A few weeks ago, some observations and advice crossed my Twitter feed (yes, I have a Twitter account. So sue me.) about how, as a man, to work more effectively. It came from Adam Lane Smith, writer of Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger and the Gideon Ira novels, whose day gig is psychological therapist.
The advice involved recognizing and capitalizing on the single-track nature of how men work, and building rituals and habits to enhance focus and eliminate distractions, and was just the little extra push I needed at the moment. So, I cleaned up my home office, which I’d allowed to get so cluttered that it had been unusable for about a year.
Some of the clutter consisted of boxes of old paper and files that had followed me around for decades. I bit the bullet and dug in, determined to find an appropriate place to file this stuff, with a bias toward the trash can.
Well. The oldest stuff was from college, and included the first serious musical composition I’d ever tried. It was hilarious in one way: the style changed not once, but twice between the opening and conclusion: I was figuring out stuff as I went, and incorporating it on the fly.
I have a file for such things. Filed it.
Then came writings dating back to the late 1980s. At least three novels in various stages – an outline, a couple chapters, a bunch of chapters – and a half dozen short stories. Also a letter from a professional writer-friend critiquing one of the short stories, a copy of which I did not find.
Finally, I found these:
While I remember the concerts well, and remember getting the review, I had forgotten what the reviewer had actually said. At the age of 25, I had found a composition teacher in Santa Fe, who also happened to be the founding director of the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, one of a number of pro and semi-pro classical musical groups in Santa Fe back then. While in 1983 Santa Fe had only about 40,000 residents, it punched way above its weight musically: in addition to the famous Santa Fe Opera, which attracted talent from opera companies around the world, there were at least 2 professional orchestras and 2 professional choirs, in addition to the Chorus of Santa Fe community choir (which I sang in sometimes) and the semi-pro Women’s Ensemble: Suzanne had assembled a group from the hired gun singer community, the kind of people you can throw music at and have it sung well with minimal practice.
Earlier that year, Suzanne had offered a once-a-week class in composition; I signed up along with a few other people. A few sessions in, she gave an assignment where we were to write a short composition using only ii-V-I chords. I was spending that week in Eugene, OR, and had no access to a piano, so I wrote something for piano and voice directly to paper and hoped it was OK. It came out well, and Suzanne offered to take me on for private lessons. She told me that if I wrote something for the Women’s Ensemble, they’d perform it.
So I did, a 3-minute loing Kyrie in 4 parts, SSAA. I knew in advance that normal voicing rules didn’t really apply – these gals were pros, and could sing very high, and very low. So I pushed things a little. The Kyrie section is very much polyphonic, but more after the modal fashion of Faure than classic Palestrina style. She liked it, but told me to cut loose on the Christe as a contrast. I was doubtful, but did it: it’s a bunch of very dense chords moving in a funky chromatic manner – you want contrast? I’ll show you contrast! – brought back around to F for a near-repeat of the Kyrie, in the traditional manner. Some soprano got to sing an a above the staff, mezzo-piano, and hold it for a while. Good times.
I know I have a recording, but can’t lay my hands on it. It’s in The Pile somewhere. When I find it, I’ll throw it up here for your listening pleasure.
After that concert, my next assignment caught me a little off-guard: Suzanne told me to write a string quartet after the style of Mozart. Um, what? This blue-collar kid from SoCal had never intentionally listened to string quartets, Mozart’s or otherwise…
But before I got too far, I had an opportunity to move to Albuquerque and attend an art school, where I could get piano lessons as part of the schooling and would have access to a nice grand to practice on. The piano teacher, Matalie Wham, was awesome, still the best I’d ever had. She is a tall as me – 6′ 2″ – with huge hands, and damn, she could play. I was blessed to study with her.
So I did that, and lost touch with Suzanne. For the next 4-5 months, I practiced anywhere from 5 to 10 hours a day. At the end, I knew that, if I stuck it out for another year or two, I could be good. My meager skill on the piano all traces back to this period.
But the art school was becoming intolerable. The director was, frankly, a sociopath, and many of the people there – it was a tiny school – were, let’s say, less than stable. Nowhere to hide. So I left, and signed up for classes at UNM. A few months of deliveries for Fox Foto and living in a freezing converted cinder block garage, and I’d really had it. My beloved future wife lived in Santa Fe, we saw each other only rarely (an hour drive each way, so weekends, pretty much), and I was burned out. So I packed my few belongings and a cat into my car, and headed back to SoCal, to get a job, settle down, with the goal of getting my beloved to marry me.
The whole marriage thing worked out very well, but I had to pretty much kill any musical dreams I had. Off and on, I directed and sang in some choirs, played in a coupole rock bands. But rock was never really my thing, and I frankly have very meager skill as a performer. I wrote some rock songs, but stayed away, mostly, from composing. Around age 40, 20 years ago, I found a composition teacher and signed up for some lessons, but we really didn’t hit it off.
A couple years ago, as my job started its death spiral, I started coming home from work and heading straight to the piano, and playing for an hour or two. Took out Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, and some Joplin rags, and had at it. This is the most I’d played since my time with Matalie. (The Beethoven was and is way over my head, BTW, but I can sorta hack my way through it.)
Here’s the coincidence part: Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco has founded the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. This institute sponsors the Benedict XVI vocal ensemble (16 members, get it?), a very impressive professional group of singers, under the direction of Richard Sparks.
The Benedict XVI performed settings of the O Antiphons as part of an Advent prayer service lead by the Archbishop at beautiful St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.
It was awesome. In his opening comments, Richard Stark mentioned that they would be singing each of the traditional chant settings of the O Antiphons, followed by a choral setting, except in the case of the O Clavis David, where he had been unable to find a suitable setting.
So, for the first time in years, I grabbed some music paper and a couple of pencils, went to the piano, and started pounding away at a vocal setting. First, I printed out the texts and chant settings, sang through them a few times, made some notes on texts and music (the ‘O’ is set the same in all 7 chants; the ‘Veni’ is identical in all but one; each contains the same ascending climax figure; each ends with nearly identical cadences. And so on.)
I’ve gotten half way through a very rough draft of O Clavis David; plan is to set all 7, using related themes and treatments, but with unique twists to each, such that the whole represents a culmination and single statement.
Hey, dream big.
(Note: I’m working on the education history book in the afternoon, after spending the morning job hunting. Composing happens in my spare time, and will not interfere with other activities. )
On an unrelated note, while I have done no work on the Eternal Brick Project since the end of summer, a nice bit of moss has started growing on the path to front porch, and it looks cool!