Carla Bley: On Her Own

Compositional Techniques and Methods

FRANK J. OTERI: So, your compositional techniques and methods as a self-trained composer…

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, as a composer, self-trained, not even trained. I didn’t train myself. I’m training myself now.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of the compositional process, you were saying before that the best inspiration for you is the bathtub…

CARLA BLEY: That was more of a joke. The desk would probably be better. But, if you’re stuck and take a long, hot bath, then it just might come to you. And then there’s that thing when you’re in bed and all of a sudden you can’t sleep and you’re going over and over that certain thing and you think, “Ah, that might work.” The next day it usually doesn’t, but in the garden you can keep singing something over and over again and maybe you’ll come up with something. The bathtub is good for not only music; the bathtub is good for all sorts of life situations. Like, what should I put on the cover? Or, when should I visit the lawyer? The bathtub is good for everything. I’m a firm believer in not thinking too hard.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of structures, you talked earlier about writing a phrase that musicians would first play then improvise on and then return to, it was a little tongue-in-cheek, but clearly in all of the records of yours that I’ve heard there’s a heck of a lot more detail in the compositions than that. What are some of the structures that you work in? Do you even think about music that way? How do you get from here to there in a composition?

CARLA BLEY: I do it like the train without railroad tracks. I just do it as I go. I have no idea how a piece is gonna go when I start. I have no idea how it’s gonna end. Right now I’m working on a piece that so far has two parts. First it had one part, but then it suggested going somewhere else and I thought, “Well, I gotta lighten up a bit; this is really too heavy.” So I wrote another part. I just finished it three days ago. But then I thought, “This wants to go back to the first part.” So I thought maybe Part One should be Part Two, but then I thought I’d need an introduction. I just ask myself all these questions as I’m sitting there or lying in the tub. I need a third part, but what could it be? How could I get a third part? You can’t have two parts. So this is my process: asking myself questions.

FRANK J. OTERI: So do you start something on paper first, or do you always start at the piano?

CARLA BLEY: Piano first. I tried writing without the piano, I tried writing on trains and those pieces are sort of short and boring. I think I like to be at the piano because I can’t hear as many notes as I want to. I can sing something to myself or tap my foot, but that’s not really good for an orchestra. So, it’s the piano.

FRANK J. OTERI: Handwriting or computer notation…

CARLA BLEY: I use the pencil and paper.

FRANK J. OTERI: Have you tried any of the computer notation systems?

CARLA BLEY: No. My daughter takes the finished score and puts it into Finale and prints out the parts. This is the last five years.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you don’t ever use it to hear back orchestration ideas.

CARLA BLEY: No, I don’t. The only thing I do at the computer is… I’m trying to learn PhotoShop so I can do my own album covers so I don’t have to farm those out to my daughter. But I don’t think I can stop writing music long enough to learn a computer program right now.

FRANK J. OTERI: Believe it or not, I learned Sibelius over a weekend.

CARLA BLEY: Oh c’mon. Really?

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s so easy. And it’s been the best thing that ever happened to me as a composer, since it’s not something I can do full-time. The ideas can get notated that fast and I can test them out, ear stuff back, etc. You say you’ve done these short pieces on the train and they never amounted to much of anything. How do you know when something is going to work? Is it when you present it to the musicians the first time?

CARLA BLEY: Oh, no. I know it’s working right there by looking at it on the page. I’m never surprised.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of the arrangement and who gets assigned what voice, you know it’s all going to work?

CARLA BLEY: Well, if it doesn’t work at first I keep worrying about it until it works. And then I play it with Steve. I make a piano reduction and I play as much of it as I can, and Steve plays the bass part. And then sometimes he changes some of the notes and gets a better groove. I really use him. He said, “Look, I’m on call 24 hours a day. Anytime you wanna play something and see if it works, just call me. I mean, I only have to call him downstairs now, but he used to be in Connecticut. That was quite a call. And then he will play it. Usually it’s OK lately, but sometimes he’ll change something and then I sort of hope that he will. Sometimes the bass part is not as finished as it would be if I had just an anonymous bass player. Steve will know what to do. I think that’s true.