A report (Day3/365)

In addition to my 365 project, I’m also embarking on a bit of a self-improvement thing. I promised myself this summer that I would begin walking for exercise each evening, and that I would use the time for this project.

One of my weakest skills as a composer is my interval-recognition abilities. You would think I would be able to hum a melody and write it right down, but history has proven that I’m pretty hit or miss about these things. I have very good relative pitch when I’m singing, so my sight-singing in a chorus is very accurate, but just making up stuff and transcribing it? Not so much.

So in order to get better at this, I have bought a Moleskine pocket notebook with music staff paper in it. I carry it with me on my walk, and I force myself to compose melodies and write them down in the notebook. I will also be using it to work on my harmonic analysis skills. Eventually, of course, I’ll get to be just like Beethoven, seized with ideas and whipping out my notebook to sketch in a symphony or two.

Last night I went for my first official walk, and other than working up a sweat, I filled eight staves with ideas for a theme for Symphony #1. I have not tested them yet to see if they sound at all correct. It also occurred to me that a sonatina for piano four-hands I wrote some years ago could yield a theme for the final movement, so I wrote that down. (To be clear, I wrote down the idea, not the theme; I couldn’t remember it exactly. I had to open up that particular piece and copy the theme this morning.)

Actually, the Beethoven example is pretty germane to what I’m trying to do with this project. He was notorious for scratching out more than he wrote. Ideas would come to him, and as he began to work on them, he found himself dissatisfied with them in some way and so began to modify them. He rewrote the opening to the Fifth Symphony at least eight times. The first attempt is recognizable, but clearly imperfect.

This is important for those of us who create with a little less giftedness than Ludwig: if someone as godlike as Beethoven couldn’t get it right the first time, why do we think we ought to? Get it out there, get it on the paper, and then revise it.

I know this, but I find it hard to follow. Back in 2004 when I was working on the “penguin opera,” I would start a piece by writing “abortive attempts” at the top of the score paper. Just go ahead and name it as a wasted attempt. Whatever I put on the page, I had no expectations of it except that it would be a failure. And then, two or three revisions later, I’d have something that worked.

But heavens how I hate it.

3 thoughts on “A report (Day3/365)

  1. Be more forgiving of yourself. Beethoven (and Mozart) had something at work for them that you don’t: an established musical idiom within which all those melodic ideas appeared. The requirements for a good Classical line were there as a living reality, as the first way in to the new idea. We suffer from option shock, I think. Which is why I think a tone row was a welcomed relief for some. It offers an idiom of a kind and a set of limits. With beautiful tonal melodies, I think it is possible arbitrarily to decide on that as a goal and build from some initial givens rather than wait for something to be born in your head (which does happen, of course). And you find yourself pulling from a certain lived knowledge of idioms as the line takes shape. Or does one’s muse only dictate in Haydn, say, and might everything else we try to impose only produce interference? In other words, how does an idea become *the* idea? That’s still the question rumbling out of our Modern crisis.

  2. Marc hits the nail on the head, and it actually is something I am going to write about in the project: it is incredibly difficult to come up with a melody outside a governing musical idiom, at least one that doesn’t sound as if it is a cheap, lame copy of a previous idiom.

    He is also correct in thinking that you can arbitrarily set “beautiful melody” as your goal and work from there. (Viz., the upcoming post on the “borrowed” sonatina theme.) Does anyone think Rachmaninov came up with those lush tunes just out of the blue? This is of course how our movie composers work; they have to, don’t they?

    It is my intention to confess to such cheap tricks as I go along. This project is all about the sweat. There’s no such thing as inspiration.

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