Opus in Progressionem

Updates on music composition projects by Debra J. Lynn (ASCAP)


Thoughts on the Creative Process

Prepping a Composition Recital

I’m currently preparing a composition recital for April 14th, 2019 and it’s actually the first recital of this nature that I’ve put together. I’ve done voice and conducting recitals before, but never a recital featuring solely my compositions. I am not performing any of the pieces myself, for two reasons.

First, it is very important for composers to put their music in front of other musicians (hopefully professionals or very advanced “lay persons”). Often, this helps us realize places where our notation lacks clarity and/or specificity for the performer.  I truly believe that the craft of musical notation is as much about preventing the performance you don’t want, as it is ensuring the performance you do want. If we compose and perform our own music without having it vetted by others, we can easily miss confusing or just plain omitted indications in the score. We KNOW how we want it to sound, so we will play/sing our own compositions the way we conceived them. Other musicians do not hear our concept in their minds. They only have the tools we provide them on the page. Brilliant composer Stewart Copeland (ground-breaking drummer of “The Police”) describes this challenge very well in this brief linked Drum Channel interview.

Second, composers and performers have a mutually dependent relationship. Musicians are nothing without compositions, and compositions are only dots on a page without performing musicians. Something that I value highly as a composer is the interpretive role that performers play in my process. This is why I often have very specific performers in mind when I compose. It inspires me to consider what they might enjoy about performing my music, and also how their personal stamp will impact the performance via their particular musical nuance and proficiency.  This human variable can be a little unsettling, because it means no two performances will be exactly the same. Once embraced by the composer, this human element can be very exciting!

I definitely compose for composition’s sake. Often it takes years to get a piece performed, so the motivation and primary thrill can’t come from audience applause or accolades.
That said, it is certainly exciting to hear my works performed. I always consider musicians to be a vital part of my compositional process. Their interpretation and ability to lift those marks off the page and create an aurally interesting (and hopefully pleasing) experience for listeners is integral to the composition itself. I never consider pieces “complete” until I hear them played/sung by musicians other than myself.

So, the music is in the hands of the performers now. It’s no longer under my control. All I can do at this point is answer questions if they arise, and look forward to the gig! I always hope that the audience will find the pieces interesting, but I am actually more concerned with whether or not the musicians enjoy the compositions. Sometimes they cuss a little when they practice (as the Facebook post above indicates), but my goal is for them to willingly invest themselves as co-owners of the music with me. This ensures a sense of accomplishment for them and me each time the pieces are performed.

Fly on the Wall (via Skype)

I had the pleasure of Skyping into a rehearsal for one of my compositions a few days ago. The musicians were four Indiana State University students who are preparing my saxophone quartet “Mechanical” for an upcoming performance. Their wonderful director/teacher, Paul Bro was gracious enough to allow me to listen and offer some comments to the group during their rehearsal.

I asked the students if they were enjoying the piece, and they enthusiastically answered in the affirmative. I truly intend for my compositions to be gifts to the musicians who perform them as much as to the listening audiences.  Interacting with these musicians is always rejuvenating for me. It makes me want to continue composing — to keep giving, especially to young musicians who are eager to explore and learn new music.

Being a part of the rehearsal process, or even just observing that process, is a wonderful experience. These young musicians are doing a spectacular job tackling a very tough piece! I am honored and humbled by their attention to detail and their musical interpretation. Thanks Paul & Co., for allowing me to sit in with you for a bit!


Birdsong Research

Birdsong Research courtesy of YouTube!

I’ve begun work on a newly commissioned piece for  the Canyon County High School Honor Choir of Nampa, Idaho. The lyric I’ve selected is this poem by Witter Bynner:

The Robin

Except within poetic pale

    I have not found a nightingale,

Nor hearkened in a dusky vale

    To song and silence blending:

No stock-dove have I ever heard,

Nor listened to a cuckoo bird,

    Nor seen a lark ascending.

But I have felt a pulse-beat start

    Because a robin, spending

The utmost of his simple art

Some of his pleasure to impart

    While twilight came descending,

Has found an answer in my heart,

    A sudden comprehending.

I selected this poem so that I can use the songs of the specified birds as themes in the polyphonic vocal lines. My hope is that it will teach the students about the calls of each bird , but I also hope to pique their interest in the sounds of the world around them and how they might be transcribed, layered, and arranged to create music. I’m just getting started on this composition which will have accompaniment for piano and strings. I hope to be pretty well-versed in the songs of nightingales, stock-doves, cuckoos, larks, and robins by Sunday! I used the mating call of the male robin in one movement of my recent song cycle “Your John Keats,” so I’m looking forward to diving in a little deeper for a truly cacophonous result.


Not Composing

Time spent hanging out with family and friends can sometimes backfire when I don’t balance it with time alone to imagine and create.

I was recently scolded (in a well-meaning way) for complaining about not having time to compose. This person invited me to turn my frustration into thankfulness for the time I’ve spent with family and loved ones (which has prevented me from composing much of anything this summer). My father and I have spent the past couple of months helping my mother through the dying process, and also helping her family and friends (as well as ourselves) work through grief and sorrow. I am far from bitter about the time and energy spent in this way, in fact I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the time we’ve all had to embrace and lift up one another. Yet, I am experiencing some residual difficulty with concentrating on the semester ahead of me. I believe I am struggling because I haven’t had time to create (as I usually do) during the summer.

Creativity isn’t just something one can shut down indefinitely. It happens, whether we have time for it or not. I think this is the most misunderstood aspect of creativity. I’ve read several articles and books on the creative brain in an effort to understand myself better. What I’ve found is that “creatives” are often mis-labeled as disorganized, anti-social, tunnel-visioned, and lazy. What I’ve learned about myself is:

  • while my desk and household may appear cluttered and chaotic, my mind is not.
  • while I may seem to be an extrovert because I’m generally a happy, jolly person, I honestly treasure my “alone” time.
  • Like many musicians, I have a very high sensitivity to sound, so there are times when social settings feel like an assault on my ears. Many times when I find myself feeling irritated (though nothing specifically bad has happened), I suddenly realize that I’m in a setting that is too noisy.
  • “Tunnel-visioned” is a pretty accurate label, but not entirely. Yes, I get “in the zone” when I’m creating and this causes me to ignore phone calls, e-mails, children, pets, my spouse, my friends, and sometimes even my own needs. You’d never know it from looking at me, but I forget to eat all the time.
  • I keep weird hours. Most creative types do. I’ve learned not to schedule classes before 10 a.m. I just don’t function at my best before then. I’m usually awake by 6:30 because I have to get kids on the bus, but my brain doesn’t kick into high gear until much later in the day. Many studies have proven that the creative mind takes longer to “fire up.” Believe me, once my mind does get going, I have a hard time shutting it down. This often causes me to work late into the night, so it stings a little when people tease me about going back to bed after I put the last kid on the morning bus. Never mind that I stayed up until 4 or 5 a.m. the night before because I was working while all the “normal people” in the world were asleep.  If you know a creative person who keeps odd hours, please try to be sensitive about this issue. Even if they laugh about it themselves (as I often do), be aware that the humor is probably a smoke screen.

I typically put my creative ideas on hold during the academic year so that I can focus on my “day job” as a professor. When summer comes, I open the floodgates and let my creative self out of the cage. This summer, I have not had time to do that. It’s just a fact. I’m not bitter about it, that would be irrational. Frustrated? Yes. All this creative energy is currently bogging me down. My sponge is full and there’s no time or space to wring it out — so it’s just sitting there in my brain. This is feasible for a few months, but eventually it clutters everything else I try to do. It feels like driving through endless road construction — there are detours and roadblocks everywhere. This can be stifling and makes mundane tasks more difficult than they should be.

Here is a link to a short and humorous article that explains a bit about the creative mind, for those who are interested. By the way, I am totally the panda in this article: “Signs you are too creative…”


Letters as Lyrics

August 14, 2017

One of the things I love about vocal and choral music in general is text.  My favorite composers are those who understand how to set words to music in a way that brings out the most beautiful elements of individual words, whole phrases, and entire poems. My own approach to setting texts is very intentional, because I truly believe the sound of words, as well as their meaning and context offers a colorful palette for creative expression.

I am no poet, so I am always interpreting and setting the words of others when I write vocal music.  Typically, this involves setting poetry, which carries with it some fairly stringent parameters regarding meter, form, and even inflection.  Recently though, I have been setting words that originated as written correspondence – not poetry.  It is both liberating and daunting all at the same time.

The letters I’ve set are from four sources: 1) a Union soldier stationed at Manassas during the Civil War, 2) a young mother writing to her sisters (she wrote one letter from her deathbed), 3) one of the sons of the young mother – a letter composed when he was a child, and a second letter to his betrothed when he was a young man, and 4) the English Romantic poet John Keats – his series of love letters to Fanny Brawne.

Setting private letters to music is a bit invasive. I am making public something that was intended to be private, so I take the responsibility seriously.  With no rhyme scheme, meter, or poetic form – there are fewer clues as to the specific intent behind the words.  The inflection feels ambiguous and less “prescribed.”  Try reading one sentence from a recent text message or e-mail over and over again, each time changing different elements like rhythm, syllabic stress, or the pitch of your voice.  Then, try to shape and combine all those elements to ensure that the voice is truly that of the author (instead of your own). Now, consider trying to do that with correspondence from someone you don’t know personally.

Where does one begin such a task? I’m not sure what other composers do, but I start by trying to understand the author as a person.  I read a lot more of their writings than those I intend to set. In some cases, there aren’t many available sources – like my first 3 authors – but, Keats was extremely prolific. His poetry has offered a lot of insight into his personality and viewpoint.  I then work on structure or form. Most letters are too long to set to music, so I extract the “meat” from the document by cutting away the superlative bits – the “fat and bones.”  An overall form emerges out of the trimming process.  I then read the document aloud over and over again, sketching out rhythmic and metric possibilities to determine which seem to best convey the author’s voice, intensity, and inflection. It’s harder than you might think, but it is also highly gratifying.  Next come elements like pitch, tonal centers, and repetition.  Much of these are determined by the voice types and performing forces, but those choices also come from understanding the author.  In this case, my singers are two people that I know well enough to anticipate how they will interpret the text and music.  As I write, I can hear them singing every note and word in my mind.  I can predict the vocal timbre they will choose for certain vowels and how they will connect phrases together musically.  I know words they will want to stretch and savor, and others they might like to emphasize with accents.  I try to consider all these aspects when I compose in order to help these performers (Judy Marlett and Danny Belcher) truly become the voices of my authors.

Setting letters feels like a deeper commitment to me than setting poems.  By the time each composition is finished, I feel I know the author as well as I know members of my immediate family.  This has been both an exhausting and exhilarating journey that began about four years ago. I don’t know when or if I will set letters as lyrics again, but I understand better the personal investment required to serve the authors well.  So, thank you Tyler, Lanie, Percy, and John for helping me grow as a composer.

Recording Sessions 8-10 Complete!

July 21, 2017

This past week, Robert Lynn recorded the 2nd and 3rd movements of “Proxemics,” my fiendishly difficult piece for unaccompanied cello.  Lila Hammer and Pamela Haynes also recorded all of “Manchester Sonata” for clarinet and piano.

All of the pieces slated for the final 9 or 10 recording sessions require pretty advanced-level musicians.  One of the reasons these sessions were scheduled later in the summer, was to allow extra time for these performers to prepare.  I am pleased with the results so far.  This has been quite an exciting journey, and I am humbled again and again by the dedication of these musicians who bring such personal integrity to the process.  It would be so much easier to invest less of themselves. I’m a far cry from Beethoven or Mozart, after all.  But, their hours of rehearsal and close attention to detail prove the high priority they have placed on this project, and I am deeply moved.

Haley (my student assistant and recording engineer), who is a composition major herself, asked me “Is it hard for you to listen to people play your music? Do you ever dislike their interpretation?”  I thought that was an excellent question.  My response wasn’t very profound in the moment, but upon further reflection — this is what I have to say (hopefully Haley will see this): I love writing for people I know, because I can imagine with a fair amount of accuracy how they will interpret a particular phrase or musical gesture. I make every effort to write music that will cater to their individual strengths (pyro-technics, tone quality, expression, articulation, range, tessitura, etc.) while also writing pieces they will appreciate and enjoy learning and performing.  If I stick to that formula, I am seldom disappointed.  My next job is to be sure I notate the music in such a way that parameters are clear without stifling the passion, enthusiasm, and interpretation of whoever endeavors to perform it.  Creating music is only half of the composer’s job.  The other half (sometimes more than half) is notating what you hear in a way that draws out the performance you want, and yet prevents the performance you don’t want.

I feel very honored to know people who inspire me to create music especially for them. Photos of some of those special people are below.

Lila Hammer records Manchester Sonata
Lila says of my work, “There’s always that one measure, that’s just a little tougher than everything else.” I think she was looking at one of those measures when I snapped this picture!
Clayton and Emily singing “Upon Thy Heart” during Scott and Alan’s wedding ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Ramsey Railsback)
Recording Session 4
Shoeless Joe Cello — Robert Lynn recording “Proxemics”
Kira recording session 067
That’s a wrap! Pamela Haynes has played all the accompaniments for these summer recording sessions. She’s rightfully feeling a sense of accomplishment and relief to have completed her final session! (Photo by Clayton Marcum)
Haley Neilson, my hard-working recording engineer
This gal put has put in some long hours! I’ve been very impressed with Haley’s work this summer.

Manchester Sonata

July 17, 2017

I love hearing Dr. Pamela Haynes practice my compositions. She is a consummate artist, who leaves no detail unattended while layering in her own musical expression and interpretation. The best performers become part of the creative process and lift the composer’s notes off the page with sensitivity and integrity. Mere compositions are nothing unless human musicians breathe life into them.


Lila Hammer records Manchester Sonata
Lila says of my work, “There’s always that one measure, that’s just a little tougher than everything else.” I think she was looking at one of those measures when I snapped this picture!
Recording Session #9
Lila Hammer and Pamela Haynes, recording Manchester Sonata
Recording Session #9
Recording sessions can be really stressful, so it’s important to take some laughing breaks now and then.
Recording Session #9
Lila Hammer recording Manchester Sonata

Writing for Piano

July 4, 2017

I am painstakingly piecing together piano reductions of my orchestra scores for “A Family Portrait.”  My goal is to have all of this done by August 1st.  Although the piano reductions are not intended for performance, they give crucial harmonic and textural information to the singers as they rehearse and prepare for their first orchestra rehearsal.  Piano reductions are weird because it’s as much a process of deciding what to leave out, as what to put in.  Once you decide what to include, you then have to be sure it is playable.  It’s a tricky, time-consuming process — especially since that part will never be performed for an audience.

Even though I am a pretty decent pianist and have played for about 50 years, I still feel  intimidated when I write for piano. I’ve played a lot of cumbersome things and thought, “obviously this composer didn’t know much about piano.”  I do not want to be that composer. I often write piano parts that are just a bit beyond my playing level, but even working through the music under tempo, I can find and fix most of the awkward passages.  Still, for me, writing piano parts requires more concentration and discernment than writing for any other instrument.

It is extremely helpful for all composers to have trusted colleagues who will play through their works and give honest, constructive feedback.  I have two such pianists in my life right now, and I am so grateful for them.  Thanks Pam and Alan for your suggestions, affirmation, and all around good humor.  Brace yourselves. I’m going to have more music for you to sight-read very soon.

Well, I’d better get back to work. These reductions are not going to write themselves.

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