Composing

It seems that I have been bitten by the composition bug.

It happens sometimes, but it has happened more often than normal over the last couple years.  Inspiration seems to come from different places, but it seems that I can get the music out better when it’s attached to a strong emotion.

Story time…grab a tissue.

I recently finished a piece I titled “Of Grace and Strength”, which was performed shortly after its completion. My inspiration for the piece came from the strong emotions I felt while dealing with my sick cat, who had a cancer on his jaw. This cat was amazing. He was given to us as a tiny kitten who had been bottle-fed and grew into an enormity of a beast that was an alpha male and a mighty hunter.  The stories about this tough cat are many; he kept life interesting for us! Amazingly smart, the cat would do tricks on command for the treats he craved.

When he was 10 years old, I discovered a lump on the underside of his jaw. After a surgery to have it removed, I crossed my fingers and hoped he would be okay.

But he wasn’t. The tumor came back.

Over the course of about nine months, the tumor had grown to the point where I had to puree the cat’s food just so he could eat.  He had lost one-third of his weight and could no longer groom himself. It was clear that he was in pain and this was a cat that never let on that he was hurting. I had to make that heartbreaking decision that no pet owner ever wants to make.

During his last week of life, I allowed him in my house, where he insisted on being on the kitchen counter (I insisted he take the island), which was never allowed before. We all knew he was dying and at this point, why not let him have his dying wishes? He snoozed on the shelf in the kids’ play area and on the play table where they built trains and played cars when he wasn’t in the kitchen. He just wanted to be near people in the end. It has always been my experience that cats isolate themselves when they are sick or dying, but I supposed he found comfort in our company somehow.

I remember taking him to the vet, wrapped gently in a towel to keep him calm. My husband drove. My almost six-year-old son was with us (I wanted him to try to understand). I held my cat as long as I could through the end, and when I could hold him no longer, I placed my face against his head and whispered my good-byes and words of comfort as he faded away on the examination table. I watched as his eyes glazed over and his tail stopped flipping.

Dusty George was 11 years old. It seemed like a young age for this rambunctious cat. I never would have thought that with all the trouble he got into that cancer would be his demise.

It was after the tumor returned that I started hearing the music in my head. I sat down at the piano and just played and played. The same music came over and over again, so I wrote it down. What I thought would be just a piano piece turned into a full concert band arrangement. I struggled to finish it and there were things I couldn’t seem to get right. That is, until Dusty died. After he passed, the piece was completed in a matter of weeks. The music is a tribute to my cat, a graceful creature with amazing physical strength. I think the music depicts both his sweet side and the intensity of his being, while it also reveals my feelings about the different phases in his life, including his death.

I had the opportunity to have a group perform “Of Grace and Strength” a few months ago, coincidentally, on the one-year anniversary of Dusty’s death, June 26, 2016. I was conducting the band, and it must have been a miracle that I didn’t just bawl my eyes out on stage.  It was extremely emotional. A special thanks goes to the Hattiesburg City Band for indulging me. A recording of the band performing “Of Grace and Strength” can be found here, as the background to a slide show featuring Dusty himself. A very important snare drum part is missing from this performance, unfortunately, as it helps to tell the story. Keep in mind that the band is not a professional band, but a community group that performed this after only one rehearsal.

Shortly after the performance, I was approached with a proposition to arrange the piece for orchestra, which I did promptly. I now have two different arrangements of my heart’s song for my beloved cat! When I put it that way, it seems a bit silly, but I’ll let the music speak for itself.

Crazy Cat Lady?

Maybe. I started another piece of music a few days ago. The idea manifested itself when I was in a very boring situation and my mind was freely imagining kittens and their playful nature. Pictures of kitten antics in my head almost made me [inappropriately] laugh out loud, as a soundtrack began to play along with the visuals in my head. The music stuck, though I didn’t expect it to. That imaginative moment was six months ago and now it’s being written.

This new music is somewhat programmatic in nature, with the opening movement depicting new life. The second movement is titled “Antics” and though it starts off with the same idea from the first movement, it soon moves into some “curious” solos and a rambunctious middle section that has jazz influences. That’s where I am right now. I haven’t decided exactly where to go next with it, but plenty of ideas are churning about. I’m really having fun with it and I’m pleased that I can write with positive emotions this time.

On the clarinet side of things, I have plenty of fun stuff for the E-flat clarinet to do, including several solos. What is more playful sounding than the E-flat clarinet and the piccolo?

As I have been writing, these little solos in my music just came to be. I thought very little about them but they are delightful (am I allowed to talk about my own work like that?) and work so well together.

Composing is a fascinating process. I am beginning to see the plague that it can be. Ideas of music flooding my brain and becoming a distraction. I had to stop making myself something to eat because an idea was beating at me–a solution to the musical problem I was trying to solve just came to mind and it had to be tended to immediately.

I once pondered on how composers could just keep thinking up new things, but I now realize that the music is already there.

It isn’t thought up.

It isn’t conjured up by deep meditation.

It just becomes.

The composer’s job is to write it out, which can be quite a daunting task, though oddly pleasurable and highly satisfying in the end.

I suppose you could think of music as emotions being heard as they are felt. It is no wonder that some music can dig deep into your emotions and make you feel what the composer felt. The music says what words can never describe.

If there is music in your head, get it out. It wants to be heard.

In the meantime, practice (or compose) with patience and perseverance.

Erika

 

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