BRIEF BLOG INTRO:
I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City. That is my way of describing how I feel having cheated death. In a game show, the Bonus Round is where time speeds up and the prizes are better. Seeing your death changes you. Now, I'm consuming life as quickly and as fully as I can, while still taking time to breathe and appreciate every single day as an utter miracle. Last year, I turned 60 and I had a set of goals, all of which came true, including composing -- and performing in -- a Mass, recording a solo album with a few friends and self-released it (selling tens of copies), headlined at a major night club in New York City to two full houses and just played the lead role in the reading play not written by myself. I update a few times a month these days, and I don't spam. So it's easier to keep up with me by following by Email. When this blog began, it was to track my death. I'm told it was the first AIDS blog. You can start at the gruesome beginning if you want. Or just jump in and maybe we can learn some life lessons together. Welcome to the Bonus Round. I'm Steve, The Songwriter.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Shining Eyes.

This video from the TED Talks brought tears to my eyes. The simplicity of how this great musician and conductor, Benjamin Zander, reminded me why I write and play and sing. I want you to watch it.



I found it on a blog of a music teacher named James L. Smith, which I found because I was searching for Beethoven's string quartet, Opus 132, third movement, which I was searching for on recommendation from my musical mentor and friend, Mark Janus -- which came from because he had just critiqued the "Agnus Dei" I have composed for my Mass.

He said, "Beethoven wrote this after a long illness and it was his celebration of being alive." And the reason we know this is because Beethoven wrote this fact into the title of this piece. Mark continued, "It's like the music you wrote for The Last Session. It just came directly from his heart. And it's written in Lydian mode."

Beethoven was also completely deaf when he wrote it. As I researched it, just looking at that piece of sheet music and hearing it in his head was his own form of meditation. Or in his case, how he connected to God.

But, interestingly, that's not why he recommended the piece. It happened because I did some sloppy work -- my word, not his -- that became a happy accident, you might say.

I had just finished the Credo. It's in D minor and it's very solid. It tells a story, both in the text -- I kept to Latin, in this case -- and makes an affirmation: This is what I believe.

I see The Agnus as a kind of prayer for peace. But there is no peace.

No. It's that one prays for peace, or meditates for peace, or works for peace, or writes for peace because there is non-peace.

In church each morning, we sing an Agnus Dei that I find breathtakingly beautiful. The tenor part is so luscious and melodic, it just feels good coming out of your chest cavity. In writing my Mass, I knew I couldn't match that. I'd just be rewriting that version. (I will later insert the composer of our Agnus. I'm so terrible at names.)

Also, it's in English.

So, I thought, "Well, let's go down a half step to Db. But, in order to express the disquiet -- the non-peace that I feel after having stood up and been so declarative -- I need some chaos. It needs to feel wrong, but still working within a tonal structure. IOW, I'm not going for avant garde. At least, in my mind, it feels like traditional romantic music.

So, I started on the 5 chord. The Ab. At the end of the song, for some reason, it just felt right to end on the Gb. I wanted that tonality.

But when Mark looked at it, what he saw was a piece of music written in Db which ended in Gb, and which never, because of the accidentals, never landed on a Db anywhere in the piece.

So, his suggestion, which made perfect sense, was to just change the key to reflect the fact that it's actually in Ab, the first chord -- and then change keys to Gb, at the end. He also said that it was not a necessary thing to do, but something to think about.

Which is what made him think of Lydian mode, where you kind of do that intentionally -- but which was not the case here.

So, I had a choice. What key is this in? Did I really intend to write it in Db? Not really. It was just my starting point. I never would have written it in Ab if I hadn't intended to add some chaos to Db. The chords, ever more dissonant, kind of went their own way. What I hope is that it makes sense, emotionally.

If you didn't look at that video, go look at it now.

Yesterday morning, I was a guest in a classroom filled with students studying social work. How to deal with clients and patients. It was the first time in a long time that I've spoken in public in that way.

I had to revisit the time before the The Last Session. I had to remember how those songs came about. It's so funny. Each time they asked me a question, the answer would invariably be "I wrote a song about that."

"Did you go to any groups? What was it like to learn you weren't going to die right then?"

I gave them the Spotify link and the iTunes link. Told them about how many social workers over the years have used my music as therapy for their clients.

One website, in discussing this Beethoven string quartet, said he wrote that it shouldn't ever be played in public. That it was for just his friends to listen to, in small groups. A piece he never heard except in his head.

So, after I go home, I looked it up. And found this:




I felr dumb as a dog watching a person drive a car.

I kept trying to keep up with the score, trying to see what notes he wrote. I got more and more frustrated.

Then, I started to write this blog and, just as background, let it play again. And then I could hear it.

This was the private music he wrote in his own head in celebration of the fact that his stomach stopped hurting -- after a long time of pain and suffering.

I was missing the music by trying to analyze it before I heard it.

Sometimes I find myself trying to analyze my music before I write it. This Mass -- I'm writing this without touching the piano. It's not completely like Beethoven, though, because I can "listen to the sheet music" through score writing software. All of which reminds me that I have a long path ahead of me when it comes to learning music.

And it's up to me to find that path and walk it.

But as I looked into the eyes of the 25 or so students yesterday morning, as I had to go back to the darkest of days, recalling how we all connected online through the BBS services, how this diary had become a case study for students all over the country studying social work, that it all started with a simple need to express a feeling.

To tell a story in song. To just be real, from the heart.

That's what moves an audience.
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