"I'm a Composer, Jim! Not a brick layer."

Posted on June 30, 2010 at 10:37 AM

    I gave a concert last Friday, June the 25th.  And although I don't give concerts so often, it's a very rewarding and enjoyable experience to perform my own music.  Of course, it's my desire that others will one day be performing my music so often that I can't even be there to enjoy it.  But, I think it must be a very unique thing as a composer to be able to perform his or her own work.  Or even to conduct it.  I've always found it kind of charming to read about or see a composer performing his own piece or even conducting it.  I wanted to become like one of those composers and experience what they do.  So, over the last few years, I have finally experienced such things.  The challenge is making the opportunities come again and again.

    My first composition assignment in college was for a solo instrument of monophonic texture.  That means, it can only play one note at a time.  So, I chose the flute, which I myself can't play, and titled it, Ævélo The Whale.  It was a great challenge to then work together with my college ear training class teacher, a professional flutist named Elena Yarritu, and learn not only what the capabilities are of the instrument, but to learn what a composer has to deal with and sacrifice as he entrusts his work to someone else interpretation and performance.  Writing out the notation of a piece and putting all the proper dynamic markings and expressions that you feel would best fit the piece is not enough.  But there is a point where you have to become content with the best that you can produce and simply live with the fact that the performer may or may not get what you're trying to say.  It's the effort though to get it on paper that counts.  It's an inner longing or even a need that all composers have that a little piece of themselves will be shared with the world and live on forever, past the day they die, somewhat immortalizing them and the message in their music for generations to come.  This is especially the case though when the day comes that someone gets a hold of the score and performs it without ever having the chance to work with the composer, hear a recording of the piece or such.  It would be nice to have this ability and insight into what the composer meant, simply by having him or her right there to comment as you practice and prepare to perform their piece.  But, that's also the beauty of it all.  What's written on the page is what you get and is usually the composer's best attempt at getting across what he wants to say.  There's also a freedom in that to be creative and interpret the piece in your own way.  Maybe even change things to be completely different than what the composer intended.  Elena did a great job though and you can hear a recording of her playing Ævélo The Whale as the background music on the Venturbio page.

    So, that was an example of the experience of someone else performing my music.  But, it was with the second composition assignment that I had in college that I really was challenged, as I had to perform it myself.  I was assigned to write for a harmonic instrument.  So, I picked the piano and titled the piece, Three Impressions From Aboard The U.S.S. Blaisdell.  Our college's piano professor, Randall Hawkins, had found it quite delightful how I would always ask him questions about particular pieces and for advice with the piece that I had written.  Now, don't get me wrong, I play the piano.  But I'm not so accustom to performing on it, seeing as I've always just played for myself.  And I'm horrible at sight reading.  It's more like a hunt and peck escapade with any new piece.  I've determined that my gifting is to play and write my own music and not so much of others on the piano.  That is, of course, with the exception of the beginner's stuff that I use as material for my piano students.  But anyway.  Randall asked me how I felt, not only as the composer of the piece, but also as its performer for its the upcoming recital.  It was quite a nerve racking experience actually sitting there at the piano and performing the piece that afternoon.  But I couldn't imagine what I was getting myself into as I prepared for the whole shindig.  He then told me a story of how Sergei Rachmaninoff had such big hands, that no one dared to perform his piano pieces.  The intervals that he could reach were just monstrous and his pieces therefore reflected this anomaly of his.  So he, like me, often had to perform them himself.  Of course, he's quite famous now, and very much dead, I might add.  So, that kind leaves out the ability for him to perform those pieces himself.  But as luck might have it, he's gathered quite a following and there's lots of nice recordings and performances of his music that you can find all over he world.  Oh, I forgot to mention that he was quite nervous as well when having to perform his pieces.

    Now, you might say to yourself, “Well, it's not that special if you really think about it.  I mean, rock bands are composers too, and they play the music they compose all the time.”  What I'm referring to is something even more than what most rock or pop groups have to go through.  Yes, of course they are composers.  But, they typically are the only ones that ever play and perform their own music.  It's rare and not usually necessary for them to write out all the parts for someone else to learn and perform, because in our day and age, most rock or pop band music is learned by ear.  You just need a singer, one or two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer and maybe a keyboardist.  I mean, if they're popular enough, then a guitar magazine, a publisher or something of the sort writes out the guitar tablature and notation for them and sells it so someone else can learn it.  Now, the inner workings of a rock or pop group, or any such group for that matter that doesn't necessarily rely on sheet music or music notation, is a beast in itself and has it's own challenges and admirable hurdles.  Such as when a guitarist has a cool lick that he wants to teach the bassist.  He has to sit down and teach it to him by ear should he and the bassist not just happen to know how to read and write notated music.  Then they have to work with it and develop it into something that will work, hope the drummer and singer can come up with something just as cool and then finally they have to memorize it.  But, what I really admire is the endeavor to get something out of one's head and onto paper, whether he can or can't play it himself, in a form that clearly makes it reproducible to the way the composer intended it.  That goes for solo to ensemble pieces.  Some rock groups of course like to have orchestral instruments added to their performances or recordings, but they may hire someone to write the parts for them, which is cool.  But, I'm the type that would write all the parts myself.  I think that's why my desire from long ago to start a rock band never came to being.  I couldn't stand the idea of having to sit down and teach someone my music.  The only exceptions were those I've worked with here and there that had a really good ear, an ability to remember all the details of the music and also the creativity to come up with something of their own to add to it that would fit to what I was looking for in the music.  Of course, there are ways of writing the music out that makes it very clear and detailed what is desired, and there are ways that leaves a lot of freedom to improvise and be creative.  But, getting it down on paper is what is important for me.  It takes a lot of time and patience, but solidifies the music and helps one to develop it in ways that may not be done otherwise.

    Now as for the conducting experience, I remember one most of all, which was when I conducted a Christmas choir in 2008 and 2009.  I composed a piece for them to sing amongst the other well known Christmas carols that I had planned for them.  But what was most special – alongside the process of getting the piece onto paper so they could properly see it and sing it as it was notated and so the accompanist could play his part – was standing there conducting the piece, both during the rehearsals and for the performances.  By then, I had started to finally take my desire to become a conductor seriously and took private lessons with a Peter Kubath, church music director of the Moravian Church in Herrnhut.  The thing though with those lessons was that I would stand there flailing my arms away through various parts of a couple Bach Oratorios, having to imagine the orchestra in front of me, giving them their cues and all, but only in reality to hear the plunking away of Peter at the Piano as he played through a reduction of the score and yet accordingly reacted to all this flailing around on my part.  This of course was a very important process in learning the skills of conducting and I didn't have any complaints that there was not a real orchestra.  Such a luxury doesn't exist when one is simply taking private lessons.  Yet still, I wanted to find a way to have real live musicians in front of me, and whether they were an orchestra or singers didn't matter.  So, I put this Christmas choir together to what turned out to be a successful, but challenging, first experience at conducting ever in the whole entire history of my existence.  It was very humbling to stand there and have real live human beings to react to my cues and flailing around of the arms.  This was mostly because I had to pretend like I knew what I was doing and had everything, if not anything, under control.  Many thanks to my good friend, Fritz Winter, who accompanied the choir on the piano and helped organize things a bit.  If it weren't for him and his ability to do much more on the piano than hunt and peck, I wouldn't have been able to stand there waving at everyone, fooling them into believing that I knew what I was doing.  (Fritz, you made me look good.  Thanks!).

    And finally, just on a side note about how I feel about the title of “Composer:” The piece I wrote for that choir was titled, Come Celebrate With Me, and I didn't tell anyone in the group that I wrote it, but of course put my name on the score as the composer and all and at the bottom with the copyright notification.  I handed out a couple new pieces each rehearsal to add to our arsenal of tunes and assumed they would figure it out that the clown facing the choir – not the one hunting and pecking for keys on the piano in a much more fluid and convincing way than I could do it, of course – just happened to have the same name as the composer of the song.  I guess I just feel funny about those kinds of things.  I'm just a normal guy, you know.  I eat, drink, sleep, belch and flatulate just like any other average Joe.  And I just happen to know how to creatively put a bunch of dots, squiggles and lines on a piece of paper so someone can make somewhat sense out of it and interpret it into the reproduction of beautiful sounding noise – I'm happy enough of course when that noise is in fact beautiful.  But I always found it awkward and take it kind of funny when someone refers to me as a composer.  “So, what do you do for a living?” Jim asks.  Dude on the right answers, “Well, I'm a plumber.”  The other says, “I'm a brick layer.”  Bones says, “I'm a doctor, Jim!  Not a brick layer.” (Sorry.  Bad Star Trek joke.)  But then the skinny guy with the four eyes, sitting in the corner, eating his Muesli and Cornflakes with shaved apple slices poured into a bowl of milk and covered lightly with powdered cinnamon adds, “I'm a composer.”  If I answered that way, I might get some funny looks, like I'm someone high and mighty, looking for respect.  I mean, when was the last time you met a composer?  It's not every day that such a funny thing happens.  “You mean, like Beethoven and Mozart?” they might ask.  So, my typical answer to that first question is actually a longer drawn out one.  “Um, I teach music privately here in the area and English and German.  Just got a work permit this year, so I can do that here in Germany.”  I just can't seem to compact it into one or two syllables.  Then comes the question of what sort of instruments I play and teach.  At some point in the conversation, I might mention here or there that I like to write music.  But, to say from the start, “Oh, well I'm a composer.”?  Nah.  They don't need to know that.  I guess I like the mysteriousness of it.  If they get to know me long enough and really care, then they'll figure that out eventually.  You know, it's times like with the Christmas choir though that it kind of starts to show.  They started humming my tune outside of rehearsal because they had it stuck in their head – like something they heard on the radio and just can't shake.  Or best of all, when they started parodying it like “Weird Al” Yankovic has always been famous for doing to every other famous pop song of the decade, changing the lyrics a bit.  That's when I started thinking to myself, “I wonder if they like my song.”  One might think out loud, “Sounds like something some famous composer wrote.”  My own pieces have become so familiar to me that I often find myself playing them or singing their melodies to myself like someone else wrote them.  I couldn't possibly have come up with that.  It's too catchy.  “No, it's just by that guy eating the Swiss bird food and cornflakes over at the end of the table.”



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