Category Archives: Composition

Hitting a Brick Wall

[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]


This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.

No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.

Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.

Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.

When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.

As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.

And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.

A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.

You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…

A Mighty Fortress.

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhhdahhhdahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.

Three Things I Learned from Gregg Smith

All the Hits of the ’60s

[First published in the Broad Street Review 27 Jul 2016. Reprinted here by permission.]

And the beat goes on. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of

There was work to be done at the top of the cedar, beaten by storms, and on the still-grand oak, but the main business for the professionals was the two flowering pear trees in the side yard. Those they took down to the ground.

I had planted them, just sticks, 15 years ago. They grew past the promised 30’ high and 30’ wide and kept going, into our house, into the neighbors’. I’d get into them every year with the pole saw but it became too much. So they’re gone. We’ll miss the shade, but it’s the north side, so to the ferns and butterfly bushes we’ll add wildflowers and, I don’t know, maybe a walk, just individual flagstones winding through.

The first cut is the deepest

But first, the surface roots, springing suckers all over. I took the digging shovel, the loppers, and the splitting maul from the shed. To make room for flower and vegetable gardens over the years I’ve yanked out 40 feet of privet hedge in the front, another 50 on the side, and mostly-dead japonicas and muscular, stubborn yews, all with these tools.

The splitting maul is the horse, a magnificently brutal instrument, half a sledgehammer and half an axe. Expose the root with the shovel, grab the maul, and have at it. The loppers get the finger-sized secondary roots that gnarl into the dirt, but the maul is the main event.

Sharpen it to give it bite, then lift it and drop it. Let it do the work. Give a little ictus, like a conductor bouncing the baton at the bottom of the beat, but give from your feet, and just a little. If you force it, you’ll be on a knee sucking wind in 90 seconds. Plus, forcing makes you miss, which you wouldn’t think matters since this isn’t brain surgery, but matters in a hurry if the wrong angle makes it ricochet. You don’t want to ricochet a splitting maul.

Thwack! The white flesh of the root reveals itself. Thwack! Wood chips and dirt fly. Thwack! Your body aligns, you breathe, and you remember tunes. The sweat comes. Thwack! “Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Thwack. The root moves. You bend down and feel in the dirt for where to hit next. Sweat overcomes an eyebrow and drops, stinging an eye. You wipe your wet face and forehead with the bottom of your t-shirt. The beating heart and dit-dit-dit-dit of “I Think We’re Alone Now” comes, Tommy James and the Shondells. The groups sounding like they recorded at a party arrive: Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, silly but earnest, uncaringly out of tune.

The chord that cut you then

That satellite ’60s channel is in your car now, so you’re hearing them: all the Hits of the ’60s. The Beatles, Motown, sure, but a lot you haven’t heard in 20, 40, 50 years. And some leap at you as soon as they’re exposed.

Your favorite may be “You Were On My Mind,” the We Five. Bup-bup, “When I woke up this morning…” bup-bup-bup-bup. Then, here it comes. “I got troubles, whoa-oh”: that one rhythm chord, right there, simultaneously resolved and unresolved, the three burrowed into the four, the mi with the fa. That’s the chord that cut you then, and still you’re a sucker for it; how many times have you used that chord?

You chuckle, wipe more sweat, then stand and slowly straighten your back.

Thwack. The largo opening to “Let’s Hang On,” the Four Seasons. Brilliant songs, Burt Bacharach / Dionne Warwick, “Say a Little Prayer”; bleeding songs, Glen Campbell / Jimmy Webb, “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston.” “What the World Needs Now,” Bacharach again, the Jackie DeShannon version, with, of all things, a solo on…that’s got to be a euphonium. A euphonium!

Even swing vines itself into the ’60s. “I Love You More Today than Yesterday,” you won’t hear a better kick-drum. “It’s Not Unusual” from helden-throated Tom Jones. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” from that most righteous band, Sly and the Family Stone. Thwack.

The note you would always sing

Over an hour and you don’t know how much more you’ve got in you, in the sun. The roots metaphor is not lost on you, but these, you’re tearing these from the ground. The songs? You only wonder why some stuck, and why they’re in your music, because, admit it, they are.

The Left Banke and the keening “Walk Away Renée” (strings, oboe, harpsichord—what was it with harpsichords then?). It always, always catches you in the throat with backup harmonies—how you adore backup harmonies—that move, of course, in the pop lingua franca of parallel motion, except for that one note holding on for dear life through each chord-change. That’s the note you would always sing. And she always walked away.

And oh, the Association, stealing the words out of your nine-year-old head and singing “Cherish” out loud in front of everyone: “You don’t know how many time I’ve wished….” Lyrics exegeting your growing rage at a hole in the language you’d learn only later had already been filled, long ago, by troubadours: unrequited.

Thwack. One more. Thwack. The last root finally yields; you rip it up and toss it to the pile. Good thing, too, because you’re done in. Covered in sweat, you lay the splitting maul on the ground by the fence. You scrape dirt back into the scars you dug and hacked, and press them smooth with your feet.

You hold the hose over your neck, over your head. You hold it into your face and drink from it, like when you were a kid. You put it down and smile because you know the names of chords now, don’t you, but you still don’t know why one chord from the We Five cuts you in two.

But you do know more—more music, more words—and you’ve grown past nine and have kept going. You look around. You think, yes, you will put flagstones here, a walk winding through.

How to Have a Composing Career in 10 Easy Steps

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 20 Jan 2014]

BeethovenIf you haven’t seen the article on how to write a symphony, you should check it out, because it’s filled with incisive advice like “Be inspired,” and “Eventually each theme will become a decently long movement.” This got me to thinking about something bigger than a symphony or even composing itself. How, you’ve probably already wondered, can you have a composing career?

Well, it turns out I’ve been asked that once or twice, and while my plan is to solve that in about 50 years, in the meantime I thought I’d let you in on what I’ve already discovered. I believe that if you follow these steps, you’ll no doubt—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

1. It’s All About You

Your vision as a composer is the most important thing for you to remember. Consequently, it’s the most important thing for everyone else to remember, so keep telling them. Your life as a composer, and the act of composing itself, is incredibly exciting. Be sure to talk about it whenever you can. Everyone will thank you for it, inwardly, because the lives of non-composers are by nature dull when compared to yours.

2. Have Opinions, Lots of Opinions

People admire strength, and there’s no better way to gain admiration than to have strong opinions. So take every chance you get not only to have an opinion, but—and this is the important point—to let it be known. It can be about anything, but politics and religion are good choices. It’s best to be outspoken about something you’re pretty sure they already agree with, though.

3. Wait for Your Chance

If only the big orchestras would commission you, you’d show them. Don’t waste your time writing for friends or small groups or amateurs. You’re meant for better things. Bide your time.

4. Know the Ranges of the Musicians You’re Writing For

Singers, especially, love it when you ask them what their highest note is and what their lowest is. Sure, they can sing lots of other notes in between, but anybody can write for those. Show them that you’re no average schmo.

5. Deadlines Are for Chumps

The piece will be ready when you say it’s ready. You can’t put genius on a clock.

6. The Basses Are Never Loud Enough

You know how your piece in real life is never as punchy in the bass register as it is on your computer software with headphones? I know, right? It’s the players’ fault. Listen, you’re the composer, and you’re in charge. So make it louder by adding fs; turn every forte (f) into a fortissimo (ff), and so on. You might want to put accents (>) over every note. If that doesn’t work, make them the accents that stand up like party hats (^). Those are good. Or add a line under the accent. Or a dot. Or a line and a dot, or even better, make up your own, which shows ingenuity, and as we all know, the root of ingenuity is genius, and the root of genius…is u. The main thing is to make it sound like what you hear at home, so don’t change your music, just keep adding fs or accents. If that doesn’t help, then. . .

7. If You Hear Something Wrong, Tell Them

In rehearsal, the players will turn to you at some point and ask you what you think. This is your chance to get their respect! Start by pointing out mistakes. Disregard bourgeois concepts of “technique.” A violinist who repeatedly can’t play your finely crafted septuplets is not to be coddled because didn’t Beethoven say that he didn’t care about somebody who couldn’t play something, once? So why should you? If you can’t model yourself after a great composer like Beethoven, you shouldn’t be in this business. If it sounds good, then remember your self-respect and say there are “balance” or “intonation” issues—if they ask where, just say “in general”—and remember…

8. Nice Guys Finish Last

Music history is filled with stories of great and grumpy composers like Beethoven. Brahms loved to insult people, it seemed, just to see how they would react. Bach had a sword fight with a bassoonist. David Diamond, having no sword or bassoonist handy, punched a conductor in the nose, or in the Russian Tea Room. So the thing to do, if you can’t yet aspire to their talent, is to imitate their bad habits.

9. You Wuz Robbed

To help you get in the right frame of mind, remember that there’s a conspiracy against you. You know that prize you didn’t win? You think they didn’t recognize your genius? No. Way. They owed the person who won, and they’re all friends anyway. A great sadness for Brahms was that he never could get that job as director of the orchestra in Hamburg, his hometown. There he was in Vienna, with everybody loving his lullabies and his decently long movements, but he was bitter at not being asked to conduct Hamburg. Be bitter like Brahms; you know the fix is in.

10. Trash-Talk Other Composers

If you’re not as high on the ladder as you’d like to be, the next best thing is to pull other composers down. They don’t deserve to be that high anyway. You’ll deserve it, when you get there, but they only got there because they went to the right school or knew the right people. It’s not because they worked hard for years, creating a long list of works that musicians like to, you know, play, and that audiences like to, you know, listen to.

So there you have it. If you’re a composer, or would like to become one, just follow these steps, and I’ll be content, knowing I’ve done my part to make life easier for at least one composer.

What I've Learned from Church Music

HymnListNewMusicBox, the online publication of New Music USA, handed the guest-blogger reins over to me for the month of September 2014. Of all the things we pondered wherein I might contribute, church music was an underserved area I could help fill in, NMBx thought, for this blog of composers writing, basically, for other composers. So I slid Twelve Things I Learned from Church Music through their transom, three per week.

This page at NMBx gathers them all together.

I might more accurately have called them Twelve Things I’m Still Trying to Learn from Church Music and Wonder If I Ever Will So That I Can Be a Better Composer Whether I’m Writing for Church or Not, but while I hope that I may always learn more, it’s not a point of pride to say that I have learned these, or at least about these, or at least imperfectly.

In starting a new piece I always wonder if I have, in fact, learned anything at all. I’ll revisit these twelve to see what foolishness I’ve committed myself to in writing.

I’ve already posted the four parts individually:

Part 1: Start where you are; Write what you know; Write for people you know
Part 2: Make them sound good; Follow the rules; Break the rules
Part 3: Write faster; Hear it, change it; Churches do tons of new music
Part 4: Stick to the text; It’s all about the music; It’s not about the music

12 Things I've Learned from Church Music (Part 4 of 4)

AlleluiaVerseExample1My last of 4 posts is up at New Music Box, the website of New Music USA, where I’m their September guest-blogger. I’ve had a great time writing these, and my thanks go to editors Frank Oteri and Molly Sheridan for their help. I work in just a little composer terminology—a mixolydian here or there—but that’s because the immediate audience is other composers. Generally, for my Fleisher Discoveries or Broad Street Review essays, I try to avoid lingo.

New Music Box is the website of New Music USA, the composer service organization created from the merger of the American Music Center and Meet the Composer. Some folks have already commented on the essays at the New Music Box site, so feel free to join in the conversation.

From the 12 Things I’ve Learned about Composing from Writing Church Music, this last batch—with an assist from Earth, Wind & Fire and an Easter Alleluia—is:

10. Stick to the Text
11. It’s All About the Music
12. It’s Not About the Music

Part One is here:
1. Start Where You Are
2. Write What You Know
3. Write for People You Know

Part Two:
4. Make Them Sound Good
5. Follow the Rules
6. Break the Rules

Part Three:
7. Write Faster
8. Hear It, Change It
9. Churches Do Tons of New Music