Monday, March 17, 2014

Billy Collins TED Talk: When Does Creativity Start and End?

This blog is less like a blog the more busy I get. So here is a new post, not a poem by me but a cool little TED talk by former U.S. Poet Laureate Bill Collins:

When Does Creativity Start and End?

I appreciate that question, by the way, and the sentiment that poetry is harder than writing.

Monday, October 14, 2013



Mountains noble blue
and ocean broadly embracing
where waves writhe restlessly
beneath the
silvering sliver moon
mysterious, currents aglow,
I see
out a window, across a deck,
over rooftops, down a slope,
ending in the clarity
that is the fog of my mind.
I sleep soon.
I sleep, and cannot see beyond
I am by myself,
and much is yet to be revealed.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Learning to Compose

In my website bio I have talked broadly about why I write music. Here I'd like to dig a little bit into how I see the process of becoming a composer in general, and a little bit on how I came into doing it.

My philosophy of what is involved with studying to become a music composer is that there are basically two parts. First, you learn the rules and process of how to take a musical idea that you already have in mind, to refine it and apply guidelines of how instruments work, how sounds work together, and how a piece of music hangs together as a form, and then write the idea down in a musical score.

For many years, this basic idea of knowing the mechanics of how to write down musical ideas somewhat escaped me. I started out playing violin when I was ten, and also tinkering on a piano keyboard. In a handful of years, I had learned about notes and the violin staff, major scales, and time signatures and other basic things, but after about eight years playing violin in school and in lessons, I hadn't learned anything about harmony or counterpoint, or very much about rhythm, or how to inform my ear to be able to notate on a piece of paper something I'd heard. After some frustrations with trying to write music without really knowing the mechanics of the writing down of music, I gave up and set composing aside and focused on other subjects. I mistakenly felt that what I needed to know couldn't be taught and wasn't available from teachers or books. I thought one had to be innately talented with knowing how to make a musical composition, and since it was not happening for me, I must not have what it takes to write music. And I was mistaken, but it took me several years to realize this.

The second part of becoming a composer is that you have to get intimately familiar with a lot of different musical expressions and works spanning the history of western music and world music, and this experiential familiarity rewires your brain to make it more accessible to forming novel musical ideas that will work and be interesting and emotionally expressive. There are of course many subparts to this learning, such as experimentation with and learning how to write a satisfying musical line, musical phrasing, associations of sound color and rhythm, etc. There are questions of what is appropriate in a given genre or context. There are musical styles that must be understood from the inside out, how they move, how musical time is subtly different in, say, a symphony versus a rock song versus a samba.

This part of the process I had not really given up on and was doing on my own somewhat as I collected and listened to music over many years. I knew what I liked, and I started to get a sense just from listening to music many times over as to how harmony and counterpoint worked. So, pushed by all this music in my head that I didn't know how to write down and share with people, I decided eventually to try again at writing music, and then I discovered there was something called "music theory" and there were books and classes on it, and when you went to college to study music they could teach you all these things that interested me intensely, so I started studying music and how to be a music composer.

So now what does one do, as a music composer, who knows something of how to write down music, how to fit the pieces together into something that will sound good, and also how to come up with musical ideas based on a notion of a feeling that you want to evoke? Often, for myself, I feel like writing music is an intellectual exercise or puzzle to solve: how can I use a particular scale to create a tango, for example. How can I write a jazz piece that uses only 6 notes? Is this idea even possible? So writing music is exploration, maybe like a treasure hunt as much as an equation to solve. But then also there is the emotional level, how music makes me feel and how it is a way to share something with other people, and help bring people together. I think music is beautiful for how it can unite people, even when it is not explicitly "beautiful." Music, when it works, (and even when it is very incomplete or only partially realized) is always powerful and creates a reaction. The contours and vibrations of music resonate in not just the human ear, but also the human heart, the brain, the bones, the other organs, and between people who are in the same place or even nowhere near together but listening to the same thing possibly at different times.

Finally, it is not at all easy to write music, but a lot of people recognize the power of music, and perhaps the challenge of the task is another aspect that makes it worthwhile to try.