Welcome to Newsletter numbah 3.
I've been thinking recently about the process of composing music and - due to some class discussions - what 'meaning' music is supposed to or not supposed to have, especially when talking about the more 'out there' or 'abstract' types of music. Yeah, whew... So, I thought it might help me to compare it all to a tennis match. Eh?
In a tennis match, like in composition, you are given a task: play the match, or in comp, write a piece. In tennis, you can have a different opponent, court, and environment each time - along with your changing mental states/health and physical states/health. Sometimes you step on court with a game-plan specific to your opponent and situation, and other times, you just head on out there and adapt as you go -- each time, though, you have your tools: tennis racquets, shoes, bag, water, food, towel. At a younger age, I often had a 'basic' game-plan that I built on and changed depending on the match: for ex., focus on breaking down his backhand or, against others, serve and volley most of the time, etc. As people get older and better, though, clear weaknesses start to disappear: backhands are as consistent as forehands, serves are more powerful, volleys more crisp. And quickly, the more 'comfortable' ways in which to approach a match are not enough to win anymore. Strategy becomes less clear and demands a more multifaceted, complex approach - now I have to hit 10 to his backhand for every 3 to his forehand, serve and volley on only every third point, drop shot him every seventh point to keep him honest, and start mixing in risky backhand winners down the line because he's too fast for the cross-court ones. Each decision becomes way more important to building the point and there are a whole lot more decisions to be made. Mix into all of this the mental side of the game and you have what seems like an impossible thing ahead: not only does every physical decision matter with even more intensity, but also your conceptual understanding of your evolving strategy and your emotional reactions to the results of each point all matter.
In music comp, I step on another type of court, with another type of game-plan (hopefully) in mind. What am I going to explore with this piece? How do I approach this in a way that I can capitalize on my strengths? I have my compositional tools and my go-to phrases (drop volleys in tennis!) ready to roll - and then the piece, or match, begins. If in tennis I stick to the shots I am comfortable with, and win easily, then the piece/match is not a challenge. But, if the opponent gets back my winners, puts me on the defensive, and forces me to find new ways to attack his game - then we have a real match. Each decision I make affects the next. If I have the cello player tap her instrument with her fingernail, what do I have the guitar player do? What happens after that? How does all of it work together? On and on. For tennis, I could begin by forcing him out wide to his forehand again and again; then that opens up the backhand side for more easy winners, which then tires him out more quickly because it 'widens' the court, giving me the productive option of hitting a drop shot to make him sprint even more. Then lob. You get the idea.
So then... what is the point of playing a competitive tennis match? What's the meaning? Is it to win? Well, ya. Some of it, anyway. We want to win - to prove that we are a good player and better than our opponent. In music, maybe 'winning' is like giving a convincing performance to an audience that conveys some elements of your intent as a composer. But winning isn't everything! Right? Most of the time (all of the time?), there are a huge number of interpretations and conclusions reached by an audience, and a bunch way way far away from your 'intent.' (side note...hearing all of these interpretations is one of the best parts of a composition, for me). But what's the rest then...? That can't be it.
Alright, let's look at tennis again. So you go, you play your match, you leave. But what about the stuff you leave ON the court? There's so much more. The sweat. Emotions. Skid marks from worn shoes. If you play a 'meaningful' match, you will have left your guts on that court. You should be beat up, weak, finished, but complete. That's the meaning: the intangible things you leave on the court after a grueling battle. And that's how it is with composition. The meaning of a piece is, yeah, partially in how you convey your intent and how it is received by an audience. But it is more so in what you put into the piece and what you leave behind with it. Nobody else can know what this meaning is because it is YOUR meaning - something impossible for others to experience as you did. They can come close, but it will not feel the same. Nobody knows how it felt the moment you dove sideways at net to reach a passing shot and drop it back over for a winner. Nobody will ever exactly understand that. But, if it is done right, people will intuitively feel it. They'll cringe as you fall hard on the court, and they'll go nuts when the ball dribbles back over. In music, it's those moments you can't immediately explain as a listener when you come close to grasping meaning in music. And meaning doesn't need to be clear or earth-shattering - it rarely is; but it is there, in everything and nothing at once.
Ok, there's my thing on tennis and music. In other news, I have a concert coming up this Saturday at 2pm in the R.O.D. at CalArts - of 2 works, 35 min piece called "In Search of Murmurings" (Emi Tamura (pno), Jonathan Tang (vln), Logan Hone (alto sax), and Joe Thel conducting) and "Undoing, Moving; I'll Go On" (co-composed with Alex Hamberger (solo e. bass) and we're joined by Manuel Meza (dancer) and a manikin!). Then I have an octet - "Gentle Loosening" - being performed on Monday at 8pm by the chamber ensemble here. New choir work is being rehearsed for a concert in December. Also applying for a big grant with the very talented Danny Clarke (composer) and beginning work on a number of new pieces, including solo trumpet for Sarah Reid, solo cello (in progress) for David Mason, trio for flute (Jen I.), guitar (Sean H.), and cello (Thea M.), dance piece (continuing) with Jake Harkey, and a series of graphic score string quartets. Working on a series of electronic pieces with Max/MSP (one to be played at a concert on Nov 16th, using tracks Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 and GKMC) - and working on continuing to develop more of my own patches. Many other things brewing. Including coffee at all times.
Till next time,
PS. new sound on my soundcloud (short solo cello work)!! And many more to come.