Scores Settled

When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?

Back then I was very much into modern composers in general and Frank Zappa in particular. I’d once been really into punk but got so turned off to it when dirtbags at my school suddenly liked Nirvana that I semi-consciously retreated into music that was so esoteric no one else could pollute it for me by liking it.

During junior year my high school experienced a brief episode of high falutinism and offered a music theory class as an elective. Having learned the rudiments of harmony and resolution and modes and whatnot in this class I convinced myself that I too could compose music.

I bought some blank musical score books from Carl Fischer on Lafayette Street plus a copy of the score to Le Sacre du Printemps so I could get an idea of how the pros put their stuff together. Then I sat down at the gnarled upright piano in my basement that I’d snagged when family friends were about to throw it out owing to its several damaged keys. I worked around these keys to cobble together a few brief snippets of modern-y compositions.

I mashed a bunch of these snippets into a piece I called “March of the Clueless” because I was 17 and angry and pretentious. I then waged a campaign of intense nudging against the school band’s director who was too nice of a man to deflect the artistic enthusiasm of teenagers. He agreed to let me use precious rehearsal time to conduct the band myself so I could hear how it sounded when played by real instruments. I transposed the piano lines for a school band made up largely of saxophones and clarinets and trumpets and copied out all the parts and stood in front of my peers and commanded them to play it.

That would’ve been enough for me. But it soon came to pass that my school was hosting a ceremony for a state accreditation committee and the school band would have to perform at this ceremony and the band’s director asked me if I wanted to conduct the piece there. I suppose the school wanted to show it produced obsessed weirdos who composed music and therefore couldn’t be that terrible.

I was intensely proud of my piece and I got up in front of the committee and conducted the hell out of it if I do say so myself. I even brought along a portable tape recorder so I could have a record of the performance. “March of the Clueless” was politely received which I found somewhat deflating. I half expected tomatoes to come flying in my direction without thinking that state accreditation committees rarely walk around wielding tomatoes.

I figured I would continue to compose bigger and better things just as I imagined all my other artistic endeavors would continue. Then college interfered. After college life interfered. As I got older I realized that most people don’t specialize because they have narrow horizons but because they don’t have the time to do a fraction of the things they want to do with their lives.

Every now and then I will remember a thing I once did in earnest when I was young and get a feeling. This feeling is probably a lot like that experienced by people who’ve lost limbs. I felt this way when I saw the recent iPad ads featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen in which the Finnish composer/conductor uses an app to assemble a rough score and hear how it sounds. High school me would have killed for something like that I thought.

In a fit of nostalgia I downloaded the scoring app (Notion) and input my old score just to see how it sounded to Adult Me. This process was quite a chore even with the considerable time-saving features of an app. All I had left were the transposed parts so in order to input them into the app I had to transpose everything back down to concert scale. The piece is only about five minutes long and it still took me almost a week to put it together. I want to say this intense and prolonged labor with so little reward is what drove me away from composing in the first place. Except now I mostly write instead and that can be described in much the same way.

I listened to the whole assembled piece and I wasn’t sure what to think. I couldn’t say it was very good. I couldn’t quite say it was interesting either. It was pretty much what you’d expect to hear written by a 17-year-old who was really into Zappa and Stravinsky and Charles Ives.

But I did hear an echo in it . It was the echo of someone who actually thought he could do everything he wanted to. That was nice to hear again.

So here is a ghost of a dream.

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