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I Don't Know How -- Or Why

Night Thoughts on the Process of Composition

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz


Copyright ©1989,95 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz



I donít know how it comes, or why, or how the ideas take shape. The experience is entirely non-verbal, and the translation is impossible. It begins with wild, wide alternations between elation and depression, and manifests itself as musically infected mood swings, an extreme disaffection with music itself -- all music. I turn off the radio, or complain about it when itís on. I pick unhappily through my collection of recordings, hoping Iíll find something vitalizing, but canít.

No, all music becomes affected, pale, empty, worthless, even abrasive. Bach becomes a prig and Mozart a dandy, Mahler a rooting pig, Beethoven a schizophrenic jackal, Bartók a clown, Stravinsky a bumbling dilettante. Rock and roll sounds like junk piles being torn through by sweating dogs. I run for the radio and snap it off.

I hate sounds, I fume ... and I begin to pace. The pacing becomes frenetic, and I wipe my right hand over my brow and through my hair. Then I pull out music paper or load the composition software and abandon everything else -- cooking, repairing, writing words, gardening, even (until it becomes unbearable) biological demands -- to write.

I push buttons or sharpen pencils to calm myself. I am tormented by ugly, crashing jumbles of sound all intoning at once in my mindís ear and the raw materials and ruined recyclings of sound begin to erect themselves -- out of my control it sometimes seems -- into a structure, an architectural form. But the screen glares back at me and I fuss with its colors. Even the comfort of music music paper is wrong, without the right number of lines, or itís too yellow or too green or too shiny, or itís long when it should be tall. I disgustedly choose the best and sketch the clefs first and the instrumentation with them; everything is composed in full score, the way it will be heard ... no piano sketchesto be expanded later. The notes fall from the hands. and the piece takes shape. It has been composing in my head over the past (two) (three) (days) (weeks) (months), and Iíve been hearing it, I know, but the shape doesnít come until the dissatisfaction and room pacing begin. Even worse -- and this is so maddening -- I can never find the root of it! The piece is at work before I know where it came from, and the inventions and developments take place as I am preparing to write.

From the onset of dissatisfaction to the initial writing can be less than a few hours, and the only time I could reconstruct the process was when my back was injured and I was drugged. A piece began in my mind as a fragment of melody, and in a way I could actually hear myself coax the fragment to play through. So play itself out it did, but it would regularly withdraw and reroute itself along a better path, like a rat in a maze, until it was written quite well, thoroughly ... but not to the end. Harmonies and counterpoints would begin to arise, or perhaps I would consider them as the melody was being drawn out, and these would come quite literally into an aural focus. Missing connections or bridges would be built as much by my pencil as my mental ear. It was automatic writing sometimes, but if the architecture looked wrong I would erase it and start again. Finally, the rest of the piece assembled itself as I struggled to keep up with my pencil.

So, once it has begun, I compose, night and day, with little regard for anyone or anything around me (including other music playing) until the pencil catches up with the thoughts. Sometimes that catching up is at the end of the piece, as with the Thièle, written in three days; at other times, such as Rough Edges, it will get stuck at a transition without being able to build the bridge to a new area, which itself may already be composed. With Csárdás, the first page jumped out but the rest crumbled to nothing and remained rubble until I built a new, more worthwhile musical shape.

Each piece is its own self, but the process always seems the same. Even with short arrangements, such as Lush Life, the taking over of my other minds by the non-verbal composer mind is complete and astounding. Music was playing, conversation going on, yet only the sound in my mind took over, the notes poured out, and the piece was finished.

But inspiration. Iíve never understood inspiration. Is it when a tune jumps into your head from nowhere? No, then itís never happened to me. More, itís like something growing in the distance, but itís blurry. As I concentrate, it comes into focus, still growing. No bolts of lightning, no voice of God. The form is there, like a growing plant takes the form of the adult within days of its germination -- and the genetic material and all the biological instructions for the adult have been there in the seed, waiting for the moment of fertility.

But no analogy works. The reality is this: I dream -- daydream is better -- and hear fleeting sounds; sometimes they are notes building into tunes, sometimes they are counterpoints playing against each other, sometimes only textures, sometimes verbal ideas translating into another language, but itís seldom the same as that, rather being drawn from some musical image area in my head which you can only see if you imagine me working as I look ahead, down, ahead, down, brushing my hand through my hair, burbling aloud bits of sound, then jumping up, pacing, pacing, pacing, then eating, and again sitting and brushing my hand. Thatís what you would see if you could watch: I would appear something like an idiot. It might be in slow motion, I donít know, because time goes by so oddly when I compose ... first itís 9 am, then itís 3 pm, and yet I donít know that time has passed.

The day Stravinsky died, a day in April 1971, I heard the news on the radio early that morning. I began to write Exequy for wind ensemble and recall saying briefly about having to write, Stravinsky died, I just heard, let me be for a while. The music was finished, and it felt like, perhaps, an hour, but a day had evanesced into a few pages of pencil-scratch.

So it is a kind of possession, being possessed by the music, possessed by the drive, the sound. It happens for me so differently in writing words (or anything else that can be called "creative") that I canít make it very clear. The energy is both cerebral and physical -- physically exhausting but brain-driven.

I use a computer scoring program now, but for nearly thirty years I wrote on paper, and this is how it feels: Sometimes, when a section is being written (passive voice seems right) on paper, I am motionless except for my right hand, for an hour or more, with every muscle at attention, my left wrist curled down, my head leaning on it, close to the paper, sometimes my glasses off, a ruler waiting to line measures, my right hand speeding along until it gets writerís cramp, but me moving -- forcing -- it on and on regardless, occasionally stopping to pound my right hand with my left until it stops cramping, then going on more with tiny noteheads in groups, then stems and beams, sweeping, long phrases showing arches of pencilship, short and tight ones looking knotty, and all of it done in an inner sphere of utter silence, as if my earlids had shut out the world, like the moment before waking when the telephone rings -- nearly conscious, aware of something in the distance, but enveloped by the moment of dream (like something a friend once wrote in a poem: "you have to be awake to be living a dream"), but one out of which I am unwilling to shake myself until the spell is complete, until I am drained, or, worst of all, until I am torn from it by an invasion of a visitor, human or animal, or until the sound so joins that of the outside world that it becomes one with it and leads me out of myself, as when a great hailstorm comes up and blows and rattles and slams and claps along with the percussion and I am drawn out to breathe a sigh of relief and look back, if for only a moment or two, at the few seconds of music that have been written in the many hours I have spent silent, still, concentrating and glowing with an aura of pure sonic energy, or -- at last and gratefully -- if the music has completed itself.

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