Friday, August 19, 2011

Hasten Your Process

Every new collaboration forces me to flex different muscles. This is good, because I discover (and develop) new muscles, but it’s maddening because I hate getting out of my comfort zones. But who doesn’t.

I prefer writing a lyric and finding someone with the right feel to work on it with me. As the song is developed, I can hear where lines could be shorter/longer, where words aren’t singing correctly, and I still do many rewrites. I take another look at the lyric to better meld with the musical statement being made.

I’ve been given music with a strong melodic line, and asked to write lyrics. This takes me a while, as I have to listen and listen and listen again, waiting for a story to take shape, a title, a musical journey, that goes with the music. It’s better if there’s already a title, but usually there isn’t. I do arguably better work in this context, as I’m writing to someone else’s sensibilities, instead of asking someone to write to mine.

But recently I had the experience of a whole new level of composition, working with cellist Michael G. Ronstadt. Michael is a prodigy on the instrument, and can make it sound like a bass, a guitar, a violin or even percussion; and plays in rock, folk and jazz styles. We are working on three pieces right now and one of them has had me tearing my hair out for many weeks.

Two were “fairly” straightforward. We are working on “Little Jack Horner” and that one came pretty easily – I had a basic melody in mind, and Michael began to envision chords, patterns, movement and we worked through the song in about an hour. We are also working on “Falling Angels” and Michael came up with very unusual music, to the point where I was doing major rewriting to match his work; we are close to finished that one, and it’s pretty special.

But the third piece was based on Michael’s almost-classical cello instrumental “Hasten Your Row” (on his most recent CD). He told me of a dream he had of a group of rowers fleeing some unnamed danger. He had no idea what sort of lyrical setting it should take, and gave me free rein.

Free rein was maddening. The cello work was exceptional, moving and compelling, and any musical line needed to not obscure it. I thought about his dream, and the music subconsciously reminded me of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd; I imagined a bosun (singing a slow bass line) and a crew (chorus of tenors) and maybe some languid sopranos as the voices of the deep. But this meant not just lyricwriting, but composition.

I used GarageBand and sang over the cello, creating a bass line, melody with some snatches of lyric and constructed a lyric to it. Eventually I was able to sing, and transcribe the bosun part. But then I had to do a high line, faster snatches of music, in counterpoint to the bass, with some harmony, some atonality…..well, folks, I am pretty good at writing words, but writing music is sloooooooooooooow for me.

What finally worked was to write lyrics without worrying about the music. To construct, measure by measure, what words would be sung, creating rhymes and images. Then I was able to try to sing the words, in concert with my recorded bass. I was able to see where I had too many words to fit (and still work), where I wanted to hold notes, where I needed a few more syllables….etc. All the while transcribing the music into Finale. Thank goodness I know basic music notation.

There’s still a lot to do, but Michael and I went over the piece, as it is so far, in detail, and I think it’s going to be something very special when it’s done. What fun it would be to have some high school or chorale group perform it……even a professional one, dare I hope?