Yoon Ha Lee has, after eight years of labor, released “Ninefox March,” a song he composed for his Machineries of Empire series. Which, how cool is that? How many authors do you know who compose orchestral pieces for their novels???
Especially because I do. not. get. how composers do what they do. I asked Yoon once about how composing works, and he started telling me all the things you could do with your melody, to which I said, hang on, you gotta back up: where do melodies come from? When a mommy note and a daddy note love one another very much, what happens?
Any time somebody asks how writers come up with ideas, I remind myself that I have a similar degree of bafflement with regards to composition.
And it isn’t because I’m not musical. I studied piano beginning at about the age of five, not because my parents intended to start me in lessons that early, but because (I’m told; I was too young for me to recall this now) I would sit down at the piano after my older brother was finished and proceed to play what he’d been playing, without the sheet music. Later on I picked up French horn. My mental jukebox always has something playing, sometimes to my extreme annoyance. I also have a very good sense of pitch — and I don’t know if this is how it works for other people with good senses of pitch, but mine is very much based in memory. Even now, nearly twenty years after I played horn regularly, I can hum for you a D on that instrument . . . because that was our opening note in “Mathis der Maler.” I don’t so much know what a D sounds like as know a song that starts with a D.
Which I think winds up interfering with that “coming up with a melody” thing. 99.99% of the time, it turns into — or turns out to already be — something I know, floating up out of the memory banks. I don’t know how to get away from that, how to prod my brain into creating instead of remembering.
It makes me wonder what the musical equivalent of fanfic would be. Not filk, where you’re coming up with new lyrics for an existing song; I’ve done that, but that gets back to words rather than notes. Maybe if my instruction in musical theory hadn’t ended when I was roughly ten, I would have a better sense of how I might take an existing piece of music and transform it (by any means other than simple transposition) to get something new. I think that if I were to try to take a melody and just say, okay, starting from here I’m going to jump to a different note, it would sound wrong. I can’t even transpose well, not as a matter of performance; if you start singing a tune I know in a different key from the one I know it in, I have a hell of a difficult time singing along. Any music I’m familiar with has worn a deep and intractable groove in my brain, and deviating from that groove makes record-scratch noises happen.
Maybe what I need is a paint-by-numbers beat sheet equivalent. Chorales? I’ve heard that composing a chorale is about as mechanistic as you can get.
Or, y’know, I don’t actually have to learn this. I don’t subscribe to the idea that one must be born with ~talent~ to do a thing, but if I’ve gone forty years of my life not manifesting even a baseline inclination toward the generation of melodies, then I’m like those people who go forty years without a story idea. It’s possible they could become writers, but is it worth the uphill slog just to get to the starting line? On the other hand, it’s annoying to have this black box sitting there, its contents impenetrable to me. I’m not much of a visual artist (barring photography, which is a different ballgame), but at least I feel like I kind of understand how an artist might come up with an image. And I think there might be an alternate universe where I became a dance choreographer. Music, though . . . I love it, and I don’t understand where it comes from.