Watershed

Water is the driving force in nature. ~Leonardo da Vinci

I have been elsewhere these past few months. If you spoke to me, I only heard part of what you were saying. If music played other than what I was composing, I did not hear it. I vaguely remember the holidays but they intruded upon my inner world and I merely went through the motions, eager to return to the world of water.  Deep within the mystery of watersheds, I often forgot appointments or rescheduled them in order to pursue the trail of liquid sound. One morning, I awoke with musical figures and phrases running through my head and felt as if I had somehow been transformed into water itself. waterdrop

Last month I submitted the score and parts for Watershed, a concerto for cello and orchestra, and attended rehearsals last week. The premiere, featuring cellist Adam Liu and the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Meyer, takes place in little more than a week, to be followed by recording sessions. Although I am now more present to the daily life of the world, the music of Watershed continues to play through my head day and night.

Walking through the misty woods this morning with Angel, each step was in rhythm with the flow of water. (Click on any photo to see a full-size photo. All photos ©2018 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved)

The song of the river ends not at her banks but in the hearts of those who have loved her. ~Buffalo Joe

The inspiration for Watershed is the abundance of water where I live, in the midst of the Pine Creek watershed. The headwaters of the creek begin in the northernmost corner of our county and flow south towards the Allegheny River and then on to the Ohio River. In its travels, the creek becomes a lovely quiet lake in our county park before flowing over the dam and continuing on its way. Many of our local roads in the Pittsburgh area follow the creeks and streams that feed our watershed; driving south on Rt. 8 traces the path of Pine Creek and the many smaller waterways that join it. Local waterfalls feed it and eventually Pine Creek takes a wide meander, a large curving loop, at the Shaler Plaza, and then continues on to join the Allegheny River. Each of the four movements tries to speak in the voice of the creek in its journeys from headwaters to the confluence of rivers.

. . . I feel like the Queen of Water. I feel like water that transforms from a flowing river to a tranquil lake to a powerful waterfall to a freshwater spring to a meandering creek to a salty sea to raindrops gentle on your face to hard, stinging hail to frost on a mountaintop, and back to a river again. ~Maria Virginia Farinango

watershedsignMonths of research have left me with a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the flow of water through the land.  The idea of the watershed, water flowing to its lowest point to eventually flow to the sea and return as rain, began to heighten my awareness of all things water. I was introduced to the concept of the river continuum by friend and colleague Brady Porter. I discovered that the signs that mark our local creeks and watersheds were put there partly through the efforts of an environmental scientist whose daughter is a cellist and a former student of Adam Liu, the artist for whom Watershed was composed. I discovered that the lake that I love (featured in this video), when drained and dredged in a restoration project a few years ago, revealed the deep trough of Pine Creek running at its bottom, unseen yet present, a hidden current. Everywhere I drive or park my car, I see the ever present Pine Creek, now a beloved companion on my travels. In fact, it is so ubiquitous, it is rarely noticed by those who see it every day.

pinecreek

Pine Creek below a busy road

Water is the most perfect traveler because when it travels it becomes the path itself! ~Mehmet Murat Ildan

I am not alone in being inspired and transformed by moving waters, by streams, by rivers. Countless poets, authors, philosophers, scientists and naturalists have something to say about it.

A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself. ~Laura Gilpin

The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. ~Herman Hesse

I am beginning to understand that the stream the scientists are studying is not just a little creek. It’s a river of energy that moves across regions in great geographic cycles. Here, life and death are only different points on a continuum. ~ Kathleen Dean Moore and Jonathan W. Moore

Look around you – do you see water? Treasure it, listen to it, protect it. If you are so inclined, I hope that you can attend the premiere of Watershed, which I now realize is a love song to moving waterNevertheless, you can discover the voice of the stream or river near you and learn to hear its song.

I thought how lovely and how strange a river is. A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it is never the same water and is never still. It’s always changing and is always on the move. . . Am I like that? Always me, like the river itself, always flowing but always different, like the water flowing in the river, sometimes walking steadily along andante, sometimes surging over rapids furioso, sometimes meandering with hardly any visible movement tranquilo, lento, ppp pianissimo, sometimes gurgling giacoso with pleasure, sometimes sparkling brillante in the sun, sometimes lacrimoso, sometimes appassionato, sometimes misterioso, sometimes pesante, sometimes legato, sometimes staccato, sometimes sospirando, sometimes vivace, and always, I hope, amoroso. ~Aiden Chambers

Composer in the studio

Winter is here, snow making the garden lovely in a new way. This is the season of lines and shapes, the bones of the garden.

snowygate

The seeds and plants have been ordered while watching garden videos, the antidote to the bitter cold keeping me indoors. Zelda is sound asleep for the winter, adorned by a milky snow mustache. zeldasnow

Angel has been enjoying the snow in spite of the cold, running through the woods . . . angelsnowrun

alert to the sounds of birds and squirrels in the quiet days . . . angelsnowgarden

and trying to puzzle out why the snow is only on the south side of the trees. angelsnowtree

There have been days where my feet have not crossed the threshold into winter, as I have been in my music studio instead of the garden. The cello concerto is almost ready for rehearsals but so many details to complete! Someone asked me recently where I composed and on what instrument (thank you, Linda!), so perhaps many of you will find this of interest.

Composing begins for me with an idea that will work within the structure of the piece. I think about it for a long time, do extensive research and write many pages of notes. Often, I begin this process in what is perhaps my favorite room in the house, piano_rooma room lined with a wall of windows facing south where I can see the woods in all seasons. It is the closest I can be to nature and my garden while still being inside the house and is especially appreciated in winter when the light streams in and I can light a fire in the fireplace. Once the piece takes shape in my mind, I move from the cozy chairs to the piano. One of the great treasures of my life,  the piano is a Lindeman from the 1930’s and belonged to my Aunt June, who was a marvelous pianist. I spend evenings searching for the “soul” of the piece while improvising at the keys, finally sketching out musical themes and ideas with paper and pencil.

Armed with those notes, I move into my studio. A partially finished “bonus room” over the garage when we moved here, we eventually tricked out the room with a heating/cooling unit, added skylights and carpet and furnished it as my creative retreat to compose, to work on multimedia projects, and to just think. The music work station takes center stage and this is where I go to bring pieces to completion. Reference books on technology and orchestration line the bookshelves. Angel, ever my muse, sleeps next to me on the blanket on the floor or under the table.lynnstudio

Once I complete a section or movement, I retreat to my little sofa to listen to playback, marking rough drafts, taking notes. What works? What sounds unbalanced or incomplete? Putting some distance between me and the computer allows me to regain perspective from the minutia of putting notes to page and also encourages me to relax my back and neck from the inevitable computer strain. My first oil painting hangs on the wall and artwork of all kinds fill the space. lynnstudio2

In a few days, the score and parts will be complete and uploaded to the music librarian; rehearsals begin soon. I will share more about Watershed in my next post. In the meantime, stay warm and enjoy the stark beauty of the season.

 

That Particular One

One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite – that particular peach is but a detail. ~ Pablo Picasso

Bench swallowed by hydrangeas

Bench swallowed by hydrangeas

Blame it on the weather – we seem to have re-entered Pennsylvania’s carboniferous period, the Paleozoic era of tropical rain forests that produced those rich fields of coal, oil, and natural gas that are so currently in contention. Daily rainstorms and high temperatures have spurred green growth so luxuriant that garden paths are now covered in green plants rather than brown mulch and every garden plant is double its normal size. It is a child’s garden for adults, as I look up into the blooms of daylilies and roses above my head and vainly try to temper nature’s enthusiasm for this state of affairs.

Daylily 'Asterisk'

As a result, I offer here portraits of flowers, bewitching, entrancing,  and totally designed to disguise the unruly and weedy carpet at their feet. Any pretense at horticultural control is gone – oh, this is not a polite or nice summer garden – this is unruliness and passion at its best. So, I have narrowed my view, for purposes of this post, to the particular – the particular flower, the particular point of view, the one instead of the many. If I cannot control the garden with snippers and shovel, I will control its perception with the camera lens and what it can reveal through each flower, each leaf, each drop of rain.

bubblyWPSo many elements conspire to create this cunundrum! This was to be the year of the “total garden” – the wide view of well-defined spaces and elegant combination of elements. “Hah!” said nature and life. “You may wish for control and balance but it is not to be so! Enjoy the wild effusive growth of garden plants and weeds in equal measure and enjoy life to the fullest.” In other words, grow or die.

This week, as I try to complete a large and ambitious piece of music, I am constantly challenged. This note or that, this idea or that. It is the quantuum challenge, of choosing the particular from the field of possibilities. As a composer, I can only trust inner instincts and own my musical choices as I wander through the sound landscape and choose “this, not that.”

Enjoy this little photo gallery of the particular – the blooms that shine above the chaos of riotous growth and change. I now return to my studio to continue pursuing the choice of particular notes.

All photos ©2013 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved

To see more daylilies in my garden, see last year’s post “Beauty for a Day”

What Lies Beneath

Two weeks ago, I premiered the piece “Breath” on this blog, as both a music video and an mp3 download.  Photographer and fellow blogger Kerry of Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog made a comment that has been circling in my mind ever since.

“I remain in awe of what it takes–the synthesis–to create something like this. It’s difficult, bordering on impossible, for me to fathom.”

Since Kerry generously posts about his approach/creative process to landscape photography, I thought I might try the same for the creation of “Breath” in a way that hopefully anyone can understand. Since I teach composition, I have had to become more aware of the compositional process – and I learn more about my own process each time I  “deconstruct” a piece.

The Idea/Inspiration
For me, a musical idea is often triggered by an event or a powerful moment or insight. In this case, “Breath” is part of a larger suite of pieces making up The Four Elements.  I was inspired to use the idea of breath for the element of air from three sources; one was my yoga practice and the deep breathing that it teaches.  The second was watching the leaves on the trees around my house dancing in the wind, as if the earth was breathing in and out. The third was a video of experimental composer and performance artist Pamela Z, who used her breath against sheets of metal in “Metal Voice” from “Voci.”  So, all I knew starting out was that there would be breath sounds and the text would explore the meaning of breath, while the music would try to capture the rhythm of leaves moving in the wind as well as the silence between breaths.

The Research
I explored many concepts and ideas about breath and was surprised to find that across most cultures and religions, a word for breath existed that meant not only the physical act of breathing but a metaphysical act of breath – “breath of life, breath of energy”- a means of connection with a greater spiritual power. Many pages of notes later, I found certain phrases and words coming up over and over again, and from those writings, a rough draft of lyrics was created. This could be compared to scouting a location for photography or exploring a historical period for a story and creating an outline from notes.

Letting It Cook

An under-rated part of the creative process is gathering all of these ideas and letting them simmer beneath the conscious mind, just like giving bread dough enough time to rise. Ideas would percolate while I was working in the garden, driving in the car, walking the dog and I began to get a sense of the rhythm of the words and music.  If I move to the piano or the computer too soon, before I hear the music internally, my hands compose instead of my head, and I end up falling into automatic habits, not unlike taking the highway exit to go to work out of habit when you really are headed somewhere else. So I have learned to allow everything to slowly simmer and come together internally before I begin the actual writing process. If I wait long enough, the piece takes on a life and rhythm of its own that I then follow like a story unfolding.

Committing to Paper
If I am writing a song, lyrics almost always come first but their rhythm and inflection become quickly bonded with musical ideas. A rough sketch of lyrics and the idea that I wanted to have a “world music” sound that was inspired by gamelan music started the process and tied it to the other pieces in The Four Elements. Gamelan music is played mainly on percussion instruments and consists of many overlapping patterns of notes called ostinatos.  Combining different patterns creates a floating rhythmic quality without an obvious strong beat, similar to the way an artist might layer color after color to create a complex but subtle painting.  Here is a short video that explains how I created the rhythmic elements that underpin the piece. 

The Final Mix
After the premiere of “Breath” by my student electronic ensemble, I returned to the original arrangement and began to customize it for my own performance and recording. Several days of experimentation in my studio produced synthesizer tracks that were then taken into the audio studio for adding voice, bass, and other tracks.  Many test mixes were created for listening on many different sound systems, from the living room stereo to the car CD player to sound systems in music stores. My husband, who has golden ears, fantastic technical skills, and boundless patience, filled the role of audio engineer and producer admirably. A final upload of the piece to CD Baby completed the audio project.

I hope you enjoyed the”behind the scenes” explanation of how I compose music.  Next week, I’ll talk about the video I created for “Breath” – and show you what didn’t make the cut!

Your Opinion, Please

Months of work are coming to a peak! I have finished the audio for the first song, Breath, and am tweaking the video for it now. I hope to premiere it in a post this coming weekend.

In the meantime, I have started a music store on CD Baby which will also appear on my Facebook music page.  Here’s my plan: record and release as a digital download one piece a month of what I am calling “songs from the garden.” In a year’s time, all the songs will then be gathered into a CD and released again as a CD download and/or a physical CD.

For all of my followers and visitors, I would love your feedback and opinions before I finalize the store and premiere the first piece. I have created a short poll of your preferences for online music which will help me decide the best way to proceed with presenting my work.  Every song will be featured here “in entirety” on the blog as a music video but I am still trying to determine the best way to handle the mp3 downloads.

There are no “right or wrong” answers – results (by percentage) will be listed in the next post.  I would love your opinion, please!