August 27, 2013

The Sound of Inspiration

The act of composing has been on my mind recently, due to the fact that I have compositions underway — self-imposed writing assignments for two annual fall events.
The two pieces are quite different: a Latin flavored duet for saxophone and bass; and a straight ahead chart for full jazz ensemble. A lot has been written about what inspires composers, painters, authors and choreographers, and there is no one answer.
In the course of my oral history project at Hamilton, numerous interviewees have cited life experiences as inspiration for their compositions, or for the way they improvise. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon spoke about this in our interview from March of 2001:
Wycliffe Gordon
MR:   Where does your inspiration come from for writing new music?
WG:   Oh different things. It could be life experiences. I grew up in the church down south, I was in church every Sunday whether I wanted to be or not. But it depends. It comes from many things. But mainly things that are blues based and the feeling of the music of the church. And sometimes I just am walking around, I hear things and I start to sing. And I learned a very important lesson when I was in college. I write everything down now. Because if you don’t, I think it’s very mysterious how this music thing works in terms of new music coming to you. I’d like to be able to hear everything that I’ve written, get it out of here, on the paper, and maybe get the music performed. I love to play and to perform but I love to write. Because a performance can last — if you get it recorded it can last forever, but I would like to continue to compose music for various aggregations but not just jazz, and that’s what I would like to do.
Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider’s anecdote about her start as a composer and arranger offered a different story. Her experience is almost the opposite — it was actually the lack of a relevant life experience that set the stage for her defining moment, and the impetus to embrace the big band as her platform.
MS:   As far as jazz composition goes, when I did my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, there was no jazz program at that school. I also didn’t have a jazz high school band or anything like that. You know I’m from Minnesota, a very small town, and there was only one person in Windem that really knew anything about jazz, but she was an extraordinary stride player. This is kind of going off on your question, but it kind of leads up, because my education really started with her. And as I was learning classical pieces, she taught me how to play in this old stride style. So we were learning standards and I would come up with my own piano arrangements of them basically, with a little bit of improvisation. And I learned to play out of a fake book. The thing is, she didn’t tell me anything about the development of jazz. And there was no record stores, the only records I had were old Ellington records from the 30’s, Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw — I didn’t have any modern jazz records. And public T.V. and public radio wasn’t so big back then. I had a lot of classical music, but I always felt sad because I felt that I grew up in the wrong era. I thought that jazz had died and I felt really sad that I grew up in the wrong era, because I wanted to be part of that. So by the time I went to college for music, I thought well maybe I’ll study composition. But I felt weird in the classical world. Because the classical world, in the universities especially, even more so at that time, tonality was something that, if you wrote something that was tonal, you were just shunned.
MR:   Is that right? That’s really weird.
MS:   Well it’s absolutely true. And I remember I wrote a piece for two pianos that was on a sort of composer forum concert at the school or whatever. And there were people looking at each other, because everybody was writing sort of atonal music and this thing was very tonal and romantic. And I remember seeing two older composers looking at each other and giggling. And I remember feeling, I just don’t have a place in this world, in this music. And then two things happened at once. I went to a Bob Hope show, of all things, and they were backed up by a big band from the college. This is right when I started school, and I thought oh my God, there’s a big band. And there was this kid playing drums, and people improvising a little bit. And I was like, oh my God, I want to — I had no idea this sort of thing existed. And this guy who lived in the dorm down the hall from me, he heard me playing some old Ellington album, and he said “do you like jazz?” And I said “yeah, you know what that is?” Well as it turned out, I didn’t know what it was, he knew what it was. He brought me all these records. He brought me Herbie Hancock “Head Hunters,” he brought me Coltrane, McCoy Tyner. I’d never heard a piano player play without a root before. So suddenly I heard all this modern jazz. And I’ll tell you, I was like in tears, because it was like oh my God, the dream came true that this music had evolved and I could be part of it.
In a wonderful bit of irony, Maria Schneider, who was laughed at by avante garde composers in the classical world, has now become one of the most adventurous and ground-breaking writers in the jazz world.
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck cited inspiration that grew from other cultures, (Blue Rondo á la Turk being the most obvious example). Later in his life, excerpts from spiritual texts served as inspiration for his new work. On the day of our interview (November 21, 2001) Dave was working on a piece of music for voice and piano, inspired by both current events and an ancient text. The United States had just launched the war in Afghanistan, and Brubeck was reminded of verses from Luke 23, exhorting women to not bear children because of the tumultuous times. The piece was so dark that his wife Iola, a trusted confidant and advisor, could not encourage him to complete it. Dave then shared a brief anecdote about an earlier composition, a commission to celebrate a visit by the Pope:
MR:   When you go to compose a new piece, does it usually come from a commission that has some guidelines for what they want? A subject area perhaps?
DB:   In some cases yeah. The piece I wrote for the Pope, they gave me a sentence, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the jaws of hell cannot prevail against it.” So I decided I couldn’t do that. They wanted nine minutes while the Pope entered the stadium in San Francisco. Candlestick Park. And I said you know I don’t have enough text to do nine minutes. And then I went to bed, dreamt the subject and countersubject of a fugue, and I knew how to do it, how Bach would have done it. He’d take a sentence and make it last a while. And so I did a chorale and fugue on that sentence and I got a second sentence from The Bible. I said give me one more sentence. And they decided they’d give me the next sentence, it was in keeping what they wanted. “What is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So I had those two sentences.
Vocalist and writer Jon Hendricks was one of the many musicians who collaborated with Dave Brubeck. Their work together resulted in the stage show “The Real Embassadors.” Like Dave, he is a spiritual man, and the term divine inspiration meant exactly that. He shared his thoughts about this in our interview from October of 1995:
Jon Hendricks
MR:   When you did this “Sing a Song of Basie,” it seems like a tremendous amount of writing went into this.
JH:   Yes.
MR:   Did it take a long time?
JH:   It took a shorter time to write it than it did to learn it. Like I can attest to the spirituality of the creative process you know, and there have been symposia on that, people have talked about that. And I know that when you’re in the process of creating something, you become God’s pencil, you know? Because you’re watching the pencil to see what’s coming out. So if you’re the one doing it, you wouldn’t have to do that. You would know what’s coming out. But all during “Sing a Song of Basie” I would be watching the pencil to see what was coming. And it was almost like revealed writing. It just came. And to this day if I do a lyric I do the whole band with the solos and all in one draft. And I go back and maybe I have to change one or two words here, but it just pours out. I think it’s revealed. I think that’s the way it is.
Bobby Watson
Saxophonist and composer Bobby Watson addressed the rare arrival of divine inspiration and the necessary work that follows:
BW:   Sometimes the chords come first, but most of the time I go for the melody. And I keep a little journal if I hear something I’ll write it down and then I’ll get back to it later. You may have a change here or there, but basically you know, if something comes to you, you write that down. You used to say like your divine inspiration — divine inspiration doesn’t come that often. And usually when it does it comes in four bars. Very rarely do you hear a song and it’s complete. I have written a few songs that way, it just comes so fast you can’t hardly get it down on paper, the whole song. I can probably count that on one hand. But most of my songs, you know you have to toil over them, and I get maybe four bars of divine inspiration. And with the craft you stretch that into a whole song.
Bobby credits a professor, Christian Williams from the University of Miami, for some lasting insight into the process. Professor Williams demanded that students start their composing by relating to an emotion, and then use only a melody to try and capture it.
The “four bars of divine inspiration” rang a bell with me. Both this summer and last summer I’ve had a serendipitous experience with composing and inspiration. In both instances there was a need for me to write for an upcoming event, as I mentioned in the beginning of this blog. The inspiration both times came on my daily morning walk around the block with our dog. For whatever reason, a bit of melody entered my head, with a specific groove. Last summer’s was a rather old-timey swing beat, circa the thirties. This year the melody had a strong Latin feel to it. In both cases I kept repeating it over and over in my head until I returned home in frantic search of staff paper and pencil to capture it before it left my mind. Then the work started. These were snippets, not nearly four bars, in fact they were less than two. But the germ of the idea was there. Where did it come from? I like the fact that we don’t know. I like the fact that there will always be a bit of magic, a new idea, a new way to improvise, or a new-found phrase never before used in a particular context.
My Latin idea will be premiered in September at a Hamilton College concert. Perhaps we’ll revisit the song when that concert takes place. For me, pressure helps. Desperation leads to inspiration, hopefully. 

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