Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It is enough: tintinnabuli

It is a choral piece I've been working on — my first — and so I am listening to and studying the choral works of Arvo Pärt.

This is interesting. After a particular period of self-imposed silence and contemplation, Pärt emerged with a new approach to composition he calls "tintinnabuli" (little bells) and this epiphany:  "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played."

It is enough, it is enough, it is enough. I do think that one of the hardest things for me when writing music is trusting that simplicity is enough. It is enough to be singing a simple note, possibly repeating it or repeating the phrase, playing a simple chord, a simple melody, with a simple harmonization. It can be hard to sit with just one word or phrase. It takes enormous amounts of patience and confidence to let it have itself, without quickly distracting the listener with the next phrase just in case this one isn't good enough.

The piece I'm working on hasn't figured out what it is yet. On the one hand, it's tugging to be an old-time American call and response hymn like I'll Fly Away or In the Sweet By and By yet it's also pulling to be a modern choral piece through-composed, working in fragments and phrases rather than ABABAB repetition. I feel the tug in these two directions every time I sit down to work on it. I haven't found the answer yet so I'm listening, listening, listening. To Ives, to Pärt, then Bach and Billings.

I already know Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, Philip P. Bliss, Lowell Mason, and William Bradbury by heart. I have been singing them all my life. Maybe I should just follow the obvious and see where it leads me.

Here are two samples from each side of the spectrum:

American call and response hymns:

Arvo Pärt's "O Morgenstern" from Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I Never Met Charles Ives

I've been listening to "alot" of Ives. From his biography via the immensely useful Charles Ives Society, Inc.:
...Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: "Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds--for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."

Charles Ives grew up determined to find that wild, heroic ride, that music of the ages--the spiritual power he felt in the singing at outdoor camp meetings and in bands marching during holidays. It would take many years of struggle and experiment, however, before he fully possessed the musical language to transform that spirit into orchestral and chamber music.
A man before my own heart. I hope it takes me fewer years of struggle and experiment to fully possess the musical language to transform that spirit into songwriting. Because Ives started at the age of 13 and I've gotten off to very a late start.

Orchestral Set No. 2 - III - From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jury Rituals & the Stemless Polka Dotted Wine Glass

Last night, while nibbling a late dinner and playing Candyland (new version stinks) at Dram Shop, I was rushed by sudden waves of intense nausea.Ugh. Am I sick? No. Hungry? No. Pregnant? No. Thirsty? Maybe. Nervous? Blleeeeeuuuuuuuuhhhhhh [huge wave of confirmation nausea] YES. Yes, I am nervous. Nervous because the next morning (this morning) was to be my first time standing up in front of people, performing one of my own songs.

I started brainstorming at the table with Lemon Peele and Professor Lime about ways I could trick myself into not being nervous. Alaska sarcastically suggested the whole underwear thing but that has never worked for me. Suggestion, nausea, suggestion, nausea, suggestion, then AHA!

At the end of each semester, music majors are required to play a "jury" in front of the faculty for her/his instrument family. Voice majors in front of the entire vocal faculty, oboe majors in front of the full woodwind faculty, French horn majors (like myself) in front of the brass faculty. As you might guess from the fact that these are called juries, the student's entire grade for the semester is on trial in this 30 minute slot. S/he plays two prepared pieces (fast and slow in contrasting styles), the faculty "calls scales" of all stripes (F# harmonic minor!) and s/he plays them on the spot. It's the kind of thing that can make music not at all music-y. Anyhow, I developed a few rituals in undergrad that helped me cope with and even enjoy juries.
  1. I would always sign up for the first available slot after the faculty's afternoon break, in their final stretch for the day. (They sit through juries all day long.)
  2. The night before, after practicing my brains out, I'd make two or three batches of cookies and prepare a baggie full of treats for each member of the faculty.
  3. I'd arrive about 30 minutes early for my jury, and when the faculty members went out for their coffee break, I'd go into the room and take over. Drop off the cookies. Warm up on my horn. Play and sing my favorite Sarah McLachlan songs at the piano. Make that space mine all mine all mine.
  4. When the faculty members returned from their break, we'd chat, they'd munch cookies, and we'd all happily get started.
Now: the power was not in bribery. The brass faculty at JMU had the wherewithal to withstand the pressure of delicious oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies. The power was in ownership of the room. You walk into a room and see a panel of judges behind a table? It's their room and they hold the power. You're sitting at a piano, playing your favorite songs and sharing cookies, when a few folks walk in and sit down at a table? That's your room and you hold the power.

So, I asked myself last night what I could do to make the PSUMC sanctuary my room today and I set a plan in motion. Get there first. (Easy, had to be there at 9AM for sound check anyhow.) Bring my very favorite drinking glass from home (for water in case of cotton mouth) a stemless polka dotted red wine glass that The Duo got us at Big Lots a few years ago. Walk around and talk to people before the service. Say a few words at the mic. And the biggest, most important declaration of ownership is built-in!

This is my song. I wrote it. And you weren't there when I did. It's mine. And there's no such thing as messing up because it doesn't exist until I sing it.

I'm thinking this is going to be a very powerful thing about songwriting for me this is music on which I am the world's best and only expert. And, as I stood there with my special polka dotted wine glass full of lukewarm water, I thought: "Aha. So this is how divas are born..."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Feldenkrais! Learning to learn.

This is not Missy Mazzoli.
Milestone: I have started composition lessons.

One assumption that I made young is that a songwriter cannot be taught, a songwriter is either born or not. One can go to school to learn to play pro football, but to write songs a person has to just know how to do it. To be a natural. Because who taught Paul Simon? Who taught Stevie Wonder? Who taught Joni Mitchell? Sufjan Stevens? Nobody, right? Right??

Wrong. Or right. It doesn't matter. It's totally unrealistic! I don't care how they did it anymore. This is how I'm doing it. I am learning to learn. In a conversation with singer/songwriter/composer Sasha Siem last Friday, she referenced the Feldenkrais Method. I'd never heard of it but she followed up by sending me a fascinating article from Feldenkrais' Learn to Learn booklet, and I've excerpted some curious bullet points here.
  • Do everything very slowly
  • Look for a pleasant sensation
  • Do not “try” to do well
  • Do not try to do “nicely”
  • Do not concentrate
  • We do not say at the start what the final stage will be
  • Do a little less than you can
 And then there's this. See? Looks like even Yoda took some lessons...

"Learn to do well, but do not try. The countenance of trying hard betrays the inner conviction of being unable or of not being good enough." - Moshe Feldenkrais

So I have my manuscript paper. I have some new exercises to help me forward. Some listening assignments. Some tactics. I'm going in, folks. I'm going in. And I'm not trying to do anything.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"I was cranky, and I lost my high notes"

Dearest OMG sent me a few copies of October's Classical Singer magazine, for which she interviewed me on the topic of dealing with negative reviews. And, after flipping through her well-spun narrative, my eyes settled on a piece entitled "Does Size Matter?"

At first I wasn't sure whether I'd forgive the title.

But speaking of body image and singing careers . . . gee, it's validating when a trade magazine covers something mere weeks after I've blogged about it. Vocal teacher and CS contributor Michelle Latour surveyed singers at the 2010 conference in LA regarding body image, body size, and the impact of both on singers. Check out this gem:
"Dramatic soprano Barbara DeMaio Caprilli revealed, 'I was forced to lose 60 pounds under the threat of being fired when I was in a Young Artist Program in the early 1990s. At the time I did not know that I had Celiac Disease. I had to go to 900 calories a day in order to keep my job. I was cranky, and I lost my high notes.'"
You have to understand us: there's something especially crazymaking about gluten and thyroid-related diseases. My doctors and my nutritionist all tell me that I have one, yet I still suspect that I'm exaggerating or making all of this up, or that I've simply somehow misunderstood how to lose weight. Like, even when I'm counting all of my calories, fiber, protein, water, etc. and exercising like a monster, my body somehow knows that I like the 1280 calories I'm eating and if I could just like them less, then nutritional math would apply to me. Come on, Scarlet, it's easy! If you just forever cut out wine, cocktails, dessert, dairy, soy, grains, breads, sugar, chocolate, baked goods, cruciferous vegetables, strawberries, and meat, you could totally be in shape. You're just not trying hard enough.

I know it's harsh. But if you get it, you get it, and I want to be 'gotten.' On the upside, I am a powerhouse from all of my exercise. If you are reading this, chances are I could detach my left leg, leave it in the middle of the floor, and it could single-leggedly destroy you and your entire family in a cage match. Apply here.

But more to the point, 93 percent of singers surveyed agree that body image influences their singing and ability to communicate on stage. Laura Ockey points out, "...it is difficult for the audience to concentrate...if the body-type is too wrong... ."

Meaning, bottom line, that it's about stage presence and stage presence is about belief. Am I communicating the joy, rage, comfort, humor, sensuality, and wistfulness of my songs or am I communicating insecurity, unease, failure, guardedness? Can the audience believe what I'm singing in this singer/songwriter role, as I look, dress, sound, and act?

Or, the harder question: Can I believe myself? YES. Yes, I can. And this is the work, the work, the work.