[First published in the Broad Street Review 14 Oct 2013 as A composer’s secrets.]
“Promote yourself,” they tell me. “Get your music in front of people” and “practice your 30-second elevator speech.” All good career-advancement advice, I’m sure, and I try, I really do, to follow it. But it occurs to me that however much I may improve, I’m fairly hopeless.
Jackie is the conductor of four choirs and is my wife. In the process of addressing both of those challenges she put two arrangements of the well-known Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” in front of me. She was choosing, and desired my opinion. Both versions were inoffensive, one rising slightly above the other by way of an idea it was attempting to mull over, but only slightly. I delivered my opinion in the form of a question: “I guess you don’t want to do mine?”
“Yours? You have an ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’?”
Allowing the unspoken jibe to drift by—that if I had written one, it wasn’t sufficiently memorable—I instead had a jaunty riposte at the ready:
Stung by my wit, Jackie regathered. “No, really? I don’t remember it.”
There really was no need to speak that which had been unspoken, I felt, so I soldiered on.
“Sure I do, and you played it,” I said in a voice a little higher than I would have liked. “I wrote an ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ in 1981, I think it was.”
(It’s helpful, when stating a sharp fact, to round off the edges with an “I think” or other qualifier. Puts them at ease.)
“Is it any good?” Apparently she had reached that state of ease on her own. But she smiled good-naturedly.
Could a choir sing it?
Now, I mention this exchange only to emphasize that not only do perfect strangers without any knowledge of my particular “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” live lives filled with meaning, so does my wife. Career advancement advisors, behold the steep road I tread.
But to answer her clear, if a little more to-the-point-than-necessary question, I dug out the opus. One minute later, two thoughts came to mind, which anyone with magnanimity toward youthful expression will recognize. One: it was pretty good. Two: it was pretty bad.
That is to say, the bones of the thing were in working order, and if a choir were forced to sing it, it would go. It wouldn’t fall apart, in other words.
But the difficulties of composing—i.e., the beginnings and endings, oh, and the middles—all needed work. Not much work, but work. And that’s the problem, isn’t it. It’s hardly ever much, but “hardly ever much” is where the composing is; it’s everything. The losing runner is often nipped at the tape.
What bad pieces share
So, now to fix it. So as not to bore you, I mention only a handful of items. After all, people pay good money to keep composers’ names off party invitation lists just so they won’t have to listen to such things. Maybe it’s just my name.
Anyway, the piece began with a whole note (four beats) on B, and then another whole note on a higher B, both held until the singing starts. Now, whole notes are perfectly amiable, but having listened to walls-full of CDs as host of a contemporary music radio show, I’ve found that all bad pieces share one common characteristic (Secret #1): They all begin with whole notes. It’s uncanny.
You’d think it’d be written down in a book somewhere not to start a piece with a gesture as inert as a slab of cod lying on an ice-covered tray, but I can tell you, I’ve read many books on the subject, and it isn’t. And I like cod.
Haydn got away with a few whole-note openings, and there’s Also sprach Zarathustra, but I think they used up all the good ones. So I cross-hatched my whole notes with a small rhythm, and instead of fwap, (wait), fwap, (wait), sing, it was now fwap-uh-uhhh…sing… Same notes but now with motion. And less waiting.
Who needs transitions?
So that’s the beginning. By “middles,” I really mean transitions. I’ve often corrected the problem of transitions by (Secret #2) deleting them. Mash one segment right into the next, or overlap them, and there you go: no transition problem because there’s no transition. Maybe that’s cheating. I don’t know.
But the trickiest one was right before the words, “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer / Our spirits by Thine advent here.” A trap—you see it, of course, and I see it now. Changing from mourning and lonely exile and death’s dark shadows to Dayspring’s cheer and Rejoice, rejoice is the universal trap.
Going from sad to happy is the biggest tell on the poker face of the bad composer, and I had stepped in it, big-time.
Handsome prince’s quandary
Big chords I had there, juicy, burgeoning, sis-boom-bah anticipations, the strings glowing as the rich but gloomy heir turns to the beautiful but mysterious debutante he has only now discovered is actually a scullery maid—turns to her, I say, on the footbridge, which is a discreet distance from the happy, composer-less party—again, turns to her and—no longer caring that his rich but gloomy father will disinherit him—is about to sing that she has stolen his heart and he will surely die—right here on this footbridge—if she does not consent to be his forever.
Acting coaches say, “Don’t show me that you’re about to rejoice. Just rejoice.” So I fled the footbridge and grabbed the beginning rhythm while fleeing. I doubled down on it with thicker chords and deleted one burgeoning, juicy measure, and came up with fwap-uh, uhhh, Uhhh, Uhhhngh… Bam.
The ending was Cod, Recumbent, on Field of Ice again. So I repeated the fix from the beginning, only softer, and ending low.
Ah, repetition. You would hardly believe how much repetition there is in great music. A (Secret #3) lot.
Plus, it’s good to end where you started. It’s not always necessary, but it is good. “Promote yourself,” they say, and while I’m still fairly hopeless, at least I’ve told my wife about it now. Still need that elevator speech, though.
(P.S. This is for SATB and organ. There’s also, now, an SATB/brass quintet version, since a conductor asked if I could make one. I said (Secret #4), “Yes.”)
(P.P.S. Here’s the recording, sung by the choir of the Church of the Holy Trinity. John French directs:)