What they never tell you about composing

Hitting a brick wall

This is the part they don’t tell you when they tell you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece, every note, is wrong. Every page you disbelievingly stare at is false, mocking, and hateful, and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by (all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max), none of it good.

Hitting a brick wall: The Schmitt Musical Mural in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Bosc D'Anjou, via Creative Commons/Flickr.)

They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted “A Mighty Fortress” fanfare. You’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before. “You’re perfect for this,” they said. “This’ll be great,” they said.

And you said, “It’ll be great.”

A minute of music, and you are farther away than when you started, farther away because you have nothing and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all. No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Brick by brick

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks; there are always bricks to move. Once you made a patio out of old bricks; you know them well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, always a double hit. A flam, drummers call it, deeper than click. They sound higher when someone else moves them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you removed all the brick that held up the half-length wood columns when you had full columns installed. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, eight or more at a time, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and restacking later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, moved them again when rejiggering the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone, stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and, when you tore that down, stacked them behind the new one. You know the sound bricks make.

Chunks of cement, you recall, sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit one another.

Stop it, you’re wasting time, you should be composing. But you always loved the personality of sounds. (Maybe "loved" is too strong. You always noted it.) The hard susurrating of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep, the cardinal’s liquid pip, the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

Finding the "s" in the Fortress

George Crumb once told you that when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he could hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked in his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood his music.

When you were a boy, you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer but you were embarrassed because you loved — yes, "loved" is the right word — the “s” sounds. You waited for the esses in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new church, built after you were born. It was one of those churches built in the ‘60s: concrete, glass, acute and new, cold and bright, metal and modern. In the ‘60s nobody wanted to be old. Those esses rang with sharp, white echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

A rare early print of Martin Luther's 'Ein fest Burg.' (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)
A rare early print of Martin Luther's 'Ein fest Burg.' (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

The esses take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. You don’t get one until “as it is in heaven.” But then they pelt, more and faster: “give us this day," "forgive us our trespasses.”

“Trespasses,” a triple. What a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each “s” caromed off concrete angles, bounced off glass, and sizzled in your ears as everyone prayed. And you prayed, saying each “s” a little louder than the word around it.

You could not write a prayer better than this, you thought, ashamed. The esses slapped your face and you felt the tres... passing... against... us. You felt that more than you should’ve, yes, yes. And then it came. The “lead us not into” — here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh, and here it came — “temptation,” the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone exploding into the walls.

A “forgive us” is left and a “thine is” is left, and that’s it.

You carry that still. The esses are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. You loved the irregularity as much as the sound. It was like chant to you. You fell in love with chant the same way, music in unlikely two-beat and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. It was like chant and like, yes, those Reformation chorales, original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes: “A Mighty Fortress.”

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhh, dahhh, dahhh, yes — one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n—that could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.

Our readers respond

Gail Obenreder

of Wilmington , DE on August 03, 2017

Thanks for the good read. Very vivid indeed!

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