I had an extremely eye opening composition lesson this past week.
It was my first with Lamont’s newest composition professor, John Rot. He asked his students to bring in a score for a piece we’re happy with, a score to a piece we thought could improve, and our current projects. For the piece I’m happy with, I brought in Trapped in a Mind with a Friend of Mine. For a piece I thought could use improvement, I brought in A Cry for Help (in Puritan America) and Chamber Symphony No. 1 – “Dissociative.” These pieces I picked not because I didn’t like them, but because I thought I could’ve done better with the ideas I really I liked.
And my current project is a piccolo duet. The current inspiration behind the piccolo duet is my varied experience on Fluoxetine (commonly called Prozac), and the numbness I felt it inspired in me, sporadically, over the past few weeks. I think the most accurate description I gave (within the confines of communicating in one sentence) was this numbness was like looking through a piece of thick, translucent plastic, and seeing something there but not knowing what it was. That’s how my thoughts felt at times: at work, in social situations, alone.
So how do I capture that in music? I had ideas, but Rot enlightened me to something: I’m expressing complicated ideas to an audience, and I’m limiting myself to musical expression alone to get it done. Why? Especially when what I felt my most successful production involved so much more than just music (acting, sets, lighting). Rot’s argument was: my expression needed enhancement. It needed another layer. And he challenged me to reimagine this concept I wanted to convey without any logistical limitations. Essentially:
In an ideal world, what would I do express this feeling of numbness, inspired by 20 mg of Fluoxetine?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: creativity needs constraints. As a listener, realizing the constraints composers set on themselves does wonders in guiding you through the piece (check out my Mahler Live Listening session for an example of this). But without constraints, the decision making process becomes difficult.
It’s pretty fun to realize this: oh, I can consider the option of submerging my audience underwater for an hour and play whale songs with live underwater piccolos harmonizing with them? It’s no matter how the audience will breathe. We’ll give everyone oxygen tanks. It’s no matter insurance claims if someone drowns. It won’t happen. It’s no matter how the piccolo players will breathe and how their instruments will work underwater. We’ll engineer the problem away.
It actually isn’t a bad idea. Until you ask how you’re going to pay for it.
Back to Reality
Honestly, lighting has been my first extra-musical necessity. Every musical performance should be associated with lighting that enhances the experience. A visual element that confirms your auditory perceptions. It could be as simple as: this sounds sad and the lighting is cool; I’m right to feel sad about this music.
Emotional events in stark, sterile, white lighting are out of place. Therefore, emotions are out of place in classical culture.
So when I imagine an experience that’s conveying an all-encompassing numbness, I imagine dim (not blackout) lighting with muted colors. The colors are there to make you realize the lack of colors. The performers could seem to almost glow in a shade of muted purple or pink. But it’s rendered insignificant by the dimness of the room.
This is the world the audience would enter when they accept my invitation to impart my perspective on their world. A subdued space, with a padded sound that is moving, almost swirling, but very much holding still. They would be surrounded by this sound as much as they are surrounded by the dim lighting.
And the performers won’t be visible. The start of the piece will be evident when the piccolo player makes their first sound. And that sound will be distinct enough to signal that the world I’ve submersed the audience in is going to tell its story. But it will play with the sound surrounding the audience. And the player will move. Not into the audience, but around them. Much like the swirling of the pad, but more intentional. And it will develop more than the pad.
The title of the piece will be “Fluoxetine – 20 mg” and it will be in two movements (I) Numbness (with reality seeping in) and (II) Reality (with numbness seeping in).
The visual component to this piece is relatively simple. Anything too involved would alleviate the numbness. It might even be an interesting statement to make the Reality element a more traditional lighting: stark white with the performers center stage. That stasis would lose interest, but it would be a good sudden transition to the second movement.
I’ve written maybe two dozen notes in the process since before talking to Rot to this blog. And that illuminates a point: this is an experience, this piece. What I’ve shared with you may not be THE experience. But it is a way of thinking I’ve limited for the sake of practicality for awhile. I’m not sure how feasible this idea is in the scope of Lamont’s Composer Concert Series (as lighting itself is quite restricted), but it’s good to exercise this muscle to answer the question: what’s really been lacking from my compositions over the past years?