Walk like an Egyptian

Writing this on yet another snowy day, so I’m reminded of these words from Sunday in the Park with George. White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.

Too many, if you ask me. If given an assignment, “write a song!” I wouldn’t know where to begin. I need parameters, some guidance, some chipping away of the marble. There’s a pop song that’s much on my mind, as my daughter constantly plays it: “I’m not going to write you a love song.” Songwriters smile at the difficulty of cutting our cloth to order; when a music biz maven asked Sara Bareilles to write a love song, the request is so vague, it’s humorously frustrating.

Your musical gives you a time and a place. Each character has a “voice” in the Creative Writing sense of the word. She’s going to have her own particular way of expressing herself. Idioms – God, I love idioms. If this isn’t the first song in your score, you might consider how this new composition relates to the others. Orchestration is something worth contemplating. And so’s the set of expectations and information that’s in your audience’s head at the time your song starts.

Not such a blank page, or canvas, now, is it?

I’m in the mood to talk about process. Picture, if you will, that you’re composing a lyrics-first song for a musical. (One of my current projects is entirely lyrics-first, so this particular m.o. is fresh in my mind.) The lyricist has handed you a pretty polished lyric, one he feels is ready for your contribution.

1 So, the first step is to examine that question. Is this lyric ready to be set? Collaborators all understand that there will be many changes along the way, but on the one musical I was the composer on and nothing else, the lyric-and-book guy would frequently hand me formless, unmetered verse. I had to communicate – in the nicest way possible – that the lyric needed revision before music-creation could commence. (That guy did not take it well, accusing me of hating him for his politics, of all things.)

2 Take a look at the lyric like a grad student doing a dissertation on poetic form might. What are the metrical feet? Where are the rhymes? Most important: what sections match each other, in terms of general meter and rhyme scheme; which don’t? What’s the title and where does it come up? Now, it’s not a bad idea for the collaborators to have a conversation about title and form in advance. Certainly, you should have talked about the placement of the song in the story, what’s going on with the character in this number, how they’ve changed by the end of it. Sometimes, with some lyricists, form will be obvious.

Which reminds me of how Rodgers and Hammerstein worked.  In his previous collaboration with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’ music almost always came first. Hammerstein preferred words-first. In order to put well-constructed lyrics on Rodgers’ plate, Hammerstein would write new words to existing songs, and of course never tell his partner the melody he used. In this odd way, Hammerstein was both a tune-first guy and a lyrics-first guy. And he loved idioms.

3 Auditioning actors sometimes are required to do cold readings. They’re handed a text they’ve never seen, and are asked to instantly perform it with expression, emphasizing certain words for maximal dramatic effect. Make you glad you’re not an actor? Well, sorry, bub: You are!

Because now you’re going to read the lyric out loud, summoning every thespian technique you never knew you had, to insert every possible dramatic pause and emphasis. Luckily, no one’s hurrying you, and you can repeat your performance as many times as you need. Each time, you will gain an understanding of how best to communicate the lyric, where the stresses naturally fall. And I always look for where there might be opportunities to extend singable syllables and create space between words. There is no one “right” answer. So come up with several.

4 In the recent HBO documentary, Stephen Sondheim ascribed a method to Cole Porter. Write out the lyric under a staff and then notate the rhythm – that is, stems only – as you feel it works best in speech. One thing to keep in mind, at this point, is that, in real life, people don’t speak as if they’re schoolchildren reciting poetry. Try to follow the cadences of the way people actually talk. And if you know your character well enough to understand her diction, even the better.

5 Compose music for the title and anything else that might work as a hook. Think of these little motifs as telephone poles you’ll later string wires across. In essence, they’re the most important parts of your structure, and the things your listener will hear again and again. So the ante’s up: these better be interesting.

6 For me, it’s fairly simultaneous to create a harmonic structure that’s going to push the tune along. Sometimes, I come up with chords before the “telephone wire” of the remaining notes. Once you’ve done that you have a complete lead sheet – all the notes and chord symbols.

7 It’s now time to deal with accompaniment. But, for the lazier among you, I should point out that a number of famous musical theatre composers go no farther than lead sheets. They hand their song over to others to deal with how those chords are going to be expressed on the piano, or by the band. Seems to me such shirkers are putting a huge amount of trust in others to do the rest of the work. There’s a story going around about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first love song, People Will Say We’re In Love. Rodgers certainly went well beyond the lead sheet stage: he wrote out a full piano accompaniment. But there’s a five note descending phrase you hear between the lines. “Don’t throw bouquets at me” Dum-duh-duh-dum-dum. “Don’t please my folks too much.” Dum-duh-duh-dum-dum. I’m told that this was the creation of orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. I think that phrase is key to making People Will Say… a great song. Compose the in-between stuff, or delegate the task to someone else at your own peril.

8 Dynamic marks, and all those Italian adverbs go in last. My belief is that you haven’t done your job until you have a full piano-vocal three-staff score of what you want your composition to sound like. 99% of composers let someone else do the orchestration, which is good enough for me.

9 But, sooner or later, you’re going to have conversations with your orchestrator, and also musical director, in which you must communicate what you intend for the “feel” of your piece. They’re your collaborators, too. Which reminds me that I’ve not yet mentioned that you’re going to let your lyricist hear what you’ve done and his reaction is of paramount importance. The two of you are going to go back and forth, suggesting changes to each other, and making those changes without grumbling.

Unless you can’t stand his politics. Then stamp your foot, dig in your heels, and stonewall.


2 Responses to Walk like an Egyptian

  1. Jacob Schwartzdorf says:

    That “fill” at the phrase-end in “People Will Say You’re In Love,” is, indirectly, Rodgers’s–Bennett took it from the verse of the song.

  2. Great stuff, especially about title and hooks defining the guiding motifs. I recall reading Porter got the sound of his main motif from the conversationa. lilt of the title.

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