese Section. Most of the people interred within it appear to have died prior to World War II. In those days, the part of Queens around Mount Olivet was overwhelmingly German and most of its graves reflect that, stern black slabs that bellow HIER RUHT IN GOTT. Amid all this stands a tiny, incongruous piece of land full of ornate Japanese calligraphy.
The piece I wrote was for piano and tuned percussion. (I really like xylophones, marimbas, and vibes. No, I don’t know why.) I used traditional Japanese modes (or their Western equivalents; you can’t 100% recreate Japanese music using Western tonalities) to create a palindrome, something that would sound the same played backward or forward. It builds to pivot on one note; everything that follows that note is a mirror reflection of what preceded it.
I recently did a new mix of the piece to prove it, reversing some of the instruments and lining them up with the forward movement, and added some chorus and phaser effects because I thought they sounded cool. You can feel these effects more than you can hear them, really, but I promise they’re there.
The third piece is one “movement” of a larger thing, for an octet (six winds, two percussionists) called Dads. It’s all about Dads doing Dad Things, like forcing conversation at a kid’s birthday party or struggling to pick out a pair of shorts at Kohl’s. It was my first attempt at writing 12-tone music.
Budget explanation: 12-tone music treats every note of the chromatic scale equally, as opposed to traditional composed music, which is in a specific key or scale that values certain notes and intervals over others. 12-tone music usually involves a tone series that dictates in what order the tones must be played and all the permutations of those orders. Every series has an initial, a retrograde (backwards), an inversion (mirror image of the initial), and a retrograde inversion.
Some 12-tone music is as boring and math-y as all this explanation would imply. Some, like Anton Webern’s Symphony, is subtle and atmospheric and beautiful. I aimed for the latter and found the inherent problem in 12-tone: Even when you plot out all the series perfectly, using a spreadsheet and everything, it doesn’t necessarily mean the resulting music will sound very good.
However, I think the final part of Dads came out well. It’s subtitled “Driving Through the Night With a Car Full of Sleepers” and aims to capture the terror of a late-night drive home with a car full of kids on an endless highway, knowing you are the only way that any of them will get home safely.
The last piece is another “movement” for a larger thing, the full-blown orchestral thing I alluded to earlier that I called Great Rocks of Our Time. Aside from the logistical headaches inherent in trying to compose something for an entire orchestra, I soon found out that the composition app I was using was never intended to output audio files for something quite so robust. If you limit yourself to a single-digit number of voices, the result sounds okay, but the more midi “instruments” you pile on top of each other, the less real and more midi it sounds.
A lot of the stuff I tried to write for Great Rocks was half-baked, if that. But there was one part of it that I thought was worth listening to, called “And I Must Make You Ready to Leave Me.” You may notice I’ve made no attempt to hide my efforts to rip off both Fania All Stars and Hot Rats at the same time. Also, the fakeness of the “instruments” gives it a sound that gets a little too close to smooth jazz for my comfort. For all that, I like the notes, and I like the part where three themes of varying lengths struggle to line up, and I dunno, I just like it, okay? It might be because I wrote it about the fundamental problem at the core of every parent’s mission: To raise a kid that one day won’t need you.