Workflow

I remember coming across an article about Morton Feldman that said that he would always compose in pen. He would go on writing, and if he noticed that he was scribbling too many thing off the page, he would stop and be done for the day. He treated composing as if it were an act of performing.

Everyone has their routines and rituals they do whenever they set out to work. I have to have my coffee at the right time. My chair has to be the right height. I only write with Palamino Blackwing Pencils. It has to be the right paper. My ruler has to be within arms reach at all times.

But do any of those things really matter? Do they actually help me write better? No. In reality these are things that just mask insecurities of whatever I am working on. Its like I’m saying “If i write with these pencils in this setting at this time of the day, Ill do great work!” How ridiculous does that sound? All I need is something to write with and some manuscript. That’s it. Through my experience playing piano and trumpet, I’ve found that when I’m not stressing out about anything and I’m just playing to have fun, I improve so much faster and perform at a much higher level. This is the same performing experience I want to have when I sit down to compose, and I feel like having this sense of ritualistic act of writing adds a layer of stress and overthinking onto writing that doesn’t need to be there (yet).

When you are working on a draft, there needs to be a flow to your work. The creativity needs to come out uninhibited by your mind saying “this isn’t good enough, what are you doing?” There is a time and place for that part of your brain to come out and shine, but the early stages of a work is certainly not it. Get everything down on to the page first, the good, and the bad. Get to the double barline. Then, you can nitpick, cut things, add missing bits, or completely rewrite parts that are just wrong. Hopefully with practice and time, I’ll find that the initial “flow” of creativity will get better in quality and that the later revisions don’t need to be as extensive as they do, but I’m certainly not at that point yet, and don’t need to worry about it. What I need to do now is write.

-pt

Return Home

The Atlantic Music Festival finished a few weeks ago and I have to say that it was an incredible experience. I got to work with some incredible performers who premiered works of mine. I am so grateful for them to have worked on my pieces and all of the performances went fantastically. I also got to meet with some amazing composers from around the northeast, such as Nils Vigeland, Eric Ewazen, Robert Paterson, Ken Ueno, Robert Cuckson, Stephen Cabell, George Tsontakis, and David Ludwig. Getting to know so many different composers from around the world was also a great experience and hopefully the connections made here will last through my career as a composer.

In my earlier post about the Hero’s Journey, I talked about how a character ventures off into something unknown, goes through a series of tests, and comes back changed. This is exactly how my experience with AMF can be described. I entered the festival a little unsure of my abilities as a composer, but definitely willing to learn and adapt. I’m leaving the festival with a new sense of self confidence and ready to tackle my next pieces and looking for new challenges.

Throughout all of my experiences there, I want to share a few of the things I got from the festival.

Performers and Composers need a symbiotic relationship if either of them are going to survive.

“Write so that your performers sound great. When they sound great, you sound great.” Almost everything I experienced in working with the performers held true to this. I treated my performers like rockstars, because to me, thats what they were. I gave them works that, although difficult, highlighted some great aspects of their playing, and as a result, they sounded awesome.

In the long term, I see this being even more important. The colleagues who play my music now will hopefully be the same people playing my music 20 years down the road through their own careers. I feel like my mindset when writing for them should be thinking of how do I help them reach their own success. If they make it out there and they did it playing something I wrote, then it will be just like I made it too. Composers and performers should feed off of each others success, and that way, everyone wins.

Don’t be afraid to say “Hi!” and be nice.

I was a fairly shy and reserved person before going to the festival. When I landed in Maine, I walked past the one guy that I thought might have also been going to the festival maybe 3 or 4 times before I decided to introduce myself. After that, I realized that almost no one at the festival is going to know each other beforehand, so I might as well meet everyone that I can. In the end, I made a ton of great friends and colleagues who I hope to keep in touch with for a very long time.

I noticed some very talented people who were too into what they were doing and didn’t really bother to get to know many other people. Unfortunately for them, people didn’t get to hear much of their music outside of what they presented in some group lessons. Being involved in music calls for a sense of community. Don’t be afraid to be a part of it.

Focus on what you are trying to say. 

Composing is about saying what you as an artist feel that you have to say. The musical language and vocabulary each composer writes with, whether it is tonal, atonal, minimalistic, experimental, or whatever combinations of any “style” or genre, is only a tool for composers to use to help convey that message.

Study scores to expand your vocabulary and technique. The bits of technique you learn in school like canon, isorhythm, or fugue may seem fairly pointless when you first learn them, but you at least know how to do it. When the time comes when you have something you want to say, but can’t figure out how to say it, think about all the possible techniques in your vocabulary. One of those just might be exactly what you need.

 

Coming from all of this, I’m feeling confident and ready for this next year and I am ready to write. Let’s see where I go from here.

-pt

It’s Rough Draft for a Reason

I’ve been stuck on this same movement of this flute piece for a good while now, but I finally feel like I’ve made some headway. I was in the middle of writing the rough draft thinking, “I don’t know what else to write. What do I do?” I had my roadmap perfectly laid out in front of me but i still couldn’t find the actual notes to fit what I wanted. I took a break and came back to it after a few days of vacation, which was fantastic by the way, but time went on and I realized that it had been forever since I touched the piece. In a way, I was afraid that whatever was going to come out next wasn’t going to be good enough. More time passed and I realized I hadn’t touched the score in far too long. It doesn’t matter what I write as long as I write SOMETHING. Get to the double barline and finish this draft. Who cares if it sucks, I can fix it after I know what I want fixed. So I wrote. And then I wrote some more. And then I realized I hated what I wrote, so I fixed it. And then I wrote some more. And even though what I wrote didn’t seem like it was that great at first, it was still better than having it as empty space on the score waiting to be written. Even if I absolutely hated what I ended up writing, I figured, “Screw it. I can always go and change it when I know what actually goes there.”

I remember working on essays and learning about the writing process way back in grade school. Start with your prewrite phase, do you first draft, edit and revise, and set up the final draft. They probably told us all that the revision process is infinitely much more than the first draft, but when you’re in grade school, you just want to finish your homework so you can do more important things like hang out with your friends or play video games. As a result things like editing and revising go to the wayside and you end up with sentences with spleling errrrors and word order and sentence structure awkward because when you don’t really care, the first draft is the final draft. Now that I am working on something I actually want to refine, I’m realizing how important prewriting and revising is to the creative process. Now the first draft is like a pencil sketch. The next draft is adding in the hard defined lines, and the next one adds the color and shading, and the next one after is that is figuring out that one thing that is missing that you may or may not find. The final draft is as close to the Mona Lisa you can get.

What do you want to write? How do you want it written?

Write it. It WILL suck the first time.

Go back and see if it fits with what you wanted to write and how you wanted it written.

Fix it. Fix it again.

Get it printed and give it to someone to play.

The second movement (to be written, not necessarily the second movement of the work) is just about ready and I’ve been conceptualizing the next one for the past few days and things are looking good. And just in time seeing as how in about 6 hours I’ll be heading off to the airport for the Atlantic Music Festival, and I am incredibly excited. Hopefully I’ll keep up with this blog while I’m there.

-pt

 

 

Good News, Bad News, and Good Bad News

Good News: I am very pleased to say that my Junior Recital(s) went fantastically. Thank you to everyone who performed and thank you to everyone who came! It meant a lot!

Bad News: Exams. Papers. Deadlines.

Bad News: Rejection Letters.

Good News: Those rejection letters caused the most cathartic writing session I’ve ever had.

Good News: I just got accepted into the Atlantic Music Festival in Waterville, Maine! I’ll be learning from an amazing group of faculty including David Ludwig, Eric Ewazen, George Tsontakis, Ken Ueno, Nils Vigeland, Robert Cuckson, Robert Paterson, Stephen Cabell, Sheridan Seyfried, Vivian Fung, Mari Kimura, Jean-Baptiste Barrièr, and Tom Zicarelli. I’ll also be getting to know and working with some very talent musicians from all over the nation.

Bad News: I have less than a month to write a new piece.

Good News: I get to write a new piece.

Bad News: More deadlines.

Good News: I’m getting to be really good at writing fast.

Bad News: This past weekend, I went through 3 different occasions of throwing everything out the window and starting from scratch

Good News: By throwing old things out and starting out with something new, the new stuff made the old stuff viable again.

Good Bad News: Things rarely turn out how you would expect, but the unexpected keeps things interesting.

NuMew(sic)

At UGA, we have a required number of semesters that students have to be in a small/chamber ensemble. Normally, most people go to their instrument professors and ask to be put into a standard chamber ensemble, like a brass quintet or a woodwind quartet. But I wanted to take this opportunity to put some more composing into my curriculum. This past year, I spent a lot of time listening to ensembles like Victoire or The NOW Ensemble, and even more recently yMusic. I was looking through the course listings and saw that we had a class called “Contemporary Chamber Ensemble” and figured I would actually put that to use, and decided to create a new ensemble.

The first person I came to with this idea was another composer in the studio and also a very talented clarinetist, Corrine Klemenc.  Originally she was hesitant about it, but eventually warmed up to the idea. I think what really sold her was the name: NuMew. But anyways, thats when the ensemble actually started to look like it was going to happen. The next step was to find more people.

After texting and facebooking other people around the school of music, Corrine and I eventually got a cellist, a double bass player, and a pianist along with Corinne on clarinet and myself on trumpet. Now that we knew our instrumentation, we could actually start writing, which was being done entirely over that summer. We hit a few bumps in the road when we started the fall semester and realized that neither of us had actually finished our pieces yet. Both of us were trying to be so perfectionistic about the piece, but this wasn’t the time for that. Sometimes you have to just write and go and then fix things along the way.

We didn’t actually start having rehearsal until about halfway into the semester. We pushed our recital into the next semester and put a ton of long hours and saturday mornings into putting together a successful recital. It was a lot of hard work but we managed to get through it.

This was a VERY difficult endeavor and I think that most of the difficulty came from different levels of attitude towards the ensemble as well as the lack of structure. It was very much a “fly by the seat of our pants and get things done” approach.
The current ensemble has parted ways, but I still want to keep trying at this again in the future but with perhaps a different spin on it. I would want to make things stricter as far as deadlines go, but also have the time during the writing process to be used as a workshop with the performers. Have the ensemble sit in with the composers and play their sketches for them, have them show off what their instrument can or can’t do, bounce ideas and make this a collaborative experience. I want the next attempt at this project to be more of a collaborative writing and performing effort than it is about rushing to put on a recital.
Through all of this I realize that it isn’t about where you’re going, but it’s about the journey it took to get there. Just because something is hard or isn’t exactly how you imagined, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Put yourself out there and if anything, you’ll learn what not to do the next time.

Right now, I’m in the middle of drafting a proposal for a class that turns this chamber ensemble concept into a workshop for performers and composers and educators, to help guide composers in how they approach workshopping musicians. Meanwhile, I also have my Junior Recital coming up, so I’ll be working on some more rehearsal technique while that is getting prepared.

-pt

Ransom-Tran Recital 2014

Adventures with Influenza

This weekend, as I lied in bed coughing my lungs out, I found myself rediscovering Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey. Dan Harmon calls it the story circle or story cosine. The monomyth essentially is a cookie cutter of a good story and has been used as a frame for way too many stories to count, ranging from Homer’s The Odyssey to George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogies. You begin with your hero, minding his own business and happy (at least he thinks he’s happy) in his safe home. Something or someone comes along from outside of his little world and brings about a new opportunity or challenge. The hero then has a decision: to accept the challenge or refuse it. Either way, the hero somehow ends up taking on the challenge anyways (otherwise there isn’t much of a story to tell). The hero leaves his comfort zone in order to complete this challenge, and along the way, is tested. These tests change and transform him. The hero then either conquers or fails and then makes the journey home, but nothing is the same as before the journey. The hero has changed as a result of his journey. The new challenge is how to make his newfound self fit back into his old life, or he is forced to find a new home, thus starting a new journey all over again.

Dan Harmon puts all of that very eloquently into a short statement. “A character is in a comfort zone, but they want something. They enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they wanted, pay a heavy price for it, and then return to their familiar situation having changed.” Plain and simple.
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Over the past few years, I’ve learned that this cycle doesn’t just apply to literature. It applies to music in a lot of cases. Take for example sonata form. You have the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation. The exposition is laying out the comfort zone, and the second theme that enters (normally in the dominant key), can be seen as the source of conflict. Something about that second theme is what the character wants. Then you enter the development, which is the unfamiliar territory, where all the musical ideas are expanded, changed, and tested. And then finally the piece returns home through the recapitulation, but this time everything remains in the tonic key, having changed from before.

This cycle happens at the biological level. I ended up somehow getting the flu this weekend, and right now I’m at the bottom of the cosine. I’m definitely in the “unfamiliar part” where my body and immune system are being tested, but then my body will figure out how to beat the virus and then I’ll make my way back to my regular state, but changed, because now my body recognizes that strain through the antibodies being pumped through my veins.

I’ve learned that this cycle pretty much happens everywhere. Every challenged or obstacle we’ve faced can be related back to this. I was in a comfort zone earlier on in high school, carefree of college. And then the journey began the second I started looking at what was ahead of me, and now I’m in the middle of a monomyth, changing with every day as each day presents itself with its own obstacles for me to overcome and learn from, to transform me and where I see my comfort zone.

Moments

We live our lives in moments. You don’t remember every single detail of every single thing that has happened to you like it’s a film. Instead you remember the important fragments and forget what didn’t resonate with you. When you remember what that day in the park was like, you don’t actually remember that whole day, but you remember how the sun felt on your skin, or the when you heard the birds singing, or how you saw the light break through the trees at that one spot in the park.

You remember people the same way. People themselves aren’t as fleeting as moments of time, but we don’t remember them in their entirety. You remember them based on the impact that they had on you because of various moments shared with that person. You remember a touch, a conversation, a small fragment of the time that you spent with that person and how that instance has affected you.

This idea of life and relationships being expressed in moments is the driving force behind my next project. I want to build a story that spans a lifetime, but told entirely in moments. I want to explore this idea of the significance of a single moment as the basis for my next piece while I’m working on this commission for Flute and Piano. My goal for this is to write something fairly complete in a fairly short amount of time (both performance time as well as time it takes to write). This project essentially can act as a training and learning exercise for me while still exploring new themes and ideas, and I’m eager to see how this all turns out.

 

-pt

Imaginary Influences

People can pull the most arbitrary meanings from something that means absolutely nothing at all. We’ve been doing it for centuries with tarot cards, looking at cracks in chicken bones, looking for signs in the stars, and so on. Although we know that these things don’t actually mean anything now, the ignorance of the people who did believe in those things gave them an answer and something to look to. I feel like people still do this, or at least something similar, when it comes to art, music, and literature. We can read so deep into something that may not have actually meant anything at all. Perhaps that symbolism you thought you heard wasn’t actually there. Maybe the fact that a piece of music highlights some element doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that the composer just decided to highlight it because it sounded cool. There doesn’t have to be meaning in every little thing.

…But just because it isn’t there doesn’t mean we don’t get to entertain ourselves by looking for it. This hunt for themes and symbols can be extremely beneficial for the creative mind. Even if said theme doesn’t exist, it still exists in your own mind, and that can then be used as fuel in your own work, and create something original (since that theme that influenced you didn’t actually exist right?) You could be entirely wrong on your analysis of whatever you were reading or listening to, but it doesn’t matter. All the matters is what YOU got out of the work, and how you use what you got out of it. What’s the worst thing that going to happen? Someone says you’re wrong about that work. What’s the best thing that could happen? You get inspired by a completely original idea. So keep on looking for things that aren’t there. You might find something better.

-pt

Storytelling

Recently, what with getting through with finals week and all, I’ve gotten sucked into watching an absurd amount of Netflix and other web-series such as H+ and The Outs. For me, the biggest factor in whether or not a movie, TV show, or any sort of story, is how the characters are treated. What adversities do they face? How do they react to a wrench being thrown into machine? Also, how does the audience find out about this? Is this character clearly “the good guy” and that character clearly “the villain?”

I feel like The Outs makes very interesting use of the last question I posed. The show starts off making you think that the main character is the guy that you should be rooting for, and the other guy is the scum of the earth, but as the story continues, and more and more details about these people come to light, you start to lose sight of the whole “good guy/bad guy” concept, and start seeing the characters for the people that they are. In fact all of the flaws that made Jack, a guy who opens the series doing some very questionable activities, seem like the villain, actually make him seem much more relatable. I ended up feeling sorry for him rather than hating him.

What stood out about H+ for me was that this webshow could have been very gimmicky, but it wasn’t. The whole show could have been about all of the technology and its dangers, but instead it focused more on telling the story of each character, where they come from, and how it has led them to where they are and how all of them are connected. It is very much like LOST. There were so many unanswered questions about the island that these people were stuck on, but the point of the show was never really about telling the story of an island with a polar bear and a smoke monster. The point of the show was to explore all these different people, with different backgrounds, and how they are put to the test and how they react to all of the insanity of the island.

This is the type of storytelling I want to do in my music, especially with this next commission for Geana Gault. The piece is in memory of her late father, but I don’t want to write a typical, cheesy memorial piece. I want to tell Geana’s story about her dealing with loss and how it has transformed her to who she is today. Death and mourning will be present in this piece, but it wont be the focus. What I’m trying to figure out now is how to frame this story in an interesting way. How do I tell this story in a fresh perspective and give details of the story in a way that hasn’t been done before, yet still make sense out of it? I guess we’ll know in a few months when it’s done.

 

-pt