Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Composer and Poet Talk About Creative Process

Sanford Dole Ensemble presents:
"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

As we await the premier (on February 4th) of Michael Kaulkin's new choral work entitled "Waiting...", we thought we it would be fun to discuss creative process. Since our creative work is often done in solitude (no conference rooms filled with people brainstorming), we rarely have the opportunity to sit down and talk about how we do the work. I came up with some questions that had been on my mind about my own process (if you could call it a "process") and thought they would be fun to field to the composer:

EE: I have to say, as a singer, I am really enjoying getting into this piece of yours; I look forward to its debut! And I am really glad you had time to talk about your creative process. So, let's get the ball rolling with a wild question right off the bat: When does poetry become music?
MK: That's a hard question, but I'll give it a try... I think there's a case to be made that poetry is already music, or at least that it has a kernel of music built in to it. It has inherent rhythm, although often perhaps only the poet really knows what it is. A line of prose may be read in infinitely different ways, whereas a line of poetry ought to have limited choices. Maybe it becomes music when the composer commits to one of those choices and assigns concrete rhythm to the lines.
EE: Mmm. I have to say that I share the notion that poetry is already a type of music—I think of it as "thought music."

[If there hasn't been one done already, I think there should be some sort of study done on the neurological impulses to speech and to writing, to see if there are differences in hemispheric brain activity between working with prose forms and working with poetic forms. My thought is that some poetic forms are a completely right-brained activity, while prose forms can be either mixed between right- and left-brain (e.g., fiction) or completely left-brain (e.g., technical writing).]

But, I think you are absolutely right about determining rhythm by committing to a particular inflection or reading, although I wouldn't necessarily say that a line of poetry shouldn't have more than one reading. I think that the beauty of poetry is that there can be an oscillation, if you will, from one perspective to another because of visual or vocal inflection. I think this is why one wants to see and hear, for example, different actors portray the role of Hamlet; each reading has the potential to offer a different view of that very rich character.

But, of course, this notion of inflection and rhythm and commitment to a reading naturally leads me to my next question: What are the challenges of working with text that is less attached to form and rhythm, and consequently may be less than lyrical?
MK: The only challenge is that the work isn't already done for you. You have to make up form and rhythm where it isn't clearly suggested by the text. I approach this in the same way an actor might approach line readings. I take a point of view and break the text down into the clearest, most speech-like rhythm that expresses that point of view.
Here's an example from your poem "More Things" that I really struggled with. You have this line:
Imagine what more things might rush to become,
Were we to enter into deeper conversation with infinity.
I actually had to, by way of trial and error, add punctuation, and visually break the sentence down in order to zero in on the right line reading. So, one option might have been this:
What more things might rush to become (etc.)
I ended up with something more like this:
Imagine what more things
might rush to become
— were we to enter
into deeper
conversation with infinity.

Of course, here I was trying to solve a number of other musical problems at the same time, so that also informed how I treated the line. This is a moment in "Waiting..." that's pushing from "introduction" mode into a more energetic section, so the line is broken down like that to add a sort of breathless quality as it builds up.
This makes me want to ask if you hear specific line readings when you write, or do they vary from reading to reading?
EE: Yes, thank you for that question. I have to say that this is one of the interesting aspects of writing for me. Many times, the words flow onto the page—though not always. (There is a piece I am struggling with now; while I know what I want to accomplish with "White Out", I am struggling with form issues. I have set down several tentative approaches to the words that I know are waiting to flow out, and none of them seems to be "the one.")

If the words do flow onto the page, my next challenge is to determine if I have a tone or a purpose to the resulting text. Honestly, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't—if we consider the flowing aspect to be a revelatory experience, sometimes you have to look at it for a while to (1) understand it and (2) decide how you want to present it. At that point, the challenge becomes one of—as you say—layout, particularly with regard to indicating pauses. I have to confess that I struggle with punctuation. The argument I often have with myself is do I punctuate the hell out of it to force a single reading, or do I leave the reader more choice in the matter?

In the lines you speak of, I clearly remember battling it out with different layout and commas and frustration over something that seemed as though it should be much more simple. And ultimately, that is what I realized. It needed to be less complicated, and so those two lines ended up with just the one comma, the single pause, between those two lines, to allow for breath. I did consider leaving those lines without a comma, but thought it would be impractical—or, who knows, perhaps I was making a concession to my left-brained need for punctuation!

Oh, and I also wanted to say something about the "breathless" quality you describe. This may indicate a clear difference between what I describe as "thought music" and some other poetic forms. I hadn't really thought about it before you brought it up, but it occurs to me that while our thoughts can go on and on, our speech (and our singing) is limited by the capacity of our lungs on any intake of breath. As a singer, I have to say "thank you" to the composer for having laid out the music of "Waiting..." in a way that allows us room to breath!
MK: This makes me want to ask you about endings, particularly in the context of this piece. How do you feel about what you considered to be the end to a poem becoming transitional material in the larger context of this tapestry of poems?
EE: Oh, I really like that question! I think one of the things that surprised me the most about this project was that you decided to use several pieces around which to frame this single-movement work. I thought—and I think I told you this—wow, you are very brave; I mean, there are a lot of words and they are not arranged in a particularly lyrical way. The poems are not even related to one another. I wouldn't have considered a weaving of these pieces together, as you have done—I am more used to thinking of each text as a single movement, such as in a song-cycle or a mass setting—but I find the idea very interesting; it offers the listener a completely different experience of the texts than a mere reading of the pieces in succession, and it draws the listener to think about a broader range of ideas at a single crack. I would be very interested to hear from people what they derive from experiencing that package of thought as music, particularly given the intriguing motives that appear throughout the composition.

We're running short on time and space now, and so I want to wrap up this segment with one of those difficult, catch-all questions that we often hear from people: In terms of the creative process, how do you field questions such as "where does it come from" and "what does it mean"?
MK: Well, the "where does it come from" question just baffles me. I can't imagine coming up with an answer that wouldn't be a disappointment. It comes from a lot of trial and error. In a large piece like this (or even a smaller one, I suppose) there may be one or two moments that hit me early on as How This Will Go. In this case there were a handful, and for me they came right from the text. These are spots where I knew from the beginning what they would be like musically, even if I didn't get around to fleshing them out until the last minute. So, the bulk of the process is just figuring out how to make the rest of it work with those key moments. I hate to say it, but it can be more like tiling a bathroom than some Romantic notion one might have, like that it might come to you in a dream, fully formed.
As for "what does it mean", I tend to be very cagey about that. I'll admit that I often have very specific ideas for a kind of narrative that would serve as the basis for form, but ultimately it's beside the point. We all know that music can pack an emotional wallop without any known program or narrative. Whatever such narrative I might come up with may serve to get me through composing a piece, but it's about as useful to the audience as the temporary supports under a new freeway overpass will be to commuters when it's finished.
I feel the same way about poetry (specifically yours). I often didn't feel like I fully knew what everything meant, but the emotional power wasn't lost on me. I deliberately stopped short of ever asking you what it meant. The reader should be able to apply his or her own meaning, and I feel that way about music as well, to say nothing of visual art.
I did get the feeling the "Come Again" was built around something very specific. Did you start out with any specific thing that it's "about", or did you start out with a general notion of "waiting" and see it evolve into something specific (or am I even right about it relating to a specific idea or incident)? I would love to know more about how that particular piece was put together.
EE: Well, that is a very good question, and I can actually answer it, in this case! While I cannot now remember exactly what the specific circumstances were at the time, I know exactly what "Come Again" was built around: anger! I remember that something happened to me at work, and the incident triggered me to have one of those big-picture realizations. I was struggling with the broad sense of complacency that is a huge environmental factor in our world. I was frustrated that so many people would rather put up and go along with systems that could be improved, rather than participate in bringing forward a contribution that could result in something better—I felt like people were waiting for someone else to do it, and that, to a certain extent, our society has been trained to that way of thinking and being. The anger just flowed out onto the paper, and was—in your words—"fully formed." (And, I imagine it was a good thing the words ended up on paper and not flying out of my mouth as unwelcome invective!) My work doesn't always come about quite like that (which is one way of admitting that I don't know where a lot of what results as my poetry comes from) but this piece did.

Meaning. That is always an interesting concept to ponder. I think that when I write, I am culling thoughts and emotions from my experience, and these can often have a specific meaning for me. What is so wonderful about for me about my poetic "thought music" is that while it can have specific meaning for me, it doesn't have to have a specific meaning for anyone else. [Don't you just love all that Cold War literature that explores the idea of one person discovering and owning and controlling the thoughts of another or of a huge group of people—we know that it just simply is not possible for that to happen, but wouldn't it be scary if it could?]

I love my diary of poems: it contains entries that have to do with specific moments of commemoration from my experience of people, places, events and emotions. Sometimes what hits the paper is not something I intended, and is something I need to study to understand; sometimes as the words flow out, I understand them completely. The lovely thing about this diary is that while all my thoughts are my own and mean something (more or less; specific or not) to me, I can share them with others and allow others to find their own unique experience of them.

Thanks so much, Michael, for joining me in this discussion about creative process! I would be glad to explore the topic further.

The poem "Come Again" can be seen in yesterday's blog entry.

Also discussed in today's entry is a poem entitled "More Things":
First, a call: sounds giving musical wings to ideas and desires;
Next, a response: potential rising from nothingness into form;
A complete transaction, resulting in creation.
Imagine what more things might rush to become,
Were we to enter into deeper conversation with infinity.
© 2006 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen