Releasing the Caged Bird

Completing a Work

Why the Caged Bird Sings chamber scoreLast week I completed a piece. Just days ago, I was absorbed in its compositional momentum and its specific sounds, sonorities so sweet and compelling I’d hear them in bed each morning waking me up. That piece – the Caged Bird piece – is to be sung by 75 children along with French horn and piano. Through my weeks of work on it, voices of imaginary children sang inside me, keeping me company, keeping me busy, keeping me believing there was something in the world urgently worth doing. Each day of those past two months, the imaginary sound of singing children steered me to the piano before shower or breakfast.

Five nights ago, I realized the piece was complete. I ran down to the corner mailbox in the middle of the night to send it off to the printer downtown – although mail would not be retrieved until morning – compelled by the urgent necessity of closing the outside world over my work, confirming the Caged Bird’s completion and wresting it from my grasp.

Composing contents me most when my function as composer is more that of midwife than mother; when the internal elements of the music itself reveal what specific moments require attention; when listening intently I can hear the seeds of the piece grow gradually toward fruition.

But times of communion with the emergent music end abruptly once it is finished; and the time of completion and moving on is seldom one of jubilation or relief. Quite the contrary: then I’m alone with the raw straw of the next piece, hoping I’ll remember how to bring it to a point where it can spin itself into something more gold than stale hay. And until unambiguous grace appears again on several staves, I won’t be caught up in the transcendent tide of a vitalizing, satisfying, solitary, almost overwhelming world.

It’s a predictable part of the compositional cycle for me, but a dark one, nonetheless: letting go of a completed work and getting on preliminaries for the next. Once the next work reveals its distinctive self, of course, I will be as wed to it as I was to the prior one. Yet until then, I feel as though I were meeting numbers of unrelated if pleasant people without ever falling in love.

Since I sent the Caged Bird off, these last five days have had a different rhythm: breakfast, bathing, dressing and other domestic rituals begin my day before I wander over to my piano. I examine and generate new sketches, considering their possible appropriateness for music not yet my friend, let alone my familiar. Working on new sketches after sending a finished piece away, I feel an obligation to observe appropriate preliminaries, and I harbor hope of a new, unknown work becoming as real and compelling to me as the completed one. And while my daily contact with such musical preliminaries is enjoyable, it is not intimate; it’s congenial not deeply fulfilling; a new acquaintance nowhere near the intensity of real love – all hope and unrealized potential, and loneliness for the finished one, gone in the mail, out into the world of readings, rehearsals and real voices.

During the next days and weeks, I’ll see friends more, read, listen to others’ music a great deal. I busy myself in all the ways I’d try to heal myself after the end of a painful love affair. All the while remembering the five weekends I couldn’t bear to leave my apartment, answer my phone or look up my e-mail because I had become so engaged in that children’s choir and the Caged Bird I’d learned how to release.

That Caged Bird had been my mate and partner for two months. I loved it not as a completed or successful work but as a cherished, encouraging companion. And I miss that companionship. Will some new unwritten work, which I glimpse only vaguely in its early sketches, become my obsession, my lover? Will I wake suddenly before sensible morning hours, too impatient to wait to meet it until after breakfast?

Until the new music clarifies its own characteristic arch, I’ll stand shyly outside it, trying to be helpful, timorously stabbing in a vaguely familiar dark.