Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Dreamed a Dream.

I dreamed music again this morning.

This time, the music was in third person. I've had lots of dreams in which music was in the first person (by me); some where it was in the third person and by someone identifiable; and, like this morning, some in which it was written by anonymous.

This morning it was complex ballet/dance music on a large stage with complicated choreography, and in the foreground I was a fly on the wall watching some old-time Hollywood-style intrigue going on with agents about the dancers, the performers, and (of all things) the performing rights. The music was far too complex, and I woke up too late after the music happened, for me to remember it with any precision; and it was really unlike anything I would write myself. I have had other dreams in which I was able to remember the music, and could remember enough of it to be able to write at least some of it down.

Earlier this week I dreamed about encountering orchestral music, on recording, in an editing session that was taking place in what I would call an industrial building, very dark, with black walls. The music was quite colorful, and in the dream it had a patriotic title and was identified as a piece by Augusta Read Thomas, from 1976. This being a dream, it didn't occur to me that Gusty would have had to have written it when she was 12 -- or, for that matter, that a large industrial building with black walls was a strange place to have an editing session.

Three or four years ago I dreamed of being at a chamber music recital -- I was offstage and to the right side of the performers, as I always seem to be in these music dreams -- and a complex piece for about six players with beautiful textures, several fast ostinati, and pretty static harmony was being played. On the program the piece was attributed to Evan Ziporyn. As with the other dreams, the music was rather too complicated for me to remember enough when I woke up to write it down. And as was the case for the music I dreamed in third person, it wasn't at all similar to anything I myself would write.

Pause to reflect. Why would I dream Evan Ziporyn's music? Why would I dream Gusty Thomas's music? Why would I dream music at all? Is it common to dream music? Do musicians dream music more than non-musicians? Why do I almost never hear from any of my composer friends about music they've dreamed? (Hayes Biggs recently related that he'd had a dream in which he was singing a pop song that didn't exist outside of the dream)

About three weeks ago, I had a dream of music in the third person, with a pretty specific (and, of course, weird) context. It occurred in a small, hot room somewhat similar to a speakeasy, and I was accompanying a very flamboyant singer. My instrument was a frying pan, and when I pressed on the frying pan with my fingers, notes came out. I played it with both hands, and its response and "musical space" were rougly equivalent to a piano keyboard. This was simple, symmetrically phrased music, and as I comped on the frying pan, I imitated the singer's lines in the space between phrases, as flamboyantly as I could, given the limitations of my frying pan keyboard technique.

This music was sufficiently simple, and was repeated a sufficient number of times in the dream that when I woke up, I had a perfect memory of the music, and I was able to write it down without checking the notes at the piano. It went something like the music in the example to the left here. I did not remember any of the words.

I'm not a composer of Broadway-style songs, nor am I a particular afficianado of them, so it should be surprising that when I dream I'm playing something, it is in this particular style, which is not at all like the music I write.



Last December, I dreamed of being at a salsa dance party in a club (I don't have this dream anywhere near often enough), and in this dream there was a repeated bass line in minor, with some salsa hits over it. That's the A minor bass line to the left of this paragraph.

As far as I know, I've dreamed music for all of my life. I remember having anxiety dreams in high school, and of two varieties: the customary one about having to go on stage to be in a play I've never rehearsed, and one about being in the audience for a band or orchestra performance that goes horribly wrong. I still have the dream about the play perhaps once a year (and, since I've been teaching at universities, a similar one about the first day of classes and being forced to teach a subject I know nothing about, and in a classroom I can't find...). The one about the performance gone wrong -- hardly ever.



Dreams about music weren't important to me until 2003. I was on sabbatical doing my customary colony hop, and I had blocked off the first few months of the year to write a substantial piece for string orchestra for the New England String Ensemble. I spent the fall writing my fifth book of piano études, took a break for the holidays, wrote a tango for Amy Briggs, and then went to the VCCA for a residency, where the plan was to start the string orchestra piece and perhaps get one or two movements written. I brought along a double CD that the ensemble gave to donors, with some of its best live performances -- hoping, of course, to get some great ideas about string orchestra writing.

When I got to VCCA, I listened to the CD and returned a lot to the performance of Britten's Les Illuminations, which has a lot of concise movements and very imaginative writing for the ensemble. And when I started to think about how my piece would go, nothing occurred to me. Usually when starting a piece, and especially when starting a big piece, I have some abstract clouds of licks, narratives, textures, chords, etc. bouncing around in my head, but nothing came to me for this piece. And here I was at an artist colony with limitless time and no responsibilities. And no ideas.

I'm not the kind of composer who, when blocked, bangs his head against the wall repeatedly (my hairline notwithstanding) until a small crumb of meaning pops out. Instead, I write something else, and hope that when that something else is finished, that crumb of meaning (to belabor the metaphor) will be there in a place I hadn't been looking. So I did what I did customarily: I e-mailed Rick Moody for piano étude ideas, and as usual, he obliged with his customarily wacky ideas. I followed through on his idea for a "Jerry Lee Lewis étude". No crumb of meaning awaited. I turned my cell phone on and used its startup sound as the basis of an étude. No crumb of meaning. Desperate for a project, I went into my portfolio and retrieved a bunch of poems that Susan Narucki had sent that she'd suggested for a song cycle she could perform with Curt Macomber, and set five of them. And then my residency was over!

The next leg of the colony hop was happening a month after I left VCCA -- I had five weeks at the MacDowell Colony coming up. So ... the new plan was to start the string orchestra piece at MacDowell, and to hope that some ideas would come for it in the down time.

During this down time I had the anxiety dream -- I was in the audience for the premiere of the piece I had yet to start. It started with a unison melody, the players got out of sync, and the performance completely fell apart. I woke up.

Perhaps a week later, I had the same anxiety dream, but this time I came in in the middle of the performance, and the music sounded -- good! There were lovely aggressive upward-rising lines whose top notes sustained and eventually built chords, which crescendoed to major articulations, and so on, and the chords in the dream sounded sort of like my chords.

Now I had had two anxiety dreams about the same piece, which didn't even exist. Clearly, I told myself, I should use the dreamed music, as precisely as I can remember it, as the musical basis for a whole ... symphony? And wouldn't it be pretty odd -- or, more to the point, cool -- to begin a piece with "symphony" in the subtitle with music that falls apart?

Once I had this premise inside my tiny little brain, the composing now included the game of creating a convincing overall narrative, and of writing all the moments to connect, somehow, to the big narrative. And so in a nutshell, my symphony -- now called Dream Symphony -- starts on a unison C-sharp and falls apart. The C-sharp returns a lot and plays different roles. The second dreamed music builds into a texture that, itself, falls apart as in the beginning. A secondary narrative about music that goes up different scales at different speeds plays out. And to end, or "resolve" the symphony, the opening C-sharp returns, and builds upwards and downwards to a big spacy, spacious chord.

Anyone who knows me 'n' my process knows that I tend to set up ridiculous challenges for myself in order to get through a piece. While I was writing piano études, they had rules about nonrevision, time spent writing, and lack of preconception. That was good discipline for me, since my tendency used to be to overthink to the point where no compositional choice could possibly be good enough for the piece.


So once I'd written a piece based on dreams, I created a new compositional rule for myself. Dreamed music, if it can be recalled and written down, must be used in a piece. That salsa bass line? I used it immediately in Cell'Out, for 4 'cellos. See it in the excerpt to the left, in the bottom two parts.

One of the more unusual musical dreams I've had happened as I was getting ready to start my piano concerto. It was soon after Beff and I had seen the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and we stopped for a while to look at and take pictures of the lions. I dreamed that I was walking through the woods, those lions were in the distance, and the only weapon I had to keep those lions from charging me was a boombox I was carrying that played music specifically designed to keep them away.

The music was unusual because it sequenced -- it was a short phrase that repeated a whole step lower, then again another whole step lower, and so on. And it was strangely tonal and chromatic. When I woke up, I remembered the music vividly, even though it took a bit of hunting and pecking at the piano to find the notes. It was a chorale with a rising major sixth followed by a half-step sigh, and a rising chromatic bass. In lead sheet terms, the chords were D followed by F7/E-flat. I thought it would be nice to incorporate that progression into the piano concerto perhaps as something the soloist does not like -- which would, in the piece's drama, cause some sort of rift to "advance the argument". And so I did, and I returned to the chords several times in the concerto. And since A had been an important note in the piece's first movement, and because A is in both chords, the chords return to finish the whole concerto, but this time as both a non sequitur and a final cadence.

Last year as I was working on a Pierrot-plus-percussion piece for Boston Musica Viva, I had another dream with music in it -- or so I thought -- that was quite unusual, since the music I heard was not integral to the story -- such as it was -- of the dream. In every other dream I've noted here, there was something in the dream making the actual musical sound. In this dream, on the other hand, I was lost, proceeding endlessly through outdoor athletic activities such as volleyball and croquet, looking for an exit to -- well, to what I don't remember. The searching-aimlessly dream is a familiar archetype, and this one just happened to be outdoors and, probably, on a college campus.

The music I heard in this dream was an underscore to it -- but not much related to anything at all in the dream. It was a repeating two-note figure, a short-note upbeat into a long note a major second lower. And this figure went on and on for several minutes without variance. When I woke up I hewed to my rule, and after I finished the movement I was working on, I wrote a slow movement which, like the dream, was underscored by the same unvarying two-note figure, on F and E-flat. See the opening of the movement below.


Using the figure as an ostinato, rather than as principal musical material, gave me an opportunity to try something I'd never tried: repeat something as many as 99 times. I think before this piece (Mikronomicon), the most times I'd ever repeated a figure of any length was 7 or 8 times. Choosing to do this is at odds with my usual way of working, which is to vary and develop constantly, and to eschew unearned repeats. So I had to learn a different, piece-specific way of working -- that of writing that developing and varied music on top of a layer of music that did no such thing. There wasn't a day that went by as I wrote that music when exclaiming "woo hoo!" was not an essential part of the process. (Many of those who have heard the recording of this piece begin their response by noting how surprising it was to hear a piece by me, of all people, with so much ostinato)

See example to the left for some music later in the movement, where the ostinato keeps up in the bottom staves, and "developmental" music is in the other ones.

And since the ostinato is quite similar to the beginning bass line in one of the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, that waltz is quoted near the end. Because I could.

I finished the movement in the afternoon and then went into the backyard to chill out on the hammock. As I opened the door, I heard a chickadee. And damned if the chickadee's song wasn't almost exactly the same pitches and speed as the ostinato of the movement I had just finished.

Yes, you guessed it, as I did only after the movement was finished. The reason the dreamed ostinato wasn't an integral part of the dream itself was that I was hearing an early morning chickadee while still dreaming. It's fortuitous, though, that I thought I had dreamed the chickadee's song, because it got me writing music unlike anything I'd ever written.

And now that I have that rule about dreamed music, I have two choices about what to do with the frying pan music. No, actually, three. 1) hide it in a chromatic passage as a middle voice and hope nobody notices; 2) go all out and write a Broadway-style song and put words to the tune; 3) drop the rule entirely.