Composerly metabolisms

February 10, 2008

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Composer (and my teacher at New England Conservatory), Malcolm Peyton told us several times that a composer’s metabolism is reflected in his/her music. A brilliant observation — although I remember one classmate at NEC who loved to play late Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel, but when it came to writing his own music, it was like Morton Feldman bubbling through a lava lamp.

I have always had an imaginary but vivid movie of Stravinsky walking down a sidewalk, composing in his head, and he is walking in time to the music he is hearing in his head. His gate is a little jerky, his shoulders accent the chordal offbeat stabs, his head sways back and forth depending on the tune, and his gate is the pulse in the music. To this day, when I listen to his music, I see this odd little movie.

I learned to write quickly when I studied with William Thomas McKinley who amazed us by how much music he would write in one semester: a string quartet, a cello concerto, a piece for clarinet and orchestra, a solo flute piece, and a piano piece. WOW! As students, we wanted to compete with him, so we wrote as much music as we possible could. I’m not going to tell you that what I wrote there was that great sounding, but I learned how to compose at lightning speed. Ditto when I compose for films, I’ve had to compose 50 minutes of music, orchestrate it, conduct it and record it in 3 weeks.

Coupled with the ability to write quickly a composer is lucky if s/he can catch the wave of a biochemical-hot-flash muse. But like all biochemical hot-flashes, the wave crashes on the shore and it’s over. When you revisit that passage, it is technique that enables the talented composer to continue whatever is unfinished in the initial rush. Good thing, because tomorrow you will be a slightly different person.

And once that biochemical hot-flash passes, you move on to a contrasting section and to a contrasting biochemical feeling. Or it might be a spiritual enlightenment, or a zen moment, depending on the composer. The difference is appreciated by your body and by the listener and performer as well. Contrast is always our friend.

[Photo of RB’s hands by Larry Luchtel]

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