Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Developing Musical Ideas

The commute to New York City is without question the least glorious aspect of my participation in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.  I drive for two hours and then take the train for an additional two hours.  EACH WAY.  The up side is that it gives me some uninterrupted time to think, problem solve, or listen to some new music.

Train to New York CityOn my way to the last meeting I found myself obsessing about how I might lengthen or add to my piece.  Currently, it's duration is just under 5 minutes, which seems a bit short.  It dawned on me that I haven't consciously utilized any of the conventional development techniques used in music composition.  I have been so focused on adhering to rhythmic clave, and staying within the parameters and spirit of salsa, that I somehow overlooked the obvious.

I often tell my arranging students that "everything we write is viable for development".  It's funny how when we are personally in the act of creating, we sometimes don't see the obvious, or forget basic principals, because our focus is too narrow.

So... I've decided to take a step back.  My plan is to distance myself from the piece for a couple of weeks, and then dive in again, with the understanding that everything is "up for grabs".  Any and all aspects of the piece are subject to development, including:
  • all salsa elements: rhythms, montunos, bass tumbaos, brass hits, instrumentation, repeated figures, form, etc.  They can all be developed, and they don't have to sit in the expected/standard 4-bar format.
  • melodies (backwards, upside down, etc.)
  • motifs
  • the harmonic progressions (move, transpose, modulate, elongate, truncate, etc.)
  • dynamics
  • voicings
  • form
  • counterpoint
[I included this reading session recording in my last post, but here it is again for reference:]

This may sound strange, but when writing this piece, I intentionally tried NOT to incorporate a clearly distinguishable melody.  I wanted to see if rhythm alone could carry the piece.  In lieu of a "melody" I wanted to integrate some weird, chromatic "Eric Dolphy-esque" lines.  Somehow this notion may have "obscured my vision" and hindered my process.  By accepting that these weird lines ARE in fact a melody or THE melody, I can proceed to take these lines, or portions of them, and work with them using conventional techniques of good composition and arranging.  This material could be used elsewhere in the piece!

writing music
By trying (so hard) not to break any of the rules of Salsa, I may have inadvertently handcuffed my creativity.  The genre is now established.  The parameters are in place.  Now it's time to think outside of those parameters and feel free to break some rules.  I will allow myself to take the music to another place.

So... that's what I came up with during the commute.  At the actual workshop, I also got some valuable tips from my colleagues.  Their general consensus was that my piece was too dense --- both in orchestration and with too much going on at once, thereby overwhelming the listener.  Overwritten brass and backgrounds which obscure and detract from the soloist are other valued criticisms I received and plan to address.

Clearly I've got my work cut out for me.  But in the meanwhile, I have two other new pieces on the go.  I'll fill you in about those later.