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.

A Place to Be

A bit outside the usual posting schedule, but that makes sense for this one. A warning up top, this is going to be pretty unplanned, unstructured, and probably unedited – we’re gonna barf a rant here, so bear with me.

Do you have a “happy place” that you go to?

Actually, different question (but hold onto that one).

Have you ever seen Ratatouille? It’s the movie with a little rat named Remy in Paris (I’m pretty sure), voiced by Patton Oswald, who discovers there more to food than eating trash. There’s a scene somewhere near the mid-beginning wherein he tries introducing his brother to flavors besides trash. He has him close his eyes, eat a piece of cheese, then a piece of grape, then try the two together. The entire time his brother is chewing, the background behind him goes to black and these ribbons of color trace themselves and dance around to reflect the sensations brought on by the flavors.

Since seeing that movie, I’ve done the same thing with a really good meal probably a thousand times (my friends can attest, as they make fun of me for it). But it’s an excellent way to just…savor.

Somewhere else I’ve found a similar experience is with music, and God just writing it out it feels a little woo-woo. I feel like it comes off like a Grateful Dead hippie who talks about “feeling the music, maaaaan,” but it’s real.

I want to be – and I mean this – a pretentious douche who can honestly say that I’m way classier than you because I appreciate the orchestra and classical music, but I can’t; I hate it; I’m just not that person even though I want to be (I have similar feelings about coconut water).

However, somewhere I’ve found I can appreciate the body that is orchestra and the wonderful phenomenon that is several dozen instruments coming together harmoniously in a symphony…

…are soundtracks. Soundtracks to movies and video games. Those things that give the subconscious, subliminal flavor to a storytelling experience.

Even as I tippy-type this on out, I’m listening to the soundtrack to ‘Detroit: Become Human’ and if you don’t know what it is or haven’t experienced it yet, you owe it to yourself to try it. Don’t think of it as a video game, even. It’s a piece of interactive fiction. It’s an exploration of narrative and a masterfully done composition of character, experience, empathy, choice, and music. Don’t look up a play-through, don’t listen to a friend tell you about it, do it yourself. Trust me. And when you do, go into the Extras and pore through the “Making of” and “Behind the Scenes” style videos.

I say all that because it brings me to this: remember that question about happy places?

Maybe not a happy one, exactly, but one of my favorite places to be is a place where I appreciate and wonder. I enjoy writing and feel a compulsion to do it whether people read and listen or not because of the process that goes into it. Loosely quoting Chuck Palahniuk, the man who wrote Fight Club, he said “real writing shouldn’t be easy, it should tear you apart.” And by and large I agree with that wholeheartedly.

The process of storytelling in a fictional capacity is creating a conflict in your mind and others by describing people, events, decisions, consequences, feelings, and mistakes that by right don’t physically exist, then resolving it in a very real way that reflect aspects of what it means to experience the life of a living being. It’s…it’s a privilege we have.

An art form I’ve never understood but have long wanted to: music composition, which brings me back to soundtracks. Nowadays, they’re cinematic enough to have grabbed my attention, but they employ the means of orchestra, so my interest has a foot in the door of that hoity-toity interest I said earlier I can’t be classist about.

And that note about happy places? One of my favorite places to exist, and I hope you can either relate or give it a try sometime, is putting myself in the mind of a composer. I love listening to the soundtracks and scores of movies and games (Detroit is obviously one, but really pick any that you enjoy) and picking out the instruments I can hear and identify, then picturing them being played alongside the others.

But it makes me so envious. It’s one thing to observe and appreciate something an artist does, but it’s something else entirely to think of the place in the mind that made it. Like Remy’s brother in Ratatouille, I imagine it’s like that: an empty black background, and then sounds bleed out of the ether like ribbons of light and dance, singing just to you; but then it’s up to you to capture it. And it’s that first step that has me so jealous. To be in the quiet and slowly begin to hear the timpani, the horn, the cellos in concert, and violins above it all come out of the silence and begin to fit together.

Or maybe it isn’t like that at all. Maybe you walk down the street and start to just feel a rhythm that exists in that moment like we’ve seen in commercials: the construction crew down the road and its jackhammer lay a background that car horns and doors opening and closing fit into to create a symphony only you see.

I got to speak recently with a friend who graduated with his Master’s studying music and is going onto teach. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask him about all of this stuff about a composer’s mind and was floored to hear him say he doesn’t have an interest in it, that he enjoys playing clarinet and that process, but not creating music for symphony. To each their own, but all that did was reinforce my want to exist in the mind of someone who hears what I imagine they do.

So, Philip Sheppard, Nima Fakhrara, John Paesano, if you’re reading this, just know: I’m a fan and I’d love to talk to you.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I’ll catch you guys tomorrow.