Posts Tagged ‘music’

Seduced by her Curves …


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).

… and the beat goes on …


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.