Usually Never at a Loss for Words

Usually Never at a Loss for Words



On Saturday night there was a concert devoted to my music in New York City featuring the world premiere of a work I labored on for most of last year, plus the first complete performance of a work that’s more than 30 years old. Writing at length about that concert here today seems awkward to me since I don’t want to be self-serving. But not acknowledging it at all seems equally inappropriate since it was the event of this past week that loomed largest to me (for obviously reasons) and I at least would like to officially thank everyone who showed up. (We barely had enough seats.) Also, I want to share a fascinating side conversation I got into with two old friends whom I introduced to each other during the late-night dinner after the concert, one of whom I had not spent quality time with in nearly eight years.

The two friends in question—Marc Ostrow and Sidney Whelan—both compose music in addition to their other activities in life, but neither describes himself as a composer. However, although Marc is a music business attorney and Sid is a real estate agent, their eschewal of the word composer has nothing to do with their day jobs. Both feel more comfortable with the word songwriter. Marc writes musical theatre material and also sings and plays jazz piano. Sid has written original material for groups he has been involved in—either as leader or a guitar-playing sideman—ranging from Afropop to rock to Americana roots music; he was the original guitarist in a punk bluegrass band I fronted for over a decade and is currently exploring acoustic blues. Normally, when folks who create music outside the realm of so-called classical music reject the moniker composer, I counter that the word is not genre specific. If someone is creating original music—whatever style or level of notational detail (it could even be completely un-notated)—he or she is engaging in the act of musical composition. In fact, to me, calling yourself a songwriter implies a much more specific skill set; it means you are creating words as well as music. If someone else is writing your lyrics, you are merely a composer! But since Marc and Sid both write their own words, I didn’t put up a fight.

My dander did however get raised a tad when both claimed it was much harder to write words than to write music. Sid explained this by saying that there are over a million words in the English language so the choices were daunting whereas with music he was only dealing with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Marc concurred. When I as a sometime microtonalist was quick to counter that there are far more possibilities than those 12 (and as a bluesman Sid obviously knows this), he insisted that the range of pitch variance is still clearly smaller than word choice. Of course, pitch is an infinite continuum despite cognitive scientists’ assertions that the human ear cannot distinguish intervals that are smaller than 5 cents apart (roughly 1/20th the size of an equally tempered semitone, e.g. 1/20th the size of the distance between C and C#), which means at best we’ve got 240 possible pitches to work with. Even that number might be overly generous. Aaron Andrew Hunt created a pitch matrix based on the concept of just noticeable differences and came up with a scale of 205 equal temperament which is the basis of his tonal plexus keyboard. I bought one of these keyboards from him and have been trying to wrap my brain around those possibilities ever since; it will probably take the rest of my life.

Yet even if there are more usable words than pitches, or perhaps more words that are generally comprehensible to others, we use language differently than we use music. We use language to do just about every activity in our lives and we all learned how to speak before we had any notion of how words should be put together. Since language skills are instilled in us and are a necessary part of functioning within society, words should come more naturally than music. Even though music is something I firmly believe every human being is capable of playing as well as creating, societies often instill the idea that making music is a specialized skill (and creating it an even more rarified endeavor). As a result, most people feel uncomfortable making music whereas they still use language every day of their lives—since it’s nearly impossible not to. So shouldn’t it be much easier to create lyrics than to create music?

I consider myself a composer and I labor over every single note I choose to share with other people, sometimes for months. I spend much more of my time writing words and far more people have read my words than have ever heard a note of my music. Yet an essay—such as the one you are currently reading—is something I can usually crank out in a little over an hour. Admittedly when I was much younger, I wrote music much faster than I currently do and it was an agony to string words together on a page. I used to brag about writing a piano concerto in nine days, but in hindsight that’s a piece I no longer care if people ever hear. Then again, my prose, poetry, and song lyrics from that time are also unworthy of exhumation.

So then why do others think that it’s easier to write music than it is to write words? Maybe because words are something we are all engaged in, the stakes feel higher somehow. We can do anything with music; our choices with words are much more limited since the functionality of language demands that it has a higher level of comprehensibility. Even though Gertrude Stein started writing prose that defied syntax and coherence over a century ago and many poets and prose writers have explored similar terrain, verbal experimentation seems an even less mainstream activity than playing around with more than 12 pitches. But that contradicts Sid’s million words vs. 12 (or 205) pitches argument.

Then again, effectively putting music to words seems to require that the composer be able to deeply internalize those words and make them his or her own. This is something that can be incredibly difficult to do if those words are not yours as well. Perhaps songwriters have a much easier job of it than folks who only write music since the words they are writing music to are already theirs.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

6 thoughts on “Usually Never at a Loss for Words

  1. Marc Ostrow

    Frank, I’m also still processing that conversation, but this songwriter struggles with words more than music for 2 reasons. First, music is more abstract. With lyrics, you’ve actually got to have something specific to say – and hopefully in a way that’s not trite or overdone. And unlike pondering a poem the words also need to be understood in real time. Second, if I’m writing in a traditional form, e.g., verse- chorus, once I write the music to 1 verse and 1 chorus, I’m done. But I’ve got to write words to 2 or 3 or more verses and sometimes even choruses. That’s hard.

  2. Pingback: Song Cycle Saturday | Marc D. Ostrow, Esq.

  3. Mark N. Grant

    Anthony Burgess (heralded novelist and essayist, unheralded prolific composer):

    “The writing of a three-hundred page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate. A desire to avoid the labour to an end unrealisable in performance led me eventually to prose composition, which I have always seen as an analogue to symphonic writing. In a symphony many strands conjoined, in the same instant, to make a statement; in a novel all you had was a single line of monody. The ease with which dialogue could be written seemed grossly unfair. This was not art as I had known it. It seemed cheating not to be able to give the reader chords and counterpoint. It was like pretending that there could be such a thing as a concerto for unaccompanied flute.”

    Hector Berlioz (composer, critic, memoirist):

    “I have often sat up all night over my scores, and have spent eight hours at a time labouring at instrumentation, without once changing my position; but I have to fight myself to begin to write a page of prose, and about the tenth line or so I get up, walk about the room, look out into the street, take up a book, and strive by any means to overcome the weariness and fatigue which instantly overpowers me. I have to return to the charge eight or ten times before I can finish an article for the Journal des Débats, and it takes me quite two days to write one, even when I like the subject and am interested in it. And then, what erasures, and what scrawls! You should see my first draft! Musical composition comes naturally to me, and is a delight; but prose-writing is a labour.”

    H. L. Mencken (journalist, satirist, lexicographer, music critic, pianist, chamber musician):

    “Any literate man can master the technique of poetry or the novel in ten days, and that of the drama—despite all the solemn hocus-pocus of the professors who presume to teach it—in three weeks, but not even the greatest genius could do a sound fugue without long and painful preparation. To write even a string quartet is not merely an act of creation, like writing a sonnet; it is also an act of applied science, like cutting out a set of tonsils.”

    I’ll throw in my own two cents as a composer myself as well as a writer (books, journalism, lyrics, libretti): I think music composition is—hands down—far more difficult, both intellectually and in pure labor. A composer may have to write down hundreds and hundreds of notes and other markings merely to constitute 5-10 seconds of a full orchestra score (think of doing that by hand before Finale and Sibelius). I go with Mencken and Burgess here. (By the way, Berlioz was an incredibly good writer.)

    1. Marc Ostrow

      Mark – It all depends upon your compositional technique and forces. As a songwriter, I write neo-tonal music for small forces. Alan Jay Lerner was known to sweat days or weeks over a single word in a lyric. Any idiot with a rhyming dictionary can spit out a lyric. It ain’t easy to write good ones. I’d like to read some of Mencken’s and Berlioz’ song lyrics. Many composers who write songs have tried their hand at wordsmithing and stuck with their lyricist partners. If it’s so easy, why?

  4. Allan J. Cronin

    Your music like your words, deserves to be heard. I regularly read your commentaries but I have heard too little of your music though I have enjoyed studying some of your scores. I will continue to read your words and I look forward to hearing more of your music and hope you can continue to invest the time and energy to nurture that aspect of your creative self.


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