Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm - Café Racer - Seattle, WA

Andy Clausen - August 8th

LISTEN TO THIS SESSION!

The Opening Set

This week I will perform my new quintet composition entitled “The Wishbone Suite”. 

Featuring:

Ivan Arteaga - Clarinet

Aaron Otheim - Accordion

Jared Borkowski - Guitar

Andy Clausen - Trombone

Chris Icasiano - Drums

Concepts

DISCLAIMER:

Sorry for this dreadfully disjointed discourse I’m about to embark on. Hopefully you can take something from it and apply it to RACER SESSIONS next Sunday (see bottom for more instructions). Evidently, the topics in this essay technically have little to do with the opening piece that I will perform, but they seemed relevant to my current musical outlook. 

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One of my main interests and concerns in the creation of new art is the mysterious experience an artist has during the creation of a work. I’ve always been fascinated by, and personally struggled with “the process” through which art is created. Over the past year or so, I have read dozens of interviews and essays by the creators of art that moves me. I have tried to recognize trends in their approaches and let them influence my own musical composition process. 

In musical composition, literature, architecture, choreography and visual art for example, art forms in which the creator has complete responsibility and control (through the ability to revise) over the “results”, I have searched for and observed numerous parallels in the processes of many of my favorite artists. Not only does the artist’s process greatly shape the final product, the process of creating and conveying something we creators fully intend, provides us with significant insight into our own personalities and tastes. 

Before dealing with the “personal and spiritual practice” of art creation, I first want to explore the “technical practice”; the processes.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright advises to “Conceive the buildings in imagination not first on paper but in the mind, thoroughly, before touching paper. Let the building, living in imagination, develop gradually, taking more and more definite form before committing it to the drafting board. When the thing sufficiently lives for you then start to plan it with instruments, not before. To draw during the conception of "sketch,” as we say, experimenting with practical adjustments to scale is well enough if the concept is clear enough to be firmly held meantime. But it is best always to thus cultivate the imagination from within.“ Wright’s process results in buildings with incredible idiosyncrasies that could only arise from pure imagination, but with the fully formed cohesion of years of experience. In a similar vain, Igor Stravinsky feels he is "an inventor of music”, that “the real composer thinks about his work the whole time; he is not always conscious of this, but he is aware of it later when he suddenly knows what he will do.” Both artists take the approach of constructing complete pictures, or plans for their work in their mind before ever “committing anything to paper” and addressing the more technical components of the work. 

In stark contrast to that approach, one of my favorite authors, Guy Davenport explains the sporadic (often to the point of absurdity) nature of his work. “My writing unit is such that I start literally with scraps of paper and pages from notebooks. Every sentence is written by itself; there are very few consecutive sentences in my work… . Single sentences, which are revised eight or nine times. And I find a place for them, so that the actual writing of any of my stories was a matter of turning back and forth in a notebook and finding what I wanted.” This collage type process ensures color and variety in his stories, but what most resonates with me is his ability to join thoughts together into a cohesive story. Sometimes a very sporadic composer, John Hollenbeck describes how he develops the components of his compositional collages; “I try to find a different process for each piece…sometimes on the piano, sometimes on the drums, whatever I’ve got at the moment. By using a different process for each piece, I hope to assure myself that I will not write the same piece twice…and it is more exciting." 

Of the two "schools”, my approach to composing the music for this quintet was more similar to that of Davenport and Hollenbeck. Similar to most composition I’ve done before, essentially I wake up and pick up the trombone or sit at the piano and explore the first idea I hear until I feel I have exhausted all possibilities for the moment, or have created a “complete” section. I always work “one measure at a time”, constructing a complete picture of each moment, fully arranging, and committing it to paper before moving to the next. I never consciously plan ahead or conceive of the form and trajectory piece, but rather, build each gradually, piece by piece, with these little themes I have written. 

I find this particular process very natural, as if all the themes and ideas already exist in the “sonosphere” and I am just harvesting them. What troubles me most are not the moments of creation, but the moments of decision and the overwhelming concern with “the end result”; the whole. Reaching one’s goal of “a good piece” is surely of importance, but placing greater emphasis on and seeking awareness of the process (in my case the practice of composition) can relieve much of the pressure and greaten one’s appreciation of the moment. In the composition of The Wishbone Suite, pursuing ideas on a very small scale eliminated the stress, and coincidently led me to write very short, simple (in orchestration, form, and arrangement) pieces, something I don’t usually do. 

In reference to appreciation of the process, and conveniently bridging the cap between our practical and spiritual explorations, Hollenbeck explains; “We composers sit alone in a room focusing for long hours and making seemingly peaceful decisions.  These decisions we make as we compose will not harm others, nor will they most likely be life-changing in the same way that a surgeon’s decision could alter a life dramatically. Yet how we behave and what we choose when we are alone in a room with no one watching is significant – these solitary moments can often reveal aspects of our character that we would much rather avoid. These decisions can set a precedent, positive or negative, for future decision-making and behavior which will extend far beyond the scope of composition into everyday living.”

In writing this essay, I found myself struggling to articulate my thoughts on the spiritual experience of creativity, as it is something I do not fully comprehend. I can only say that for me, creativity is not a conscious thing. I don’t sit down and try to write music “about” something. The stuff just sort of oozes up from somewhere, and I put it into Sibelius. Hopefully it is an honest expression of where I am, experiences I’ve had. 

There is a sense of purity in these creative moments. A freedom and innocence that, as Davenport explains about his notebook, is “both playground and testing place, the free exercise of pure intellect whether in doodling (the draftsman’s daydreaming) or in copying nature with precision. The creative mind is prodigal, and its extravagance is at home in the sketchbook, before its submission to the economy of the finished work of art. ”  

Wright describes this creative spark as “A thrilling moment in any architect’s experience. He is about to see the countenance of something he is invoking with intense concentration. Out of this inner sense of order and love of the beauty of life something is to be born…Reality is spirit, the essence brooding just behind all aspect. Seize It!…the pattern of reality is super-geometric. Casting a spell or charm over any geometry.”

The Session

To apply these “concepts of process” to our own improvisatory adventures this Sunday, following my opening set, I would like to impose the following framework for the rest of the session; 

  • Five ensembles each develop an original “composition” through the course of the evening. 
  • Each group will perform and refine their piece, rotating until everyone has performed three times. 
  • Personnel must stay the same (if possible).
  • Each performance is not to exceed five minutes, so everyone will have time to finish three incarnations of their piece, and to ensure brevity and complete focus with each performance. 
  • Discussion is highly encouraged in between your performances, but please take your group to another room so as to not disturb the music. 

Things to think about:

What kind of compositional process do you want to practice? Sonic collage (ala Guy Davenport)? Complete grand concept before application (Frank Lloyd Wright)? Process of elimination (purge composition of its components)? Construction from foundation? These are just a few ideas. I encourage you to find your own. Maybe research how your favorite book, building or composition was created and model that process?

Diversify yourself from your usual improv mates. Play with different people?

Critique yourselves. Refine your pieces with each performance. 

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Hope to see you there!!!

LOVE,

Andy Clausen