The composer as commuter

A composer drives Broad Street

5 minute read
You'd like to sail ahead, but that Ford Galaxie is blocking your lane.
You'd like to sail ahead, but that Ford Galaxie is blocking your lane.

My ten-year survey of traffic patterns on Broad Street — coinciding with Broad Street Review’s tenth anniversary — is now complete. Within a four-percent margin of error, I can tell you the best lane to drive in, day or night, northbound or southbound, with school holidays, sporting events, construction, weather, and SEPTA “Not in Service” buses factored in.

The best lane to drive in on Broad Street is the other one.

There are tendencies, but they are slight, and you cannot trust them. Above Roosevelt Boulevard, for instance, heading north, hie thee to the left lane because the cars peeling northwest onto Belfield clear out the left, and you can sail.

Except when you can’t. Because more often than you’d think, there’s a 1971 Ford Galaxie 500 four-door, medium blue metallic with white roof in front of you — I mean, immediately in front of you — who decides, oh, maybe, he, too, would like to scooch into that Belfield left-turn-only lane, but because it just occurred to him, like, right now, instead of, oh, ten, five, seconds sooner, he can’t get over, and so he decides it’d be perfectly meet, right, and salutary to sit there fat and happy and block you — with Broad Street an open runway in front of him all the way from Belfield to Rockland.

Bermuda Triangle

You sit and steam and cannot move; everyone streaming by you on the right is grinning. Their cars are grinning, too, their front grilles curling up at the corners, and it’s a conga line of traffic on balloon tires bounce-bouncing up Broad while you have a muted trumpet over your stationary vehicle playing wah-wah-wah-wah-wahhh.

Southbound, approaching Glenwood, you’ll want the right lane because traffic heads off there. Except when you don’t. It’s because Glenwood-Broad-Lehigh is the Bermuda Triangle. Buses appear out of nowhere. Camaros with bungeed trunks pull out from Rush Street, and nobody ever pulls out from Rush Street. Except when they do.

So you jog to the left, but you forgot: Traffic in the Bermuda Triangle always slows down in the left lane, for no reason. Nobody’s pulling a U-turn for a burger joint, nobody’s turning left on Lehigh — well, you can’t turn left on Lehigh — well, you’re not supposed to turn left on Lehigh, there’s a Not-Supposed-to-Turn-Left-On-Lehigh sign — although that didn’t stop the guy who veered into the northbound lanes and turned left from there, which you must admit is an admirable end-run. And anyway, those cowboys don’t slow anybody down. They kill people, but when they’re not doing that, they don’t slow anybody down.

What congregations can’t do

So, Broad Street teems with examples. Tendencies are ever thwarted, percentages are overturned, and if you think this is like composing music, you would be correct. At least it is for me. Writing an hour-long piece or a short hymn, it’s all the same. Whatever lane I’m in is the wrong one.

The hymn I just finished gave me fits immediately. I was writing it for the dedication of new organ pipes at our church, and the text had a well-defined rhythm to it, which stayed the same through all four stanzas. This practice is indispensable in hymn-writing. In songwriting, not so much, since songs are for individuals to sing and they can bend the words as they wish. This:

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see…

in “What a Fool Believes,” sung by Michael McDonald with the Doobie Brothers, would have to match rhythmically with this:

She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say…

which, of course, doesn’t match, which is why Michael McDonald can sing it and a congregation — theology or grammar aside — can’t. Many church songs called “contemporary” (what’s my hymn, chopped liver?) follow this textualization. Such rhythmic disinterest can work with one singer and a microphone, but not with a hundred people or even five, no matter how loud the band is.

So, I had a solid rhythm: so far, so good. It sounded like it was in four — that is, four beats to the bar — so I started sketching out a tune in four. I got halfway through and realized that it wasn’t in four. Hmm. Must be in three, then.

So I switched lanes and put it in three. But that didn’t work either.

Getting to the end

Now, wait a minute. Hymns are either in four (more usual) or three; they’re either fox-trots or waltzes, if you forgive the worldly reference. Mine was neither. I was stuck. Time was whizzing by, grinning at me, and I couldn’t figure out something simple like what meter is this in?

So I broke it down into little bits. This phrase was in three, but that one… kind of three with a long middle. Did it have to be long? Well, I think, yes. Call it four, then. But then right back to three, then four, then three for a while. The very first syllable, the pickup, was an outlier, didn’t fit anything. Figure that out later. And near the end, right before the last two bars of three was a not-three and a not-four. It was a bounce: a bang before the last phrase… no, a bang-bang before the last phrase. OK, it’s in two.

The hymn is all of 14 bars long; the music barely lasts 30 seconds (times four verses). It starts with a pickup, then a 3/4 bar. Then 4/4, 3/4, and 4/4 again. Then a straight run of seven 3/4 measures, the 2/4 bang, and the final two 3/4s. The pickup eighth-note I take care of with the notational trick of robbing an eighth beat from the last bar.

Now that I think of it, there are hymns like this.

The composing of my hymn, off and on, took two weeks. I finished it today. I was still figuring out meters today, still changing lanes today. I felt like I was on Broad Street. But with all the changes, I got to the end only because of one reason:

I kept driving.

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