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Writing The Stolen Child, Part II

February 17, 2008 at 4:38 pm UTC

As I started to recount the steps of writing The Stolen Child, I realized that my ‘process’ is essentially the same for every piece that I write. That’s strange for me, because for my entire creative life I’ve felt that I don’t have a ‘process’, creative or otherwise, but apparently, I really, really do. My wife first pointed it out to me during one of the apparently very predictable stages, and my first reaction was, of course, denial. Each piece is different for me, I argued, and the process is different every time. I am at the mercy of the muse. Yeah, right, said she. As she describes it – and as I now must grudgingly admit – this is the journey I have to take with every single piece that I compose:

1. Genuine, giddy excitement about the piece that I have just agreed to write.
I think the initial excitement comes from two places: a) the innocent, naive ‘child brain’ that still marvels at making something that wasn’t there when I started; and b) the ‘producer’ part of my brain, who is constantly calculating the potential exploitation of new ‘product.’ In any case, it feels exciting, and it feels genuine, and for a few days I’m glad to be a composer with a new project.

2. The ‘pitch.’ I’ll actively pitch ideas to my wife, and to my closest friends, and try to gauge their reaction to different concepts I am considering for the work. With the King’s Singers commission, I must have had a dozen different ideas: a piece, in French, celebrating “Les Six”, the six revolutionary French composers that included Poulenc and Milhaud; a minimalist, rhythmic meditation on the concept of time; the Cantate Canticum piece that Tony would write. Lots and lots of ideas, some which will get tossed and some which will get saved and used for another piece. (I had the concept of Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine for years before I found the right occasion to use it). And I’ve found that the ‘pitching’ process is essential for me, because it not only helps me test my own enthusiasm for the idea, it gives me a chance to polish the emotional beats of the concept itself before I start sketching.

3. Improvisation. If I’m setting a text, I’ll memorize the poem and live with it for a little while, and then I’ll sit at the piano and just start noodling, or I’ll take long walks and hope that a melody or a chord will appear from the ether. Eventually, (and this can take a long time) a tiny piece of the puzzle will bubble to the surface. It might be a chord, or a fragment of a melody, but it usually is a little gem that I know will ultimately be a kind of touchstone around which the rest of the piece will be centered. With Lux Aurumque, it was the first “natum” chords that appear at the key change; with i thank You God for most this amazing day, it was the first three chords (‘i thank You’) and the dissolve to the cluster on the word ‘God’. For me this is always a Eureka! moment, and is usually the last time that I will be genuinely happy until the piece is done.

4. Procrastination. “Why,” my wife will ask me, “can’t you just start writing as soon as you take the commission, and save yourself the agony at the end when the piece is due.” I’ve heard many writers and composers describe this period as ‘building up confidence’, and I like the way that sounds, but the truth is (and it took me a long time to understand this about myself) that I procrastinate right up to the moment when the pain of not doing it is greater than the pain of starting.

5. Committing. And then, when the pain is too much, I finally decide that I’m actually going to write the thing. I get very focused, I stop returning phone calls and emails, I spend a lot of time brooding. It is during this period that I begin sketching the architecture of the piece, really the most important part of the process. I struggle with balance, and drama, and narrative, and I do all of this before I write any notes or actual music. I draw pictures of the form, big, abstract drawings with lots of emotional descriptions and colors. I’ll write prose about the what I want the music to be, describing to myself how I want the audience to feel when they are listing. I try to find the emotional and dramatic ‘pillars’ of the piece and then construct the work around those foundations. I really agonize with this part of the process, and I don’t think I’m very fun to be around while it’s happening. (My wife, who is awesome, agrees).

6. Quiet, distant melancholy. Once I’ve really started to actually write the notes down, I spend most of my waking hours working on the piece, no matter where I am. It feels like scratching an itch that I can’t reach, or solving a virtual Rubik’s cube, slowly turning it over and over in my mind. It’s all very abstract, trying out different harmonic progressions in my mind, or playing with the structure, or thinking about how a small motive relates to the whole.

For years I was convinced that I could do this undetected all day long, even while driving or having meaningful conversations. My wife has assured me that on this point I am seriously mistaken, and that in fact I spend most of the time just staring off into space and replying ‘uh-huh’ to every question I’m asked. (Have I mentioned how awesome my wife is?)

7. Polishing. As the musical material starts to make it’s way onto the page, I polish and polish, trying to refine each line, throwing out the ‘fat’, trying to find the simplest and most elegant way to express the idea. I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing how much time it will take me to polish a section, and this is the part of the process when it feels less like ‘art’ and more like manual labor. In The Stolen Child, there would be a four bar section that I had very casually sketched, and that I knew eventually needed to be special and beautiful and highly contrapuntal. And I could look at that four bar section and say, with heavy heart, “that’s going to take me a week.” I’m a real perfectionist at this part, and I just won’t let anything go if I’m not happy with it. And I’m rarely happy with it, so it takes a while.

8. Despair. As the deadline approaches I, without fail, abandon this piece of crap that I’m working on and start something new. Not the way I did when I decided that I would use The Stolen Child instead of Cantate Canticum – that came much earlier in the process. No, this happens a few days before the piece is due, and I just totally freak out. Every time. It doesn’t help that I’ve gone through this very process dozens of times, with every piece that I’ve written. Each time it feels real and present and awful. I usually go desperately looking for a new text to start (I almost always turn to The Prophet, by Khilail Gibran, or The Collected Works of Octavio Paz). I’ll have about two hours where I feel completely liberated, and feel that now I’ll be able to write a great piece with this new poem, but soon that wears off and I drag myself back out to the studio, dejected and terrified.

9. The tiger by the tail. And then, a miracle occurs. All of the months of working and working, throwing out ideas, refining the gestures, totally freaking out, there comes a moment when it suddenly starts to look like a piece. It’s the strangest feeling, as if I’ve been putting these tiny bricks in place, just focusing on the next brick, never daring to look up, and one day I realize that I’ve built an entire wall, and it looks like a strong wall and it looks like it will hold. It’s not that I think the piece is good, by any means – that judgement will be reserved until I actually hear the thing being performed. (Another heart-wrenching part of the process for me). It’s just that it looks solid, and at the very least, looks like a piece of music, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I finish it up, send it off to the performers, and wait.

10. The premiere. These days I really think of the premiere performance (and the next few performances after that) as more of a workshop for the piece, a chance to hear it live and see if it works. During the rehearsals leading up to the first performance, I’ll change a lot of things, little things, big things, anything that doesn’t sound right to my ear. I’ll push the ensemble until I start to sense that they (or more often their conductor) are losing patience with all of my changes. I’ll use these first few ‘workshops’ as a way to further refine the piece, make my last, final changes, and then send it off to the engraver. The engraver sends it back, I make a few more changes, and then it’s published.

This 10 step ‘process’ seems to happen on every piece I write, big or small, with frightening regularity. As I said before, I have always felt (and still feel) that my journey writing a piece is formless and amorphous. When it’s happening to me I just feel like I’m in the middle of a storm, totally out of control. I can’t say that I like composing, but I like the way composing forces me to grow, both as a person and as an artist.

And it sure beats working for a living.


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