The idea of revisions scares me. There is a lot of uncertainty in the process of revising a piece and there is no way to know how big will grow the pit of time and mental energy. I’m talking about major surgery revisions and not simple cosmetic improvement. This is the kind of work where structural issues are reconsidered, new endings are written, and the length of the piece is changed.
I’ve been seriously dragging my feet on revising a wind ensemble piece The Bells of Venice. It was premiered last year and I knew right away that revisions were needed. Many other deadlines were pressing and revising the piece had to be pushed off for months. Last night in a dream I ran into my colleague Prof. Don McKinney at a casino. Before Christmas we took a short family trip to Las Vegas and somehow casinos are still showing up in my dreams. Before Don even greeted me, he said, “Dan, we need those revisions”. I was instantly overcome with guilt and shame, and offered a “they’re almost done” response. As I was waking up soon after this alarming dream, I realize I need to get these revisions done immediately. Enough is enough - my colleagues are visiting me in my dreams! If I dig in, I can probably get the piece revised by January 17 when the spring semester begins.
My fear over revisions is the fear that the revisions may not work. The piece could even get worse (though I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that). Hours could be put into a piece without good or new ideas emerging. In the process of trying to fix something, you could reach the conclusion that it is simply not a good piece. Or you might get lazy and decide something is good enough when there is really a better solution a few days further along. For me, meeting a deadline often becomes an all-encompassing exponential growth of time and intensity. By the end of the process the piece occupies large swaths of mental bandwidth and I know each detail with great intimacy. My knowledge of the piece is greatest right when I finish the score. I’m still present with the majority of decisions that went into that piece. So there is also the fear of re-entering a space that I moved on from months (or years) earlier. I’m a different person and the musical issues occupying my mind are different. How do you reenter the space carved out through obsessive work months earlier? And when you reenter that space, will you have the same convictions over the large and small ideas.
When I take a step back I think revisions are like most unpleasant tasks. The hardest part is simply starting and committing to the process. Once you lift the hood and stick your head inside, things instantly become familiar and a myriad of choices come flooding back. The path becomes clear. Many of the important decisions actually become easy. For instance, the passage starting at measure 45 served as a major transition from all the Wagner music to the sudden entrance of Gabrieli. While I really like how the transition is crafted, its clear it goes on too long and the real spark of the piece lies in juxtaposing Wagner next to Gabrieli (and later Monteverdi). So the transition needs to be cut and having listened to the premiere performance over and over, it should be a bold cut that emphasizes the drama and absurdity of the piece. Simple! Snip, snip, snip, delete, delete. Slide some of the seams left and some of the seams right. Check the base line to make sure that highly chromatic harmony flows well. Major revision #1 done! Three more to go and a thousand orchestrational details to tweak… onward!
note: this blog was written a few weeks before it was posted
Two years ago I had a painful revelation: I no longer read books. It had been months since I last finished a book and the ritual of falling asleep always involved Youtube cooking videos, SNL sketches, or recent episodes of Portlandia. In the spirit of an over-achieving, academic professor, who likes big projects, I wrote down a lofty goal of reading 35-books in 2015. I exceeded that goal and enjoyed a rich and constant diet of good books. For 2016 I picked a bigger goal and again have surpassed that number. I am happy to report it was a great year of reading and my life is richer for this simple and inexpensive pleasure. The list includes books read aloud as a family, books read aloud to my wife as we go to bed, audiobooks listened to on long drives or while doing dishes, and numerous books read by myself. This was all facilitated with a new kindle and a great digital local library. Wherever I went, I always had a host of books with me.
Here are some thoughts on the highlights of my year of books:
Steinbeck and California
Our family camped throughout California for three-weeks in June. We visited San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Hearst Castle, Yosemite Valley, and Sonoma & Nappa Counties. John Steinbeck, arguably the greatest California author, uses the unique setting of California for many of his stories. He captures the essence of the magical combination of the pacific ocean, hills/mountains, sun, and dry vegetation. He lived near Montery and a good portion of our trip was spent in this area. I read several of the short novels placed in this region including Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row, and The Red Pony. The breadth and style of storytelling is wonderful. He moves from tragedy to comedy effortlessly and his characters are richly realized. The biggest surprise was Cannery Row. I was unprepared for the incredible mix of misfits and the ingenuity of humorous episodes. When the book suddenly drew to a close, I was overcome with a beautiful, poetic sadness. I felt a deep nostalgia and distant peace for these fabricated characters who lived difficult but charmed lives.
The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon
In the spirit of our California adventure I wanted to read some Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who had collectively captured another part of California history and established a whole genre of storytelling. I’d seen the movies, and enjoyed the Prarie Home Companion spoofs with Guy Noir; but I had never read the source material. The writing is rich, sticky, and delicious. All of the genre cliches are glaringly present. But of course these authors are the source for those expressions of double entendre, over-the-top dialogue, and mysogionistic expression. This is a dated time period to be sure, so this is guilty pleasure reading. The Big Sleep was read aloud to Hsing-ay and that experience offered a new appreciation for the rhythm of the grim description and fast-paced dialogue.
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
I’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings a handful of times over the years. The epic struggle of good verses evil coupled with the complex and complete world of Middle Earth appeal to me. When I was in college I spent time with my cousins outside of Philadelphia and was impressed that Uncle Phil read the entire book out loud to his family. That must be near a 60-hour investment, and I was amazed that they so happily spent that much time together as a family reading books. The seed was planted and ever since I started reading out loud to Hsing-ay and Kaela, I’ve dreamed that someday we would tackle this series. In 2016 we completed The Fellowship of the Ring and it was wonderful to read those words aloud. Tolkien is a masterful storyteller and I remain captivated by the long-form narrative that lays out this monumental journey. The weight of the struggle is carefully woven and communicates with authentic urgency. My one complaint: reading whole poems in the elven tongue out loud is a tedious task for someone without proper training!
The Last Unicorn
The search for books to read aloud to Hsing-ay is a unique challenge. She does not like most stories of violence, tragedy, and drama. These stories stir things up in her related to the darkest parts of recent Chinese history. Neither of us like silly romance, fluffy comedy, adolescent angst (whether real or in a world of werwolves), or generally cheap storytelling. If I am going to read the words out lout, I want the writing to be at least good, and preferably excellent. In my quest to find books we will both savor, I discovered The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagly. It is sad, beautiful, fun, magical, poetic, and brilliantly sardonic all at the same time. This quasi-mythic story reads with great originality and we’re still contemplating the meaning almost a year later. Reading that book felt like traveling through a fantastical mist. And watching the 1980s animated movie (screenplay written by Beagly) was also lovely.
All the Light We Cannot See
This story by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 and I read it entirely because I loved the title and the book cover. At first I thought it would simply be a quirky story about how a French girl and a German boy miraculously survived World War II. As the story unfolded it built up layers of magical charm and unexpected delights. The story is completely enchanting by the end and reading it was a beautiful journey. Perhaps the greatest pleasure came from the richly developed French characters.
The Sense of an Ending
This was my first time reading Julian Barnes and it was a great pleasure. He has a wonderful ability to spin a tale with a gripping sense of mystery and foreboding. The characters are complex and their actions are layered with difficult intentions. I never truly knew what to think of them. Perhaps my best summary is that certain actions in adaloscence set some things in motion that took an entire lifetime to resolve (without great satisfaction), and in the end, it is all terribly sad. Humans are flawed and broken and we complicate each others lives in ways we will never fully grasp. But the writing is amazing and every time I talk with someone who has also read this book, there is a sense of delight that we have this shared experience and can discuss.
The Comes a Wind
This powerful and raw story was written by my friend Ron Stewart. I was honored when he told me about his first novel and asked if I would read it. What a pleasure to read a friend's first novel only a couple of years after it is finished!! This is a dark story that digs into the era of homesteading on the plains. Ron’s writing is lean and unassuming. The dark plot twists grabbed me in the gut. It is difficult and convincing and I especially enjoyed chatting with Ron about the story after I read it. I recommend this title to friends who want to support Boulder authors. And he’s working on a sequel...
The Sun Also Rises
I have a list of “masterpieces” that I plan to read within the next few years. It is good to sprinkle this list into my diet of reading since the canon so essentially informs contemporary writers. Like him or not, Ernest Hemingway is a giant with a distinctive voice who has wide influence. For the first time I read The Sun Also Rises. It is fast, raucous, disturbing, and dark. It is also entertaining, seductive, and perplexing. I learned the expression “I’m feeling a bit tight” means I’m drunk enough that I need to let others know so that my words and behavior might be excused. The characters are “tight” most of the time. I’ve been told that Hemingway perfectly captures this lost and indulgent era between the two world wars. It is mind boggling how these people torture themselves in the name of fun, but with the ultimate purpose of numbness. I’m embarrassed that my good friend english Prof. Elissa Guralnick had to gently point out a major detail that I had missed about one of the main characters. It redefined the major relationship of the book and gave me 30-minutes of revelatory bliss as I reconsidered the entire novel. She kindly told me not to feel bad as others have also missed this simple fact (I still felt bad, but thank you Elissa). At the end I was also left wondering if Hemingway hates women? And if he hates women, how could he write the main female character with such completeness? It is a great read and I will have to read it again soon.
To Kill a Mockingbird
My daughter Kaela is an avid reader and I’m half in charge of giving her a steady diet of good books. She is in charge of the other half. I’m constantly processing when she is ready to read certain books and in that spirit I reread To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school. My interest was also sparked with the recent publication of another harper Lee novel (which I may never read). This book is as good as I remember and as good as everyone says. It is powerful and elegant and Lee’s characters are some of the most striking I have ever come across. It is with profound joy and sadness that I worked through the story, and I held my breath at all the tense moments even though I’ve read the book before and seen the movie many times. And this is that rare occurrence where the movie is just as good as the book. The exquisite opening notes of the film score combine with the simple black and white images to perfectly capture the innocence of a hot southern summer and a childhood that will soon be interrupted by one of the most broken parts of human existence. And I concluded that Kaela is not yet old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I look forward to the time when we can read this powerful story together.
This was the year Kaela read Ray Bradburry for the first time. I started her with Dandelion Wine and then we both read Farenheit 451. Bradburry is another author I have not touched in years. Wow!! What a treat to rediscover this brilliant storytelling imagination. The style is edgy, fast, and unapologetic. I feel like the characters, though true enough, are strapped into a roller coaster without consent. They and us readers are along for the ride and we just hope there will be a collective sigh of relief at the end. Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Illustrated Man are already on my list for 2017!
I came across Haruki Murakami’s writing when I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I will review that brilliant memoir for another blogpost. I had never heard of this living Japanese author and was instantly surprised that everything he seems to have published has been translated to English with many Amazon reviews. Lots of Americans are reading this author. I randomly started with Norwegian Wood. This is a beautifully sad tale that begins and ends in ambiguity. Sadness and despair are played out for several years across a handful of characters. Each character embodies what feels like a predetermined fate while the writing convincingly portrays a struggle to accept or not accept that fate. The story is set in contemporary Japan and has an other-worldly flavor (read: distinctly non-western) which is appealing and seductive. There were very few books this year that kept me up hours past my intended lights-out: this was the winner for that category. And while I went online to try to determine what the opening pages said about the ambiguous ending, I still am flummoxed!
In Cold Blood
I wanted to read something by Truman Capote and this seemed like the obvious place to start. A little background reading helped me to understand how shatteringly new this book was when it was first read. The story is chilling but the description and larger narrative are told with stunning detail, warmth (not sure of that is the right word), and profound psychological observation. The writing is superb and it is hard to reconcile the sensitive artist required for such a masterpiece and the public persona passed down as pop myth. While I enjoyed this book, I do not need to spend much more time with the genre of true crime.
My Name is Asher Lev
I like Chaim Patok’s style of storytelling and the subjects he chooses to write about. I’ve always loved this novel about the unexpected prodigy artist that emerges in a religious community that does not have the capacity to accept the existence of a prodigy artist. This is a painful story that weaves two streams of necessary existence towards a painful climax. I wanted to read this aloud to my family and they came along for the journey. While I took delight in the sheer power of combining two remarkably separate worlds in one story, the rest of my family cried at the ending. I’m still not sure if this was a beautiful moment of family reading or a “Dad failed” moment that might come up in counseling years from now. On a fundamental level, I believe crying over a piece of literature is usually a good thing.
Girl with a Pearl Earring
Some lovely friends gave Kaela a magical wooden puzzle featuring Rembrandt’s Girl with a Pearl Earring a year ago. We instantly decided we should read the fictional Tracy Chevalier book that creates a possible backstory to this masterpiece painting. The premise suggests that the exquisite girl featured in the painting is not of such wealth to own a pearl earring and some complex circumstances are necessary for this painting to even exist. This was by far the slowest yet most tense novels I read all year. The climactic scene is a supreme violation while also representing independence in early forms of feminism, and it is all over an earring. There are also themes of “one must sacrifice everything for great art”, and "religious 17th century Dutch culture is as scandalous as modern Hollywood when depicting sexual tension and sexual transgression”. We enjoyed reading this great story but were glad when it was over.
I’ve decided to start up my blog again, or perhaps, to finally turn my blog into a weekly occurrence. The focus will encompass my creative efforts. It’s purpose is to help me explore, reflect, and process all of the activities that I believe are connected to my creative endeavors. The regular discipline of writing, refining, and posting essays will require an ongoing and consistent effort to contemplate these topics and distill my thoughts into something I might share with the world. I think this will be good for me and hopefully there are a few readers who will find it interesting.
I am a professional composer and have pursued this vocation seriously since 1994 when I became a full-time undergraduate composition major. Some 22 years later I’ve turned 40 and have paused to ask the question, what lies ahead for the music I have yet to write? The simple answer is that I want to write my best music yet in the next decade. Towards that direction, I aim to regularly learn about, investigate, and meditate upon the issues connected with and surrounding my own creative efforts. Self examination, evolution, and artistic growth are desired.
My main creative activity is writing music for the concert stage. My serious creative hobbies include travel photography and cooking. I dabble in DSLR film (especially time-lapse), electronic music, and simple bookmaking as an accompaniment to my photography. I’d also like to become a better writer of words. As a way to support these creative activities I regularly engage in running, meditation, listening, reading, watching, and prayer. This blog will discuss any of these topics or anything I find relevant to these topics.
I’m writing this blog for myself but I hope my words stimulate others and might even generate discussion. Thank you for reading.
One of my big projects right now is a multi media piece about China. I'm preparing the piece for a black box theatre type setting and am hoping to create most of the visuals myself. I'll use a combination of still photography, DSLR video, and time lapse. I've begun to explore various techniques and subjects as material for this project. I've budgeted nine months to create this piece so there is a healthy amount of time for exploration and experimentation.
This past summer we took a ten day camping trip to southwestern Colorado. Our stops included Aspen, Ridgeway, Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton. Downtown Aspen features a decades old fountain that kids play in all summer long. Jets shoot out of a grate on the ground that dance anywhere from a few inches to around eight feet high. My wife and I visited this spot a lot when we were dating. There used to be a crepe vendor right next to the fountain where we would get dessert. In July we stopped for some photos. My newish camera did a great job in helping me capture the fountain. I also spent sometime taking some close up images of our campfire.