Symphony of wind-up toys

Having one of those faintly rhapsodic moments. The midwinter sun is pouring through my office windows, and my office actually has windows on four sides, counting the one in the door to the living room. And so, a tiny space feels much bigger, as if a desk had been set up out of doors. Around me is a well-illuminated partly cloudy sky.

I’m listening to a bunch of instrumental pieces I’ve written over the years. I’ve been thinking of putting them on a CD for my daughter to fall asleep to. One piece was written specifically for that purpose a month or so ago. When composing wordless music, a certain pressure is lifted. In musical theatre songwriting, making sure the audience understands every word is a primary goal. Sans language, that ceases to be a major concern. Even if a piece tells a story (“program music”), the audience isn’t expecting to get it, exactly.

The newest piece – my first composition of 2017 – marks the culmination of a good amount of thinking before a note was written; daydreaming, one might say. And I’ve just reminded myself that this blog is called “There’s Gotta Be a Song” which resembles a song title of mine, There Oughta Be a Song. So, this musical I’m working on should begin with warmth, and there oughta be an overture that puts the audience into a certain frame of mind. The first communication, non-verbally, should get them thinking about a sleeping baby. Then, the first scene of the show is morning: the baby is awake, the father’s feeding it, the mother frenetically gets ready for a day at the office. It’s an anxious and contentious scene and it should be a little startling coming out of the tranquility of a depiction of a sleeping child.

Looking back over my life over the past years, I know that my most harried hours have been spent on the nightly struggle to get my daughter to sleep. But that’s reality, not my fictional musical. So, here’s the program for my program music: A child is gently lulled to sleep with wind-up toys. (I can remember that I, as a child, had one that played To Each His Own, and another that played Tenderly. I can hear neither song today without thinking about childhood.) The first draft of my show had a quodlibet in three-quarter time, with different tunes for each parent. For my overture, I knew I’d start one waltz, which would keep repeating; then, a few bars later, I’d start another one, which would keep repeating. Eventually, there’d be so many, going in counterpoint, the listener would picture a crib with way too many stuffed animals making music – and some cacophony. Eventually, the themes should slow and fade out. (Note: I didn’t quite achieve that goal, yet.)

Speaking of non-verbal communication, I also thought about lighting. Overtures often involve darkening the auditorium. I want lights to gradually come up, as dawn breaks, and end up in a harsh glare of the family’s fraught morning. So, instead of that slow-and-fade thing, I’ve written a segue into the opening number, which is eight-eighth-notes-to-the-bar ostinato rock. And if that’s not what my audience is expecting, all the better. I’m a great believer in rattling expectations.

I’ve talked before about how valuable it is to know the parameters of the piece you’re composing – the more, the merrier. So, what tunes to write for wind-up toys? This may not be true any more, but when I was a kid, music boxes and toys had a tendency to go out of tune. This may have led me to the thought that I could use a wrong-sounding interval, such as the flat fifth. Now, an ascending flat fifth makes everyone think of West Side Story: Bernstein uses it again and again, in that whistle the gang uses, as well as Cool and Maria. So, stay away from that. Start with a descending flat fifth and quickly resolve it because, don’t forget, this theme is not about stress. I repeated the first two bars, and the fifth bar is a rather normal ascending major triad. It was time to go an interesting place, so I chose an unexpected chord, and did a little dance with the minor third of the scale. With much repetition leading to a cadence, I now had my first sixteen-bar theme.

A second theme should contrast. The first involved quarter notes, so now a smattering of eighth notes is called for. If the first danced around the third note of the minor scale on its sixth and fourteenth bars, this could dance around the tonic any place but. By “dance around” I mean fluttering around a note using others close to it. I also went up and down in an arpeggio covering a wider range than a human voice could do. One of the freeing things about writing instrumental music is that you’re not stuck with just what can be sung.

Wondering which should be played first led me to decide on neither. For something introductory I thought of a piece I get unaccountably emotional about, Henry Mancini’s opening credit theme for Two For the Road, a wonderful film depicting the highs and lows of a struggling marriage (something my musical does as well).

On tinkly eighth notes, broken chords are played in an unusual sequence, and the harmonic changes are subtle. I’ve used similar figures with some frequency in instrumental pieces, and also Mommy Is Yummy in the show.

Traditional overtures present themes that will later be heard as songs in the show. At this point, my score has one waltz, and I thought it worth featuring. But it has a different set of harmonies. If I introduce it, there would be clashes. But wasn’t cacophony part of my original plan? The song could enter last and before too long the conflicting wind-up toys could fade out.

Now I had a new idea, one that I didn’t start with. This one theme would emerge from the overlapping counterpoint, and the audience would suspect it’s a tune they’ll hear later in the show. (And they’d be right.) Clarity would emerge from the noise of the seven countermelodies. And, I found, I could use some of those previously stated themes as accompaniment.

Since the song and the newly-composed themes have different chord progressions, those conflicting bars guided my hand in coming up with some of the other melodies. There’s a set of dotted half notes that emerged from looking at what notes are common to the two clashing chords.

I’m a bit self-conscious, now, that I’ve gotten too technical. Certainly, listeners won’t be thinking about any of this inner architecture when they hear the piece. Except you will. Because I just told you.



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