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!

Breathe Out, Breathe In

“Breath” 1. the air inhaled and exhaled in respiration; 2. life; vitality 3. time to breathe; pause or respite Adapted from dictionary.reference.com

Spring break from school began today, and true to form, winter came roaring back just in time to celebrate the moment. No matter. The coming week will be filled with recording my compositions, especially the vocal tracks, as I finally prepare to release my solo album of compositions “House of Sound.” I hope to unveil the first completed song next week; for now, I am celebrating the completion of a four part song cycle – “The Four Elements.”

I have mentioned this work before when I blogged about my struggle with Fire and Light. This week marked the completion of the last piece “Breath.” This was another difficult piece to embrace, to find my way through. In The Four Elements, each of the elements – earth, air, water, fire – has been translated to a particular instance of that element. Earth became “Clay”, water became “Rain”, and fire became “Light”. Although I knew that I wanted air to become “Breath” I could not find the in, the twist, the kernel of meaning that would allow the song to realize itself.

After eight pages of researched notes, I was drowning in information but had found no inspiration. Finally, I stood back and asked myself Continue reading

Fire and Light: when the idea is too big

Only light – not things – strikes the retina.
                 Derek Doeffinger, “The Art of Seeing”

Sometimes an idea is just too big to handle.  I’ve been struggling for a few weeks with the last piece in “The Four Elements” – a musical exploration of earth, air, water, and fire.  The first three pieces are written and came fairly easily, two have been performed, but I struggled with the final “element” – fire.  Water, air and earth – these are the stuff of making gardens and seem like old friends.  But fire?  I felt stuck and overwhelmed until I realized that the pieces already written are about specific manifestations of the elements – earth as “Clay,” water as “Rain,” air as “Breath.”  Eureka!  Fire as “Light” – the essential element for growth and life.  It made me reflect that I made the classic mistake of creative folk – I picked a subject too big, too broad.  A point worth remembering for my self, for my students. Pick a particular manifestation of a concept that seems unapproachable and focus on your experience of it.  Discover the power and meaning it holds for you personally – there is less chance of being trapped by pre-conceived notions  and more chance of translating your particular experience into something universal that resonates with others.

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When I made the connection between the big idea and the microcosm of my own life, I had something to explore and everything changed. Fire – too big for me to handle, even after exploring videos of of everything from molten lava flows to forest fires. The sudden realization of “fire equals light” gave me the personal, the particular.  As a photographer and a gardener, light is everything, defines everything.  While it may still seem a big idea, it is very specific for me: the light sifting between trees, light breaking through clouds, that peculiar moment of diffused light at the end of the day when the garden takes on an otherworldly glow.  The light I try to capture with my camera, the reflected light of the moon that keeps me awake at night, the odd non-directional light in my dreams when I do fall asleep.

Now, ironically, I am “on fire” with the idea of light.  Lyrics and sound flood my imagination, photos and video present themselves for the performance media. The gate is open; I can’t wait to begin.

All photos and text of “Fire and Light: When the Idea is Too BIg” ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved