creative process

Sketches of "Vermont State Fair"

I am in the midst of composing a new work for band (and probably an orchestral version, as well) called Vermont State Fair.  I wrote about the inspiration behind the piece back in April here.  This picture shows a few of my "sketches" (that's a fancy way of saying "my notes and ideas"). At this stage, I am trying to come up with a several different motives that I can use and develop throughout the piece.  Because the setting is a noisy and exciting fair (think people, rides, games, and horse racing), I anticipate moving between different melodies, motives, and sections frequently to give the piece a bombastic and fun feeling and give a sense of the exciting atmosphere.  I have about ten motives/ideas/melodies so far and I hope to develop several more.  I have also started planning out the progression of music - what order these things will happen in - and working on some orchestration in Finale.

This is a fun piece to write - a range of different kinds of music, but all fun and exciting.  Stay tuned!

My Favorite Getaway: Aurora, NY

When I need to get out of the city (okay, Rochester isn’t a huge metropolis, but it is a city nevertheless) I head to one of the most peaceful and beautiful small towns I know – Aurora, NY.  Nestled on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the town is steeped in history, with a picturesque main street running along the lakeside.  It’s a perfect place to get inspired and feel refreshed. As a composer (and I suspect this is true for other artists, as well), I have come to realize that it is important to get away and separate myself from my work occasionally.  Often times, the best artistic ideas, seeds that can grow into a good idea, happen away from my desk.  That's not to say that one should just hang out at the beach every day waiting for inspiration to strike; I am a big believer in creating regularly (every day, when possible) - exercising that creative muscle.  I find that many times, when I put limitations on myself (such as deadlines), the creative work actually flows better.  I have to be self-motivated, but that pressure can help fuel productivity.

So, it's a balance.

Most artists tend to feel like they can never stop working - there is always room for improvement, always a higher level of excellence to pursue.  Working hard is very important, but I have also found that getting away from work for periods of time can provide the spark needed to really come up with creative ideas.

What are your favorite places to get away?

New England Folk Songs: Choosing Texts

The past few months I have been writing a new set of songs based on wonderful texts by Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, and Sarah Orne Jewett. My first song cycle, Alcott Songs, features a collection of texts by Louisa May Alcott that I arranged into what seems like a summer day - from morning to night.  I like the idea of having some sort of narrative like this within the cycle, and so for this cycle I decided to use the narrative of the seasons.  Being from New England, I wanted to highlight the beautiful seasons in the region with texts by New England poets.

And so the search for texts began. 

Whenever I look for new texts, I am constantly thinking about whether or not the work is in the public domain, and therefore whether or not I need permission to set the text to music.  If the text is not in the public domain, you must contact the copyright holder for the text, request permission, and receive permission before moving forward.  If the text is in the public domain then you do not need permission to set the text.

There are a couple of really great websites with public domain material - Project Gutenberg and  Both of these sites let you see digitized or HTML text versions of complete texts that are often in the public domain.

When I first started searching for texts for this cycle, I did some quick internet searches for New England poets who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.  One of the poets I discovered was Sarah Orne Jewett.  I found much of her poetry to be beautifully crafted, very creative, and full of imagination.  I was drawn to a number of her poems, and found several that seemed to focus on the seasons.  Perfect!  I also found a number of poems related to the seasons by 19th century New England poet, Emily Dickinson.

Last year, I came across a poem of Emily Dickinson that I thought would be perfect for this project.  But, as I dug into the research, I learned that although Dickinson lived in the 19th century, much of her poetry was not published until well after her death, in the early and mid twentieth century.  So, even though the works were written in the 19th century, many were published after 1923, and therefore, still under copyright.

Since Harvard University Press (HUP) controls all the permissions for Emily Dickinson’s works, I completed their online permission request form (here, for those of you who are interested).  On the HUP site, it says it may take them up to 10 weeks to respond to your request.  Indeed, it was 10 weeks before I heard back, but thankfully, they approved my request.  I will have to pay HUP a percentage of all the income I receive from this work, but I am excited to include Emily Dickinson's work in this cycle!

In addition to the Emily Dickinson poem, I chose four other texts for the cycle - three by Sarah Orne Jewett and one by Louisa May Alcott.  Having just researched Louisa May Alcott’s work in the past couple of years for Alcott Songs, I found a perfect seasonal text to open the cycle.  The poem paints a picture of a snow-covered seed breaking through the ground and blooming into a spring flower.  This poem was published as part of the short story "The Frost King and How the Fairies Conquered Him," in a collection called Lulu's Library, Volume II.  Public domain! Excellent.

The three poems by Jewett that I chose to include in the cycle are "Boat Song," "Top of the Hill," and "A Country Boy in Winter."  "Boat Song" is a captivating poem about a starlit summer evening, "Top of the Hill" is a wonderful reflection on the New England autumn, and "A Country Boy in Winter" is a fun, lighthearted poem that makes winter sound a bit warmer and cozier.

All three of these works were published prior to 1923 - two of them appear in Verses 1916, which you can view on  "A Country Boy in Winter" was published in Harpers Young People magazine in 1882.  With a little Google searching, I found a digitized version of the actual magazine on Google Books (see it here).  The internet is truly amazing sometimes!

The cycle begins with the Louisa May Alcott poem and the transition from winter to spring.  Second is the Emily Dickinson text - a fun, springtime adventure involving bees, frogs, and birds.  Third is Jewett’s “Boat Song” to give us a picture-perfect summer evening.  Fourth is Jewett’s “Top of the Hill” to provide a colorful and reflective autumn portrait.  The last song in the cycle sets Jewett’s “A Country Boy in Winter,” closing the work with a fun and witty wintertime adventure!

See the score and preorder your copy of New England Folk Songs here.  The music will be ready to ship by the end of April!

Quiet Places

For the most part, we live in a noisy, fast, and relentless world. Sometimes, especially when I am trying to come up with the initial ideas for a new piece, I want to be in a quiet place.  A place where I can really savor the sounds I create and not be distracted by anything.  A basement practice room, an empty church.  For others, it's a garden, a backyard, a patio.  Here's to enjoying a few moments in your own quiet place!

Evolving Ideas

It's interesting to look back at my sketches for a piece - my initial ideas, and see how they evolve into the final version.  Sometimes, in the beginning, I have what I think is a great idea for a piece, a great motive, melody, etc.  But inevitably that first version I come up with will not remain the same.  It evolves in someway, through the process of working with the material very closely and making many decisions about it.  Even the scope of the whole work itself - the length, the meaning, the inspiration, the direction - can change. Back on March 9th, I posted here about initial ideas I had for a new choral work.  While finishing up Magnolia Star over the past few weeks, I have found little bits of time to think about this new piece and play with the initial ideas.  Many of the ideas I discussed in the post weeks ago are still very much on target.  However, two main evolutions have happened with this piece recently, which made me think about this whole idea of evolving ideas for a work:

1. The text: My initial idea was to just use the word "Alleluia" for the text.  Then I realized that when the piece reaches its climax, it will really need a contrasting section, and it would be ideal to change the text at that point.  It would be powerful to set up an ostinato with just this one word, for several minutes as the piece builds, and then when the climax arrives, open up a new world with a change in music and text.   I have been thinking about setting Isaiah 55:12 for some time, but I kept thinking that it would be too short a text to stand on its own.  Perfect!  I can start with "Alleluia," then set the verse, and then end with "Alleluia."

Alleluia For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace:  the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing. Alleluia

2. I have been struggling with how to start the piece - whether to begin with all four voices, or just sopranos, or sopranos and altos, etc. The repeating ostinato that I'm using starts with a D major chord, which I thought would be a beautiful way to begin the piece.  Again, as I thought more and got deeper into the material, I started to think that this needed to change.  While the D major chord would make a perfectly beautiful first sound, the piece is really about building to a climax via a repeating ostinato, adding counterpoint and growing slowly.  So, in that way it makes sense to start with just the sopranos, stating the simple melody as a monophonic line.  Then, perhaps I bring in the altos to add some counterpoint.  And then, after two statements of the ostinato, the full choir arrives with that D major chord and the piece continues to build.  That's where I am now in my thinking, but it could change!

Magnolia Star - Inspiration and Audio

Here is a midi sample of the first 3 minutes of Magnolia Star for Wind Ensemble (the full work is a little over 6 minutes): [audio]

And here are the program notes for the piece:

When I was playing saxophone in my middle school jazz band, we started every rehearsal the same way – with an improvisation exercise that our director created. It was a simple yet brilliant exercise for teaching beginning improvisation and allowing everyone in the band a chance to “solo.” As a warm-up at the opening of each rehearsal, the whole band played the blues scale ascending, resting for one measure, descending, and resting for another measure.

During the measures of rest, each member of the band took turns improvising a solo. Looking back, this exercise not only got the band swinging together from the start of rehearsal, but it made improvisation, a daunting musical task to many, seem within everyone’s abilities. This experience was my introduction to the blues scale, and I have long wanted to write a piece inspired by this group of pitches. In Magnolia Star, I explore various ways to use these pitches in harmonies, melodies, and timbres, creating a diverse set of ideas that will go beyond sounds that we typically associate with the blues scale. I didn’t want to create a “blues” piece, but rather a piece in my own musical voice that uses and pays homage to the blues scale.

Nearly all of the pitches used in Magnolia Star fit into the concert C blues scale. It is interesting to note that embedded within the C blues scale are both a C minor triad, an Eb minor triad, and an Eb major triad. I explore the alternation of these tonal areas right from the start of the piece, and continue to employ them in different ways throughout the entire work.

When I first started improvising ideas for this piece based around the blues scale, I began to hear the influence of driving rhythms and sonorities which reminded me of trains. The railroad became a important second influence of this piece alongside the blues scale.

The American railroad not only provides some intriguing sonic ideas, but it also provides an intimate connection to the growth of jazz and blues in America. In the late 19th century, the Illinois Central Railroad constructed rail lines that stretched from New Orleans and the “Delta South” all the way north to Chicago. Many southern musicians traveled north via the railroad, bringing “delta blues” and other idioms to northern parts of the country. The railroad was also the inspiration for countless blues songs by a wide variety of artists. Simply put, the railroad was crucial to the dissemination of jazz and blues in the early 20th century.

Magnolia Star was an Illinois Central train that ran from New Orleans to Chicago with the famous Panama Limited in the mid 20th century.

Magnolia Star - Done! (Almost)

Today I'm putting the final edits on (all 38 pages! of) Magnolia Star, a new 6 minute work for wind ensemble. I will be posting more about the piece soon - what inspired it, an audio clip, etc.  For now I just wanted to share a bit about the editing process I have been doing this past week.  The bulk of the music was finished a couple of weeks ago, but there were still a few holes and spots I wasn't satisfied with.  So over the past couple of weeks I have been focusing on those spots and also looking at every element of the piece and asking myself, "Is this what I want here?"  And, "is this the best I can do, or is there anything else I can do to make this better?"

Now I have resolved most of those issues and have a fairly final score sitting in front of me on my desk.  I have also gone through each page zoomed in at 200% to make sure all the dynamics are aligned and no markings are colliding on the page.  I also made sure all the trumpet muting spots were marked, and that all the percussion instruments are marked appropriately.  Really, the piece is done.

But this is one of the points I always struggle with - as a composer, how do we really know when the work is done?  How do we know that we have created the work we intended, and that there is nothing left to improve upon? Or maybe that's not the point - surely there is something that can be improved upon.  But that's ok? We aren't striving for a "perfect" work, right?  That's probably a whole separate debate. I think of a painter - when they step back from a painting, put on a few more brush strokes, then a couple more, and then they are done.  Wait - how did they decide that they didn't need to add a few more strokes, or change something?

I think often times it is a mixture of things:

  • part letting go after obsessing in a detailed way over the work;
  • part "feeling" that the work is done, and;
  • part believing in the many decisions you have made throughout the course of creating the work.

Composers and other types of creators constantly question ourselves throughout the creative process - which is important and necessary.  But at some point, we have to lay down the pen and decide that the work is done.

Finding the Creative Groove

This week I had sort of a mini revelation I would like to share: it seems that my most productive creative time is the afternoon.  Seems simple, I know.  But I feel like I have been trying to find this answer for years.  In the past, I have set aside time to compose at pretty much every time of day, and most of the time I am fairly productive, but I have never been able to identify a particular time of day that works best for me.  Some musicians prefer composing or practicing late at night, or first thing in the morning.  I have had some success at both of these times, but I would say only limited success.  I can't count on being productive at those times, and here is why: Early Morning: I'm still waking up, digesting some food, thinking about all the stuff I need to get done that day.  Even though people say your mind is generally pretty clear at the beginning of the day, I don't always feel that way. I need to sit down and get some tasks off my plate right away.

Evening: I'm tired - we have been through the entire day and whatever it holds.  I don't like to stay up too late, so my mind knows I don't have a long stretch of time to burrow into creativity.  Sometimes I can be successful with a short block of creative time, even 30 minutes, but more often I need a large chunk of time that I know I can dedicate to composing.  I may be productive in the first hour, but I don't feel really satisfied (in the groove) until a little more time has passed.  At night, my brain seems to be better and doing non-creative work.

Afternoon: Jackpot! I have had plenty of time to wake up, do email and knock off some generally non-creative tasks, and my energy level is pretty high.  I can plan out a large block of time, and I'm not tired like I will be at the end of the day.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to figure this out! But I'm excited to see how this continues to play out.  I wonder if this will change or if I have really found my ultimate creative time period? We shall see.

Composing Anywhere (and Everywhere!)

Composers have famously carried little black books with them to jot down ideas, regardless of where they are when inspiration strikes.  I don't necessarily do this, but I do find myself thinking about composing pretty much everywhere - while walking, driving, eating, etc.  And, I find myself working on pieces in various locations.  Obviously, when we travel we are forced to work outside of our normal spaces and sometimes get some work done in a hotel room or in a cafe.  I have always enjoyed working in cafes and coffee shops, where there is some bustle but also some ability to concentrate.  At the same time, I also like very quiet and secluded places where I can really focus on creating ideas and hearing them in my head.  However, those quiet and secluded places seem to be less and less common these days.  Today I find myself in a library where it is relatively quiet, but not without people walking by and some ambient noise.  I have my score for Magnolia Star (latest wind ensemble piece) here and I'm thinking about sounds, sections, and form.  It's nice to be able to get some amount of composition work done from anywhere.