Turn around

Of all the many compliments I received on The Music Playing, the one I cherish most is “It sounds so different from your previous shows.” Yes! This is exactly what I was going for. And if you can bear a third post in a row about my creative process, I’d like to talk about the creative leaps in the music.

Which means that we have, here, the old problem that it’s hard to talk about sound. Some of you know a great deal about music theory; some know naught. So, there’s a good chance things I’ll say may go over your head, or under your head, i.e., seem incredibly obvious.

But it’s not too music-student-specific to say that I took a look at the ways I’ve been composing music for years, and attempted to try new paths, things I wouldn’t normally do. In my previous post, I described my attempt to get away from my usual reliance on traditional lyric structure. At times I rebelled against the sort of musical architecture I usually stick to, too.

On one of the first numbers I wrote for the show, The Time Away, I had an idea about what the accompaniment might sound like at an unusually early point in the process. I had the notion that, when the character – a working mother – wasn’t singing a new note, we should hear, on odd beats, two notes one tone apart (the major second interval). The woman’s unsettled, distraught that she gets to spend so little time with her baby. If “time away” is something she loathes, the music might refer to clocks, but in a jagged, uncomfortable way. Now, nobody listening to the finished draft of the song would ever recognize this, but it gave me a point of departure.

Setting the title to notes is something I often do at an early stage in the process. In thinking about what the character had to express, I knew I wanted four tones that don’t naturally fit together. One of the more obvious ways of getting a rarely-heard combination would be to include the hardest interval to sing, the tritone. But that sounded a little too spooky to me. But I think that considering making the phrase hard to sing led me to choose a wide range, and there’s indeed a tritone between the second and fourth notes. Since those aren’t consecutive, it’s not too difficult to sing (the range is a ninth).

But landing on the flatted fifth put me in a place of great tension. I had an impulse to smooth that out by putting a pleasant, and perhaps expected chord under that fourth note. The first three pitches implied a D6, and I first thought I’d deal with the fourth by putting an E over D with it. Not what I ended up doing. But what may have been on my mind at this point is one of the key components of thoughtfully-written music, the interplay between tension and release. So I chose a harmonic palette that was going to lead me out of that knotty fourth note into something more familiar, but not so pleasant that it didn’t fit the character’s disquietude. The first three pitches are heard a cappela, that flat fifth ended up as a D6 with the fifth flatted. The clustery seconds on off-beats are the F# and G#. The next bar is a C#7sus (so the same clusters) which resolves to a C#m7. Then an F#m7, even though the F# doesn’t show up until the final beat of the measure; a G over A; F#9, and then a bar that goes from G major seventh to G minor with a major seventh and the eighth bar begins with one beat of Gm6 over A. This sets us up, as many eighth bars do, for a repetition, an identical section (or second A).

Certainly, my lyric on the page would suggest a repetition. The stanzas match:

The time away
Weighs on my soul
Chiding me
Telling me I’m wrong

It seems to say
Stray from that goal
Work is work.
Home’s where you belong.

What I ended up doing was keeping most of the same rhythms for the second A, but now the melody goes in even odder places. “Say” to “stray” is that dreaded tritone, which did prove difficult to sing. The eighth bar’s an f-natural, and I put pieces of the whole tone scale under it.

Bridges are supposed to contrast, and I went pretty far afield both rhythmically and harmonically. It’s as if the sentiment, which gets far more specific, is made up of a completely different musical fabric. The fifth and sixth bars don’t sound like anything else in the song (but they do sound like part of the show’s overture, a last-minute patchwork of themes I like in the whole show). The bridge concludes with an unexpected curse word, and the eighth bar plays a harsh chord in the right hand while the left hand plays octaves on the off beats, as if the accompanist’s hands are unable to get it together.

The final A may start with the same four notes, but everything else is stuff the listener hasn’t heard before, is unprepared for. In the show, the character’s fraught emotions seem to be coming out of nowhere. In the song, melodic phrases and chords seem to be coming out of nowhere, too. Then the song concludes on a C# minor chord while the singer’s last note was a B – hardly the sort of finish anyone expects from a song in D.100-0063EA22

Sounds crazy, no?

To my surprise, when my musical director received the score, he commented, admiringly, about the crazy unexpected phrases in a different song, That Look To Me. In writing that, I knew I was a danger of writing predictable bubblegum pop, so I rewrote and rewrote, making sure to go places not even a musical director would expect. But that’s a tale for another day.


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