Composing, like a plumber

May 2, 2008


I’ll never forget when Henry Mancini told us that composing is very much like being a plumber. “It’s a job, I get hired to write music for a film and I do my job.” The vision of the composer on a mountain top conversing with the gods is a cool one, but not at all what happens.

Ideas come to us in a variety of different ways. It can be that the text evokes and demands that a melody be written in such a way. Or a melodic idea may come first. Who plays that melody can come with the idea or be a separate one. Sometimes a rhythmic idea pops into our head and drives us into action. Sometimes a series of chords inspires us. There may be a melody on top of those chords, and maybe not.

There are things like variations, inventions, falling bass lines, rondos, sonatas, song forms, and such where pre-fab composition can take place and we flex our technique and developmental muscles. For me, at least in vocal music, the text ALWAYS comes first. My job is to make sure that the people in the back can hear the text. I don’t repeat texts over and over as Handel would, I use it conversationally and in a declamatory fashion, meaning I want the words heard and respected. The rhythm of the sentences should be believable, and if not, eccentric for a reason.

So the text causes the rhythm and the melody to come into existence. Once I have my melody, I create a scaffolding throughout the song. Along the way I may write in bass notes, or accompanimental ideas, complete or partial. I also usually write out that main line in pencil, unless I’m in a rush, as I have for the past 10 months. Most of the melodies of the songs in Act 1 of HOMER IN CYBERSPACE were written in pencil and then transferred to the computer (I use Sibelius for notating my music).

Yesterday I had to get a lot of music written. Luck was on my side as I got a huge amount done. I had three scenes where music is sounding in the background (underscore) very much like film music, and four numbers where there was some kind of dancing going on. None of the music involved singing. The work rhythm that I used was as follows:

Read, savor, and imagine the scene.
Compose until you get the number done.
Lie down and read the next scene, fall asleep for 10 to 15 minutes.
Get up, have a snack, throw the ball for the dogs.
Repeat until you decide to stop.

Today is a school day, so I may have an hour this afternoon, and a few hours on Saturday and Sunday morning. The end of music for HOMER is near, after this weekend it should just be a little “snip, snip here, snip, snip there and a couple of tra la las.”

But as Mike always says: anything following the word “should” is usually BS.

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