Archive for the ‘composition’ Category

To Market, or not to market

22/07/2016

SunKillersCoverLSince the completion of my first novel and having it prepared for publication something new has been occupying my time. Much to my surprise it has, at times, been far more cumbersome than the initial writing of the novel, and has had the potential to take over far more of my time than could have been imagined. Now that the book is available online the specter of marketing hangs over my head: the idea of attracting an audience to my work has begun to haunt me, particular after spending any amount of time reading some of the many blogs and newsgroups dedicated to helping new authors promote their works.

How does someone go about attracting an audience? It is a difficult question, and there are many books out there purporting to have the answer. There are also many newsgroups, Facebook groups, and blogs dedicated to authors and book promotion, and when you start reading them it is easy to quickly lose great swaths of time that could, or should, have been spent doing other things, like editing and revising the second book in the series.

Reading these blogs or groups makes it appear as though one of the only options available to a new author is to spend money to market the work which you have spent months—or even years—working to create, in the hopes that you might attract the readers willing to invest in your work. This all follows the caveat, truly spoken, that writing is not an easy way to quick riches.

When I made the decision to begin writing my novels it had nothing to do with a desire to become rich, but it would be a lie to say that I did not want my books to sell.

Of course, that having been said, unless the author in question is already independently wealthy, or is fortunate to have some other source of income to support their writing habit, the prospects of being able to afford these outlays of money are, quite frankly, a pipe dream.

There is, of course, another option: one might be able to attract readers by having written something worth reading. Ah, but herein lies the other issue: how can someone know that you have written something worth reading if they do not know about what you have written?

Indeed, that is an excellent question. One which has caused me great pause. In considering the situation, it occurred to me that writing is about the craft, less so about the marketing. Certainly, marketing comes into play, but a good book, a book that people want to read, gets the most promotion, and the best promotion, from the readers who tell others about the book that they have enjoyed reading. It has always been this way and, quite frankly, it always shall be this way.

If you enjoy a book do you tell others about it? Do you post to Facebook, or Twitter about the book you just read? Many people do, and that is the modern-day “word of mouth” marketing that authors rely on so heavily.

Then there is the craft. If a book is well-written, it is more than likely to be read by someone than if a book is poorly crafted. If given the choice between a well-written book with a familiar story or a poorly-written one, with a story that is unfamiliar, which would you choose? You might choose the unfamiliar, but struggling to read through something that has not been well-wrought is, quite frankly, not worth the effort. There are too many things out there that are worth reading, why waste your time with something that still needs the help of a good editor, and several more revisions?

Writing is about craft; it is a craft which must be honed, practiced, and perfected. One of the great advances of the day is the ability for people to have their works published with relative ease, but this is also making it easier for people to crank out things that have not been well-edited, revised, or proofread. As an avid reader, one who enjoys exploring a variety of genres, I have not been afraid to try many untested authors, but the results have quite uneven in the reading experiences, and some, sadly, have been unreadable.

But it comes down, mostly, to the technique of the writer. It also has to do with rushing to publish, and not willing to proofread and revise one’s own work. These are vital steps in the process, and that is precisely what writing is all about: it is a process. Creativity is about process. It is the creative process, from the inception of the idea, the birth of the notion, through its nascent stage as it begins to take shape, and then, after a time, with the proper coaxing and sketching, it is further developed into a full-blown concept, a design, a plot, theme, or character. Whatever it becomes, be it a full-blown novel or a symphony, it begins with a seed and ends with a finished product. You cannot skip the steps within the process.

Writing a novel is a massive undertaking; it is a commitment that takes many months, if not longer, before you are able to begin the process of revising your book, putting it into some semblance of order. When my novel was first finished, it ended up going through another two intense revisions before it was finally submitted to Amazon and Kobo. It is a far better book than what might have been published, but that is the process.

Consider, if you will, the techniques used by the great speechwriters: they are seamless, seemingly effortless, and yet, they form the skeletal structure of what we hear, of what moves us, of what drives us to either vote for a candidate or raise our voices in anger, either for or against something. Through the use of parallel structure, the use of metaphor, the use of rhetoric, and other technical devices, a successful writer creates a structure upon which their words float and their ideas are borne in an effortless manner. A less successful writer creates something that comes across as plodding, regardless of what the presenter may do with the words, if the prose is not well wrought, the words fall flat.

While writing a novel, or a post for a blog for that matter, is not the same as writing a speech, technique is certainly part of the equation, just as it comes to play in the world of composing music. As a composer of contemporary classical music, this is something that speaks to my heart as it has been the main focus of my life for the past twenty-five years. Music is an art of cumulative knowledge: everything you learn, from your first lessons are built on, right through until the present. Everything in music builds upon everything else, which is why we study the great masters to gain an understanding of the music we write today, even if it is not melodic. Music, art, and culture of the past informs the creatives of the present.

Something occurred to me while writing my novel: as music is a cumulative art, so too is writing. Everything that a writer experiences, everything they see, everything they hear, that they touch, all they have experienced, becomes fodder for their work. All of the lessons that they learned pertaining to language and its proper use informs the development of their voice, the way they will express themselves on the page and bring their characters to life for their reader.

A blank page is a challenge to the creative person, to both the composer, the writer, or an artist: it represents an affront to they are as artists. So long as that page, be it a real piece of paper or a screen on the computer, is devoid of words, music, or even a sketch, the task of creating remains unfulfilled. This is why the job of marketing is such a difficult task for creatives: how do you convey in a short ad that you should read the book that is now available on Amazon and Kobo by Peter Amsel? Indeed, how would any marketing campaign successfully convey the true sense of the novel when it is over 148,000 words long? It is, of course, impossible. Suffice it to say, the book is the first in a five-volume Science-Fiction series. The series is called the Felis Alliance Series and the book is entitled Sun Killers.

My invitation is that you visit my website and read a sample from the first chapter of the book. If you enjoy the chapter, you may decide to purchase it through Kobo or through Amazon, for either your Kindle or as a paperback.

Either way, thank you for reading this and, be assured, much more effort, time, and energy, went into the crafting of the novel than went into the writing of this post.

A brief synopsis of Sun Killers appears below the link to the website. A longer preview may be found at the Kobo website, including the Prologue.

Read an excerpt here.

Book One of the Felis Alliance Series begins with a mystery: the most powerful person in the universe has disappeared without a trace and nobody knows where she has gone. Now it is the responsibility of her three Guardians to locate her and bring her home.

What they do not realize is that there are forces working against them who do not want her to be found, and they will stop at nothing to prevent her from ever returning to the Alliance, even if that means killing everyone on Earth in the process.

Sun Killers takes you from one end of the universe to the other, at speeds beyond the speed of light, but you will never be tired as a result of the journey.

 

The Wolf that Disappeared, Kimiko Ishizaka, and Das Wohltemperirte Clavier

07/04/2015

KimikoWTCoverThe first time that pianist Kimiko Ishizaka came to my attention it was through a recording of the Goldberg Variations, by Johann Sebastian Bach; a project called the “Open Goldberg Variations” which produced both a new score, under a Creative Commons License, as well as a Public Domain recording, which was free for anyone to download. At first, I was dubious about the whole thing, though it sounded intriguing; there is always a question in the subconscious mind as to whether something being offered for free will be of the same quality of a “premium” product, which was my question: how would this free recording of a piece measure up to those recordings made by such luminaries as Glenn Gould or Angela Hewitt, to name but a few of my favourite performances. Well, as my review of the “Open Goldberg” testifies, the recording was better than fine, it was – and remains – an exceptional example of an extraordinary musician putting their talent towards what I like to refer to as the democratization of music, and the performance remains one of my favourites to this day. Making music available for people to enjoy is laudable, but creating original recordings of repertoire that stands in comparison to the finest commercial recordings: that is something that is simply not normally encountered within the music industry today, and the performance, quite frankly, blew me away.

Thus, hearing that Kimiko Ishizaka was taking on the first volume of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in another “Open” project left me with nothing but warm feelings as I began delving into the recording, while giving me an excuse to refresh my memory of her fine performance of her Goldberg, which I had not indulged in for a while (there is so much to listen to …). Composed in 1722, while Bach held the position of Kapellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, the Well-Tempered Clavier (or WTC) book 1 is a collection of 24 Preludes and Fugues in each of the major and minor keys. The title page, written in Bach’s own hand, includes the following comment, which reveals a great deal about the importance of the music: “The Well-Tempered Clavier or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones including those with a major third or Ut Re Mi as well as those with a minor third or Re Mi Fa …” That instruction, regarding the major and minor thirds has to do with the tuning of the instruments upon which the music would ultimately be played. Otherwise, the Wolf would make an appearance and howl during certain parts of the music.

The Wolf Fifth occurs when “meantone temperament” tuning is used, in which an adjustment is not been made to any of the fifths in the cycle of fifths to make it slightly “smaller” in order to tune it in relation to the surrounding intervals. Meantone Temperament was a common form of tuning from before the beginning of the Baroque period and resulted in certain keys sounding quite decent on a particular instrument, while other keys would sound more and more out of tune, the further they were from the fundamental to which the instrument had been tuned. This would result in a sound described as “howling” in character when a particular perfect fifth resulted in an unbalanced interval. The direction on Bach’s title page to the WTC, however, gave the key to the elimination of this issue, indicating that the major and minor thirds (Ut Re Mi, and Re Mi Fa) were to be tuned in a Well-Tempered manner, allowing for the fifths of the chords, the cycle-of-fifths, to be “perfectly” in tune (or, as some might argue, equally out of tune), throughout the full range of the instrument. In some circles the debate still goes on as to whether equal temperament has destroyed certain characters that existed in the individual keys of early music; but this is not what this review is here to debate. If the idea of equal temperament was good enough for Bach, that’s fine by me.

For better or worse, equal temperament allowed composers to explore music in every key, without regards for the presence of the Wolf, or other howling intervals, which helped open the pathway, ultimately, to the emancipation of tonality itself, leading to the abandonment of diatonic composition in favour of “free tonal expression” by contemporary composers. It must, however, be noted that not all instruments adhere to this tuning system: when string players take up their instruments they use “Just” tuning, based on the Pythagorean System of the division of the string. This can occasionally cause issues for younger players when they rehearse with a pianist for the first time and discover that their intervals are not always in tune due to the equal temperament of the piano, but mature players are able to make the necessary adjustments in order to make beautiful music together.

It must be noted that Bach did not devise the tuning system used in the WTC, though he was the first composer to fully exploit it with a large-scale work in every diatonic key. This is why, for many musicians the Well-Tempered Clavier represents the Old Testament of Piano (or keyboard) music, while the New Testament of Piano repertoire would have to include the 24 Preludes of Chopin, which were directly inspired by the WTC, along with the Piano Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven; one could well argue that the Etudes, and other piano works of Liszt, could be considered among the Epistles within the canon of the piano New Testament. When approaching the Bach one is immediately confronted by the immensity of the task: twenty-four Preludes and Fugues: it seems daunting, perhaps even overwhelming. A musical challenge that might make a lesser musician balk at the challenge.

Many times I have heard people say that they do not enjoy the music of Bach; that it is “too difficult”, or “too hard” to listen to, but my belief is that they have either not heard it played well, or not heard it played with tremendous musical intelligence: there are far too many poorly performed recordings available, which does a great disservice to one of the greatest musical minds to have ever lived. Kimiko Ishizaka is not that kind of musician. Her playing goes far below the surface of the music, bringing to light a performance that is both rare, and unaffected, though far from unemotional in her technically brilliant playing, as well as being supremely intelligent. Having had an opportunity to view some of the music used for the preparation of this recording there can be no doubt that Kimiko Ishizaka’s preparation for this recording was as monumental a task as the composition of the work must have been; the loving, intense care with which she analysed virtually every note of each piece demonstrates a musical mind at work that reminds me of the process of what goes into the composing of a piece, something with which I am intimately familiar. While there are some purists who eschew the performance of Bach on modern instruments, this does not bother me: after listening to the “Open Well-Tempered Clavier” performed by Kimiko Ishizaka I can only be left with the feeling that, had Bach been given the opportunity to hear his masterpiece performed on a modern piano, he would have been well and truly pleased.

Kimiko has found, through this recording, an abundance of musical brilliance to share with the audience, without resorting to over-sentimentality. She is never tempted to turn the music into something it is not, which is apparent from the opening of the Prelude No. 1, in which her phrasing exemplifies her ability to avoid the temptation to use the sustain pedal, opting instead to use her hands to bring out the inner-voices of the music in a way that adds new life to an extremely familiar piece. This is a Prelude that virtually every piano student, myself included, has played, and it is impossible to not compare oneself to the recording when you hear it: I can assure you, when you hear what has been recorded here, you will be amazed at the musical restraint, and rewarded by what comes afterward.

While the playing of the Preludes is outstanding, it is in the contrapuntal expression and the clarity of her voicing within the Fugues that truly demonstrates the mastery which Kimiko Ishizaka has over her musical materials: this is not a pianist who is casually familiar with her music. Each note and every voice has nuance and meaning. In some ways it reminded me of the playing of Glenn Gould, without the voices he added with his singing (thankfully); it is playing of the highest calibre indeed. Kimiko is a pianist performing with an intense intelligence, demonstrating that she is both a consummate artist who is reaching the peak of her artistic and expressive abilities; a pianist who will not disappoint.

The quality of this recording is without peer. Sound quality is not a question, nor is the quality of the instrument used for the project, which was performed on a Bösendorfer 280, an instrument with outstanding sonic capabilities, which flourished under the capable hands of Kimiko Ishizaka. If you are interested in seeing a live performance of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, you can watch a video of Kimiko Ishizaka perform the WTC live, as well as download the recording for your private enjoyment, all for free. If I could say anything negative about this project it would be that there are currently no plans to release Book 2 of the WTC … however, the next project in the works for this talented pianist is a project to record and release, also under a Creative Commons License, the 24 Preludes by Chopin, which will be recorded on the same type of piano on which they were composed, a Pleyel, the instrument Chopin preferred to perform on during his life. He dedicated his Preludes to Camille Pleyel, the maker of the piano. The Pleyel was quite different than the modern, double-action, instrument we know today; it had a wood frame rather than the cast-iron frame found in the modern piano, and a single-action, but if any pianist is up to the challenge of bringing this music to life, Kimiko Ishizaka is that pianist. It should be an incredible thing to behold and I’m looking forward to both hearing and seeing it as well.

This is a MUST HEAR Recording … So … What are you waiting for? GO … follow the links, listen, and enjoy!

Performance: 5/5
Recording: 5/5
Production: 5/5
Price: 6/5 (when it’s Free, and this fantastic, you get a Bonus!)

TOTAL: 21/20

Seduced by her Curves …

29/12/2014

When is a composer not a composer? An interesting question, but perhaps it should be, “When is a composer more than the sum of their parts?” Perhaps you could say that I’ve been having a bit of an identity crises lately. For the longest time there has never been any question when it came to identifying myself: I have always said that I’m a composer (first), then a writer. Years ago, and I mean several years – as in twenty something years ago – I also called myself a classical guitarist, but I allowed that to fall by the wayside and I stopped practising, and even stopped playing guitar altogether for quite some time, though I still played the bass on occasion, but not nearly to the same degree as the eight hour practice sessions that I had put in when I was in college.

My first tattoo.

My first tattoo: the musical themes spell out the names of two composers, BACH, and DSCH. Bach is obvious, DSCH is Dmitri Shostakovich, and it is a motto theme he used in several of his works, including his Piano Trio, Op. 67. The Black Bird is my name, in German (Amsel), and the fountain pen is simply because I enjoy composing in ink, with fountain pens (rather old fashioned, yes, but that’s me). The Maple Leaf is just a little Canadian feature, to close the design. “Maestoso e Serioso” is an indication that summarizes how I take my art: Majestically and Seriously … but there’s always room for fun.

But, if I learned anything, it should have been that nothing remains the same, and that time has a way of changing everything. Especially people. I’m not the type of person to say things like, “I’m never going to do … x, or y,” for the simple reason that I’ve seen myself do several things that I had never thought I would do … like getting tattoos … I have some now, and I never thought I would have ever done that, until I found myself thinking about an idea that I really liked, and then found myself designing it, and then one day I was sitting inside a tattoo parlour, sitting through the six hours it took to get it inked permanently into my right forearm … and I couldn’t be happier with the results. After that I sat through another three eight hour sessions to get my left sleeve inked … but the point is not that I have the ink, the point is that at one point, several years ago, had you asked me, it would have been the last thing that I could have seen myself getting done. Now, piercing … that’s a definite no. Seriously … I can’t even think of how people … never mind; now that I think about it, the more I say the more I realize I probably do want something pierced … but … never mind.

That’s not the point though, life is about evolution, about growth, it’s about change, and this year has been about a great deal of that for me. Take the guitar, for example (as opposed to the tattoos). I hadn’t played classical guitar in decades. Literally: I had not played serious classical music since the 1990s. My desire to start again stemmed, in part, from my use of social media and my contact with several musician friends who posted, quite often, about the enjoyment they derived from playing their musical instruments. In the meantime, I was writing music, but that didn’t seem to be the same, and I wanted more. I’ve always enjoyed improvising on other instruments, including bass (electric), and some transverse flutes that are “fife-like”, but for some reason I had left the guitar in the ditches.

There really isn’t much of a mystery as to why I stopped playing, and why I was reluctant to begin again: it all boils down to one word, a short, four-letter word. Pain. Chronic pain made playing the guitar something that was not only progressively more difficult, it became virtually impossible. Over time I discovered that the source of the pain was a chronic condition called Fibromyalgia, which is a condition shared by many people, and for which there are a number of treatments, all of which have failed miserably with me. The most common treatment, Cymbalta, nearly resulted in my death from something called Serotonin Syndrome, as it interacted with my medications for mood stabilization for bipolar affective disorder.

Oh well … the good news is that your pain is a bit better, sir … the bad news is, you’re going to die. Sorry. Fortunately, my family doctor is exceptionally good and noticed my erratic behaviour (even for me) in her office and immediately put two and two together, and (as someone close to me said), proclaimed, “It’s the Cymbalta, stupid!” … though she left out the ‘stupid’ part. Oh well … better luck next time.

Then, one day several months ago, I saw her, alone in a music store. She was just standing there, waiting to be found, every curve of her body calling out to me from the corner she was leaning up against. A true thing of beauty, whispering to me, seducing me … as soon as I touched her and heard her sweet voice, I knew that I was hooked: I’d found my love.

Godin1Her name is Godin – she is a Grand Concert Multitach, and She’s a beauty. On top of that, she sounds absolutely amazing, even without the assistance of an amplifier, which I’ve only used for the times that I’ve performed. Otherwise, I play her “au natural”. Even more importantly, the fact that I have fibromyalgia is not so much an issue with her, not as much as my last instrument was as I can play her while wearing a strap, which means it is not necessary for me to sit in that horrible classical guitar position (suddenly, the reasons why I stopped playing so many years ago flood back … and it hurts, just to remember) … and I am liberated. All of a sudden, after 20 years of not playing, I’m playing concert repertoire again – some stuff that I played before, in college and university, but new material as well … and I’ve written almost ten pieces – big major pieces – for the guitar in a relatively short period of time – all because I bought this guitar.

But that’s not the whole story. While that was going on there was something else growing in my brain, getting larger every day, taking on a life of its own. I had been working on the outline for a novel for quite a while, but hadn’t taken the time to go beyond that point for the simple reason that my composing was always at the forefront of my priorities. Around the beginning of December it finally came to the point where I just couldn’t deny the creative imperative any longer: I had to take to time to write, to get it out of my system, for better or worse. If I didn’t take the opportunity at this juncture I risked losing something greater than I realized: an opportunity at expressing myself artistically; losing that is a greater tragedy for an artist than anything else they may lose.

So, I decided to take a “sabbatical” from composing (as much as something like that is possible from a compulsive composer) and began writing in earnest. The working title of the book is Chronicles of the Remnant and it is in the Fantasy genre. It takes place several thousand years (cycles of the sun, in the novel) in the future, several thousand years after something called the Great Darkness has changed humanity – and the Earth – changing mankind and the way in which we are able to communicate with everything around us, including nature and the things that live within the natural world which cannot be seen. It is a world entirely alien to humanity today: the Great Darkness brings about many changes in humanity, including the ability for mankind to access the magical powers of the secretive race of the Guardians who live within the forests, known as the Agwan… and there are a variety of dragons, and some elves as well … not to mention some extremely bad, mad, nasty folk as well …

Thus far I’ve written about 70,000 words, and there’s plenty to come, which brings me back to my opening question … when is a composer not a composer …? When I began writing the novel in earnest I was surprised to discover that my creative energies seemed entirely satisfied by the writing process: I did not even feel the slightest need to compose, which was good because I was exhausted after typing all day. Writing is not the same as typing, it is far more difficult; you are concentrating, constantly running through the ideas in your head, and then, typing them once you’ve straightened them out to your liking … and then you rework them for several minutes, once it has been written down, or when you happen to scroll past it while looking for something in the manuscript. As it is, my manuscript is now over one hundred pages in length at present, so when I scroll through and something catches my eye it is quite easy to find myself editing something I’ve already looked at for an hour or so. But I digress … often.

After about two weeks of writing I came across an article in one of the Facebook groups I read, about a minimalist piece by American composer Terry Riley. The piece is called In C and was composed for a minimum of 35 instruments, and is based on a series of cells that are played, repeatedly, by the performers, until they decide to move onto the next grouping. It isn’t a style of composition that I was unfamiliar with as I’d played a study for guitar in a similar fashion by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, but it got me thinking about a piece of my own, and there were suddenly themes going through my head, and they had to be written down.

Over the course of the next few evenings I wrote what has become a work called Simple Gifts – which is now almost complete – and will exist in a number of versions, at least three. The first version will be for four guitars, the second version for string quartet, and the third version for four wind instruments – three treble and one bass, such as flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The piece will never sound the same way twice, and could be anywhere from ten to twenty-five or thirty-five minutes long – or even longer – depending on how the performers are feeling, and the choices they make as they play the piece. It is, in essence, a form of aleatoric or stochastic music: music left up to chance, without having to roll the dice at the time of the performance.

Godin2When the performers have their score they will decide (based on guidance from the composer) which cells to play first, and where to go from there, but there will be great leeway as to where to go from there: certain “structural points” will be emphasized so that the players “meet up” at particular places – there will be meeting points where a player will wait until the other musicians “catch up” to that point, and then they will depart from that “departure point” to the next point, again freely moving through the cells. Thus far there are over 100 cells, either of 4 or 8 beat durations, with several more to come. Several will be dedicated to the bass instrument, while the others will be put into an order that helps “guide” the piece as I’m hearing it … without being too dogmatic … it is supposed to sound somewhat improvised, after all.

Meanwhile, most of my days begin with a few hours of practising … which serves to stimulate my imagination more than anything I could ever do. As I play the music of other centuries and eras, and improvise on my own themes and ideas, I can see the world of my novel come to life before my eyes, my character’s souls unfold before me, and the roads that they must take become as clear as Crystal Lake, the lake upon which Deidralla, the capital city of Deidrach, exists. It was the first land to be settled in the Remnant after the Great Darkness ended … but I digress … again.

On the days that my pain is too bad for me to practice first thing in the morning I will usually play later in the day, when things have settled down enough for my hands to move across the fingerboard of the instrument. Guitar is not an instrument that is conducive to playing in pain, but when you start you can push the pain aside enough while you’re playing, if your concentration level is at a high enough level. This is something that I have been able to do while composing and writing, and also while playing: but it takes a toll. When you stop the pain attacks you with a vengeance, and then you’ve had it for a while. You have no choice but to give in, at least until you regain your equilibrium.

So, in the span of one year I suppose things have come full-circle for me. I’ve gone from being just a composer to, once again, being a composer, writer, and even a classical guitarist again. Since I started playing again, back in April, I’ve already had two performances (playing background music … the bane of the classical guitarist … but … it pays, so why not), so I guess I’m not doing too badly. As for the novel, given the rate I’ve been going I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea as to how long it will take for me to finish. At this point I’m not even sure if it is going to be confined to one volume or if it will take more than that (read: three … remember, I’m at 70K at this point … my hero has not even been born yet … right). So, it could be a long LONG haul yet – but that’s fine … I hope.

If you can keep a secret: one of the reasons I chose Fantasy as the genre for my novel was because it allows, more than any other genre, authors to go further in expressing themselves than would be possible in another genre (save, perhaps, for the Action/Adventure Novel).

Suffice it to say, I shall try and bring some updates here in future posts – as well as some tantalizing … snippets? Please be patient – and stay tuned for more.

For more updates follow me on Twitter @CrazyComposer for updates regarding the novel under #TheRemnant and #AmWriting and generally entertaining Tweets (if I do say so myself).

Black Dogs and Guitars

31/08/2014
The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Someone once told me I was lucky to have Bipolar Disorder rather than Clinical Depression; they felt that having Bipolar Disorder was easier to cope with because, in their misguided opinion, at least the Depressive episodes experienced with Bipolar would have some light at the end of the tunnel. While that may be true, on the surface, while you are experiencing a depression associated with Bipolar Disorder, or anything else for that matter, it makes little difference if you are fairly certain it is going to end in a day or an hour: for the entire duration of the episode it feels as though you are being dragged through the darkest pit of Hell. The journey cannot end soon enough. The longer the episode lasts the harder it becomes to endure, the landscape of your thoughts take on a bleak, dark tone; all you want to do is hide from the prospect of human contact hide until the pain dissipates, until the light manages to poke its head through the seemingly impenetrable clouds once again.

For the past few weeks the Black Dog of Depression has had its jaws firmly latched its onto me, and I have been on that journey through the pit, albeit against my will. This is not unfamiliar to me, to be sure, but that does not make it any easier to cope with; it just means that I am painfully aware of what is happening to me, as though I were a well prepared roast, watching itself as it is about to be carved up and served to hungry guests for supper, all the while powerless to intervene, to stop the violence about to be done to itself. In many ways a Depressive episode is much like this: it allows a person to see things happening to themselves, but robs them of the ability to act upon what they are seeing, as though their mind has been set in an epoxy or some sort of resin and cannot respond as quickly (or at all) as it normally would. The thinking process is not only painfully slowed down so that it becomes difficult to formulate an intelligent response to someone when they ask you a question (which is one of the reasons I actively avoid speaking to people when I’m in this state), but your comprehension of even the simplest things seems to go flying out the window.

Things, concepts, ideas: that which you had a clear grasp of the day before the Depressive episode began now look to you as alien concepts; they make absolutely no sense. If you do manage to decipher them, having wracked your brain to the point that you’ve triggered your Migraine to the point that it is blinding you, it dawns on you that whatever it is you’re looking at is not what you wanted in the first place, leaving you back at square one, which brings me to my perverse desire to compose while in this state. I say perverse simply because it seems incongruous that creativity should have anything to do with such a bleak, painful episode, and yet, when I am struck by this pernicious illness I turn to creative endeavours as my salvation, knowing from past experiences that these episodes usually result in an increase in my creative output. One might almost describe my output in these times as verging on hypo-manic in nature, and that would be an accurate assessment of the situation were it not for the fact that my mood is in such a depressive state.

schumann2

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts regarding creativity and Bipolar disorder, my creativity is not predicated on an elevated mood, which is a good thing considering how quickly my moods change (as well as how often they change… but that’s another story, for another time). While many people with this disorder have found their greatest creative flow accompanying a period of hypo-mania, such as Robert Schumann who composed in white-heat episodes of creativity and then experienced prolonged episodes of creative silence, I tend to find that my greatest inspiration flows from a mild-depressive state. At least, that’s what I used to think, until this current episode struck. Of the many ways this Depression could be described, “mild” is not one of them. There have been times over the past two weeks when things have seemed desperately hopeless, but … it is a lie.

You have to remember (I have to remember, and I have to remind myself of this every day, every hour, whenever I am experiencing a Depressive episode) that Depression is a profoundly effective liar: Depression will try to convince you that your troubles are far greater than they are, that what you do is not worth anything, that you have no talent, that … well, you get the idea. Depression will use anything it has against you, tossing false evidence against you in an attempt to create its ultimate victory: Despair. Once it has created Despair, once a person has lost all hope of the episode from ending, the battle is virtually lost. The next step is often suicide, and I have seen too many beautiful lives destroyed to allow myself to listen to the whispers of this hoarse demon as it tries to convince me that I have no talent, or that I’m not able to do anything with my abilities as a composer.

In the midst of this Depressive episode, as difficult as it has been to cope with due to the increased pain from the fibromyalgia and Migraine, I managed to complete to compositions for the classical guitar. The first piece is a dark piece, reflective of the mood I was in, though it is not a “depressing” piece. It is called Sonata Apocalyptica, a single movement piece in sonata form, which is about 12 minutes long (perhaps a bit longer, depending on the performer who has a Cadenza to improvise). The second piece, which was completed only last night, on 30 August, is called Perpetual Kaleidoscope and has a Spanish flair to it as it explores two types of the popular guitar technique known as “tremolo” (one is a the traditional three-note tremolo while the other is a two-note tremolo, played pmi using the open “G” string as a drone). This piece is between 7 and 8 minutes in length.

Length is never something that is of particular interest to me, but in this case I find it interesting that in the depths of a severe Depressive episode I managed to compose approximately 20 minutes of music in about 6 days. If there was ever a doubt to the connection between this affective disorder and my creativity, let this put it to rest, once and for all. On several days during this episode, for example, thanks to the nature of the Depression, it was possible for me to sit in one place and compose for almost the entire day. I had almost no interest in food and ignored virtually all interactions with others. When I wasn’t composing I used the music in my mind to drown out the lies of the Depression as it tried to whisper Despair to me in the quiet of the night. Filling my mind with ideas for the piece I was writing pushed aside enough of the blackness for me to get through the time when I was not actually composing.

Now the pieces are completed and the Depression has not (yet) passed, which raises the issue of another type of depression which I have often experienced, a type that often comes at the conclusion of projects: my doctor and I call it “Post Creavit Melancholia”, which may be understood much in the same way as “Post Partum Depression”. The problem is that the Depressive episode from Bipolar Disorder does not differentiate itself from Post Creavit Melancholia (PCM), leaving the individual unaware of what they are experiencing (it would be so much easier if Depression ran an inner dialogue as it tormented you, letting you know the nature of its origins … “Tally Ho! PCM here: good work on that last piece! Sorry to say that I must now make you pay for that bit of inspired work … hope you don’t mind, not that it would matter if you did.”). Suffice it to say, it does not really matter what causes a Depressive episode, what matters is the journey through the darkness: getting through to the other side. Getting through unscathed. Each episode is a war unto itself, each day a battle to be won; ground may be lost from time to time, but it is the overall battle, the ultimate victory over the disease that is important for us to focus on: a Depressive episode will end, we will win the war.

When diagnosing a Depressive episode one of the important elements to consider is the duration of the episode. While a “Clinical Depression” may be defined by a length of at least 2 weeks, the reality of living with Bipolar disorder means you can conceivably experience a Depressive episode that lasts from several days to only a few hours. Size is not an issue when dealing with Depression: if you are attempting to navigate the darkness it does not matter if the journey takes an hour, a day, or a week; for the duration of the journey you are at risk of losing all sense of connection to humanity, all reason to continue living, of falling into the depths of despair, of choosing to end your life rather than persevere through the end of the darkness. This is where it is vitally important to rely on the tools that you have learned along the way to use against the Depressive episode. You may have to fight to remember what you have learned, but it is worth the battle.

As I wrote in my last post, one of the things Depression robs an individual of is perception, but it also steals insight. While you may know something quite well while you are not experiencing a Depressive episode, add the Big D into the mix and suddenly a simple mathematical equation that you could do with your eyes closed feels like Rocket Science … you may as well have been asked to calculate the sixteenth figure in the Fibonacci series (which happens to be 987, in case you were wondering). The point is, when someone is living through a Depressive episode they cannot always see the forest for the trees: they may know that this is something that is going to pass, that it is a temporary situation, but during the episode, during the isolating darkness in which they’re experiencing both physical and mental pain, a mental anguish that can barely be described by any existing vocabulary, it really does feel as though it is going to go on forever … and that is the beginning of Despair. Perception is off-kilter and the lack of insight into how to cope with what is happening to you has to be dealt with on an idea to idea basis: you cannot allow a single negative idea to go by unchecked, you have to pose an intellectual counter offensive against the lies being waged against you, and that is part of what composing does for me. It serves as my personal Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by redirecting my intellectual energy away from the negative thinking towards something positive. It may not end the episodes early, but it helps to keep the darkness at bay, and that allows me to live.

The alternative is unthinkable.

… and the beat goes on …

25/07/2014

When your life revolves around music, as mine does, it becomes quite easy to live what may be termed an “insulated” life – a life that is, in many ways, unconnected with the realities that the rest of the world deals with on a regular basis for the simple reason that while music may be important to me (and to everyone else who creates music), and the rarefied individuals who are able to partake of the joys of contemporary “art music”, the realities of life (though some might argue, correctly, I might add, that this is not how life should be) – but war, and the political machinations behind the scenes that ultimately, inexorably, lead to wars and genocides, as well as the various crimes and misdemeanours which the Talking Heads on the News seem so pleased to be bringing into our homes every night, promptly at 6pm (except when they want to interrupt Judge Judy at 4pm) – all of these seem to conspire together to make me feel that  what I am doing with my life seems quite insignificant. At least, that may be how I start to feel when my mood takes one of the many downward spirals that are closely associated with an illness that I have been living with for many years – it began to manifest itself while I was in high school, thirty years ago. The illness is not uncommon among composers, it seems: some of the greatest musical geniuses have been afflicted with this disease, including Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, George Frederick Handel, and perhaps even Ludwig van Beethoven (cf. Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison) – so I count myself among great company when I say “I have Bipolar Disorder. I have Bipolar Affective Disorder, Type II, and I’m not ashamed – at all – because of it, so don’t bother making notes or copying and pasting this, to use against me at some point in the future: I’ve gone on record on a number of occasions – this is not a “coming out” for me, but thank you for caring.

I also have to remember, and this is important, that when my mood turns away from the sunny pursuits of life my feelings are liars: my feelings want me to succomb to their taunts and prevarications, that I may abandon hope, cast aside all that I’ve accomplished, and surrender to the Sirenic calls coming from the depths of Hades. The lies will, eventually, cause you to take everything that is important and kill it, but you cannot allow those voices to be heard for very long lest they force your mood into a deeper darkness than it had been in before the day began. Depression is pernicious, evil and, above all else, it does not discriminate: anyone is susceptible to it, regardless of their social standing or moral character. It does not matter whether you are a “good person” or an asshole, 1 in 5 people will become depressed at some point in their lives. You have a much greater chance of becoming depressed – at some point in life – than of ever winning the Lottery.

I have tickets for the Lottery this weekend.

In all seriousness, I could be angry at the fact that I have a mental illness (that is, after all, what Bipolar disorder is), but that’s not how I feel about it and I’m going to tell you why (this would be a pretty lame article if I didn’t, right? – never mind): I know, for a fact, that my creative life has been tremendously enhanced as a result of this illness. It has made aspects of my life more difficult and yes, it has caused some intense suffering, but the abilities that I’ve gained – the ability to see things with an increased clarity, to feel things at a greater depth (yes, I’m a man that cries – a lot, at times – sometimes over the silliest things, but it is only because I feel something that touches me tremendously), and to experience things in a way that just does not make sense to others. Just as I try not to eat junk food, I try not to listen to “noise” – in whatever form it may inhabit (I’m not making a specific statement regarding any particular genre of music as I’ve listened to, and enjoyed, everything from Ska to avant garde jazz [which can be WAY out there]; I’m referring to … crap. There, I said it: musical crap. It exists, you’ve heard it, that’s all I’m saying.). When listening to music it goes beyond simply “hearing” the music, it is something that enters through the entire body: there’s a piece of music by Beethoven, for example, that I just adore, the first movement of his 6th Symphony (among many other pieces), also known as the Pastorale. It is an achingly beautiful composition, but lately I find that I rarely listen to recordings of the piece when I leave the house: instead of using my Mp3 player and having the sounds of traffic interspersed with my recording I close my eyes (once I’m on the bus … walking with my eyes closed has tended to cause me more pain than I’m already experiencing as a result of the fibromyalgia … more in a future article) which allows me to drown out everything around me, and let the “orchestra of my mind” take up the symphony. It is a performance replete with every nuance and gesture that the composition deserves, without sounding overly sentimental … and I don’t have to pause the performance if I don’t want to, while changing buses, or waiting for the train – I just listen, in my mind, and experience my own private concert. I can, and do, do this with several of my favourite pieces, and have been “practicing” pieces that I’m playing on the guitar by “playing” them in my mind while waiting at the bus stop, playing the left hand fingering on the strap of my satchel, every note ringing in my mind as clearly as though I were playing on the best guitar in the world.

When you are listening to music in your mind (or, perhaps I should say, hearing music in your head) you are living the music at a deeper level than if you are only using your ears. Another term for this type of “deep listening” is audiation. Audiation is, in its essence, “ear imagination” – being able to imagine  sound(s) in your ear. It is a particularly important talent for composers who can, literally, compose in their heads if (and this is one of those big “ifs”) they can hear what they want to put down on the paper without having to refer to an instrument. In this sense, I’ve been very lucky in that this is how I’ve been composing virtually from day one. I never compose at a piano or on the guitar, though I may play something after I’ve written it down, I write things down as I hear it, or after hearing it in my head. That’s just the way I’ve always worked, and it has always worked well for me, so I’m not about to change things up now. Regardless of how I may be feeling I understand now that the most important thing for me is the process: writing, composing, putting things down on paper – or on the screen – filling those empty spaces – is a process, and if you are not dedicated to the process, even when things seem to be going badly, you will fail. Failure is not an option. Failure – failing – is part of life, and we learn our greatest lessons from our failures, our mistakes, our massive f*@$ Ups – they make us who we are as adults. Anyone that says they haven’t failed is a liar, and someone dealing with intense insecurity issues. They shouldn’t be trusted.

I have failed. Actually, one of my biggest failures, in university, ended up being one of the best things to happen to my musical education, and turned out to be a tremendous experience that I wouldn’t have had if I had succeeded: I had been carrying a double major – composition AND performance (psychotic? no, just bipolar), and I was failed on my 4th year recital, which I did in my 3rd year (which was actually my 2nd year at the school … confusing, perhaps … but don’t worry, it isn’t important). Anyway, I needed a C+ to pass the recital and received a C. I received an “A” from one jury member, a “B” from another, and an “F” from the third member … he really hated the piece that I’d composed, and he told me so – and he gave me a mark to fail me, even though two-thirds of the jury had given me marks that were more than passing marks. BUT … failing that 6 credit course was a blessing! To make up those credits (they wouldn’t count towards my degree – and – since they wouldn’t count, the C wouldn’t figure into my GPA! It was as though I hadn’t even taken the course!) I was able to take a Special Research Project with my composition teacher and a Graduate Studies course in Schenkerian Analysis – and I received top marks in both courses, graduating Magna Cum Laude. So, failing was an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow – and an opportunity to grow some humility. Nobody is perfect.

Our greatest perfection lies in the recognition of our imperfections. It is only when we are able to look into ourselves and see the ugliness looking back that we are equipped to deal with it, to look back and, instead of cringing,  look the ugliness in the eye and declare, “I know you; I recognize you … I’m going to change you.” On the occasions that I do take the time to listen to the Talking Heads who seem so intent on invading my space every evening at 6pm I am astounded at the level of frivolity that accompanies what they deign worthy of being called “News” – certain “human interest” stories (Man Bites Dog: Dog Gets Rabies … etc.) that seem to be just two steps beyond the inane level. At the same time, it makes me wonder, how much more some of these people need the beauty of music in their lives. Perhaps it isn’t such a frivolous existence after all, not when you consider how much music can bring people together, if only for the few moments the piece is being played, there is total equality for (my) music does not judge. There is no race in music, there is no religion, no strife, no violent struggle against right or wrong (and if there is, there are no casualties!), and there hatred, only the joyful noise that celebrates the love of life in all of its glory.

So, with all the glory of life and music, why is it I want to die every now and then?

Bipolar Disorder, otherwise known as “Manic Depressive Disorder” is, in many ways, the best and the worst of what you could ask for (not that anyone would ask for a mental illness). Type II of this illness indicates that the individual does not experience a full-blown manic episode, which may often end up resulting in a stay in the hospital. Mania is a serious thing, not something to be joked about, and definitely NOT something that you want to experience. I’ve seen people during a manic episode and it is not pretty. I am lucky (yes, I said it) in that I only (only) experience hypomanic episodes. “Hypomania” is, quite literally, a “small” mania. I like to compare the two like this: Mania is like someone running down the street, naked, singing Black Sabbath songs … while twirling a parasol. Hypomania is watching the person experiencing the manic episode and saying to yourself, “that looks like a lot of fun, but … I think I’d choose the Beatles instead … and no parisal” – but – the person with hypomania does NOT go through with it, that’s the difference. Hypomania, when I experience it (not very often – perhaps a few times per month, if I’m unlucky) makes me feel as though everything is running in triple-fast-forward; all of my senses are in overdrive, and it feels as though my entire body is “thrumming” with energy, that I could, quite literally, lift off the ground just by thinking about it – or by taking a small step into the air. Unfortunately, these episodes do not usually result in a great amount of creative lucre – I am usually too easily distracted by … anything … to harness the energies of the episode and create something. On the rare occasion that I experience a “switch” into hypomania while I’m already at work on a piece … oh my … that can be an incredible session and produce amazing results, or crap. Yes, sometimes this has happened and the next time I looked at my work I ended up deleted several hour’s of work because … it was CRAP! But, that happens. Part of the maturing process as an artist, and particularly as a composer, is being able to look at what you’re writing and recognize when something is worth keeping and something is not (I’m not talking about false modesty here, “oh, nothing I write is worth saving” – that’s a load of crap – if you believe that, become a garbage person, not an artist).

Most of my creative energies come from a place that is between hypomania and the depressions that I experience, though they (thankfully) don’t last very long (usually), thanks to the medications I take. When I’m working it is as though my mood reaches some form of artificial “stasis”, blocking out everything including the pain from the constant migraine that I’ve been living with since high school. As long as the music is flowing (that which I’m hearing in my head) it is possible to maintain this “cone of creativity”, but – once I stop my composing session for the day … the tsunami washes over me with overwhelming force.

So, the struggle continues, and when I make the mistake of listening to the Talking Heads I allow myself to question what value there is to putting a bunch of black notes on paper, making marks and lines that may never be played or heard by others – in my lifetime. I have to remind myself that composing is not really about the “here and now” (or the “hear and now”), but rather about an investment into the cultural future of our species. Yes, that sounds incredibly grandiose, but think about it for a moment, how many manuscripts of Bach may have been lost because of the manner in which he composed and how the finished scores were transmitted, stored, and etc.? Beethoven? Mozart? Several, for each, and that is a tragedy. Contemporary composers face similar issues, even (and especially) when writing music that creates scores on the computer, but when we produce music, even if it is not performed in our lifetime, it exists, and will be around for future generations of performers looking for “something new” from a particular generation. Composers are adding drops into a giant time capsule for future generations to open and enjoy. That’s why I’ve always said “you do not become a composer of contemporary classical music to become rich”.

I have to remind myself that Depression is a liar, and it’s very good at it as well. Depression will tell you that you’re a failure, that you haven’t achieved anything, and that you’re never going to achieve anything. Do Not Listen to it’s voice. Depression is something that can be, should be, and must be battled – at all costs. Do not fall into the lie that “I can beat this” on your own, that’s one of the lies Depression uses to entrap its victims into its cycle of defeat, desolation, and disintegration (of self). Depression cannot bear the light of day, the sound of laughter, the smile of another, or the touch of a loved one. Depression must be treated as the dangerous serial killer that it is: if you or a friend/relative are experiencing a serious depressive episode PLEASE seek help from a qualified medical professional. If you have been considering harming yourself IN ANY WAY, PLEASE call the Emergency Services (911 in Canada & U.S.) and call for help immediately (a Canadian resource). There is nothing to be ashamed of, this is an illness that must be taken seriously before it takes another victim. There’s no point feeding the dragon when we have weapons that have been forged in flames to defeat it.

While Bipolar disorder is an illness that leads some people to take their lives, it does have a silver lining in that it has been shown to enhance the creativity of the afflicted. One might say, in closing, it is a bitter pill to swallow, but I wouldn’t change it if I could: I’ve never known another way as far as my creativity goes; how could I be sure I could compose without this Mercurial, Psychotic Muse paying me her regular visits? It is a chance, thank you very much, that I would not take. For now, and forever, I shall remain the CrazyComposer – thank you, thank you very much … and the beat … and the beat goes on … and on … and on.

Making it Work: Creatively Crazy

07/07/2014

Confucius once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I cannot think of any career where this can truer than in the field of music: we speak of “playing” instruments, “playing music”, and, for those of us lucky to be in that position, we create music out of thin air. How much less like “work” can be the creation of something that will bring joy to the lives of others? Certainly, it takes effort, but who would trade being a composer (or musician in general) for, oh, I don’t know … how about a coal miner, or a fisherman on the Bering Sea? Thank you, very much, but no; I am quite cognizant of the fact that I lead a life tremendously blessed by virtue of the fact that I have been afforded the opportunity to follow my dream of being a composer, even though this “blessing” has come at the result of two chronic illnesses; were it not for these illnesses it would not have been possible, in all likelihood, for me to pursue this “career” without caring so much about the financial side of the game. In effect, the reason that I’ve been afforded this opportunity is, largely, the result of those two illnesses which have exerted an intense influence upon my life over the past thirty years: bipolar affective disorder, and fibromyalgia (accompanied by a chronic migraine that has not gone away since my time in high school).

One of the things that Confucius definitely had right about his comment was that if you really love what you are doing, it can never really feel like you’re doing work: the only downside to this is, and this also applies really well to music, it makes it very easy to see yourself doing a lot of “work” without receiving much, if any, remuneration for the tasks … because, after all, you’re doing it “for the love of the music” – you’re not “in it for the money”, right? Of course, this is true, and in my case, I really am not doing it for the money: as a result of the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (type II for those keeping score), as well as fibromyalgia (don’t forget that migraine – it’s there, 24/7/365/21,900/1,314,000); as a result I’ve been on permanent disability since 2000 (Ontario Disability Support Program). When it started I had gone through an intensely devastating period of over a year where I could not compose a note due to the intense depression that I was experiencing. This was an absolutely horrific thing to go through: I couldn’t compose or write, save for the occasional poem, which probably prevented me from losing all hope in life. It took many hours with several doctors, experiments with several medications, but … the music that I had been so used to hearing all the time in my head was there again, as though it had never been gone … and I have never looked back. But, sometimes it would be nice if somebody thought what I was doing was worth my being paid something.

This isn’t to say I have never been paid for my music, of for a composition: I have, and it makes me quite uncomfortable when someone asks “how much” I want for something … I really am not in this for the money … but … life doesn’t really know that. This past year my cat had cancer – and survived – but that means that I am now making monthly payments (for the next several months) to repay the lovely people that put the price of Seussie’s surgery on their credit card. I could have bought an extremely expensive concert guitar for what I’m paying … I now tell my cat, “you’re the most valuable thing I own” (he looks at me, yawns, and goes to sleep … a perfect cat). The idea of life, however, without him, was not possible. Paying the vet bill is just something I have to do … the cost doesn’t matter.

Whenever I have an appointment with my psychiatrist (a charming doctor named Dr Miura, who hails from Argentina and is of Japanese and Argentine descent) at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, the first – and most important – question that he always asks me is: “how is your music going?” He understands, quite clearly, that if my music is “going well”, if I am composing he knows that my mental health is not anywhere near a critical area. The same can be said if I’m writing other things as well: the creative process is equally transferable for me; so, I’m fine if I’m writing and not composing … for a short period of time. My mental stability is inexorably connected to my creative process: when I’m writing (music or otherwise) I’m in a “good place” – when I’m not … that’s one of the most important “warning signs” that things are going downhill … really quickly. This is an especially important thing to observe in my situation since I have been diagnosed with the type II variant of bipolar disorder, and have been further classified as a “rapid cycler”, meaning my moods have a tendency to “switch” much more quickly than someone who has the type I variant of the illness, and experiences full-blown mania. I’ve never had a full manic episode, thankfully, but that doesn’t make the type II variant any easier to manage: it has become something of a job as it requires a great amount of observation and dedication to monitor things, how they affect me, and etc., and to constantly monitor my physical and emotional state so that I do not over-exert myself (which is a no-no with fibromyalgia, resulting in several days recovery time for the slightest exertion) or allow my emotions to get (too) out of control. It all boils down to self awareness: understanding how you will react under certain situations and, knowing that, making choices as to how you will participate – or if you will participate.

It became clear to me, when I was younger, that if I wanted to pursue my dream of being a composer the thing I had to do was compose (Just do it? In a manner of speaking, yes … but I also studied, and practiced, and practiced, and studied … ad nauseum). Yes, that sounds silly, but I mean it just the way it sounds: I started writing music at every opportunity that I had as a student, on everything, in everything; in harmony and theory assignments, extending homework assignments, “doodling” in classes … it was probably maddening to some of my professors, but it helped develop my “chops” as the composer that I ultimately became. When I was a student in college and university two things were important to me: playing the guitar and composing; the further I progressed in school, studying more contemporary music with a brilliant composer named Steven Gellman as my mentor the guitar began to take second fiddle to my musical interests and composition became my primary passion, a passion that has not waned to this day. In fact, after my 3rd year guitar recital (which I performed in my 2nd year at the University of Ottawa) I almost stopped playing altogether, in part to dedicate myself wholly to the task of composing, but also partly because I had been playing with a great amount of pain for several years, and there was no reason to put myself through that anymore if I had no more recitals to prepare for or juries to appear before.

Fibromyalgia is not something that I would want anyone to have to experience, but for those that have it, and live with the pain and discomfort that it presents, you can understand how easy it is to give up on something if, in your mind, you are not actually losing anything in the act. When I stopped playing the classical guitar I really only stopped practicing six to eight hours a day, but I would still play the instrument … for a while. That extra time, for the most part, ended up being used on other projects, like composing … so, it was all good. When I did return to the guitar, however, it got to the point where I was unable to maintain the technical level that I’d had as a performer, and that was unacceptable to me: I didn’t want to be an “okay” guitar player after having played concert repertoire, so … I stopped playing it altogether … and, oddly, it didn’t bother me at the time. I was, after all, composing. Everything was working fine. For a while.

Since I was on disability it was as though – in my mind – I was being paid to compose. Being a “Creative” had become my job by virtue of the fact that I had to continue being productive, and was now “employed” by the Government of Ontario (the Ministry of Community and Social Services, to be precise). So, I was “only” a composer – that was fine by me … but, unlike many of my colleagues, I was in a position to write music for anyone – and not have to worry about the politics of grant applications and commissions in order to get things done: if someone was interested in my music and wanted to play a piece of mine, a commission was created. Period. I would compose the music and they would perform the work and record it … simple, sweet, and elegant. It is an arrangement that has worked for me, and the performers involved, for the most part, for the better part of twenty-years. The only problem is that even when Confucius is deferred to and you are not “working”, per se, the idea of receiving remuneration for something that you have created is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it is going to help you in the pursuit of your art – or, just to help you make ends meet when you discover that living on a disability pension is not necessarily as luxurious as it sounds (if I’ve said anything to make it sound luxurious, I apologize … and retract every jot and tittle … there is nothing glamorous about subsistence living … though it is better [much] than living on the streets). Or, if your cat gets cancer … things like that. Life. It sometimes gets expensive.

Seuss reclining - his favourite pose

Seuss reclining – his favourite pose

No. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that one of the definite disadvantages of composing “for the love of music” means that, on occasion, being taken advantage of is standard operating procedure. Once, for example, an orchestration that I was commissioned to create – and this was an actual paid project – was delivered, and then the payment was never made. They simply denied ever having discussed the price with me, and since we had no written contract … there was nothing I could do about it (the piece has since been premiered and you can hear the performance on my SoundCloud page here). Other projects have ended in disappointment, but – once again, there haven’t been contracts memorializing the terms and conditions, so, in one fell swoop a major chamber work and two solo works were tossed aside because … well, the concert they were going to be performed in wasn’t going to happen and there were no plans to put them in a future concert. There wasn’t anything I could do, so … I started composing other pieces and began shopping around the chamber piece, looking for other performance opportunities.

While I may not be making my living (aside from occasional residuals, which are very occasional, and not enough for anyone to live on) from my music it is equally disheartening that it seems so easy for some people to casually dismiss what amounts to hundreds of hours of creative endeavours (in other words: work; it may not feel like work, but it is, in fact, exactly that). Composing may not be true “work” but it takes time, effort, and a tremendous amount of intellectual energy. When I spend four, five, or ten hours composing it feels as though I have worked at a physical job when I finally stop. The reason for this is quite simple: the pain. While I’m composing I’m able to push aside the constant pain I live with, to the point that I don’t even notice (for the most part) the migraine that has, at times, led me to the Emergency Room for shots of heavy-duty opiates when I was in high school and college (not necessary today because of the medication I take on a regular basis, thanks to a doctor who understands pain management and the ramifications of chronic pain left untreated). When a composition session of mine ends there is a short pause and then a flood … a torrential wave of migraine, washes over me … and it happens virtually every time. Day in, day out; if I can write, I can block the pain, but when I stop … it returns; with a vengeance. Of course, if I’m not writing or composing the pain becomes even worse … something that cannot be tolerated without intense concentration.

Living with pain has become something of an art form, something that I have to do if I want to continue living and working, but when it interferes with my work, when it becomes an impediment to that which makes my life worth living, that’s when it becomes too much to handle. If it weren’t for the pain management that I have, thanks to a very caring doctor, the greatest truth is that my compositional career would have ended many years ago. Unfortunately, many composers out there have not been afforded the luxury that I have, to write without worrying about money; many composers are restricted by economic circumstances as to what they can, and will, compose. I am only confined by what I want to compose, so long as someone is interested in performing the music, I will compose for them … but … I have to ask the question … is there really something wrong with composers receiving something (something?) for that which they create? On the other hand, I often compose pieces just for the sake of composing … without having anyone asking for it … just because I’m inspired to compose the piece. Following your inner inspiration is one of the greatest ways to allow your creativity to lead you into an undiscovered world of discovery. Composers compose … it’s what we do.

I don’t want any of this to sound carnal, but … truth be told, I started playing classical guitar again a few months ago (more about that in a future post) and, well … there’s a guitar maker that I would really love to buy a guitar from … alas, his guitars are not the type of thing that fit into my budget. So … aside from paying for my cat’s surgery, it would be really wonderful to be able to purchase a concert guitar – perhaps not the “Rolls Royce” version … but … something nice.

A Generalized Theory of Work

02/07/2014

Lately I’ve been wondering about the amount of work – not stuff that I necessarily hate doing, just a lot of stuff – has been accumulating. This is mostly because I keep finishing compositions that must then be entered into a computer program I use called “Finale” which generates the final copy, the score from which a performer will (eventually – I hope) perform the piece. The process of entering a completed composition into Finale is not my favourite part of the compositional process – in fact, at times I really dislike it, for the simple reason that I’d rather be working on a new piece, but – if I don’t finish this piece … if I don’t make the nice, cleanly printed score … there is little to no chance of it ever being performed. Composers have always had to contend with copying their music so that others could read their handwriting – I’m lucky enough to have at my disposal a computer program that makes the process go by much faster than if I had to do it by hand … which I did, many times, when I was a student in college and university … so, I’m not complaining (really!) about having to do this final process when a composition is completed.

However, there is even more (yes, more) work that I’ve been wanting (Did he just say “want”? Yes … he did.) to do – I’ve been working on a novel for quite a while, but I keep putting it off to work on my primary passion, composing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never complain about being so busy with composing that I don’t have the time for other creative endeavours; when I’m composing I know it means that my mental health is just about as good as it gets (that’s something else that I’ll be blogging about in the future) – and that’s not something that I should complain about. But, I know that there is more that I can – and should – be doing … I know how much time I don’t use, and what I want to do … and I believe I know how to effectively bring myself into a more productive state of being. It involves something that I’ve come to call the “Generalized Theory of Work”.

Unlike Einstein’s Theory of Relativity my “Generalized Theory of Work” will, in all likelihood, not change the way you view the universe… but it just may change the way you live your life as it is based on things that I’ve observed and practiced at various times throughout my creative life. The Generalized Theory of Work states: The amount of creative Work that anyone may accomplish during any given interval of TIme may be increased proportionally to the increased amount of Work they attempt to accomplish during an interval of similar duration. In other words, if you try to do more than you have been (for whatever reason), you shall succeed.

That may sound like a truism, but it isn’t as simple as is seems, and here’s where my post from July 1st comes in, why a return to blogging (or blogging more regularly) will help me with my creative endeavours: in order to enter my musical works into Finale I must use my laptop, but I don’t even turn it on every day thanks to the ease of connectivity offered by my other devices (the Samsung “Mega” phone is enough to practically replace my tablet, which I use to read music on for playing guitar – more on that in a future post, I promise!) – so – I have gone, quite literally, weeks without using my laptop. I am quite content to compose on paper – using my favourite fountain pens … very old fashioned, but that’s the way I am – writing in ink, on paper … it seems to connect me with the composers and traditions of the past. 

Blogging is something that I enjoy doing, but I won’t do it from something other than my laptop (I wrote my last post from my phone, using a bluetooth keyboard, which isn’t my preferred method, so here I am, on my laptop …), so – by making a commitment to regularly update this blog, I’m making a commitment to use my laptop more consistently… to work more consistently: to get more work done. If I want to get more of my musical work done I shall do other things as well, and in so doing, accomplish both – or more. It is a simple concept that, I’m sure, many of you have experienced without even realizing: like when you started a new routine and discovered that you could, in fact, find an extra hour here or there to do something, and it wasn’t the end of you – and everything worked out fine; or when you remembered, at the last minute, that you had another essay due – next week – but you hadn’t been working on it all semester as you had been on the other essay you were just finishing … but, you still managed to finish it, on time, earning an extremely respectable mark along the way. It happens often because we work well under pressure: we just have to remember when to take a break and recharge our batteries, lest we burn ourselves out (got that t-shirt).

Some of the things that I’m committing to blog about in the upcoming days/weeks/months ahead are the following: the recent compositions I’ve been working on, including several new works for classical guitar; my rediscovery of the classical guitar, including my challenge of playing with fibromyalgia, (chronic pain condition, one of the reasons why there are prolonged periods without updates – but that will also be discussed); and many other topics which I hope you will enjoy delving into with me as I look forward to writing, and sharing them with you.

But first … I’ve got to get some work done in the few days between now and the next World Cup games … ¡Va Argentina! or whoever plays the best ….