On Composing

Edward King

This was one of those moments in life when Fortune smiles—and by that I mean being in the right place at the right time. I have always been interested in the creative process and how the conception, implementation, and especially the language of creativity can be so different—or similar—from one discipline to the next.

As a commercial airline pilot, I was due to fly out of New York City one autumn afternoon when I got a phone call reassigning me to a different flight the next morning. My hotel was right across from Central Park, and so I decided to spend some time getting a bit of sun. I had just bought a portable cassette recorder and I brought it along to record some park sounds while learning how to use it.

I found a park bench in a sunny spot near some kids playing touch football. The sounds from the game would make good recording material. I sat down and began to read the manual. It was fairly straight forward and soon I felt I had gotten the hang of it. I put on the small, discrete headphones, plugged in the mic, and pressed Record. I leaned back and closed my eyes as I absorbed the warm sun on my face.

My microphone soon picked up the faint sound of a man talking to someone else. They were walking toward me and the conversation eventually became clear enough for me to fully hear. Continuing to feign a “napping” posture, I squinted through my eyelids and saw that they had stopped and were sitting on a bench not too far away. This is a transcript of their conversation:

“...in other [unintelligible]... why are you so amazed with my ability to compose? You’re a talented programmer. You can understand and write code—and I’ve seen it. It’s all Greek to me. It just so happens I compose. It’s what I do.”

“Yes, but how can you just write down what you hear in your head? I mean, not many people can do that.”

“You know how to write code to do certain things, correct? It’s the same thing.”

“Yeah, but music? I studied some piano—but to think in musical terms? It’s different. I might as well land on the moon!”

“O.K., close your eyes and think of the color yellow. Go ahead, right now. There. Now picture in your mind a canary, or a stick of butter, or a sunflower. It’s there, right? You can see yellow?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Now think of the taste of strawberries. Imagine biting into the sweetest strawberry you’ve ever had. It’s so ripe the juice runs down your chin. Can you taste it?”

“Yeah, I sure can.”

“Many things just happened there. Not only did you taste the strawberry in your mind, I’ll bet you pictured the color red, its shape, its smell—you even experienced a physical sensation purely from memory: the juice running down your chin. Am I right?”

“Yes, absolutely!”

“O.K., do one more thing. Think of the music to Happy Birthday. You’ve heard it a million times. I just want you to only think of it—no humming to yourself, just think.”

A few moments of silence. Park noises continue in the background. The first man continues:

“It’s the same with me. I think of a melody, a counterpoint, a bass line, a harmonic direction, and I write it down. It’s there in my mind and I hear it the same way that you heard Happy Birthday.”

“Yes, but—”

“How do I know what I’m hearing to write it down? Let’s say you’re a writer. Think of a sentence in English—any sentence. For example, ‘The black cat climbed the tree.’ First, the image of a black cat climbing a tree comes to you, then you piece together how to express that in words. You learned in school about vocabulary, diction, and grammar, and you know how to write those words down because you also learned about letter shapes and such. So, on a piece of paper you can write, ‘The black cat climbed the tree.’ Simple enough, right?”

“Right.”

“Now, with music it’s the same process. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I have developed relative pitch. Through ear training, I know what notes are, what their sounds are within a key. Each note has its own color or taste, if you will. In the key of E-flat I can hear the characteristic sound of a B-flat, for example. It’s the dominant of the key. I can taste it. There is no other note in the key like it, and each and every note has its own unique quality that sets it apart from all the others.

“And just the same way you can differentiate between a cat and a dog, and can identify the cat with the letters c-a-t, I identify a certain sound with a written note. One method uses words in the English language, the other uses music notation. It’s the same process. Believe me, it’s no big mystery—yet I’m continually amazed at how a lot of professional musicians are unable to do that.”

At this point the two men sat in silence for awhile, staring off into the various activities in the park. I could tell that the second man was seriously pondering what he had just heard. He then checked his watch as if suddenly remembering something important and said, “Oh good. I’ve got another fifteen minutes before I meet Allison. Tell me a little bit about how you compose, if you don’t mind.”

“Every note I write is a part of my soul. Each phrase, each musical motif that I put on paper is who I am and sets me apart from the rest of humanity. Otherwise I’m just like anyone else: a cabdriver, a plumber, a lawyer—God forbid!—or even the President, for that matter.

“You see, I have to compose. It’s what I do—what I have to do. If I stopped writing music I would die. I was born with this gift, and I need to use it. I’m not great because I have this gift—it’s how I use it, and it’s how we use our gifts that brings any dignity to our miserable little lives.

“Look at Beethoven, how he is almost deified for his accomplishments. I’ve marveled at how a mere mortal wrote that magnificent third movement of his Ninth. And he was deaf to boot! But you see, he was born with a gift and he used it. His accomplishments created his stature, built the pedestal upon which he was placed. He was only doing what he had to do. He knew nothing else. All the driving passion in the man came forth through his pen. No mightier tool was invented that could rip us up one side and down the other, split us in two with emotions and leave us forever changed. Yes, the man was more powerful than any Genghis Khan, Catherine the Great, or Adolph Hitler. How they changed the world was microscopic compared to the continuing influence of Beethoven. You see, the power of good is far mightier than what the cruelest, most evil force could ever hope to be.

“And that’s why I write. My music, God permitting, will live long after my short stay here on Earth. Each of us has been granted the privilege of a finite number of years—most of mine I have used up—but more of us than I care to think about completely waste that time—they merely take up space, contribute nothing. We let ourselves be governed by addictions that we think we’re too weak to conquer: alcohol, drugs, television, abusive relationships—even making money. Tell me, if you can, just what is the man contributing to the world who spends all his waking hours worrying about the stock market? He’s on the phone continually to his broker telling him to buy, sell, buy, sell, and for what? So he makes a lot of money, but what is it for? Where is the contribution? What gifts was he born with and how is he using them for the advancement of humankind? So what if he amasses a great fortune and dies a very wealthy man? I’m far wealthier than he because I am living a lavishly creative life through my music. Everyday—every moment of composing is a journey into new lands for me. Imagine the thrill of cascading through the rapids of a furious fugue, uncertain where you’ll end up, and finally breaking through to the coda after being boxed-in by a seemingly impossible, but necessary modulation. I have crashed face-first into the recapitulation of a B-minor theme like a boisterous drunk at a formal dinner party, completely out-of-place miles from where I should have been, only to get up, brush myself off, and race off into the brashness of the dominant key, never to return. I thumb my nose at the critics, and experience dimensions of exhilaration and joy that money can’t buy. I would much rather live rich than die rich.”

“That Easter Mass you wrote last year was amazing. I could tell you had the time of your life composing it.”

“Thanks—everyone had a ball performing it. We all did. But take Sonny, the one-legged vet who sings in my choir. This country took a healthy young boy—barely a man—and needlessly removed part of his body with a Viet Cong mine, and then dumped him on the streets of New York to live a jobless and homeless existence. What makes him any less of a valuable human being than our friend in the stock market, who probably ignores him each day on his way to work?”

“I didn’t know that about him.”

“He’s a very talented baritone. I heard him singing for spare change in Times Square. Now he’s a respected member of my choir. He still lives in the street, but we let him use the washroom in the Sacristy so he can clean up. Some people give me special praise for ‘saving’ Sonny. I’m no saint. I merely gave him what is every person’s inalienable right to have: dignity. This country took his away and I happened to notice it waiting for him in the back row of the choir. And boy did he find it! He grabbed it and has held onto it with a vise-grip ever since.

“Sonny is the perfect example of what I’ve been talking about. He has literally been through the trenches of life, and has taken the worst that has been dished out to him, yet in spite of all that’s happened he has chosen to contribute to the world through his own very special ministry in music.

“Our money maker in the stock market is probably trying to make another thousand dollars today so he can add a swimming pool or another club membership to his already perc-laden life. He’s the one who is taking up space in this world. How many Michaelangelos or da Vincis are walking around these cruel streets of New York, unrecognized and discarded by society? How many Louis Pasteurs will continue to shiver in a rat-infested alleyway this winter without ever having the chance to develop their potential? They’re not the ones taking up space. Quite the contrary, my son.”

Postscript: The two men got up to leave and I remained on the bench thinking about what I had just heard. I still kick myself for not having asked who he was. When I was back in town I visited some of the churches in the area to see if I could find my choir conductor from the park, but to no avail. This recording is what remains of that most illuminating day.

Many thanks go to Pricilla Franck for the transcription.

Contact Mr. King at oedipusrex[AT]comcast.net
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