How to Wallpaper Your Mind

October kept me as busy as a presidential candidate, dropping me into time zones scattered across the map like Fall foliage.  There was even lunch with Teresa Heinz Kerry, our almost-First Lady.  All I needed was a fake smile, a spray tan, and a few million followers, and you could’ve convinced me I was on the ballot.

Luckily for all of us, I am not.  But with my feet in California (writing a new song cycle for Phoenix Symphony) to New York (Carnegie Hall) to Pittsburgh (Heinz Foundation awards) to Chicago (MusicNOW at the CSO), my head was spinning by month’s end.  How can a composer stay focused on writing music amidst the bustle of travel?


My studies with John Corigliano revealed to me that writing music requires planning.  This always seemed counterintuitive to a kid who (like many) equated composition with improvisation, holding a firm belief in the powers of intuition (and my ten fingers) to whip up something organic.  That works fine early on, but you can create much more interesting forms if you think before your fingers get to work on the piano.  This creative planning also works on the macro scale; let’s call it planning.

If I have a piece due in mid-November, I know that I’ll need to be orchestrating no later than one month before — and composing at least six months before that.  Larger works require more even more time, sometimes more than a year.

And so it was that, as I boarded my flight for New York at the beginning of last month, with the NY premiere of Alternative Energy ahead of me, my mind was wallpapered with the notes of the new song cycle.  A collection of poetry about death by women poets, from the 19th Century’s Christina Rossetti to the 21st Century’s Judith Wolfe, the piece is dark and poignant.  The pulsing figuration of my ‘energy symphony’ was simmering on the back burner, with the Carnegie Hall show looming, but my food for thought on the plane was the poetry I was setting (on that day, Dickinson’s line “The Perished Patterns murmur”).

The plane touched down, and my mind began to switch gears.  We had a big concert in two nights.  Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony had decided to tour Alternative Energy — no light opener, with surround-sound electronics and a sprawling form — and I needed to get in the zone.

An early-morning soundcheck the next day put a spring in my step.  Carnegie may be known for good acoustics, but it’s not known for good sound design.  With substantial prodding by the CSO, we were able to get our six speakers and two subwoofers to shake the floorboards.  But back in my hotel room before the rehearsal that afternoon, I retreated into the field of imagination and took a look at another poem, Judith Woolfe’s “You left when we couldn’t follow.”

Rehearsing in Carnegie is like putting noise-cancelling headphones over your ears and pushing Play on your iPod.  The bass hits you in your gut, counterpoint jumps out of the orchestral texture more clearly.  The maestro noted to me afterward that, even after eight performances of the piece in Chicago and California, he was hearing new things in Alternative Energy at Carnegie.  The musicians responded too: concertmaster Robert Chen opened up more in his extensive solos, stretching out in the acoustic space.

By the time the performance came, it felt a bit like the house band playing their theme song.  We’d done the piece many times back in Chicago, on a West Coast tour, even in Michigan.  I have never had any orchestra play a piece so much, with each new performance adding luster to the finish.  We had a hell of a time, and the rousing audience response was particularly touching because I knew that I didn’t have many ‘plants’ in the hall!

The next day, blinking through my hangover, I flew back to California for composing and family time.  Having kept the poetry at arm’s reach on the trip allowed me to jump back into the song cycle with only minimal ‘crank-up time’ (that creative inertia that grounds me on day one after a trip).

A week later, I was having lunch with Teresa Heinz outside Pittsburgh.  This brief touchdown into western Pennsylvania had surprisingly nothing to do with my post as this year’s Composer of the Year with the Pittsburgh Symphony (who will premiere my violin concerto next month — stay tuned).  Rather, it related to jaw-dropping phone call I received a month earlier from the Heinz Foundation, which told me I was the recipient of one of their Heinz Medals.

In addition to a formal ceremony, the Foundation offered a beautiful lunch at Teresa’s country home.  I’m not sure whether my assigned seat next to her had to do with her interest in my music or, more likely, my young children (she is a matriarch of a high order of magnitude).  But in any case, there I was getting the inside scoop on what was going on inside the President’s debate prep, which her husband John Kerry was leading.  But aside from politics and children, Teresa does indeed have a powerful interest in the arts.  She sees it as an essential force in educating children and enlightening everyone else.

As I sat there, a nice plate of duck in front of me (surprisingly, there was no ketchup to be found), I thought about how lucky the arts are to have her.  In the Bay Area, there is no shortage of tech moguls ready to build science and medical buildings on college campuses.  Wouldn’t it be nice if they earmarked a tiny percentage to the arts, a world that knows how to get some bang from a buck.  We are so fortunate for the generosity of the families of Guggenheim, Bass, Fischer, and Heinz.  Now if we could just get the Gates and Jobs on board.

My visit to Pittsburgh was short — less than 24 hours — so it did not disrupt the song cycle too much.  When I returned to California, I used the morning to sketch the middle movement, a kind of bittersweet waltz (“Don’t let them throw away the clothes,” a sad dance with a dead husband’s wardrobe).  In the afternoons, I began the mammoth task of orchestrating the first movement.

Then to Chicago, where we were opening our MusicNOW series — an imaginatively presented concert of new music performed by Chicago Symphony musicians, with a teeming post-party with DJs, food, and drink.  My co-conspirator Anna Clyne has a sharp eye for multimedia, and I have an interest in smooth flow (cf: spinning records for three hours), so the resulting concert experience is immersive and dramatic.  The fancy lighting rig of Harris Theater is put to full use; program notes are cinematic, with video interviews of composers during set changes; and the concert flows naturally into the post-party, which features local artists.  The stage management of the event is way more complex than your standard new-music event at, say, Merkin Hall.  We fill the formerly empty gaps of a concert with projected information, experimenting with new ways to educate the audience in a fun way.

This concert featured Anna’s Roulette, Edmund Finnis’ Unfolds, and Magnus Lindberg’s sprawling Souvenir.  It was a nice study in contrasts.  Anna’s electro-acoustic quartet provided a forceful opening, Edmund’s piece taking us into a hushed world of quiet textures, and Magnus’ almost symphonic explorations bringing us to a stunning end.

These MusicNOW concerts take me to Chicago for a full week of production meetings, so I had to keep my song cycle from getting painted-over in my mind.  At close reach was Christina Rossetti’s “After Death,” a poem from the perspective of the departed.  The poem ends with a sudden twist, and I spent a good portion of the week thinking about how to set it to music.

Now back in California, I return to my woodshed, chipping away at the silence around this piece.  Right now, after posting this, I turn to those perplexing lines at the end of the poem: “He did not love me living, but once dead he pitied me; and very sweet it is to know he still is warm while I am cold.”

In such a fragmented world, with politicians, cell phones, and toddlers grabbing your train of thought at any given moment, it can be hard to stay focused.  For me, the best defense is time, starting a piece early enough so the wheels in my mind start spinning early.  A composing plan helps.  So does caffeine.

I’m Mason Bates, and I approve this message.