I only began composing in 1999, about 5 years after I started transcribing symphonic music for my mixed octet CutTime Players (CTP). It started when I had this extremely vivid waking dream of CTP. We were returning home from a tour, on foot, instruments in hand, cresting the gentle summit of a high, wind-swept hill overlooking the lush, green forest of the City of Detroit. (Lol. I know, right?) But the two excerpts of orchestral music I heard were really dramatic and romantic; urgent as we ascended the hill, alarming and falling as we carefully walked down the hill.
I immediately spent the morning capturing this music and orchestration with Finale software. And by some magic I connected them into a satisfying exposition within a week. The music of the dream became the introduction to the 1st theme (the beginning of the next clip) and the dramatic closing theme of the exposition (about halfway through this clip).
To make a long story very short, I left the composition when I was stuck and picked it up when I imagined a way forward and over 2½ years, managed to bring it to a complete and cathartic, although bittersweet, resolution. I was getting a divorce near the beginning of all this and writing this piece became my strongest outlet; a mix of raw emotions and perhaps questionable reasoning, but an outlet. Through it all, I never believed the work would ever be performed except by the computer playing my synthesizer. I wrote it for myself and like many armchair composers was very self-satisfied. I was really surprised that I could write something like this.
The harmonic language is simple and borrows heavily from my favorite composers, including Brahms, Shostakovich, Dvorak, Schubert, R Strauss, Mahler, African chorus, YES… you name it. That I imitated is not shameful in my book, because no one would hear it and because, in terms of harmony and harmonic rhythm, it is what I adored most playing concerts in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It pressed all my psychological buttons. It was only after playing the annual DSO African-American composers’ readings in 2002 that I considered submitting the work for a reading the next year. It was chosen and we read it publicly with some rehearsal and fixes. I received a study recording.
The next year CutTime Players was asked to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great writings Letter from Birmingham Jail and the I Have A Dream speech. Eventually, I realized that the Essay, with few modifications, would dramatize the latter pretty well. So I transcribed it for CTP in 2003 to great success. It was next chosen for a full premiere at the annual DSO Classical Roots program in 2006.
What an overwhelming emotional rush it was to hear such a great orchestra sing my very personal music, which I thought no one would ever care to hear! What was ever more gratifying was that musicians picked up on some of the programmatic content in the music and that Bob loved playing the beautiful bassoon solo which leads to the coda! Furthermore, the lead music critic in Detroit described me as “an armchair composer with promise and a taste for fleshy, romantic textures and orchestration.” You might say this went to my head but it certainly made me curious.
It was then that I decided to SEE if I could do better, writing more deliberately and from scratch. When I did, it was with the conscious decision to favor tonal expressiveness and lyricism over “originality” or trying to somehow “reinvent music”. Never having studied composition at music school nor with a living composer, I was most concerned with the music being something that musicians and audience would love; something we could pour ourselves into in the ways we do Mozart and Schubert.
I also wanted it to be genuine. So I focused on the romantic story of how my fiancé (at the time) and I met, fell in love and got engaged. Literally, nine months later the Mighty Love suite for string sextet popped out (on Valentine’s Day no less!) and it felt like our baby. It had rich counterpoint, recurring motifs and is unabashedly romantic: a 5-movement grand sonata in the Viennese tradition of Dvorak and Schumann. It gives me goosebumps to play it through to its dramatic climax 45-minutes later!
Suddenly, I felt I understood how to write rich, cathartic classical styles with dozens of surprises every minute. I felt I needed to come up with a pseudonym… understanding that it is considered TREASON to write music like this today. (MN2 Strauss anyone?) In the course of this, I realized why most people generally PREFER their composers dead! But I’ll write more about this in a follow up post.
You can hear the finale of Mighty Love, Celebrations, on the CutTime Playlist. There are also score samples here.