Composer Mark Buller offers a glimpse into his creative process and the inner-workings that must all come together to create the final musical product that we the audience get to hear and experience.
One of Buller’s compositions will be featured in ROCO’s Musical and Literary Ofrenda taking place on Nov. 1 at Lawndale Art Center.
The ofrenda is ROCO’s way of celebrating the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” The free five-way collaboration finds ROCO partnering with Lawndale, Musiqa, Inprint and the Houston Hispanic Forum—all promoted by the Mexican Consulate. The five original musical “ofrendas” (offerings)—commissioned by ROCO from Musiqa composers—are woven amongst four original prose texts by Inprint authors, surrounded by the beautiful retablos (altar pieces) on display at Lawndale.
Q: When you start writing a new work, do you always start in the same place? Or does your creative process differ with every project?
Mark Buller: The process for beginning a piece differs depending on what kind of piece it is. For operas, there’s lots of work to be done with the librettist, determining the tone and structure of the piece, as well as when certain motives can return. With instrumental music, I try to do as much large-scale planning as possible, outlining the overall structure of each movement, how melodies will be developed, and so on.
Much of the final product is determined by the physicality of playing the instrument as well: how can I examine and display the character of each instrument, evoke the drama of a big down-bow on a cello, a run to the top of the clarinet’s range. Sometimes when writing instrumental music, I’ll even write program notes before ever writing a single note.
When it comes to art songs, like the ones for ROCO, obviously the text is set in stone. After selecting the texts, I try to memorize them and let them marinate for a while. I analyze them in an attempt to determine any underlying framework, then decide if I’ll follow that path musically or work against it.
But I think what’s important is a respect for the text: the better I can understand it, the more sympathetically I’ll be able to set it.
Q: In writing music with text, talk about things you have to consider that are different from instrumental music.
Mark Buller: The nice thing about setting text to music is that part of my job is already done. The emotional content is there, and all I need to do is bring it out, to illustrate it with music.
Of course, this is easier said than done, since I have to keep in mind a number of limitations: the range of the singer; the natural rhythmic pattern and inflection of the text; how to write an accompaniment that helps the singer feel confident as they find their notes, one that stays sufficiently out of the way yet has a character of its own, and isn’t bland.
Q: An ofrenda is an offering: Is your composition an offering to something or someone?
Mark Buller: The song I’m working on is an arrangement from a song cycle called Tombstone Songs. For that cycle I found several humorous epitaphs and set them to music. So my ofrenda is, I suppose, a sort of offering to Solomon Pease, a man from Ohio (or Vermont, or Massachusetts, depending on the source) who is remembered only by a witty inscription on his tombstone: “Pease is not here, but only his Pod/He shelled out his soul/Which went straight to God.”
The inscription itself may be apocryphal, but if it is indeed real, I like to think Mr. Pease would have appreciated the stone-etched puns that helped set him apart from his eternal neighbors.
Q: What do you do when you’re feeling compositionally uninspired? Do you have a way to get your creative juices flowing?
Mark Buller: The way to write music is simply to sit down and start writing. That’s a bit of an oversimplification of course, but in the end, it’s all about writing something down, even if it’ll be deleted later. When I know I’ll be working on a project, I try to be as well-rested as possible, and avoid listening to anything that I know will turn into an earworm. Any sort of intellectual stimulation helps. And caffeine never hurts either!
It’s also important to be in a good place mentally. I structure my work so I won’t get behind, telling myself I’ll have a certain amount finished by a certain date. It’s a little thing, but I create the schedule so that I’m always ahead of the deadlines: that way, I’m not scrambling to catch up, but instead free to experiment.
Q: Are you ever afraid you’ll run out of notes to write?
Mark Buller: I think there’s always the fear that the piece I just finished was the last ‘good one.’ There’s always a little bit of anxiety beginning a project, especially a big one: what if it’s too hard/too easy, what if it doesn’t fulfil the stylistic expectations, what if the audience doesn’t understand it, and so on. But I think a little bit of that anxiety is good: it makes me think, makes me ask the right questions, makes me take into consideration the performers and the audience and the venue.
There have been lots of well-known composers crippled by this fear. I suspect much of it is due to a self-imposed standard set far too high. Sibelius felt his final symphony was never good enough, and ended up destroying it, orchestration and all. Brahms and Dukas discarded dozens of early sketches and even complete pieces, and that’s really a shame. Not every new piece has to be the pinnacle of Great Art.
Q: What’s one misconception you’d like to dispel about composers?
Mark Buller: There’s a bit of a misconception about inspiration, and it goes back to Pope Gregory, whose inspiration was, according to the medieval Church, quite literal: apparently, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and sang the chant in his ear, and he simply wrote it down (the Church, which wanted to standardize what was sung to help avoid heresy, hoped such stories might grant the collection of chant an air of divine legitimacy).
Of course, nobody believes that today’s composers have such a benefit, though we all agree it would be nice. Nonetheless, there’s always been a romantic notion of how creative people get their ideas: the poet, walking in the woods, is struck all at once with an epic; the novelist, mid-dinner, has the idea for a novel; the composer, sitting at a piano, ‘discovers’ in the æther a fully fleshed-out symphony.
In reality, it’s a few good ideas and a lot of hard work, lots of trial and error. There’s instinct, yes, but also Edison’s famous “ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
Buller’s creativity, organization and innate talent are all key components that provide the listener with a unique musical event such as the upcoming Musical and Literary Ofrenda.
ROCO presents Musical and Literary Ofrenda on Tuesday, Nov. 1, at Lawndale Art Center (free).