The Pianist's New Shoes
A few days ago I entered the studio not as class accompanist but as ... a composer. [picking yourself up off the floor] Intrigued by one of my uncharacteristic outbursts—"I'm not just an uptight classical pianist who loves playing Chopin for ballet class, you know!"—a modern dancer had invited me to watch a rehearsal. In the midst of preparing for an April performance, she has realized that she dislikes—or flat out can't use—some of the music in her current rotation. "I need less melody, more found sounds...more silence, actually." Working with someone sympathetic and attentive to movement, as well as open-minded to experimentation and free improvisation, seemed like a promising opportunity. [Enter moi]
Her aesthetic ("I do not want the music to 'go with' the dance") is familiar enough, and I have long admired music that supports movement but also exists in its own sphere. As I watched her dancers, the ideas began spilling out of my mind: with a gong here, some woodblocks there, and one excellently creaky chair, as well as an accordion, thumb piano, toy piano, a couple car horns and bells of various sizes--well, maybe I could create a suitable soundscape. The structure need not shy away from repetition, development or recapitulation (even I could read those elements in the dance) but the field of sound itself would aim towards a sparse, almost stark, simplicity ...
Is this composing?
I have never liked that word, "composer." Composers wear furrowed brows and trendy European eyeglasses. Composers sit at desks--mountains of mess or tidy studies in stacks-of-paper architecture--and shut their doors, some as content with windowless solitude as with a sweeping view of the bay and ocean. Composers engage in sordid, non-committal love affairs and think nothing of walking around collegiate halls with a pair of noise-reduction, chopper-pilot’s headphones over their ears. Composers are enigmatic freaks (on whom I always develop the hugest crushes).
The designation, "compositor," on the other hand, seems more suitable in describing how I would create music. The term, borrowed from letterpress and bookmaking arts, refers to the person who sets text in type. Compositors do not write the stories or poems, nor do they interpret or analyze the literature; they simply organize the letters and punctuation into words and form. The profession is not without creative license; books from the early era of printing often reveal the wry humor of devilish young typesetters. ("Mind your p's and q's," was as much a reminder as a reprimand.)
For a long time, I feared that composition meant creating something (a piece, a song; a sonata, a symphony) wholly original. From instrumentation to structure, through rhythm, melody, or harmony, to compose music meant to, gasp, invent. Now I see it as a process, more of a game, an experiment of measuring and proportioning, of weighing and balancing and organizing the universal givens (pitches or rhythms, instruments or durations) into a sonic landscape. The work is similar to the compositor who, setting letters in the case, always keeps a careful eye on the layout of the paragraphs on the page. Is that a stray single word dangling at the bottom of a paragraph? A good compositor finds a better solution, be it wildly creative or duly traditional, just as a good composer listens to and considers sounds as means to their musical ends.
When I began improvising as a graduate student at Mills College, my first (stunned, humiliated, determined) reaction was to sign up for counterpoint class at UCBerkeley. [laugh with great irony] In both situations, I felt less like a performer and more like someone setting type, that is, just a helpful someone arranging notes in musical space. From the hours I lavished on those counterpoint assignments to the enthusiastic curiosity that I brought to improv-ensemble rehearsals twice a week, it’s no wonder that I had a bit of an identity crisis midway through my studies in piano performance. Composition, for me, always serves a purpose, whether accompanying film or dance or allowing me to play with improvisors; my relationship to the piano, by contrast, extends far beyond that, fulfilling a basic need. Food, water, piano.
My piano feet still do not want to wear the new shoes. "But really," I tell them, "it's no different than when composers perform. C'mon, we can laugh about it later." (That happens all the time.) As for the dance project, it flirts with the potential to satisfy an emerging creative ambition but is nevertheless a daunting prospect. If nothing comes of it, there are other collaborative adventures on the horizon. Yes. New shoes are definitely a good idea.
[the toes, giving in, decide to grin]