Friday, March 21, 2014

Collaborative Composing with a Music Enthusiast

With Bonnie McGrath and our pencil sketch
of Bruce's Theme.
Last fall, James Ginsburg (the president of Cedille Records) asked if I’d be willing to offer a composition lesson as an auction item for a Cedille Records benefit event. The purpose of the lesson would be to help someone with presumably minimal musical training to compose a short piece of music. I’d done something similar a few years ago; as part of a residence with the Albany Symphony, I helped forty middle school students write short musical numbers for an oratorio about Henry Hudson. I hadn't tried this with an adult before. Helping a donor compose a short piece in a single composing session was an intriguing idea, so I readily agreed to Jim’s request. Jim listed the composition lesson in the auction, and Bonnie McGrath was the winning bidder. Bonnie is an award-winning journalist, columnist, blogger, and lawyer. She also has a deep and enthusiastic appreciation for music; we are constantly running into each other at various events around Chicago. 

Bonnie and I met for two hours in early December. After mulling over various instrumental possibilities, we agreed on composing a piece for piano. Then we got down to business. As Bonnie experienced firsthand, the basis of composing is to choose a concept for the piece, then make a series of decisions that support this concept. Bonnie wanted to write a piece for her fiancé Bruce, who enjoys the music of Philip Glass. We sat down at the piano, and I played several Glass-like musical gestures until Bonnie heard one that she liked. We had our concept; now we had to figure out what to do with it. I played through several possible harmonic progressions until Bonnie found one especially appealing, and we made this the basis of the entire work. We then experimented with melodic shape, various accompaniments, and phrasing. We also explored how to build tension, when to relax that tension, and what role dynamics and range play in the context of the piece as a whole. We ended our composition by using material found earlier in the piece to give the piece greater cohesion. Finally, we made sure that everything we wrote down would be playable by Bonnie herself. Over the course of the two hours, Bonnie decided that not only would she would dedicate the piece to her fiancé, but that she would also premiere the piece for him herself.

After our meeting, I entered the piece into a music notation program (we had used pencil and paper during our composing session) and gave Bonnie several bound copies along with our pencil and paper sketch. I also gave her a CD recording of the piece played by my husband, pianist Joe Francavilla, so that she could study his performance as she learned it (to listen to Joe’s recording, click here).  After much hard work and secretive practicing, Bonnie gave the premiere of Bruce’s Theme on Valentine’s Day for a very surprised and happy Bruce.

Writing a piece with someone not familiar with the composing process was just as fascinating for me as it was for Bonnie. She learned about the various musical parameters that go into creating a new piece, as well as the vast number of decisions a composer makes to shape every aspect of a piece. I was surprised to learn just how many choices I make at every step in the composition process, even in a one-minute piece! It was refreshing to see this process through someone else’s eyes. This was a mutually beneficial and fun collaboration for both Bonnie and me. On a personal note, I was thrilled to be a part of such a unique experience for Bonnie, and happy that she took this opportunity to turn the entire adventure into something very meaningful in her life.