What comes first?

September 2, 2010

People often are amazed at composers. It seems like magic to many, and they often ask about the process. I tell them that we learn and are trained to “hear” things internally — usually they gasp — I remind them that I am amazed that doctors break open chests daily to do heart surgery, and that that is just as amazing to folks like me.

For me, a hopeless melodicist, MELODY always comes first. The piece hangs on the melody like a scaffolding. The melody is what the piece is “about.” Don Martino used to say “Anyone can write a tune.” Looking back, I just don’t agree. Most “serious” composers, it seems, are not so interested in melody these days. That’s their business. For me, when people walk away humming or remembering a tune, they are taking the piece with them –– they can “own” the piece internally. Modernist music without tunes leaves the listener with an experience, but what do they carry home with them? How do they reconstruct the experience in their heads if there is no melody to recall it? I don’t know, that’s why like prefer tunes.

I’m on a composing vacation now. I’m composing four songs for Vladimir Chernov commissioned by Pacific Serenades, with texts by Mitchell Morris, and scored for piano trio and baritone. The first thing I do is to live with the text: figure out what it’s about so that the melody conveys my take on the meaning. Then I figure out how the text needs to rhythmically be presented. I think about the overall trajectory of the piece — where is the climax? — Where are the high and low notes?

I write tunes sitting quietly in a chair, usually in beautiful spots (Palm Springs, Mill Valley, and Hawaii being my favorite out-of-town composing locations). So that’s what I’m doing now: composing melodies for Vladimir.

I am also thrilled to be composing “Aria for Kenny” for Kenny Burrell’s 80th birthday, next year. It will be scored for guitar and orchestra, and premiered by Kenny next year.

Three cheers for melody!

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