Shifting Gears

by Joshua Roman

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Dear Reader:

Is it really May, already? It’s such a cliché, but I really do feel sometimes that the calendar must be lying. April was a more typical month for me, with multiple concertos and recitals. Mostly traditional repertoire: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Bach Suites… there were a few newer pieces mixed in as well, including my own “Riding Light”. In fact, that particular performance was one of the few in my life where my Cstring has had the audacity to snap during a juicy moment. Audiences seem to love that, although for me it’s just a pain to have to go grab another one and retune, then decide where to start again.

Along with all of that, April is also of course tax season, and every self-employed Musician knows just how long that can take. So between all of these things, plus other random tasks, I did not get as much done on my upcoming cello concerto as I’d like. Luckily, this month is dedicated to producing notes on paper!

One thing that I’ve always been curious about: where do ideas come from? I know much has been written on the subject, both in the form of studies and also from the notes and journals of creative types. Among my composer friends, the variety of work habits is astonishing. Some are night owls and do the bulk of their creative work after the sun goes down. Others do it first thing in the morning. And this is not always where the genesis of an idea occurs! I’ve been encouraged to carry a notebook around with me everywhere, and this has been immensely helpful, as many times ideas will strike at the most inopportune moment. Often, for me this happens on airplanes, or on the elliptical machine (I hate that thing. My excuse: knee injury). Sometimes, it’s a response to something I hear in a concert, or on the radio. Usually, I’ll hear a composer do something structurally, or turn a phrase or color on its head in an interesting way, and wonder to myself: “would I do that? Or would I do the opposite? Or something in between?”

Which brings me to an exercise I want to share with all of you musicians out there. Perhaps you’ve tried this in the past, but it’s something I don’t think it hurts to revisit. As you’re practicing whatever piece it is you’re playing, take one of the more obviously interesting (okay, that’s subjective, but that’s kind of the point so just go with your gut) passages and play through it a few times. As you do, try to pinpoint what the underlying idea is, what led the composer to the notes they chose. Is there an increase in tension? Is there a moment where something breaks away? Anything will do for these purposes. Then, forget for a moment that the piece was written by someone else. Take the idea, and begin with the same note the composer does, but modify the phrase as if you are composing it yourself. Try different notes and rhythms, dynamics and accents, colors, everything. What would it sound like if YOU had written the notes to achieve the emotional/structural impact the composer did?

This can take a while, especially if you’ve not improvised before. Be patient. Explore, and don’t judge what you’re doing. Just observe! Notice how many options you come up with, and what makes them different from what the composer did. Perhaps some of them may even be equally effective in their own way! In the end, you’ll see a little bit of what distinguishes this composer’s voice from your own, and others. Bonus points: change the phrase to create the same effect in the voice of other composers. Even more bonus points: see if you can keep as much the same as possible, but achieve the opposite emotional impact.

So what’s the point? Interpretation. Interpretation depends on our relationship to a composer, and our understanding of their voice. It helps to have insight into what having a voice means in the first place, and that comes very strongly through improvisation, composition, and other means of creative exploration. This is something I’ve been playing with a lot. There’s much more to try, and to share, but for now I’ll leave you with that bit of nerdy fun and open up the score to my own piece, which is calling out for attention from the top of my keyboard. Had a few good ideas during my workout today, now it’s time to see whether they pan out.

Music On Rotation

Bela Bartok: Divertimento for Strings (buy)
Peteris Vasks: Vox Amoris (buy)
Amon Tobin: Foley Room (buy)