Attention to Detail
In the this-is-so-completely-random-but-is-yet-another-example-of-how-weird-my-life-is department, last week Universal Network Television LLC paid me $200 so they could install Christmas lights in the windows of my apartment. An episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit was being filmed outside the building where I live and the production crew wanted to plant various visible cues everywhere to suggest the holiday season. I normally never decorate at home, but my inner bah-humbug is easily assuaged by a monetary payoff and admittedly the cash is particularly handy this time of year. Still, I’m amazed at this level of detail and the amount of care that went into something that will probably only appear on screen for a very short amount of time. They actually started setting up shop for the shoot, which took place all day Thursday, on Monday, making sure that cars would not be parked there on the day they were shooting, making various cosmetic alterations to my building to make it look like a housing project instead of a co-op, etc.
I’ve long been intrigued by Orson Welles’s obsession with minutiae during the filming of his second motion picture The Magnificent Ambersons from 1942—designing a set that included a house with walls that could be rolled back in order to shoot continuous takes and, my all-time favorite, constructing an entire block of buildings which only appears in the film reflected through the windows of buildings across the street. Welles’s over-the-top approach and way-over-budget production costs wound up getting him sacked by the film’s producers before the film was completed; they wrestled control from him and ultimately completed it themselves. The lesson I’ve always taken away from this cautionary tale from the annals of Hollywood lore—as well as from the similar story of Brian Wilson’s inability to complete The Beach Boys’ 1967 album SMiLE—is to work within a reasonable set of limits and to know when to let something go.
In my own music I’ve long been fixated with various issues that go beyond what most people consider reasonable limits—explorations of microtonal tunings, unusual metrical configurations and tempo transformations, non-standard instrumentation, etc.—and have also had problems with letting certain details go. For me, the details are sometimes the most interesting part of the process, even if they don’t make the least bit of difference to most listeners. But it’s not so much that I’m interested in creating stuff that most people can’t hear. Rather, making sure all the elements fit seamlessly together is extraordinarily pleasurable, akin to the delight of completing an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or (as I can only imagine since I’m terrified of needles) knitting a scarf or a sweater. Coming to the conclusion of such a process, when everything seems to be all lined up correctly, is somehow its own satisfaction. For me, hearing a performance that captures significantly more than just a fleeting essence of the processes I used in the creation of the music is the icing on the cake.
Somehow seeing the depth of care that the crew for Law and Order put into making sure everything was just right made me reconsider the caution I had internalized from the Welles and Wilson sagas. I seriously wonder how many people watching that television episode will notice the Christmas lights in my window, but it’s beside the point. Having them there presumably makes for a more complete visual narrative. And the same is true for music that is crammed full of specificities but whose universal perceptibility is doubtful. You may not be able to hear all of what’s in there, but you can intuit that there is some kind of carefully considered manipulation of sonic materials going on. One of the poems by Stephen Crane that I set in the song cycle I recently completed contains the line, “nine and ninety nine lie.” For my realization of that, I included a progression of 108 deceptive cadences. A series of metric modulations constantly changes the precise tempo indicated by a quarter note, but it all stems from a basic quarter note value of 108. For another poem which attempts to define truth, A = 440 (which is regarded by most musicians as the absolute truth but wasn’t always so), is sung only once, when truth is apparently clear. I know that these are things that few people, if any, will hear or even care about, but including them in the piece led me down compositional paths that I think ultimately served the poems appropriately and led to what I believe or at least hope is effective music that transcends the methods used to construct it.
Similarly, those Christmas lights in my window, while undoubtedly not the key to solving whatever mystery plot unfolded in the episode of Law and Order filmed outside my apartment building, were significant enough to the creators of the show that they spent days arranging for them to be installed and paid me a couple of hundred bucks to boot. Now if I could only get commensurate remuneration for every one of my metric modulations.