Sunday, January 4, 2015

How Hitchcock’s "Vertigo" Jolted my Writer’s Block

Something happened to me recently while composing that doesn’t often happen – I got stuck. I started a piece for double bass and piano, a commission for Michael Cameron’s Sonata Project. I followed my usual composing pattern: I spent a few weeks studying double bass scores by a good assortment of composers, listening to recordings of Michael to get his sound in my head, watching online videos of double bassists perform (I was interested to see bassists maneuver around the fingerboard, especially as they reach the fingerboard’s edge), and composing a short sketch or two each day. By the end of a few weeks, I had plenty of musical material – even a three-minute chunk of continuous music – but nothing felt meaningful, not a single musical idea was settling into place. I finally had to admit that I had writer’s block.

Watching Vertigo led to composing Noir Vignettes.
This realization caught me off-guard. How could I have writer’s block when I was composing a steady stream of notes, generating idea after idea? The truth is I was trying to compose music that lacked an overarching, unifying concept for the piece, and I couldn’t get any further until I found one. Sometimes I start a new piece by coming up with a concept first; sometimes I start with sketches (as I was doing with this piece) and see what emerges. While I find both approaches have merit, this was turning out to be a case in which my chosen approach just wasn’t panning out and I had to start over.

With this in mind, I looked again at notes I had taken when Michael and I had met a few times for coffee. With all commissioners, I find out what topics they are passionate about, what particular or unusual interests they have. Michael had mentioned his fondness for Alfred Hitchcock films, and especially for Vertigo. So I watched it. Several aspects of this 1958 movie fascinated me: a flawed male lead, the characterization of women as either a faithful companion or a femme fatale who leads to a man’s downfall, and a twisting, turning plot line that keeps the audience guessing until the end. My mind started lighting up with musical possibilities. I checked out another psychological thriller by Hitchcock called Rebecca (released in 1940). Unlike Vertigo, Rebecca was shot in black and white and belongs more squarely to a genre called film noir. Now I was hooked! I spent the next few weeks researching film noir and watching movies. I decided to craft a set of four vignettes, each based on a different element common in the genre: Murder at Midnight, Loaded Gun, Femme Fatale, and Last Cigarette. Between the composing of each movement, I would watch another movie to keep in the “noir” mood. I drew the most inspiration from three particular movies: Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. The finished piece is called Noir Vignettes.

Early sketches that were ultimately abandoned.
This experience got me pondering the nature of writer’s block. Over the years, I’ve had numerous students who have come to my  office with a piece that they could craft to a particular spot but no further. I usually have them back up to somewhere before the “trouble spot” and try re-conceptualizing the music from two or three different approaches. In the majority of cases, this helps open the student’s mind to seeing solutions that they previously couldn’t, and they’re on their way again. I do the same in my own works. What I hadn’t considered until now is that writer’s block can happen at any stage of the composing process, even early in the process when I appear to be steadily writing!

While it may manifest in various guises, I believe writer’s block is the brain’s attempt to tell us that we need to back up. Regardless of whether we have to back up just a few measures or actually start over again, we need to be able to admit to ourselves when musical material just isn’t working out and we should turn our efforts in a new direction. Sometimes a jolt can be useful to get us thinking outside of our current mindset. In my case, watching an old movie gave me the jolt I needed to start anew. But this jolt can take many forms – an excursion to an old antique store, an architectural walking tour of a big city, a camping trip in the mountains, a quiet afternoon in an art gallery – it just needs to be something that takes you out of the pattern you’re currently stuck in and gets you to reconsider your piece from an entirely different and fresh perspective.