Notes from the Heart, Part 3: A Welcome Diversion

Notes from the Heart, Part 3: A Welcome Diversion
June 15, 2018 leonard slatkin

A hospital is not supposed to be a place you go for thoughts and reflection. Everyone is there to make you better. But sometimes a question can come up from one of the staff that causes you to think outside the box.

After a couple days, I was told that it was time to take a little walk in the hallway. This was not easy, considering that I was hooked up to various medical devices, not to mention the pain from the surgery. There were others doing the same thing, all of us moving at the speed of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. Most were accompanied by nurses and sometimes a friend or relative.

It was during one of these excursions that the person assigned to me for the day—they each take 12-hour shifts—asked me what I did for a living. I simply said that I was a conductor for symphony orchestras. And then came a question that was completely unexpected.

“How do you write music?”

The nurse told me that she loved listening to music but had no idea how it was created. I believe there are a lot of human beings just like her. The actual process of getting ideas on the page without using words must be foreign to so many. It seems like most people find it easier to understand and appreciate things they can see. Music, therefore, remains a mystery to some given its abstraction.

There are many people that confuse these two parts of the music profession, so that was not the surprise. But instead of explaining the difference between a composer and a conductor, I asked the attendant, “How do you write a story?” Along the brief trip and then continuing in the room, I found myself hunting for just the right thing to say, how to explain the unexplainable so that some degree of clarity could be achieved.

After my query, I continued the analogy, saying that music was, in essence, a language. Instead of words, we use those lines and circles, the notes, to represent our thoughts. New words enter the vocabulary on a regular basis, but, at least in English, we all utilize the same 26 letters. There might be an occasional number or symbol, but the nouns, verbs, adjectives, et cetera, provide the vehicle through which we can write a novel, poem or play.

In Western musical culture, at least for several hundred years, we have used primarily just 12 notes to express ourselves. There are the occasional forays into microtones, but for the most part, we just try to find the right order of notes to express our feelings. And this is what makes the great composers and authors similar and different at the same time. Each comes up with a new way of putting his or her seemingly limited resources of notes or letters onto the page. Whether writing for a single instrument or the whole force of an orchestra, what matters most is an expression of one’s individuality

Of course, anyone in the creative arts must have some idea of what the whole will look and sound like. Every composer I know has his or her own way of writing, but there are very few who, once they commence work, know exactly how the piece might begin or end. It is, for me, the same when writing these diary-style entries. I figure out what I want to say and use that framework to get me to the conclusion. Sometimes I already know how the essay will end, but starting off can take some time. The same thing occurs on the occasions when I write a piece of music.

Working with this analogy seemed the easiest way to explain the process. But then, as I was put back into the hospital bed, it occurred to me that maybe I could show that method right then and there. I used the experience of the moment to at least commence an idea for a possible piece of music. First, I asked the nurse to listen to the beeping of the devices near me and the others that were audible in the hallway. Then, as the headrest of my bed was electronically moved back, I asked her to add this sound into the mix. Next, I asked her to try to hear the difference between each machine.

Now we had a framework for our creation. Next, we had to figure out how it would begin and end. She said that maybe we could start with just one of the sounds and add others one at a time. Great! And how would she like to end? Her reply was that there were several choices. Either the process could be reversed, with the piece ending the same way it began, or all the devices could be going until the conclusion.

We had, at the very least, discovered a Cageian way of thinking about music. I ended the discussion by asking her if she could do the same if this was a story instead of a new musical composition. She figured that the same method could be applied in that case. The story could start simply and end the same way, or all the events that were written about could come crashing together for the conclusion.

All of this took place over about a 15-minute time span. Think about it. From not knowing the first thing about the creative process in music, my new friend had seen a world open up in a way she had never thought about. I could see her mulling this over as she left my bedside. After that, I would not see her again while I was in the hospital.

But I will be looking for that piece about the mechanical devices to arrive in a few months.

Stay tuned,

Leonard