Recently I’ve been playing lots of gigs at libraries in New England. They’re very interested in my 60 minute program that uses music, guitars, and lecture to discuss how the guitar has gone from parlors and homes to the largest concert stages on the planet as the world’s most popular instrument. At the CD table after each show I’ve been surprised to hear people notice that I’ve composed most, if not all, of the evening’s music. I keep forgetting that these folks are there for the information and to support their library not necessarily because they’re a fan of my music-most of my shows are ticketed events and the folks coming know who I am. The folks that come to see me at the libraries think of me as a guitarist/lecturer while I’ve always thought of myself as a composer who plays the guitar, and that got me thinking about why I compose music.
For as long as I can remember I’ve heard music in my head; I hear it pretty much non-stop from the time I wake until the time I go to sleep. It’s one of the reasons I rarely listen to music anymore as it’s akin to having two radios playing two different radio stations at the same time. This is especially true when I’m in ‘writing’ mode and have one or more pieces of music in active composition mode. When I was a kid I never told ANYONE I heard music in my head-I was a dumb kid but I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone I was hearing things that weren’t there. And I honestly thought the music was stuff I’d subconsciously picked up over the years; I had no idea the music was ‘mine’. (Still not sure about that).
What’s interesting is that I pretty much put the guitar down from 1980-1988, and yet the music still came into my head. And by this time, my late 20’s and early 30’s, I knew it wasn’t others’ music; it was mine. And after my divorce in 1989 I went to work getting the music out of my head and on to the guitar. And the choice of the guitar interested me. In 1989 I was not a very good guitarist, in fact my guitar-playing was bad enough technique-wise that I gave myself Carpal Tunnel syndrome and a case of tendinitis that still gets me even after 25 years. I was thinking of buying a piano, but I didn’t want to start over. I was stuck. And then I was fortunate enough to hear the music of David Wilcox; it was his first A & M album, The Language of the Heart, and that was when I heard the guitar voiced in a way that made sense to my ears and to my composer’s mind. You see David and I share a penchant for using alternate tunings, partial capos, any trick to make the guitar different, and to stir our creative juices.
Finally! The music I’d been hearing in my head started to make sense, I got a lesson to teach me some chord theory and over the next 5 years it felt like I was downloading music that had been ‘lost in the clouds’ for almost 2 decades. It was amazing! Most of the music on my 7 albums was written during this period. There were days I would write two or three pieces before dinner. I would wake up with a piece fully written and ‘learn’ it while drinking my morning coffee. This was truly the most magical time of my life-I can’t tell you how invigorating it was to create close to 7 hours of original music in such a short period of time.
I look at that five year window with incredulity now, but it really was like downloading music-it’s like all that music had been queued up just waiting to be sourced. There was a 25 year old backlog. Composing now is much harder work, and for the most part involves way more perspiration than inspiration. And I think that’s why I’ve moved away from standard guitars into the baritones, high-string, and harp guitar. They provide both the inspiration for new music, but also provide additional ways for the music I hear in my head to be presented. Ultimately everything I’ve done with the guitar, the tunings, the different scales and odd strings, all are in service of getting the music I hear in my head out into the world where they belong.