Writing Music: The Songs of the Earth August 1, 2012

Journal entries by composer and pianist Laurie Conrad

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Writing Music: The Songs of the Earth August 1, 2012

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Continuing work on the cycle "Unsung Songs: Songs of the Earth" for flute, viola, violin, cello and piano. Based on words by the violinist William Hurley.


Wednesday, August 1

Memories of my teacher in college, Karel Husa, surfaced today - possibly because he has a house on the lake near Windgarth House.

Karel has always remained a very humble man, in spite of the fact that he has conducted his music all over the world and received so many notable prizes. He was also a very patient and encouraging teacher. As a graduate music student at Ithaca College, I had written a ballet over the summer, and somehow misplaced it soon after returning back to school. It just disappeared and never reappeared. When I went in for my next lesson with Karel, he merely sighed at the news. Then he added: “Just try to remember to come to the concert next week - you are playing in it.” He was such a kind man, and very fond of me. We often spoke French during my lessons, he had lived in France and his beautiful wife is French. I never took composing seriously then, had no intention of becoming a composer - but he always said I could be a successful composer if I wished. A very special teacher and man, I was very fortunate to have studied with him.

Yesterday took a break from Haiku V and sketched out Haiku VI, for flute. Worked briefly on Haiku V, scribbled down motives, fragments, melodies and ideas. Now the rest should fall into place quickly.

Thursday, August 2

Called Wayne yesterday to come and cut the vines outside the computer room. A few vines were coming several feet into the room, which was fine, but I was worried about the air conditioner - that it would be choked to death and stop working. Wayne came with his trusty ladder and now there are piles of cut vines on the stone path, reminiscent of my stack of motives and melodies and countersubjects on the piano rack. I’ll go out tonight if it’s cool enough, and put the vines in the wheelbarrow.

When I look out the computer room window I can see the bittersweet and grape vines - and trees - and a bit of our neighbor’s shed. I see Wayne left a few stray leaves in the window ... It feels as though I could walk on the grape arbor, it’s a mere few feet away ... There is always something so very special about the overview, being suspended above the usual reality of the gardens, of the world we are so used to ...

Time to go downstairs and write music.

Friday, August 3

Am progressing on the sketch of Haiku V, writing new material and also piecing together my initial sketches. Even the final sketch of this Haiku will still be a sketch, often without a bass line or treble. It is the most complicated and intricate piece in the cycle so far, and I am pleased with the piano introduction and the major themes. The overall form continues to take shape, and much still needs to be decided. But on the whole it is falling into place nicely. Instead of taking the time to recopy sections from the initial sketches, I might start cutting and pasting. When the ideas start coming in, I generally just scribble the notes and rhythms down anywhere on the page, for fear of forgetting them - which makes the later steps more challenging, i.e. deciphering the marks on the pages indicating what goes where when. I have started holding the final sketch pages together with a paperclip - otherwise the manuscript sheets from both sketches will haphazardly intermingle and I’ll never find my way through the piece later. This cycle has been most interesting - and I hope I never work this way again. Writing from beginning to end, in order, is easiest on the composer ... and I am still not sure why this piece has arrived - well, in pieces ... In any case, time to go back downstairs and finish another piano cadenza, connecting one section to another. I might decide to use some of the material from the initial sketches for other Haiku; simplicity and clarity is most often the best policy, especially for this cycle.

Saturday, August 4

Finished the rough sketch of Haiku V this morning. Many lines are missing in various sections, but the motives and major ideas are there; the rest is in my mind and can be retrieved and written later.

Decided to write music to - of William’s poems, instead of my original idea of ten. Will go through the stack of motives and melodies and harmonies in my manilla folder and start writing Haiku XVII or IX this afternoon.

It is almost time to name the individual Haiku movements, and the entire cycle. Although at this stage, it might be better to use any creative energy I have towards writing the music ...

5 p.m.

Scorchingly hot today; the gardens are drooping in the hot sun in spite of the watering I gave them last night, and no rain in sight. Worked on Haiku XVII, sketched out a bare outline using previous sketches; expanded some sections. Haiku XVII will be scored for all the instruments, and is complicated and fairly lengthy. Did all I could for now and put the sheets of manuscript paper in my manilla folder. Then started work on XI, which uses the second row and will be scored without piano. Haiku XI will be much shorter and simpler than XVII, and more transparent. I used a twelve measure sketch I had written earlier and then expanded another section I had sketched out. William’s poem is:

Sober Autumn song,
In tune and time releasing
Sounds of restless Earth.

My idea at the moment is to use the measures I have already written and then later in the piece fragment them - i.e. to base this entire Haiku on only a handful of measures. William’s words “releasing sounds” can then emanate from these fragments, in a way I have not yet determined.

In general, I am using this time to find a musical overview to all - poems, I can fill in these sketches later.

Sunday, August 5

Finished the sketch for Haiku XI last night. Rain finally this morning, mid-seventies - finally went outside and spent some time with the dahlias. Tonight I’ll prop up the gardens, especially along the path.

Have been working on Haiku XXVI, sketching out piano motives. This Haiku will be complicated, intricate, it will be scored for all the instruments - and I am toying with many ideas, sound and formwise. Haiku XXVI is one I decided to add on a few days ago, but I can already see it taking shape in my mind. I might have gone as far as I can go with it today; tonight I will most likely begin sketching out Haiku XIX, which will be scored for fewer instruments and will be more simply written.

For the most part I am still working off of the initial motives and melodies, countersubjects and harmonies I originally sketched out for this cycle. That manilla folder is almost empty now, whereas the folder holding the newly sketched out Haiku is becoming thicker by the day. Still, there is much work to be done. Some of the newly sketched out pieces are really no more than bare outlines, if that. Mere twinkles in the composer’s eye ...

7:30 p.m. Went for a walk at Stewart Park - a light rain, grey clouds over the lake, wind, waves, seagulls ... Came home and finished sketching out Haiku XIX. While taking a short break from composing, suddenly and unexpectedly inwardly saw the overall form for VIII:

Hills in sudden light
Show the discourse of colors ...
Spirited debate.

Sketched myself a visual note: blocks of contrasting rhythms and chords, superimposed, overlapping ... Possibly contrasting keys, overlapping, a bit of polytonality - either using the first row or abandoning twelve tone entirely. VIII will be scored for all the instruments, so I will wait a bit to start writing it.

Watered the gardens, the dahlias and roses under the lilacs and forsythias. Sketched out a few pages of XXVII.

2:35 a.m.

Propped up the gardens, clipped some topiary, examined and administered, tidied and arranged. Then finished sketching out XXVII, at least the main themes and some inner voices, the overall form. Tomorrow I will work on the sketch of XXVI, which is at the moment in a state of hopeful disarray. Most of the main motives are there, at least the essence of them ... XXVI is complicated formwise and notewise and I am looking forward to giving it more shape and substance. This phase of writing is wondrous: sounds emerging for the first time, ideas written across a blank canvas, the initial strokes of color and form finally manifesting, a promise whispered now transformed into notes and stems and clefs on sheets of manuscript paper, to be translated by musicians into sounds and rhythms and phrases ... A miracle really.
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