Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Notes from an April hiatus, and things to come: specifically, a lot more actual composing

In action: Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre back in 2010.

It's suddenly May, and I find I've accompanied only two silent film programs in the past three weeks.

At a pace of 100 shows a year, that doesn't happen too often. But it's given me the chance to reflect on my musical journey so far.

Hence this rather long "about me" post, which is my way of sorting things out. Here goes!

Going forward, I plan on devoting more energy to composing—you know, actually writing music down for others to play, rather than focusing on improv-based silent film accompaniment.

It's time, and I think I'm ready.

So in 2018, I'll throttle back on the number of silent film shows, and instead devote time to putting notes on paper, to conjure a quaint image from the pre-digital era.

Why this shift?

Well, it's been just about 10 years since I began creating live music for silent film screenings. But the desire to compose goes back a lot further.

As a young child, I was drawn to music, and responded to it strongly—especially the Warner Bros. cartoon scores of Carl Stalling. (A major influence to this day.)

Once I started piano lessons, my teenage years were full of intense musical discoveries, mostly about what people call "classical" music.

I was fascinated with the orchestra and all the music that had been created for it.

I devoured scores and paid hefty overdue fines on stacks of LPs I was always bringing home from the public library.

And increasingly, I felt the desire to create my own music: to forge a harmonic language, to carve melodic lines from the silence, to engineer entire new worlds of sound, and to express all that I felt so strongly.

In a word: music! It was everything. I recall getting truly upset with our high school band director because he wouldn't properly recognize March 25, 1981 as the 100th birthday of Bela Bartok.

But when it came time to pick a college, I decided against music. This happened for many reasons, including a presumed lack of talent on my part.

Also, it was a time when university composition departments were dominated by faculty who preached atonalism, serialism, and other "isms" that I somehow knew weren't for me.

Plus I had just encountered the work of author Kurt Vonnegut, a writer who threw my young mind for a loop.

So I decided it was words for me. I read books, majored in English, went into the newspaper business, and learned about writing.

But the music kept coming. Through all these years, I would sit in a meeting, and ideas would come. I'd actually draw out stave lines and jot them down.

Why? I don't know. It was a compulsion. But I thought for me, the musical train had left the station long ago.

Much later, after a couple of decades of misadventures in the newspaper business (where'd the time go?), I wound up writing about music for the arts journal I co-founded.

I found this satisfying, as I was able to draw from a base of knowledge that had never left me. Although I have to say, it did have a kind of "looking through the window glass" quality to it. As a music journalist, I felt my status as an outsider was cemented.

About then, conductor Ken Kiesler, music director of the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra, suggested I'd be a better music writer if I made music myself.

Good advice! So I started playing keyboard (and tuba, my other instrument) in pit bands for community theater shows, which seemed a suitable outlet.

At the same time, I began singing in the chorus of a local group, Granite State Opera. I'll always be grateful to Phil Lauriat, artistic director of the troupe, for letting me cavort on stage—and in the process, get better acquainted with some of the great opera scores.

Then I got a chance to work with Bill Millios, a New Hampshire-based filmmaker, who let me compose cues for a dramatic feature film, 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' which came out in 2005.

At that point, I still believed I'd missed out on the lifelong journey that most composers take for their work to be—well, worth doing.

Bill helped me realize I could really still do it, if I wanted to. I could create original music, just as I yearned to do as a teenager.

After 'Dangerous Crosswinds' wrapped, I hoped to do more. But in rural New England, directors of feature-length films weren't exactly throwing themselves at me.

By then I'd met someone else who helped me on my way: Dave Stevenson, a local archivist and film collector. Knowing Dave led to my first chance to do live silent film accompaniment: at the first-ever Mirthquake festival in Manchester, N.H. in 2007.

I found it came naturally to me. Looking back, I think the key was that the music was not the focus, but was in support of something else. And that somehow freed my sub-conscious, or disarmed my internal critic, and allowed the music to come naturally.

For me, creating music for vintage film turned out to be like working with chocolate and peanut butter: two things I loved were even better together!

And this led to more silent film gigs—tentatively at first, but building over the years to the point where my calendar is pretty much jammed.

Which brings us to now. And why? Why do all this?

Well—first, because I enjoy it. I joke that it's "my public therapy," and that's actually not far from the truth.

For me, silent film accompaniment became the long-sought-after outlet for all the things I felt so strongly, going back to adolescence. Creating music this way became a kind of ongoing catharsis for me, drawing steadily on the bottled-up sonic aquifer that I carried with me all along.

After awhile, I found myself going to major venues like the Somerville Theatre down in Boston, and making music that I found extremely satisfying personally, and which people seemed to enjoy. Until I began accompanying silent film, I never imagined this could happen, especially in a big city with a vibrant cultural scene. As I said, I believed that train had left the station long ago.

Also: being mostly a self-taught "trial and error" kind of person, I found that the only way I could develop my ability to accompany a film was to do it a lot. That accounts for the heavy schedule of performances I've set up for myself.

And in doing so—in making so much music live and in public—I couldn't help but begin developing my own idiosyncratic musical voice and vocabulary.

I'd find something I liked, and then keep doing it. I'd stumble through something that flopped, and would tend to avoid it.

Little by little, and often subconsciously, I was slowly forging elements of the language I'd dreamed about as a teenager.

Harmonies and melodies with certain characteristics, certain moves and gestures—all were coming increasingly into focus as I improvised my way through evenings of vintage film.

It took a while before I realized this was happening. I first recall being aware of it when, after a screening, a guy came up to me and asked why I'd played the same music that he'd heard before, at an earlier screening.

This surprised me because I hadn't. It was all new material. But then I realized: it sounded similar because of elements of an evolving style.

Increasingly confident that I've developed something of a musical language, in the past couple of years I've become more interested in actually writing things down, as opposed to doing improv. In other words, composing.

This led to an amazing opportunity that I still can't quite explain.

Awhile back, I got a chance climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which I did in January, 2015. And this led to a chance to compose and orchestral score about the experience for the New Hampshire Philharmonic and the group's music director, Mark Latham.

(Mark is from a family of British medical officers with a long history in colonial East Africa, and was himself born in what is now Tanzania, home to Kilimanjaro.)

Mark waited patiently as the Kilimanjaro piece grew from a one-movement "postcard from Africa" into an ambitious four-movement symphonic canvas complete with integrated harmonic material that cycled throughout the score.

Rather than just paint a picture, it explored the question of what meaning a white American could really get from a brief visit to such a place as Kilimanjaro.

The piece was performed earlier this year, at a concert on Jan. 22. And bringing the work together and having it performed was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

It was also an exhilarating confirmation to me that music-making on this scale, and in this way, may not yet be closed off for me. As a composer, I feel I'm about where I wanted to be when I was 18 years old!

Since then, other chances to compose have come my way. And I've been keeping a growing list of my own ideas I hope to work on in the future, too.

Right now, I'm working on a score that involves barbershop quartet music. And there's another piece about dumps, inspired by a gentleman I know who rescues century-old 78 shellac records from a town transfer station.

I want to write an elegy for dead shopping malls. I want to write a suite of music about the islands of New York City, similar to the "Three Places in New England" by Charles Ives.

And all of it, I think, is leading up to some kind of dramatic opera on the Pamela Smart trial, a notorious murder-for-hire case that happened here in New Hampshire in the early 1990s (and which I covered as a reporter).

If there was ever a story that deserved an operatic setting, that's it!

So, speaking of journalism: I'm pleased to report that all the silent film accompaniment work in the past decade has given me something of a musical language, but also the ability and confidence to compose.

And that's what I intend to do.

I'll continue to accompany silent film programs, of course—I really enjoy doing it, but also regular performance provides a fertile environment for developing new material.

However, I'll need to trim back my schedule from the current pace, if only to get the time needed to do more composing.

It's been a remarkable journey so far. All along, I've been helped by many generous people. And I'm blessed with the same excitement that I felt as a teenager, I think.

All in all, not a bad place to be!

Accompanying a program at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library in 2015.

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