From Poetry to Music: A Process of Composition

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In honor of today being National Poetry Day, I though I'd write a post about how poetry has influenced my own creativity. As you may or may not know, I am a freelance composer and have written music for various events and ensembles. I thought it would be fun to describe my process of setting poetry to music.

I've always been drawn to the poetry of ee cummings. Something about his writing speaks to me and conjures deep emotion and images within my soul. More importantly, when I read his works, I instantly begin to hear music and have ideas for how I would set the text. I'll admit, I certainly read some poetry and have absolutely no idea or desire to turn it into music. More so, it is nearly impossible to put into words exactly how I come to "hear" this music. As cliche as it may be to say this, sometimes inspiration does strike and I'm drawn to begin writing.

In this case, I was inspired by a much less poetic source. . . a deadline! As I was working on my masters degree at the University of Houston, my friend Patrick requested I compose a song cycle for him. For those of you unfamiliar with classical music, a song cycle is a set of three or more songs related by topic, musical material, or author  that are written for a solo voice and piano. With a looming recital date, I began the process of revisiting some of my favorite ee cummings poetry.

My initial notes on the text and musical sketches.
I was immediately drawn to his poem if there are any heavens my mother will. With imagery and a gut emotional reaction coming info focus, I printed off the text and began the process of setting it to music. You may find it hard to believe, but melodies and music did not automatically come pouring out of me. My initial approach to writing had very little to do with music itself. It is my belief that the text informs the music, so I always start there. Armed with only a pencil and a printout of the poem, I began my process by studying the words. More specifically, I read the poem aloud and marked the natural rhythm of the text. Of course, I do change rhythm of some words for purely musical reasons, but the majority of what I marked on that sheet remained in the final version of the song.

Only after spending several days with the words did I finally begin writing musical ideas. I decided that the song would begin with uncertainty as the text ponders heaven. Slowly, the singer gains confidence as he states what heaven will include. With a definitive contour in mind, I sketched the song until I had a version I was satisfied with. Again, I used the words to inform what I was doing musically. Each word has a natural cadence and pitch to it. Different parts of words are stressed and rise and fall when we say them. For example, the word "music" can be broken into two syllables "mu-sic" with a slight emphasis on the first one. I used these characteristics to define the melodies that I created.

Coffee, coffee, and more coffee as I input the music
into the computer!
You will notice in the picture above that all of my sketches were done with pencil and paper. I certainly have the capabilities to compose with my computer, but I have always preferred doing things "the old fashioned way". Anyway, after completing a rough sketch of the song, the real fun began. I met with Patrick to determine what worked and what could be improved upon. This collaboration ensured that the final song would be musically sufficient and feasibly prepared and performed by the musicians.

Finally, a month after beginning the process, I was ready to publish the song. This is my absolute least favorite part of composing! The process of transmitting every handwritten note from the page to the computer program is tedious and time consuming. Fueled by coffee and pure desperation, I spent many hours transferring the piece into my computer and formatting the pages. It is a dull but necessary endeavor. After all, I'd never want a singer to have to perform my music from my chicken scratch sketches!

Through the collaboration of talented musicians and by employing a process that utilizes the text to make musical decisions, I was able to compose a song setting that I believe is both musically satisfying and an appropriate portrayal of the words. Listen to the recording of the premiere of this work below and let me know what you think! Hopefully you enjoyed reading about the genesis of this song as much as I enjoyed composing it!

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter


"Why did it have to be her?"

Julia Carroll was a shining star. She was beautiful, intelligent, loving, the kind of person her peers aspired to be. One fateful evening in March of 1991 changed all of that. Julia was seen leaving a bar that night and was never heard from again. Just like that, the nineteen-year-old was gone, leaving behind an unfinished life, numerous questions, and a family that would be forever changed by her disappearance.

Her father Sam never gave up hope. The authorities believed that Julia left on her own accord. Sam new that his daughter would never do that. She loved her family too much to leave without notice. He was convinced that something more sinister occurred. Consumed by the need for answers, Sam continued to investigate any leads into his daughter's disappearance. As his marriage crumbled and his remaining two daughters took separate paths in their own lives, Sam never lost hope that he would be reunited with his eldest child.

Twenty years later, Lydia is barely making it through her daily life. After her sister vanished, Lydia fell into a world of addiction, criminal activity, and deceit that cost her any relationship with her family. She finally overcame these vices to ensure a positive life for her daughter Dee. With Dee attending a private high school and as a single mother, Lydia works hard to provide for her small family. The events of the past come back haunt her when she learns of the death of a man who played a huge part in her estrangement from her family.

Claire Scott, the youngest of the three Carroll daughters, is watching as her life unravels before her eyes. A casual stroll through an alley with her husband Paul ended with the two being mugged by a criminal and Paul being stabbed to death. Now Claire is struggling to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Paul was the financial provider, and he always saw that his wife was taken care of. When Paul's business partner requests computer files that Paul was working on at the time of his death, Claire is happy to oblige. But what she discovers on her husband's computer is shocking. Now Claire is forced to delve deeper into her husband's web of lies and uncover secrets that have massive ramifications. With these revelations, the entire Carroll family must reexamine the grim realities of Julia's disappearance.

Karin Slaughter is recognized for her fast paced and intelligent crime novels. With Pretty Girls, she intimately explores a family's grief while delivering an engaging and deeply disturbing mystery. Each of the main characters have dealt with the loss of Julia in their own ways, and Slaughter does a commendable job of showing the different ways that they process this reality. These character driven moments help the reader to create an emotional connection with the larger narrative.

All too often, missing persons cases go unnoticed. With 24 hour news cycles constantly focusing on the events that draw ratings, it is easy for these cases to fall out of focus. With so many occurring it is no wonder that the public has become desensitized to them. By describing the plight of one family, Slaughter highlights the range of emotions that families experience with each of the cases that happen. Without these strong displays of humanity, the graphic descriptions of sadistic rape and torture, similar to those in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, would be unbearable. Slaughter expertly maneuvers through this difficult story with a clear prose that makes for an easy read. There are plenty of twists and turns that will genuinely shock you, including a mid-novel revelation that sends that remainder of the story into high gear. Slaughter wrote a short prelude to this story that gave a bit of background into Julia's life, but I do not think it is imperative that you read it before this novel. Overall, Pretty Girls is a fantastic standalone thriller that excites through strong plot, emotion, and riveting suspense.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 31)

Friday Flicks: Psycho


Can you believe that it is already October?! This month marks the beginning of my favorite time of the year. The weather is cooler (I live in Texas, so anything less than 100 degrees is amazing), all of our food and drinks have pumpkin in it, and we are able to enjoy a little bit of down time before the hectic holiday season. With this new season, publishers and movie studios tend to trade their summer beach reads and big budget blockbusters for more prestigious fare. And of course, this month is capped off by one of my favorite holidays . . . Halloween! In honor of this holiday A Book A Week will feature weekly Friday Flicks that are adaptations of horror novels. Each week will feature a different film from a different decade. We will begin in the 60's and work our way up to the present day. Pour yourself a pumpkin spice latte, grab a blanket, and cozy up on your couch as we celebrate all things Horror!

There is perhaps no other horror movie as iconic as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The 1960 film is noted as being one of the famed director's crowning achievements, but the it's origin was anything but easy. Based upon the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Psycho was deemed too grotesque by Hitchcock's studio, Paramount, and they refused to fund its filming. Disappointed by his previous directorial effort and determined to revitalize his career, Hitchcock took a major salary cut and personally funded the production of the film. These budget cuts forced Hitchcock to shoot the movie in black and white and created a tight production schedule. While controversial for its "graphic" content, this film was a runaway commercial success. Even though critics were initially mixed in their reaction, Psycho's commercial appeal and audience appreciation has turned it into a beloved classic.

The story begins when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large sum of money from a client at the real estate office that she works at. Instead of taking the cash to deposit in the bank, she keeps it with her so that she can elope with her boyfriend Sam. She decides to run away with the money. As she leaves town, chance encounters with her boss and a state trooper add to her guilt and paranoia. This along with an unrelenting storm and a wrong turn leads her to the Bate's Motel.

The dilapidated establishment is run by Norman Bates, a soft-spoken man who invites Marion to a light dinner in his office. Surrounded by disconcerting stuffed animals, Norman tells her about is hobby of taxidermy and about his mentally ill mother who he cares for. Marion takes in this unusual character as she silently grapples with her crime. Overcome by guilt, she resolves to return the money when she leaves in the morning. But, as anyone who has watched the movie knows, that is not meant to be. As she takes a shower in her room, the silhouette of a woman can be seen behind the curtains. What ensues is one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.

 Beyond the famed shower scene, Psycho is a brilliant film that will keep you invested and shocked until the very end. Even if you have seen the movie before, the twist ending will leave you uncomfortable and disturbed. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates quietly unnerves with his subtle politeness and lanky stature. With composer Bernard Herrmann's haunting score as the soundtrack to this drama, Hitchcock masterfully leads his audience through a sinister tale of murder and conspiracy. While much of the content is tame compared to the gore in modern horror films, Psycho stands as the foundation of the slasher genre and as a prime example of a perfect horror adaptation.

Introducing . . . Fan Feature!


I'm excited to announce a new monthly feature here at A Book A Week. One of the great joys of blogging has been connecting with indie authors. Through this blog and its various social media accounts, I've been exposed to many authors who write unique books and are extremely friendly. These connections have inspired me to start a new feature called FAN FEATURE!

With FAN FEATURE, I intend to help independent authors who are followers and fans of this blog, by featuring them and their works.  My goal is to give a voice to those authors who do not have the support of large publishing houses and promoters. Once the winner is selected, I will coordinate with them to feature their works in a way they deem appropriate. Further, a link to every participant's website will be provided to readers of this blog in a separate post.

To enter, simply follow me on Twitter and tweet about FAN FEATURE by using the Rafflecopter below. The winner will be announced and contacted on October 23 and featured in the last week of October.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek


"What they're doing down there is mourning. As millions of people across the infinitude of the grid shall always be mourning, coping with every imaginable variation of loss. Every loss deserves a telling."

8-11 was the day that changed everything. Twenty-year-old Skylar was watching from her apartment window when she noticed the object falling from the sky. Before she could reach the young boy she was babysitting, the night's sky was illuminated by the brilliant flash of the mass impacting the earth. The Golden Gate Bridge was reduced to rubble, and a haze of ash and debris enveloped the city. As soon as she ascended to the chaos on the streets, Skylar's fate was sealed. The toxic air polluted her lungs and she, like so many others that day, fell victim to the catastrophic tragedy.

Several years later the world is still coping with the effects of that incident. Authorities were never able to determine what exactly caused the disaster and have no idea who, if anyone, was responsible for the attack. Some claim that the object was a missal or a bomb. Others swear it was an object from outer space. In the end, whatever the object was doesn't really matter. The events of that day have caused an immense shift in the daily lives of everyday people. They now, "live, day to day, with the chance of something violent, something tragic happening at any moment."Motivated by this constant fear, post-incident America has responded in a historically misguided way. Much like Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Muslim Americans have been corralled into camps. As Americans search for any scapegoat to place their anger and grief upon, Muslims become the victims of hate and distrust.

Skylar's family has found her death to be unbearable. So much so that her parents, Mitch and Kathryn, have erased any trace of their deceased daughter.  Whether they have done this consciously or not is unclear, but they constantly tell their youngest son, Dorian, that he does not and has never had a sister. Dorian was a toddler on 8-11, so he has no recollection of Skylar. But the young man is beginning to suspect that his parents are hiding something from him. He has vivid dreams of a young woman watching a blinding flash from an apartment window in the city. His parents refuse to acknowledge any questions about the girl, but Dorian persists that evidence of a sister must exist somewhere.

Dorian's life becomes even further conflicted when his elderly neighbor introduces a young boy, Karim, who he has adopted from one of the Muslim camps. Dorian is instantly filled with hate for the boy. "Hating . . . not him exactly, but the idea of him, or the idea of people like him -- and though he has been taught to not believe in the sameness of all such persons, a logic as inborn as the structure of his DNA connect each and every one of them. . ."

Karim is equally troubled with his new life. In the camps, he was indoctrinated with the teachings of self-sacrifice to reach eternal paradise. The Sheik had Karim memorize a number that he was to use to contact the camp after he settled into his new home. Once contact was established, Karim would begin the process of planning for a suicide bombing mission. But as he assimilates to his current situation, Karim begins to realize that he may have more similarities than differences with the people he has been taught to hate.

In Not on Fire, but Burning, author Greg Hrbek explores the ways in which people deal with the grief and fear that comes from loss. He changes between first and third person point of view as each of the characters are explored. At first, this can be a bit disconcerting, but the changing perspectives soon fall into a steady rhythm that allows for a breezy pace. By shifting to the different characters, Hrbek provides intimate insight into each of their situations. While they are all connected as participants in the main narrative, the characters are further united by the same internal conflict. Each character is trying to reconcile societal decorum with their own conscience. This makes for a layered drama that delves beyond the main story. Through this extensive character study and an almost poetic prose, Hrbek crafts an exquisite novel that works as a metaphor to America's reaction to the events of 9/11 and a stunning exploration of the human reaction to tragedy.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 30)

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee


Harper Lee's acclaimed novel, To Kill A Mockingbird has long been considered one of the top books in American literature. I still remember reading the novel during my freshmen year of high school. While some of the themes may have gone over my head, I was immediately attracted to the style of Lee's writing and have always held the book in high regard. The famously reclusive author was recently thrust back into the spotlight when it was announced that her long lost manuscript, Go Set A Watchman, would be published. There continues to be quite a bit of confusion and controversy surrounding the discovery and release of this fifty-year-old story, but I knew that I would be reading it. With this new work, I decided to revisit To Kill A Mockingbird as well.

Immediately, Lee's prose transports readers to a simpler time. Through her juvenile protagonist, Scout, Lee documents a coming of age story that dares to tackle racism, ignorance, and justice. Mockingbird is set in Maycomb, Alabama, a picturesque little town, during the 1930's. Scout spends her summer days playing with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill. The trio has a particular interest in their mysteriously reclusive neighbor Boo Radley. Maycomb lore tells cautionary tales against disturbing Boo, but Scout and her gang are determined to sneak up to his house and catch a glimpse of him.

Amongst the vignettes of Scout's childhood games and experiences emerges a larger narrative thread that involves her father Atticus. Atticus Finch stands as a shining literary example of what a father is and should aspire to be. His wife died during childbirth, so he has taken to raising his children on his own. As a father and the local town lawyer, Atticus becomes the moral compass for his family and the local justice system. When Tom Robinson, an African-American man, is accused of raping a local woman, Atticus volunteers to defend him. A riveting trial ensues, and Scout begins to witness the ways in which her family and town react to the racially charged proceedings.

It is almost impossible to write an objective review of this classic. Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird were placed upon a literary pedestal long before I cracked the spine of this novel. But there is something to be said for the profound effect that this story has on those who read it. Through a lyrically southern voice that instantly captivates your imagination, Lee provides an idyllic tale of innocence that is both nostalgic and equally timely. She writes of the values and integrity and we all aspire to achieve. Justice, understanding, acceptance, faith, perseverance, all are explored through the plainspoken words of a child. Whatever your opinion of the recently released manuscript, the simplicity and beauty of this original novel makes for a deeply moving experience and a quintessential work of American literature.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 29)

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