The Beautiful Mind of a Composer

I went back through my history of posts on here to see whether or not I’d covered this thought before, and couldn’t find it leaping out at me; but even if I had, it’s worth another visit.

I don’t often get jealous. Or mad, really. There’s a whole range of emotions, and while, like, duh, I’ve experienced both, they just come up very rarely. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a good thing, but it means that when it happens, it’s usually a bit more serious.

The jealousy I’m about to speak on runs kind of deep, and I only found out I had it a few months ago. If I may, I’d like to start at the beginning, about a year ago (and no, don’t let that frighten you, I’ll keep it brief).

I was helping a friend move, and while her boyfriend at the time and I took a truck load of furniture to the new house, he asked me what I do. I mentioned at the time that I’d just left my job and was trying to find my way as a freelance writer and fiction author. He gave a polite gasp of awe, said how cool that was, and how tough it can be to be a writer (preach, my brother); and remarked how he could never write stories.

What I’m about to tell you – you, right there – I know to be truth. It’s an undeniable part of the fabric of being that I feel in my bones that anyone and everyone has the capacity to be a storyteller, without exception. We are ourselves, each a living, breathing tale in the making; so how could it be anything but natural when the art form is a part of our being?
Do I appreciate his reverence for the craft? Absolutely. Does it take patience, perseverance, will, and a vulnerable, heartbreaking openness and respect to do properly? I believe so, yeah. And is it a practice that’s ever finished? No, I don’t think so.
But no matter the case, his reaction – while flattering – stuck with me beyond the compliment.

Skip ahead a number of months to my friend Micah’s graduation party. He’s graduated with a degree in (sorry Micah, I’m about to butcher the facts by guessing here) music theory with the intent to teach (which is confidently true, because he teaches now). The point being, he was a music student. Consider it as owing to my own conical viewpoint, but I asked him if he’d had any interest in composing his own music, and his answer surprised the crap out of me: he said “no.”

Let’s put a pin in that really quick.

If you’re nice to yourself and enjoy the good things in life, you’ve probably seen Ratatouille, the movie about a talking rat that wants to be a chef; if not, well…that’s…that’s what it’s about. It’s great. And in it, there’s a scene where the main character Remy is trying to teach his brother, another rat that scarfs garbage, an appreciation for flavors and the art of cooking.
He has him try a bit of strawberry, and a bit of cheese, then a bit of each together, all with his eyes closed and coaching him on how to savor it and ruminate on the experience. It’s visually represented with a black background and ribbons of color drawing themselves in the air as the different flavors are experienced. It’s well done.
(It’s also a good time to note here that, since seeing the movie, any time in the past twelve years I’ve eaten an exceptionally good meal, I do the same thing.)

By every fiber of the word, I’m an amateur writer. I’ve been blessed with a few paid successes here and there that I appreciate deeply, but it’s rooted in a love for story crafting. There are few pleasures above being brought a fantasy from the ether, honing the ability to capture that experience in words, and give it to someone else. A confession: that’s not really what gets done on here. This is fun, a routine-keeping tool (that I sometimes fail miserably at), and a place to vent, speculate, experiment with thoughts, and do exercises.
Most of the time, the root of a story comes from a thought, a real-world parallel, an ideal, a what-if, or…
…a piece of music.

A musical number will start, and like those ribbons of light in Remy’s brother’s head, a scene can start. It’s murky, like it’s being seen and heard, absent of context, through a window thick with frost. Then as you think on it, let it grow, allow the theater of mind to work, the ice thaws and it gets clearer and clearer, more and more refined, until you have a tale to share.

<removes earlier pin>

I have no idea at all, but I have tried so hard so many times to imagine the mind of a composer when an idea takes root. To put myself in that black space, floating in the void as the sounds come into being, layering on top of one another, an orchestra working in harmony. Imagining how they grow and morph, becoming the pieces of clockwork that produce flavor and emotion and memory and resonance, then to have the sense of responsibility settle on you that charges you with capturing it so it can be shared is all a process so beautiful tears well up thinking on it.

But I can’t.

My imagination in that regard begins and ends with that silent, empty blackness. No sounds bleed into being, no ribbons draw themselves in the air to inspire and awe.

And that shit is…just…heartbreaking, I find.

When Micah answered “no,” my immediate reaction (besides bewilderment) took it almost as a slap in the face of an art that I didn’t even share in; which might be weird, I admit now. Later, I asked my buddy Peter (a bassist and songwriter) what he thought of Micah’s answer, and he was nonplussed. Paraphrasing:

“Yeah, no surprise. Just because he has a masters in music doesn’t mean he knows how to compose, or likes doing it. Like, having a degree in philosophy doesn’t make you a philosopher. Knowing old philosophy doesn’t mean you’ll produce new ones, or that you’d want to.”

I took his word for it, and over time it’s come to make sense. Just because we watch movies, doesn’t mean we all want to be filmmakers, or if we enjoy murals downtown, doesn’t mean we necessarily want to take up painting.

So, I don’t know why this feels so different to me, but damn it does. You know that old, “If you could pick one superpower, what would it be and why?” Like, obviously telekinesis or teleportation is high on the list, but being tuned into whatever frequency lets you hear and craft orchestral pieces is a contender.

For now, I content myself with a vicarious imagination. Letting the ribbons draw themselves and dance while listening to the music that came to someone else. And really, it’s not too different from other arts. There isn’t anything to separate it from the eye of a photographer that sees the beauty in a captured moment, or the bones of a dancer that know the feel of a performance.

We’re all antennae for the arts, and that’s pretty cool.

Speed Essay: The Lost Art of Audience

Happy Thursday, y’all.

Question: When approaching a public restroom, be it at a restaurant or even at work, do you knock first? (For best results, be honest with yourself.)

Not trying to paint myself as the star of my own show here, but I have the habit of knocking no matter what (for motivation, see past experiences 1 and 2).

Also, at the top, originally, I planned this as a poor man’s essay, but I feel a loosely-structured rant coming on, so bear with me.

I think it stems back to my high school drama teacher (that’s right nerds, theater or bust), and her emphasis on our behavior as an audience member above most everything else. Sure, we learned tricks to remember our lines, how to take and even deliver stage direction, how to emote and express our characters’ stories, but what was always emphasized was how we minded our manners when we weren’t on stage.

You might think it’s as easy as, “Sit down, be quiet, and be attentive,” and a lot of it really does come down to those three little tenets. But there’s more to it than that, there’s a consideration that comes with applying those three rules. Stage performance isn’t like a TV show, wherein the interaction is one-way. You’re not supposed to say anything and the actors’ questions (if there are any) are rhetorical, true, but it’s kind of a two-way street.

If you’ve never been to a stand-up comedy show – first off, holy shit, you owe it to yourself not to be a humorless turd, but secondly – go to one. It’s a perfect parallel to what I’m trying to get to. There’s an interaction and a tacit social contract between the performer and the audience that roughly states, “I agree to be a part of this interaction, to remain quiet, attentive, and understanding of its context; but in being attentive, I know when and how to be considerate of the performer, giving my energy to the reactions being requested by the performer at given times.”

Now, that was a lot, but the TL;DR is: When they make a joke, I’ll laugh, because if I don’t, that ruins the flow and makes shit awkward.

If a stage performance of any kind is treated as a one-way interaction, it suddenly becomes bland and just…the air gets thick. Can you imagine going to a stage play and nobody claps? No one applauds? No one laughs at jokes?

Ew.

But the opposite is just as bad. To disregard the performer and be on your phone, speak to those next to you, get up and leave on your own time, or worst of all, interject yourself into the performance by heckling or answering rhetorical questions – God! (Sorry, getting heated – cooling jets in 3…2…1…)

The point is this: I think the same instinct or lack of restraint that leads to one behaving like the above-mentioned (completely hypothetical) butt-hole (even though we’ve all been witness to at least one) comes from the same place as approaching a bathroom and just trying the handle.

I don’t know. I might be off-base here, but to me trying the handle without knocking (whether it’s locked or not) is an extension of the thought: “The bathroom is locked,” rather than, “Ah, someone else is in there,” and there’s difference, albeit a fine one.

I think it comes from a lack of basic consideration (just objectively, not lecturing you – I’m not your mom) and is from a thought that focuses on “me and my needs” rather than one’s place amid others. From there, it’s a short jump to calling it a matter of empathy.

People like to think of themselves as good listeners, right? But that doesn’t mean just being quiet while the other person talks and/or occasionally nodding and going “Mmhm.” Just like being considerate of an actor on stage, it’s a matter of being receptive and then empathetic to who you’re listening to.

Final point and then I’ll let you go (Jesus, what am I doing? You can leave at any time, this is an in-person conversation where I can hold you hostage).

I don’t think I’m the only one on here who’s heard of Jocko Willink, but I discovered a trick while listening to an old clip of his. It kind of follows the same criticism of, “There’s no such thing as true altruism, because the good thing is being done to satisfy one’s own desire to be good; not for good’s own sake,” but what I did was this: As he spoke each word, I echoed it in my head as though I was the one saying it. But I found that by doing this, I could put myself in the place of the speaker waaaaaay more and could kind of feel where the advice was coming from. Sure, it sounds goofy and kind of like, “Well, I suddenly like what he’s saying a lot more if I’m the one saying it,” but for real, give it a try.

All of this even applies when critiquing someone else’s work of art, statement, film, book, what have you. Much like we saw with the season finale of Game of Thrones (Christ, don’t get me started), before you go on crying, “They got lazy!” or “So-and-So totally lost touch with [their own] characters,” maybe put yourself in the place of the creator; and though you might have done it differently, it goes a million miles to accept the thought process at work.

To wrap up, be it as an audience member at a performance, listening to a friend vent about something or other, or even knocking on an occupied bathroom’s door, they all come from a central skill set that I think we can all agree sort of seems to suffer at large.

So…just…be a good audience member (in life).

S’all for now. Rant’s over. Thanks for swinging by. Catch you Tuesday.