“Manifest the wildness of an artist,” says author Eric Maisel. In his wonderful book, Fearless Creating, Maisel suggests “working naked” as one of the exercises. As in, literally. To help one toward raw, honest writing. Well, my piano is surrounded on two sides by windows, so that really isn’t gonna happen. But figuratively, when no one’s around, I do try to become more of my “animal self,” and really let loose when I’m creating.
Last week, I premiered a piano solo I’ve been trying to solve for about two years. The title: “When No One’s Around.” I wrote notes for the rest of the pieces on the program, but for this one, I just couldn’t think of words to explain it. Instead, I made the moment into “performance art.” I set the mood by lighting a candle beside me, just like I do at home, and covering my lap with my Peruvian alpaca wool blanket, just like I do at home. These props help me stay warm and stay put at the piano when I might otherwise let distractions take over. So now I will attempt to explain what the piece means to me.
I don’t want to lose you on the first sentence, but . . . the opening string of seven whole note chords are fashioned out of rootless minor 9ths with major 7ths. Let’s try to say that another way. They are slow and full of tension – minor (sad/dark) fighting with major (happy/light) and the tone that gives the listener a clearer understanding of the key or home base is missing, so it leaves one with a feeling of instability, like a nomad who can’t stay put in one place. I’ve been playing around with this group of chords for two years, and they still intrigue me. They don’t sound like anything I’ve written before, and they make me want to know what will happen next. They create a distinctive mood that is not entirely unfamiliar, but definitely unpredictable. This series of chords (and various variations of them) appear over and over throughout the piece.
The next 8-bar theme (we’ll call it the “B” theme) is like a jazz song, and I play it slightly different each time. This was one of the hardest parts to write, because I wanted to put something down that would sound improvised, then realized after numerous attempts that it only sounds right if I actually make it up on the spot. (I’ve made the score look different here, too, with just a tune and abbreviations of the chord names, rather than exact notes written out.) Next, I add a new melody to the “A” chords, then wind my way through a series of jazz harmonies to lead me to a completely new key and mood. This section gives me a chance to explore more with my left hand, kind of Chopin-esque, very busy and chromatic, dark and expressive.
Then back to the opening minor 9/major 7 chord, but this time, I’m doing more variations with the one chord rather than the string of seven, and “improvising” something in the high register with my right hand. (“Improvising” in quotes means that everything is actually planned and written down, I’ve made all the decisions, and it just has the sound of improvisation.) When the tune of the “B” section returns, I improvise again in a different way. (Notice this time I didn’t use quotes, so I’m really making it up.)
For probably 20 months, this is where the piece ended. I was completely stuck. I tried writing more variations on the themes. I tried recording myself as I improvised, then painstakingly writing down each note, but ended up throwing these ideas out because, once again, as soon as I put them on paper, they didn’t sound fresh anymore. I didn’t understand how the beginning sections could work so well to my ears, but anything I did to try to propel the piece forward, completely. . .backfired.
And then it hit me, what this piece was about. Thirteen years ago, I started composing, out of the blue, based on my own improvisations. After years of classical training, I had found my freedom. People seemed to connect with the music, said it made them think. One man, who was smiling broadly throughout a performance, rushed to the stage afterward and said, “I finally understand what music is!” Two years ago, I started trying to uncover the mysteries of jazz. I had always been attracted to the sounds and spontaneity of jazz, but never understood how to write it, and especially, how to play with others. I attended a jazz school and also found a private teacher. Suddenly I was being immersed in a language full of rules that I was uncomfortable with. I didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into. Learning the laws has been tedious, and even, embarrassing. How could someone with “all” of my musical knowledge be so ignorant about jazz scales and chords and the organization of a jazz chart? But I was also to the point of feeling oppressed, like I was never going to find freedom again, never going to be able to be creative with my. . .creativity. I think this piece, whether I knew it or not, was depicting my journey into jazz territory, from improvising my own way, to feeling restrained by the rules of jazz, and then discovering that there are more than one or two approaches to improvisation. Finally, the bars on the cage that these rules had formed around me were starting to loosen.
Therefore, it was time to be the tiger. Time to be the wolf, the shark, THE BUFFALO. Time for my animal self to make an appearance. The next section, whether I was comfortable with it or not, would have to be completely improvised. Not just eight bars based on a planned set of chord changes. We’re talking 2 to 3 minutes of instantaneous creativity.
Once the piece was complete, I tried playing it front of my “classical” piano teacher. Couldn’t bring myself to do the “animal” section. I tried it in front of my “jazz” teacher. Same thing, couldn’t do it. I tried it in front of another musician friend the day before the concert. Ditto, no go, too embarrassed and scared.
But for some reason, in front of a crowded audience, with a blanket over my lap and a candle reminding me to stay with it, I let loose. I was relieved to be up there “naked,” without music in front of me (and without my reading glasses) just creating a moment.
My friend Maurice, who traveled all the way from Sacramento to hear the performance, was wishing so much for an explanation of the piece, and frustrated that I didn’t have program notes at the time. So, Maurice, thanks for asking, this one’s for you.