Sunday, October 23, 2011

When Writing, Avoid Ending

• Hi! Good-bye!

• Once upon a time, there was a prince and a princess. They met, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.

• There was a mysterious murder in the village. The butler did it.

I just finished writing a piece of music for a friend I always had to hang up the phone on, because she didn’t know how to end a conversation. She would think of another question to ask or story to tell. Since it was her idea, I didn’t feel too bad about simply saying, “Karen, I'm hanging up now, good-bye!”

While composing, I was torn. I didn’t want it to end, because I was enjoying creating something for her. On the other hand, I needed to get it to her quick, because she is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, and won’t be around much longer.

All I had to start with were two pretty chords that I found in a piece written for children, and a rhythmic idea. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that Karen is Irish, or that she had such a happy laugh, or any private jokes between us. I just laid my hands on the piano and started playing.

The first thing I hit was an A minor chord. My negative self, in its smarmy voice, announced, “Oh, that’s real original!” But I made a decision to let it start there, because, that’s where it started. And then more decisions were made, which is really what the writing process is about. Experimenting and trusting your judgment to make good decisions.

I continued playing and writing, trying to find a place for that chord progression I liked (which took many rewrites, experiments, and inversions of chords before I found just the right sound.) and for the rhythm I had in mind.

Something that has always been my mantra is “avoid ending.” Keep it going. Avoid things that make it sound like it’s over. Search for the search, the explorations, the unknown.

On what became the first page, I came to a place where I could easily have resolved a chord in the typical way. But in order to avoid ending, I had to keep toying with other possibilities. After finding my way through that section, I landed in new territory. I’m in E flat minor, and I want to have an interesting running figure in the left hand. I tried so many combinations of notes before hitting upon a series of 6 tones that felt right. I improvised for days with my right hand while my left hand repeated the 6-note figure, all the while having my digital recorder capturing the sound.

Well, after all of that playing, my left hand was getting worn out. I had made lots of what I thought were good decisions and got them all on paper, only to have to change something that seemed so clever at the time that I wrote it.

Some of my students don’t like wasting paper. I, on the other hand, think that writing all the experiments down and having lots of material to work off of, is not a waste at all. (I wish that I was neater and more organized, but that’s a different issue.)

When I visited Karen at the Alzheimer’s unit in August, she talked, she sang, and she held my hands so tight that I didn’t think she would ever let go. Finally, her daughter said, it’s time, she needs to rest, you can open your fingers and she will be okay. When trying to finish the piece, I had created several lengthy endings. My son, Taylor, suggested, “Mom, you should just end it, abruptly, like when you used to hang up the phone on Karen!”

If you would like to listen to the piece, titled “Still Something To Say,” I posted a video here:

And if you would like to hear about page 3 and 4 and 5, well, I could tell you story after story after story . . .

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