Working on the 12 Tone Cycle 'Unsung Songs'

Journal entries by composer and pianist Laurie Conrad

Moderator: figaro

Post Reply
Posts: 535
Joined: Sun Mar 27, 2005 12:45 am
Location: Ithaca, NY

Working on the 12 Tone Cycle 'Unsung Songs'

Post by figaro »

The creative process: the composer continues work on the 'Unsung Songs' cycle for piano, flute, cello, violin and viola, set to haiku poems written by William Hurley. A Composer's Journal Entries: July 18-21, 2012.


Wednesday, July 18

Yesterday over a hundred degrees - the sentient beings in Ithaca, NY were not pleased. I continue to write musical motives and sketch out sections, and to think about the overall form when I am not at the piano writing. Began working on Haiku I yesterday, started to fill in all the lines to my sketch. Today I will probably expand it, add on, make it longer. Later I will make final decisions as to what instrument plays which line where and when - for now I am just sketching the various lines and harmonies in quickly. Being a pianist, it is very tempting to give everything to the piano, and I am conscientiously and vigilantly fighting that impulse.

The sketch of the score of Haiku I is now a confused, visual mess. Penciled in notes and arrows everywhere, stems without noteheads, noteheads without stems, clefs strewn about - in my initial haste to get my ideas down, I did not leave enough empty staffs on the empty manuscript paper for the various instruments. So the newly added on parts, new lines, are crammed in wherever I could fit them. Before I continue on to Haiku II I had better copy out Haiku I, or I will never get it all sorted out later.

Thursday, July 19

Wrote more pages today, between various household chores and tasks; Haiku I is almost entirely sketched out. I am hearing the other lines as I write, but there is no time to write them down or I will forget the larger ideas - so I am notating only the rhythm for some of the inner voices, just stems here and there as reminders; I can fill in the pitches later.

Often when I write music, I feel as transparent as glass - it is difficult to explain, but sometimes I wonder if I looked into a mirror if there would be any image there looking back at me....

Cooler today, it barely reached eighty; tonight in the mid sixties and a soft light rain. The doors and windows are open tonight, and I can look into the gardens and feel as though I am a part of them: a perfect night for composing, no sounds except the rain falling gently and steadily in the gardens. New themes and motives weave themselves onto the paper effortlessly, magically ...

Friday, July 20

Sketched out pages of notes for Haiku II this evening; it will begin with either solo violin playing double stops, or for violin and viola, in a constant quarter note changing harmony. After a time the cello enters and holds changing pedal tones, then plays a simple bass line. What is interesting here is that the upper lines are often taken fairly literally from the row - and the cello notes are not, those tones were not written into the row at that juncture - and yet those cello tones outline the chords, often playing the root of the chord. The effect is suddenly a tonal section, traditional in the sense that the chord progressions are now easy to hear and identify - whereas earlier they are implied.... I think the overall effect will be sensitive yet powerful. I will read through it tomorrow to see if I need to make any changes.

I continue to question my decision to write so many complicated pages of music to William's masterful haiku poems, pages of melodies and harmonies and countersubjects scored for so many instruments often playing at the same time. Walking in the gardens earlier tonight, I was so buried in my thoughts that I barely greeted the flowers as I passed, hardly noticed them. Yet at the end of my uneasy stroll I again decided that my original intent and plan and style of writing is correct - haiku poems are a distillation of life and experience. Had I scored this cycle for solo instruments, kept the pieces as brief as the poems themselves - and most likely strictly twelve tone - it would detract from the very meaning and essence of haiku poetry. The music would be competing with the poetry rather than highlighting it.

Strange but I also can almost hear and see some of those briefer haiku, as though that version of the Haiku cycle has already been written, is written - and inwardly I see it being rehearsed. Even as I write this Journal entry, I am inwardly watching the musicians as they play one of those haiku pieces, in that other, simpler Haiku musical style. And it is in a style very different from the version I am now working on, the two pieces I have already written for this cycle...

Now I am considering writing some of the haiku movements in this simpler style.

Saturday, July 21

Read through Haiku II earlier today and was very pleased. No changes, not today. I now have two manilla file folders, one for the pages of musical sketches of Haiku already completed, another for the numerous sheets of manuscript paper covered with motives and melodies and sketches for future Haiku. Spent some time rereading the poems and choosing possible new ones to include in this cycle.

Began creating Haiku III, which might be for solo violin, with a brief introduction in the piano; so far I only wrote the piano introduction, a descending whole tone scale - which is not the tone row. After more thought, I did finally decide that some Haiku movements in the cycle would be simpler and shorter, as in my inner vision - solo instruments, as well as various combinations of instruments. As though some of William's haiku poems are a prolonged gaze - others just a quick glance, possibly through a train window, or from a distance.

Also started to decide which instruments would play each poem, so that from one poem to another the instrumentation would change. None of these decisions are set in stone, music has a way of writing itself without much help from me. Originally I had thought to begin with solo instruments and end the cycle with all the instruments - or the opposite - but now that I have begun writing, I think variety is best, depending on the poem. Today I also briefly considered that I could do fewer Haiku and be done sooner, with less work and facing fewer organizational musical dilemmas, formal dilemmas. Determining the form of so many pieces within one cycle is quite a task, and although I enjoy challenges I must admit the idea of ending the cycle after a few more poems was very appealing at one point earlier today. On the other hand, the pages of notes I have already sketched out are waiting to unfold, waiting to become the point of light for many other pages of notes and melodies and harmonies to follow - and inevitably the music must continue, must unfold. And that is the joy of writing music for me, that natural unfurling of tones and patterns and ideas. In a way that unfurling of tones and patterns and ideas is as inevitable as the overtone series itself, which manifests effortlessly, follows the natural laws of our universe ... And so as I sit here writing descriptive words in my Journal, after a very long day, again I see measures of my sketches - and feel that excitement of creation, that anticipation.

3:35 AM Went downstairs and sketched out more of Haiku III, the piano part, then worked in the gardens. A bit of clipping topiary, propping up the dinner plate dahlias, a bit of weeding and deadheading. A clear, cool night, no hint of the heat predicted for tomorrow; a pale sliver of a moon and the constellations in their usual places. Came back inside, wrote the string parts; Haiku III is finished, at least for now. Kept it simple and short, used the whole tone scale throughout, i.e. abandoned the two twelve tone rows I have been using. Tomorrow I will check this piece over and then start working on Haiku IV. Now that I have spent more time thinking about the overall form, more ideas are emerging, and I am seeing and hearing more clearly. The key was mixing compositional styles for the various movements, the simple and the more complicated. Now I can almost inwardly see entire haiku pieces finished, their scores completed ...
Post Reply