Writing a Musical: Part 2

This week, I finished a draft of “Yes, No, Please, Thank You,” a song performed by the hermit—the lead in the musical—and a cohort of prisoners in the jail where he is being held in during the interview. It occurs near the mid-point of the play. Yes, No, Please, and Thank You are the only five words the hermit mutters to keep himself sane in a tough, over-stimulating environment. The song pits rhythmic, choppy vocals from the prisoners, close to rap—as much David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Louis Andriessen, and John Adams as Sondheim and Lenny Bernstein—against the hermit’s lyricism, which has been established in his previous two numbers. The longing for silence and stasis is pitted against chaos and noise.

In the lyrics, the song features short, choppy rhymes and a lot of material bouncing back and forth between each other. This called for a blazing-fast up-tempo swing in the score below, with rhythmic hits and lots of crazy activity reflecting the business of the world around the hermit.

In last week’s blog I discussed the vocal style of the music—simple, pentatonic, easy to comprehend. Not stretching too much the vocal range of the singers. This week, I want to touch upon the instrumental accompaniment of the music. This component reveals most of my influences and my interest in combining multiple genres, most prominently jazz. I have done this in a lot of my previous music, including “Hawk Circle,” “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners,” “Bubble in a River” “Second Avenue Saturday,” “Puppies in the Snow” and many others, which are on my Soundcloud page and this website.

The notation of the music, particularly the drum and bass parts—suggests music between improvised jazz and through-composed art music that focuses on timbre and texture. Creating a naturally flowing fusion and integration of these two styles is one of my main personal goals as a composer. One thing I like doing is writing slashes, allowing an improviser to fill in between and develop their own material in the bounds I set, in a way that serves the story.

Another recent goal of mine in notating the “un-notatable” in music—the expression and techniques in between the notes—slides, slaps, bends, etc. Along with this, I include recommendations for listening within each score to familiarize the players with the musical idiom. For example, “walk like Jaco.” Or “Elvin Jones-like swing.” Or “Stéphane Grappelli slide.” This is helpful for developing a common language between the players in an ensemble as well as establishing a clear sonic world related to each number. It diversifies the timbre in each instrument—not only can I think of each instrument in terms of their original idiomatic material, but I can also create a “super-instrument” combining different styles and genres of playing in one instrument. For example, a fiddle and traditional violin in one, or Benny Goodman or Klezmer clarinet styling built into the material of a classically trained player.

These techniques are particularly helpful for creating an organic fused language to move the story along—one that’s flexible, allows for dramatic builds and changes in texture and energy but also has the horsepower for free-floating, introspective moments and intensely stylized characterizations and worlds. My own control-freak tendencies as a composer tend to dictate the flow and textural material of the song, and I can’t help but reigning things in from time to time. But the flexibility allows for spontaneity and variety in each performance, as well as raw energy and excitement.