Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Inspiration, Perspiration, and Scribbling

This was originally posted on July 26, 2005.

Thomas Edison once said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." But when you're writing music, there is another key aspect: Scribbling.

Written music, of course, is not English or anything like it. It is a visual language and a highly practical one. It has a few extra bits and pieces, appendix-like remnants of the Baroque era and the days when a choir director might determine the tempo by taking his own pulse. Even so, the vast majority of the musical language has a purpose and a meaning that is as readable to a musician as a photograph is to anyone else.

Scribbling is not that. Scribbling is what happens when I wake up from semi-sleep at 11:05 p.m. with a musical idea that I know will be entirely gone at 7:00 the next morning, dissipated overnight into an ephemeral echo of something that could have been perfect. It's always 11:05. It got to be a joke at my house in the days when I wrote more -- I'd jolt awake as I was just drifting off, look at the clock, and say, "Yep ... it's 11:05." And I'd haul my weary self out of bed and to the piano, where I'd quietly play the idea ten or twelve times until it was solid enough to start scribbling.

This used to happen on all sorts of items -- napkins, church bulletins (those were frequent), the backs of copied pieces of sheet music from long-past accompanying gigs. I now have a book, though, that I try to use whenever I can. It's nothing unusual or eyecatching-- I think it's an old practice record book from high school that my mom bought for me. Blue, spiral bound, full of nondescript staff paper. Its back pages are covered with bits of attempted choral arrangements and random ideas for new songs that were discarded years ago.

Right now, though, it also holds pages that are important enough to me that I would retrieve this book from a burning house. They feature badly drawn musical notes, free from such constraints as stems and barlines and correct penmanship, roaming all over the page with impunity. They are decorated with wildly written notations that say things like "B section lower" and "needs focus!" and "check against theme to Love Affair -- too close." My handwriting, usually so elegant and precise, runs riot into exuberant curves and slashes, punctuated with underlines and exclamation points but entirely lacking other niceties like commas and proper grammar. The titles, scattered apparently randomly over the pages, can be squinted at and recognized as "Oh Shenandoah" and "My Bonnie" and "Dixie."

Right now they are scribbles. They are the seeds of music, arrangements of American folk songs, as unlike the finished product now as the apple seed is unlike the green tree. Some day, they will grow and have substance, and even if they are never recorded, they will still be alive.

So for now, I cherish my scribbles. I hum them and play them and take them apart and put them back together again, and I love them for what they may become.


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