Saturday, September 16, 2006

Six items left

Today I wrote four songs. I'm getting into the full-bore creative push - which is good, because I have miles yet to go.

When I say I wrote four songs, it means that I got the basic text setting done. They still need to be fully arranged, and some need some adjustments lyrically. But it's a step forward.

I was working on a show with one of my collaborators - this was a commission, and she had come on board because my initial collaborator hadn't been able to finish the show in time. We had begun rehearsal, and only had half the score done (there was an incredibly patient artistic director involved here.) To stay sane, we kept on making "To-Do" lists, to have the small satisfaction of crossing things off as we churned out the material. Somehow, no matter how much we accomplished, there were always six things left on the list.

I think this is one of the reasons I'm fascinated by Project Runway - I've been in that position, cranking out the work, having to create things in such a short span of time that there's no point in worrying about anything or waiting for inspiration - you just have to do it. Sometimes you create something really outstanding, and sometimes you miss the mark - but if you don't second-guess yourself, most everything ends up working fine, at least for the moment.

I was lucky, because my collaborator is as much of a workhorse as I am. She would come upstairs to the apartment where I was ensconced (it was furnished in musty dark-wood-cut-crystal "visiting grandma's house" style) at 9:00 am. We would blearily gulp down our coffee, and get to work. She had stacks of reference books (this was a show about the history of aviation, so we didn't even have the luxury of just making crap up - this was research intensive.) I had my portable keyboard - at that time, I had the kind that had all sorts of accompaniment sounds built in (samba! merengue! paso doble! hoedown!), which, although cheesy, gave me genre ideas to fall back on when inspiration ran dry.

We would take a short break for lunch, but generally would work straight through until it was time to leave for rehearsal at 5:30 or so. Mercifully, the show was rehearsing in the evenings - writing through the night for daytime rehearsals is much, much harder. We would pack up the new songs and deliver them to the director and music director, and cross them off the list - only to find six items still remaining.

I took pride in delivering the songs fully scored (this means that there is a full piano part written out); I hate resorting to a lead sheet (a lead sheet is the vocal line only, with chord indications - what you'll see in the "fake books".) Even if I'm just doing a basic repetitive figure, I have to get something down for the piano, or it's just not complete.

There was one day, near the end, when we were both fading. I think I had my head down on the keyboard, noodling away, trying to come up with a setting for a World War I dogfight number (the Red Baron versus a Frenchman whose name I can't recall.) Luckily, given the style of the show, I could just drag out musical cliches and make them work (German music versus French music - go!) but my brain had given out. I took a walk to clear my head - usually I come up with much better music walking around and singing to myself than I ever do sitting at the keyboard. I wandered through the neighborhood where we were staying - our particular apartments were next to a graveyard, but they were next to a well-manicured suburban area. I got a few looks - I keep forgetting that outside of New York, no one really walks anywhere. Well, the fact that I was walking around and singing might have had something to do with it.

The song ended up being very funny, although not really because of the song itself - the guys singing it were rolling around on office chairs with little wings attached, with funny-looking WWI Snoopy-type aviator helmets on. Prop humor - the refuge of the desperate.

Luckily, I'd say just about everything we wrote was at least passable. The show was slightly over time, so we got to cut the number that was the weakest. It was a good idea in concept, but not so much in execution - a flirty number for a barnstormer and a wing-walking gal. The show had a cast of five, so everyone had plenty of songs to sing; the actress who sang in the cut song went on and on and on about how having a number cut was her worst nightmare - she was sorry she couldn't have made it work - and so on, and so on. I figured, if I were an actor in a show and one of the numbers wasn't going so well, I'd be much happier having the number cut that having to try and magically make the song work. I suppose this is why I didn't end up being an actor.

So, tomorrow, it's back to the music factory. When you see somebody tromping around the neighborhood, singing under (or not so under) his breath, possibly with a Boston terrier in tow, you'll know who it is.


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