Confession: I frequently have a hard time learning my own music.
This is probably not uncommon for composers who primarily write music for others to perform, but I am definitely writing for myself. Lately, when I compose it is usually an attempt to personalize a musical subject that I will eventually be working with in a Dalcroze class, such as metric transformation, augmentation/diminution, polymeter, etc. With summer intensives approaching, I am excited by the prospect of having new material to bring into classes, so the pencil and my blank Utext G. Hente Verlag manuscript book are likely to come out. These pieces tend to be short and they often loop back on themselves. I try to get double-duty out of many of them in my improvising music and dance group Loco Motors (now in a pilot residency with the New York Dalcroze chapter).
But I admit that sometimes my own compositions mystify me. Most of these pieces are not technically demanding for the performer (i.e., me). My goal in writing is clarity of rhythm and form (though they are not often very “well-behaved” as my colleague Jeremy Dittus likes to say), so that I can bring them into a Dalcroze class or use as a jumping off point for improvisation. As I compose, I am very clear about what I want to appear on the page. It is as though some hidden force within is dictating: this, then this; no—not that, this; and so on until it is finished, after which the window of creation closes.
In these pieces I almost never use the conventional diatonic, or even modal, harmony that I use when playing for classes in these compositions, but there is strong evidence for a harmonic grammar that I don’t fully yet understand. This can make it difficult for me to actually learn (and even comprehend) my own music. If I ignore what I have written (“Oh, just keep the rhythm and the feeling but improvise the notes for god’s sake…”) it just sounds wrong. And when I return to the page, I am often astonished to find a kind of logic in the writing that I had not been aware of when putting it down. I find I have to keep it as it is or stop playing it.
As an experiment, I decided to make a visual map of a new piece which I titled “In the Rough” (pictured above). The piece is an exploration of cross rhythms, 3×4, 4×5, etc. Without thinking too much, I just drew pictures of each measure or phrase until I got to the end. It does not follow a logical system. I wouldn’t give it to another musician and expect it to be understood. But when I played the piece just using the drawing as a visual reference, I was instantly able to play it exactly as I had written it. Why?
I don’t have a definitive answer, but I suspect it is the same thing that makes movement in a Dalcroze class such a powerful way of learning. Translating something that we hear, see or feel internally into a completely different medium gives us a unique access to the original, a kind of (paradoxically) unmediated access. When I play while looking at the drawing, I am free from the symbolic decoding that notation sometimes locks me into. Playing from the visual map I drew, it doesn’t feel like I am recreating something, as it does when I am reading standard notation. It feels more like I am playing what was already there, inside. The drawing, more abstract by nature, is merely opening the door, allowing me access to what I originally heard in my head, and felt in my body, as I was writing.
Whatever the reason, I’ll definitely be exploring this more in the future, if for no other reason than to be better able to understand myself.
Have you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear about it.
Here’s the printed music and a recording. Dalcrozians might enjoy moving it with hands and feet. Happy to send a PDF of the score upon request.