Thursday, November 18, 2010

Aural Fixation, Motivic Obsession

I've been writing music since about 1997. I've thankfully saved my journals and notes so I can see what I was doing back in the 'early days' (thankfully my eighth-note beams now face the correct direction) even if I'm still so young in the field, compositionally speaking. If I do a little generalizing, I can even see the motives, or small ideas of music, that I love/d using each year, and see how they change over time.

When I write or first start sketching out ideas for a piece, I find myself drawn to certain chords, certain rhythms. People say that particular turns of melody or line pinpoint a 'Nathan Hall' style, though I don't always see them right when I'm writing a work. What makes a person/composer/writer drawn to these particular sounds? Is it just feeling comfortable with something familiar? Or is there something about a particular resonance of a sound in a particular space at a certain time in one's life that connects to something stronger? Perhaps a little of both.

We all have sounds that are attached to our memory, like a photo album of sound history. The train whistle of one's childhood, the sounds of New York City on your first sight-seeing trip to The Big City. But perhaps even the most basic qualities of musical chords and tones can have emotional attachment to one's feelings, too. As a composer I probably nerd out more about it than some people, but I can definitely picture what I was writing in a particular place and time. I can remember writing holiday music as an undergrad in an empty chapel surrounded by pine trees, and only a Gmaj7-Dmaj7 comes to mind. I think of playing in the Vassar practice rooms and immediately I hear interior piano and sostenudo pedal.

In the 90's, in my first pieces, I tried writing something 'edgy' with major 7th chords. I know, daring, right? Well, coming from Catholic Church choir tradition and popular music hits from the 1940's Piano Collection, a B-flat-major-7 chord was a big deal. I milked them for all they were worth.

Around the time of the start of undergrad, I was way into parallel fifths of all kinds. Stacked into minor 7th chords. Scaling the walls of C major-minor, rockin' out to the Beatles.

I also loved the successive notes F#-G#-A-E-C#. I have no idea why. But those turn up in lots of pieces and doodles. (I'm still a big fan of this pattern.)

This transformed itself into about two years in college where I could not stop playing an Em7 chord every time I'd get a piano. I'd play it in different registers. I'd play it as stacked fifths. I'd play it on two different organ manuals. All Em7, all the time.

I think of my time in Scotland and I hear the neighbors' screeching through the paper thin walls...and me listening to James MacMillan on headphones, thinking, I need to write something aleatoric.

In the master's program, I loved experimenting with closely (or not-closely) related tonalities: C minor and E major, D-flat major and B-flat minor. Alternating back and forth between F minor + D minor; G# minor and Cmajor7 helped me get started on ideas for quite a few pieces.

Here in Iceland I find myself drawn to the same kinds of things I would play in my Scotland months. Perhaps this isn't unexpected considering similar weather, circumstances, and emotions, being in a different culture. I'm trying to explore even shorter sounds here, more silences, more contrasts. Four-note patterns with minimal accompaniment, trying to do more with less, and really trying to hear what two notes sound like together. Here I've also found myself playing one particular chord over and over again- it sounds really good in this church I sometimes practice in. It seems to keep me grounded, it's nice and low. Perhaps there's a hidden unconscious agenda just waiting to be explored.

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