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Opus in Progressionem

Updates on music composition projects by Debra J. Lynn

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Thoughts on the Creative Process

Letters as Lyrics

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.  The first three authors were not poets.  They probably never imagined anyone other than their intended recipients would read their words – and yet, here I am decades later, setting them to music.  Keats is a bit different because he had gained some notoriety during his short lifetime, so he probably knew his letters would be preserved and examined after his death.  However, he likely did not expect they would become art song lyrics.

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 start with structure or form. Most letters are too long to set to music, so I try to extract the “meat” from the document by cutting away the superlative bits – the “fat and bones.”  An overall form often 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.  I have grown to love these authors as thinking, feeling, human beings, and I yearn to give their words the most beautiful music I can. 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 in order to get it just right.  So, thank you Tyler, Lanie, Percy, and John for helping me grow as a composer.

Recording Sessions 8-10 Complete!

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!
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.
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

Manchester Sonata

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

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 tricky and time-consuming.

Even though I am a pretty decent pianist and have played for nearly 50 years, I still feel very 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.  Not only do you have to consider the hands, but there are the darned pedal markings to worry about, too! *sigh*

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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