notes on making up music

I keep thinking about a composition. At this point I am thinking of a three movement suite of sorts. Probably for Marimba/Congas, Violin, Cello, and possible Keyboard. More importantly in my mind I would like to have each of these three movements connect to a particular American expression: I. Native Americans II. African Americans (Spirituals?), and III. Appalachian Americans. At this point I am not thinking of using actual pieces from these traditions. I’m more interested in honoring these traditions that I admire and see as constituent aspects of American music.

It has occurred to me that the three movements should be medium fast, slow, and quick. I am dithering about how to approach this. This kept me awake early this morning. Each movement could feature an instrument such as Marimba/Congas on the first movement, Cello on the second, and Violin on the last. I am thinking of using the Violin in a bit of a fiddle manner.

One idea I am kicking around is to write a good melody and use it thematically in each movement. I haven’t decided to never use pre-existing melodies in my compositions. But it seems that this time I want to see if I could do this without directly using material in each tradition.

My relationship to making up music has been an odd lifetime obsession. The first time I went to college I majored in Music Composition. This was at Ohio Weslyan U in Delaware. By that time I had already written tons of music. But I knew I wanted more skills to help me. But I also remember doubting how helpful college would be to me for what I had in mind. Life intervened. I ended up quitting college and playing in a friend’s bar band for money.

I was still interested in making up music (composing). I continued to do so. In retrospect I can see that I detached myself from ways of learning that might have set me more clearly in one direction or another. I never studied composition formally again. I brushed up against more formal study when I was attending Wayne State where I finally got my bachelor’s degree. But the composition guy was definitely not interested in having me for a student even though I continued to compose and perform music at Wayne State while I was there.

Back when I was in the bar band, a friend told me of an opening for a keyboard player in a fancy Detroit hotel. He said that if I was at all interested in a Jazz career I should take this rare opportunity and go for it. I understood from his explanation that when big name Jazz musicians came to Detroit this was where they would often stay and sometimes came to the venue so that any musician playing there might have a chance to go forward in that career.

This amuses me to no end in retrospect since I know that I barely had the chops to do straight Jazz at that point even if I had been interested which I was not. After I left Delaware, and was playing in bar bands and running a used book store I continued to develop as a keyboard player but not under a teacher. This development has continued my entire life. After quitting bar bands and closing the bookstore, Ray Ferguson at Wayne State helped me the most, but I still see myself as mostly self taught.

To this day I understand myself as a peculiar kind of musician. Music has been my first love and I continue to need a daily dose to this day. In addition music via church music helped me and Eileen earn enough money to raise our family and now be happily retired.

Making up music and poetry and prose are very natural acts for me even if they don’t quite fit into easily understood descriptions. The action of making music, “musicking” if you will, ends up being the important part of my life long understanding of music.

This omits self-promotion and specialized understandings of just what music is.

Susan Howe in her book Birth-Mark, describes a larger understanding of poetic and archived texts that corresponds in my mind to Christopher Small’s enlarged understanding of music. She writes: “… presenting … texts as events rather than objects, as processes rather than products, [convert] the reader from passive consumer into active participant in the genesis of the poem while at the same time calling attention to the fundamentally historical character of both the reader’s and writer’s activity.”

Howe is working toward an active action of reading in which the reader is part of the evolving process. This reminds of how it feels to sit at my piano and play. The result is a “process rather than” a product.

Next time: how Virginia Woolf and Fanny Hensel are helping me process this.

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