Desert recharging

June 23, 2007

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I’m just back from 5 days in Palm Springs for one of my periodic escapes from LA to recharge my batteries and to write music. . I know this sounds odd to many, but one of the benefits of a desert retreat is that it’s too damn hot to do anything else BUT to work (inside). In the past I’ve bartered lessons for house stay, taken advantage of inexpensive summer deals in the local resorts and hotels, but recently, two of my good friends who own property there are happy to have me stay at their (empty) places, an offer that is hard to refuse.

This year I took our dogs to see how they would like the desert. They both developed a love for being hauled around in the 90 degree pool at the end of a hot day. They love catching the ball on the grassy area. They’ve figured out to not go on the concrete during the day. They also loved exporing all the new desert flora and fauna. Cody had an encounter with a road runner on Wednesday that was hilarious. They both stood staring at each other for about a minute, not sure what to think. Giaco came barreling out to save the day and the RR flew into the pommelo tree nearby. (An interesting aside for dog owners: I went out to pick up the daily dog poop, and would find it completely covered with desert insects devouring these choice little random morsels, and I actually felt guilty removing said feces, as it would probably be gone by the next day!)

My days begin with getting up at 5 am, driving to a local coffee shop to get a large cafe latte to go. This may sound odd, but it is the most magical time of day. The sky is clear. The surrounding mountains majestically circle the desert cities and are their beauty changes subtly throughout the day. The air smells invigorating. There are always a few seniors out walking themselves and/or their dogs.

When I return, I put on headphones, listen to rain and thunder, and start composing. This week I’ve returned to my new chamber opera “Mozart and the Gray Steward” which is one of the commissions from the Thornton Wilder Estate. I had composed the grand ligne last December, so the scaffolding was already in place. I had originally thought to set if for a chamber ensemble of six players, but this week, decided against it in favor of a small Mozart chamber orchestra.

I had been NOT composing since last December (my personal anti-burnout prevention program), so it felt terrific getting back in the saddle. (I tell people it’s not unlike being celibate for a while, and then when the celibacy is broken, sparks fly!) Last week I finished the short film POSSUM DEATH SPREE 2 (all done with Logic, no notation), so technically I had already broken my fast, but it felt good getting back to writing notes.

I realize that most of the time, we composers carry notes around in our head: Unfinished strands of melodies, textures, or harmonies that loop in our head until the appropriate path is decided. I can be having a conversation with you, but streaming in my head is the passage I’m working on. I’ll nod politely and even chat, but the music momentum is always there, percolating away.

I’ll compose until 8 am, and having realized that I’ve already got 2 1/2 hours of work done, I slip into the pool. The sun is now out, the sounds of cars and leaf-blowers are now filling the morning soundscape. The heat sets in. I go inside, check my email, surf the web, and then take a 10 minute nap. I read for a while, then go back to composing. I go through this cycle until around 4 pm when I usually leave to go to an afternoon movie, followed by a dinner out — usually alone, this time Mark Carlson was with me for 3 days, correcting his final exams. When I get back, I work a little more, and then turn in by 10 or 10:30. This is my creative/recharging rhythm for my Palm Springs getaways.

This summer does not entail as much travel as last summer. We have a wedding in Chicago, and 10 days in Spain before school starts. That’s enough. I figure balancing composing, Chairing, and having a life will be enough. As long as I get to have my desert weekend retreats from time to time, I’ll be just fine.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

citrus June 23, 2007 at 6:58 am

Good piece! Interesting and informative. Fun to know what goes on on those great retreats.

lupkyn June 23, 2007 at 9:50 am

As one who hopes to one day do some composing, I am with citrus in finding this interesting. The listening to rain and thunder on headphones is surprising… I would have assumed silence, or relative silence, to be the ideal sonic backdrop for composing. Is this a way to activate a more dramatic emotional state?

Brad Wood June 23, 2007 at 10:23 am

Speculating here, I think it’s just essentially impossible to get real silence almost anywhere anymore, so the masking sound effects are preferable to any likely pitched sounds coming in from external sources.

I’m reminded though of the story of the serial composer who would work on his music while in the middle of a concert, and insisted it made no difference to his music.

And I think I’m inclined to agree with him—it was probably just as beautiful and profound as it would have been otherwise 😉

Roger Bourland June 23, 2007 at 2:53 pm

I do work in complete silence the majority of the time. We don’t get much rain in LA and I miss it terribly. I get a profound feeling of calm listening to rain. And, like highway driving with the windows down, I am able to hear almost anything with the sonic white noise graph paper of rain.

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