Author: Gretta Harley

The Rush of Performing vs. Merely Being a Witness

I can’t find anything that compares to the feeling I have when hearing what I imagined in my inner ear played in real time. I get a rush when I perform, especially premiering a new piece in front of an audience, or when the musicians that I’m playing with sound exceptionally good—when we are all gelling, the stars align and we’re breathing together, and that exact moment is the only moment and it is perfect.

When I’m in the audience, listening to others play the music I write down on paper, my heart races. Time slows down and I hold my breath. I am merely a witness to the music. The feeling is simultaneously one of helplessness and euphoria.

It’s a different feeling than when I’m in the audience, listening to others play the music I write down on paper. My heart races. Time slows down and I hold my breath. I am merely a witness to the music. The feeling is simultaneously one of helplessness and euphoria. And because the music is an intimate part of me, I’m hearing every mistake and recognizing every wonderful nuance intended or not intended. I feel like a fly on the wall, looking from above while listening from within, and playing witness to the sounds in the room that weren’t there a moment ago.

I am a tiny fish in a vast ocean of prodigious living composers, or maybe more like an amoeba. I do not receive nor seek large commissions, and I do not have my music played by various ensembles all over the world. But I did have the fortunate opportunity to write for and hear my full orchestral composition played by the Seattle Philharmonic. The opportunity came in a composition class when my then-professor and composition mentor, Janice Giteck, secured the orchestra. Only four of the thirteen students in the class were invited to write for the full orchestra. The other students wrote for sections (brass, string, or wind sections). Every week through the semester, the class sat with the players at rehearsals, observing, collecting questions and observations to bring to class the next day, and taking notes for our own pieces. To write for an entire orchestra was overwhelming, intimidating, and wholly exciting. There was a public reading of my piece, and the conductor, Marsha Mabrey, instructed the players to begin. She stopped them a few times to go over various parts of the piece, clarifying with the players what I had put on the page. (It was completely handwritten, pre-computers, pre-software. I use Sibelius now.) As the sounds began to fill the room that simultaneous feeling of helplessness and euphoria immerged.

One of the biggest challenges that a composer faces when handing her music to players is ensuring that what she has placed on the page is an exact translation of what she wants to hear. Every nuance must be detailed appropriately–not just the pitches and rhythms, but every articulation, dynamic marking, tempo(s), and rehearsal marking, etc. I have also written pieces that have aleatoric and improvisational components involved, and they also must be carefully, painstakingly mapped out in order to communicate the set details and geography of the music accurately. If the instructions are not clear and I am present at rehearsal(s), the players can ask me questions. But it’s better to have my notes as clear as possible so that the limited time I usually have for a rehearsal is spent playing, not translating how to read my score. If I want the piece to grow legs and live outside of my watchful proximity, I need to trust that the score is clear and will be played to my liking.

Although I showed up at my recording session with Kramer in Florida with no written-out scores, I experienced feelings not unlike those helpless and euphoric ones. Kramer is a sculptor of music, a sound painter. He chooses a color and starts molding, not quite sure where the “brush” will take him at times. He says things like, “Let me just play around for a bit until I know what I want.” I relate to this style of music making, too, because it’s how I start writing most often.

Kramer in front of a laptop.

Kramer during our recording sessions in his studio, Noise St. Augustine

We began recording at the beginning of my song cycle. The first time I heard the first song (“Kaleidoscope Eyes”) all put together with its various instrumentation—piano, mellotron, glass armonica, cymbals, organ, panting voices, horns, strings (some acoustic, some digital)—I cried. I did. I was in tears. It was all I imagined, only much better. The exchange of our ideas was generous and ultimately resulted in a magic that I had hoped for, but it was unexpected in other ways. I continued to have that euphoric feeling song after song, without the helpless part. There was an unspoken agreement to almost all of the choices we made together. Sometimes music is better in a collaboration; and although I wrote all of the songs and many of the instrumental parts, this record feels like a collaboration to me.

In my previous post, “Creation is Messy,” I indicated that there is an “incredible amount of work and planning” that goes into bringing our imaginings to others, but I didn’t go into much detail. This fourth and last essay, I’ll get more specific about the process, of both pre- and post-production of Element 115 (Uup).

There are so, so many things that go on behind the scenes in any art form. Whether it is the hours a day (for years and years) that the artist hones her craft or the months and years of planning logistical details before one concert, it takes a lot of painstaking work for it to appear organic, or to look easy, and to welcome the audience in.

After playing this song cycle in various ways: solo, with a band, recording it with a creative producer, the music didn’t feel finished yet. I realized the next step was to hear it with a chamber ensemble. I wanted the orchestration to align with the arrangements that Kramer and I came up with. I began orchestrating, but I work rather slowly and had so many other logistics to juggle if I wanted a well-attended performance. Andrew Joslyn is a beloved composer and arranger in Seattle and I asked for his help. This was such a good decision. He took the recording and filtered the music through Sibelius. This saved hours and hours of work, but the program didn’t spit out the scores accurately. They had no dynamics or articulation markings; rhythms and meters were not correct, so there was a lot of clean-up work that had to be done. Andrew was also given permission to add his own ideas; most of them I kept, but some I didn’t. We divided up the pieces and within about 4-6 weeks all the parts were finished for all 14 songs in the song cycle. We were orchestrating to a specific ensemble and couldn’t have all of the sounds that were available to us in Kramer’s vast sound library, so alternative choices were made.

Gretta Harley holding a guitar in her lap with two microphones in front of her.

During the recording sessions at Noise St. Augustine

While the scores were being prepared, I was organizing the rehearsals. The wonderful thing about being able to work with top players is that they are top players. The downside of working with top players is that their schedules are always full. I secured ten players several months before the release concert, sending them contracts while hosting a crowdfunding campaign to pay their fees and for post-production of the record. I confirmed the rehearsal dates with the large group but continuously ran into scheduling conflicts with the rhythm section, which I rehearsed prior to and separate from the full ensemble rehearsals. I would meet with one of the piano players on one day and the other on a different day, for example. Not all of the rhythmic players read music. I tailored the scores so that they could read them, and some learned their parts mostly by ear, listening to the recording.

When I wasn’t soliciting money, rehearsing, or orchestrating, I was doing things like going to dress fittings or meeting with my publicist, web designer, or intern about things like T-shirts, business cards, posters, website design, and social media. Or I was printing out press releases and stuffing envelopes with promo CDs and making trips to the post office. I was preparing for and anticipating anything and everything that could happen, and still surprises and challenges popped up along the way.

I find working with students to be a great value for all parties. They are looking for hands-on experience and I am looking for hands.

When working on a project of this scale, getting help to do some of the tasks is crucial. These details are tedious and can be a giant pain in the ass. I find working with students to be a great value for all parties. They are looking for hands-on experience and I am looking for hands. In this case, I was able to depend on some people, and others made more work for me because I am a bit of a control freak, and I had to redo some things to my liking. But all in all, this community making-a-show idea is a pretty great way to do it.

One of my composition students at Cornish College of the Arts came to the first large ensemble rehearsal and jotted down notes as I yelled things like, “Check the horn part in measure 21.” I brought my computer to the rehearsal and she was able to go right into the score and make the definite changes, like “That note on the second beat in the flute part should be an octave higher.” I hired a conductor, Roger Nelson. He was one of my beloved professors when I was a student at Cornish, and I enjoyed getting to know him as a colleague during the 12 years I taught there. Having a calm person in the room who knew the material was invaluable. I gave him the scores a month in advance, and we went over in detail how we would rehearse the pieces. Delegation is an important aspect in getting anything done. Choosing trusted people to delegate to is imperative.

I secured the sound engineer I wanted a few months before the show. I planned a full rehearsal one week before the performance in the venue. I hired the sound engineer and the video designer to attend that rehearsal so that they weren’t running the show for the first time at the premiere. I invited a lighting designer to come the a rehearsal too and he had the opportunity to realize he wanted to loan the club some backlighting for the concert

Because I had never before gone on stage to sing without a guitar strapped to me, or a piano or keyboard in front of me, I wasn’t sure if I was going to look stupid.

Because I had never before gone on stage to sing without a guitar strapped to me, or a piano or keyboard in front of me, I wasn’t sure if I was going to look stupid. From all my years working in theater, I know that images are powerful and physical habits people have can be distracting. So I asked two of my friends, Kristen Kosmas and Elizabeth Kenny, both directors whose visual tastes align with mine, to offer advice about any of my weird tics at our dress rehearsal. They made only a few suggestions, like keep your arms still until at least the third song. Apparently that was good a choice.

The video slideshow of images choreographed with media designer Justin Roberts was to run with the music. We argued about the type of screen to use but we ended up following his inclination, which was more of a financial consideration than an artistic one. Although I loved his work on this piece, I do wish I had the money to have enveloped the stage as I envisioned. There are always compromises and choosing which things to let go of.

The night of the concert, after a long rehearsal, I was getting my hair and makeup done two blocks away from the venue when the texts started pouring in. “Where are you?” My stage manager was getting antsy. I think I may have jogged a bit in the custom-made dress after realizing it was 7:45 p.m. I peered into the audience from backstage and the venue was full. The house was sold out. My stage manager handed me a small glass of whiskey. The players were already tuning up on stage. Roger checked in with me. I said I was ready. I stood taking deep breaths at the door jam backstage as the orchestra played that long introduction of “Kaleidoscope Eyes.” My heart raced. Time slowed down and I tried to keep breathing. As I walked slowly to the stage, I felt both in control and very trusting of everyone in the ensemble. We had worked hard. We were ready. I had excellent players who had my back. The audience felt good. (You can sometimes feel the energy in the room before anything happens.) This was a good feeling. Friends came from New York, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco to hear this music and to support the efforts that had started exactly two years prior. I was giving birth finally. I can’t find anything that compares to the feeling–hearing what I imagined in my inner ear played in real time.

A concert poster for the 10-piece ensemble live concert of Gretta Harley's Elenet 115 on a pole with other concert posters.

Creation is Messy

Record release show for Gretta Harley's Element 115 (Uup) featuring Mettle. (Photo by ML Naden)

Creation is messy. Artistic inspiration without the mess (and an incredible amount of work and planning) will never see the light of day. Our finished work is only as good as it is because of the untidy part. Art needs us to bravely embrace our inner slob, even though most of us prefer a little primping before going outside.

The 19th-century poet John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability” in a letter to his brothers, explaining it as when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This quote encapsulates the messy for me. From a new creation’s infancy through its adolescence, it has awkward moments of vulnerability that can scare many a creator away from ever completing or sharing his or her work. There is so much uncertainty. Is it good? Will anyone like it? Does it sound original enough? Will anyone care? I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what this piece is. This piece sucks. I suck. But if I allowed my work to be held hostage to perfection I would never share any of it. (In fact, that was the case in another chapter of my life.) It is the case now with some people I know, especially some of my students. It can be just too vulnerable an endeavor to share our creations. They are a reflection of us. So if people don’t like my music, will they think less of me?

Negative capability says to me that working with one’s intuition and a huge leap of faith must outweigh uncertainties, concerns, or doubts.

Negative capability says to me that working with one’s intuition and a huge leap of faith must outweigh uncertainties, concerns, or doubts. The artist first must have a vision, and then ride it, with no helmet. But sometimes the vision isn’t clear. That uncomfortable place where you don’t know what is taking shape can be paralyzing. I have learned to embrace that discomfort as an incubator. The irritable reaching after perfection can stifle the idea that needs to wiggle and breathe for a while. This part is messy. I like to swim in it like a luxurious mud bath. It does not mean that I am not also terrified or that that part of it doesn’t sometimes suck.

At the same time that we allow the messy, we can’t “wait” for the clarity. It’s not going to just appear. Well, most of the time. We have to actively sculpt it, like making a ceramic bowl where the clay gets under your fingernails and the bowl explodes in the kiln and you have to start over. We need to work. I had a composition student once who suffered so much insecurity because music didn’t come to him as divine inspiration. It was an uphill battle trying to convince him to build his skills and not be afraid to write a bunch of crap for a while. Part of this insecurity is a byproduct of our instant-gratification culture that millennials have grown up with. There has been glossy-clean, easy product of perfection served to us, like that TV show Glee. “Those kids,” I said, “rehearsed something like 15 hours a day, all week long, to make that piece look spontaneous.” Response: “Reeeaally?”

My music is collaborative, but the actual writing of music is a solitary act for me. With the exception of my songwriting collaboration in We Are Golden with Sarah Rudinoff, I have written my music all alone. Sometimes I hear a melody and I write it down. Sometimes I sit at my piano or have a guitar in my hand and I just play. When the music starts taking shape, I put on the recorder and/or jot notes on paper. Sometimes words come, sometimes a violin line, a drum beat… I take my dog for walks and listen to the recordings of the week and am drawn to specific melodies and chord progressions. Then I begin honing, editing, sculpting the music. I allow both my intuitive ear and the compositional skills I’ve developed to shape the music, often not thinking about them at all.

I found a remarkable group of active composers in Seattle who seek to meet once a month on a Sunday evening to share the music they wrote on that particular Sunday. We each attempt to write 20 songs in one day and then play them for each other that evening over drinks and snacks. Over the years these self-imposed parameters have mutated to include larger pieces of music, operas in progress, and my song cycle. Before it was finished, I played some of the music that became Element 115 (Uup) to the small group. A few weeks later, on a warm evening in August, I premiered some of the finished songs at a beloved Seattle venue, Café Racer, which has a stage the size of my kitchen table. One of my Sunday evening composer companions, Matt Menovcik, was at that public premier where I noticed some of the tempos weren’t right, one song needed total revamping, and some lyrics needed attention. I had told Matt that the record producer I planned to work with—someone I had worked with previously—had turned down working on the recording of this song cycle. (This project was different than what I had produced before, and he said he didn’t know what to do with this music. I was a little heartbroken and felt slightly “rejected.”) Matt said that he thought that the producer Kramer would like this music, and he wanted to introduce us. I was floored with the idea, being a Bongwater fan. Matt sent an introductory email, and Kramer and I started corresponding. I sent Kramer five songs that I had demoed. He said he liked three of them. I thought, “Good, he’s honest.” We set up a phone meeting date and, after an hour-long conversation, it was decided that Kramer would produce my record. We set a date in January. I continued writing and sent him demos. (He also asked for the songs in their bare form, with just piano or guitar and voice.) He consistently told me to sing softer.

Readying for my recording session, I knew I had to play all of the music flawlessly. There is no room for mistakes when you’re paying for a session and only have a few days to capture it. So in the month of September I began playing the songs-in-progress at an open mic night at a dive bar in West Seattle, where the audience consisted of 2-10 mostly other songwriters on any given Monday evening. I also put together a rock band. I called it Mettle. We rehearsed this music a few nights a week, beginning in October, and played a total of about eight shows over a six-month period.

Gretta Harley's band Mettle in rehearsal (Photo by Taylor Bowen)

Gretta Harley’s band Mettle in rehearsal (Photo by Taylor Bowen)

The experience of playing with these guys was invaluable. Other people always bring something fresh, new, different to the music. Guitarist Brian Emery played with us once before deciding he had no time for another band and in that one rehearsal played something I kept: that metallic guitar sound on “Innocent,” the sixth song in the cycle. Dave Pascal gave me the idea for the bass line on “Needle In The Groove.” The four-piece band (other members: Mike Katell and Ben Morrow) got tighter over the months, and I was able to explore and decide on arrangement possibilities with them. Kramer, although never hearing the band, did not want to work with a band on this music. He encouraged me to play all of the instruments, to make a real solo record. He called it my Blue.

Come January, I flew to Florida and met Kramer in the parking lot of his Fort Lauderdale condo. We loaded up the rental van with gear and drove four hours north to St. Augustine where I had secured a house to set up shop. We recorded all day and night during two one-week sessions each, to coincide with my teaching schedule. Between sessions I intentionally didn’t want the band to hear what I was doing with Kramer, or the other way around. I wanted the different versions to incubate in my ear and hear what worked best. What made me so happy in working with Kramer is that he kept the authenticity of the original demos I had sent him pre-Mettle, but I still brought some of the choices I made with the band, fully recognizing their contribution to the music. Kramer and I worked well together. He had so many great, unique ideas, but he was also very open to mine. It was a true collaboration that we both left feeling proud of.

Fin Records was scheduling an August release. The plan was to tour Europe in late August, and I was hoping to bring Mettle. Fin had been showing signs of financial trouble for months, and they postponed the release. I still wanted to go to Europe and had already booked some shows there. There was no monetary tour support at that point. I didn’t have any money to bring the band, so I reworked all of the music on just guitar. I bought a travel guitar that fit in the overhead baggage compartments and played shows in four different countries, solo. When I returned, it was apparent that Element 115 (Uup) was not going to be released on Fin Records. They were folding.

It had been over a year since I finished writing the song cycle. I’d worked so hard. I had made my solo record—a long held dream. We recorded the music in a way I dreamt about as a kid. I was happy with the way it sounded. Yet so many obstacles kept coming up. I could recount them all here, but I’ll just simply say that I wondered if the universe was telling me not to release the record. Everything about the music was going so well, but every single logistical hurdle that could get in the way did– Sod’s Law. It was an uphill battle all the way. I had come so far with this music, music that I wanted desperately to share. But I was exhausted. I hosted the December composers meeting and had a mini-breakdown in front of the last straggler in my hallway. Josh listened to me cry, and encouraged me to take my time. I cried myself to sleep that night. I talked with my then-boyfriend, James, who encouraged me to put out the vinyl record that I wanted to release, and I rethought the whole thing with his encouragement, which I will always be grateful for. This release was so close I could taste it, but there was a long haul ahead. I could not abandon it.

I wanted to hear the music with Mettle and an acoustic chamber orchestra. I set up a date with a venue. (I always work better when I have a date to work towards.) I started orchestrating and gathering musicians and talking to venues. But my physical energy was low since I had caught bacterial meningitis between recording sessions and was still feeling its effects. I decided to hire an orchestrator to help me arrange the music, based on the arrangements that Kramer and I had made on the record. Some members of the band got frustrated with me. I hadn’t thought about this detail, but they had worked so hard on our arrangements and felt proud of their contribution to it and I was just asking too much of them to relearn the material, because it was different. I felt terrible because I thought they felt disrespected, but the music was guiding me and it had to be heard in the way I was hearing it inside my head. It was my intuition, and it was messy. I hired a different rhythm section, began rehearsing, started a crowd-funding campaign to pay them, and played the show in June, one full year after completing the recording. (All of this takes a lot of planning and organizing, which is another topic.) The vinyl records were delivered to my house two days before the record release show. It was a nail biter.

It is not enough to write the music. Not for me. I need to communicate it. I need supportive people to cheer me on in my vision. I need people to want to play the music, and to help me with the logistics along the way.

The point I am trying to make is that we artists create works that each has its own process; and we need help along the way. We need to reach out to other trusted people and ask them to swim through the mud in a very messy pool in order to bring our ideas to fruition. It is not enough to write the music. Not for me. I need to communicate it. I need supportive people to cheer me on in my vision. I need people to want to play the music, and to help me with the logistics along the way. Of course there is no communication without the listener. Not everyone likes the music of Element 115 (Uup). I am past caring because to the people who do like it, I have communicated, and that communication means so much to me. My own town of Seattle never reviewed the record. That did hurt my feelings. But the reviews I received from Philadelphia to Belgium warmed my heart. Many artists before me have echoed this thought in their own words: it is not our job to care if people like our work. It is our job to do our work. Period.

In the end, the possibility of the record reaching more people was thwarted once James was diagnosed with cancer a few months after the release show. I canceled the plans with my publicist to promote it further because life got very messy. Messier than art. James passed away a few months ago, in February, and I am just starting to organize my writing again. There are several files of music ideas on my phone, and lyrics on pages in journals and loosely strewn around in messy piles on my piano, and on napkins in my pocketbook. I’ve been talking with Kramer about producing another song cycle, but the music hasn’t taken solid shape yet. I’m planning to premier a few of these unfinished songs at a show in early June. I have a lot of doubts and uncertainties about it. But all I can do is keep working.

(Top photo by ML Naden.)

Mettle live in performance (Photo by Maria Lamarca Anderson)

Mettle live in performance (Photo by Maria Lamarca Anderson)

I don’t have to choose, do I?

A guitar surrounded by a pile of leadsheets and scores

My love for music always seemed clear to me, regardless of the style or form, but there was a disconnect for me as a young writer. I had the desire to compose, having an opera and another multi-media project in my head at age sixteen, but I had massive anxiety over not knowing how to make the music come to fruition. I was overwhelmed by my insecurity, thinking I didn’t know how to do it “right.” I had no mentors to guide me in compositional vision. I didn’t even know what to ask for. I was a suburban teenager with no family background in music, attending piano lessons each Tuesday and practicing four to five hours a day in secrecy from my rock-n-roll friends. The training I received was very traditional and I loved it, but it also intimidated me. Perhaps that intimidation is endemic to the culture? A lot of feelings weren’t clear to me until many years later when I analyzed my own relationship to music.

Professionally, I identify as both composer and songwriter. I don’t have to choose, do I? I can have both, yes? What is the difference between songwriting and composing anyway? When does a songwriter call herself a composer, or the other way around?

Typically the word composer refers to a person who writes notated music on paper—or using software, as the case may be. Music that is composed is usually thought of as concert music of the Western tradition and is commonly referred to as “classical music.” The ol’ Wikipedia states, “In broader usage, ‘composer’ can designate people…who create music, as well as those who create music by means other than written notation: for example, Blues or folk singers and guitarists who create songs through improvisation and recording and popular music writers of musical theatre songs and arrangements. In many popular music genres, such as rock and country, musicians who create new songs are typically called songwriters.” Fairly broad, indeed. Let me try to break it down from my perspective.

Music has a long history and many traditions. New generations of composers study the music of composers who came before them. Because humans tend to organize and categorize, many forms in music have been built and coined over centuries. Form is basically the shape, order, or architecture of a piece of music. There are most likely a hundred or so recognized forms in Western music, for example: symphony, opera, oratorio, fugue, mass, string quartet, piano trio, sonata, etc.…and song. Each of these forms has their individual identity and structure. Composers typically study these forms, filling their compositional toolboxes, using standard historical contexts, putting their own signature on the music, and taking pleasure in the tedious analysis of music. They study the ranges and capabilities of various instruments and often compose according to logistical performance opportunities. They sometimes stretch sonic possibilities and procedures, forging new sounds, creating new techniques for voice and instruments, this changing current practice.

Song form has a long history and diverse cultural contexts. Songs can be complex or simple in their form. They are shaped with repeated melodies and harmonic structures organized into verse, chorus and often a bridge, in various orders. The lyrics of a song often speak the language and reflect the heart and mindset of the songwriter. Songs can be heard in musicals, on blues records, in rock, country, standard repertoire and other genres. Typically songs are reflective of popular culture. The accessible melodies become recognizable to the listener. Throughout history, songs have been written to encourage, accompany, reflect and tell stories of the human condition. Even simple songs composed of just three chords can have a lasting effect on generations because of their catchy and accessible melodies. (I am choosing not to discuss here the specific topic of formulaic songs written for the sole purpose to sell records.)

A songwriter writes songs. Some songwriters read music, and some do not. Some do analysis of their songs; some don’t analyze the chord progression or think about form. Songs are typically between 2 and 5 minutes in length. Some songwriters write lyrics and others work in collaboration with a lyricist. Regardless of the songwriter having formal music education or not, writing a good song is a well-honed craft.

Photo by Angela Castañeda of a group of scores and leadsheets and a pen.

Photos by Angela Castañeda

Music is not the notes on the page. Music is what we feel when listening, what moves us; and since we are each little snowflakes, different music will affect each of us in different ways. When working with musicians who are not fluent in the language (“What is a I IV V chord progression for chrissakes? Just play the song!”) I’ve often thought of the countless classic stories written throughout history by storytellers who don’t read or write. Ya don’t have to write the words down on a page in order to tell a great story! And you don’t have to be musically literate to make great music. Beloved folksongs that have survived through generations have been created and taught by ear.

All through my studies of traditional Western music­ starting at eight years old, practicing classical piano all through high school, attending college at a jazz school as a piano major, and later as a composition major­, I always listened to a lot of rock-n-roll. Songs. I was a serious piano player and a lover of sloppy guitar licks. While I basked in the beauty of Beethoven and Chopin melodies, I equally rocked out to Aerosmith and Janis Joplin. In high school, I was excited to learn of Frank Zappa who merged concert music with song.

Improvisation. There is a stereotypical understanding that the so-called classical musician does not improvise. Jazz musicians improvise. Rock musicians improvise. Songwriters improvise. But classical musicians do not improvise. But they used to be adept improvisers. Many of the composers in the 18th century were incredibly prolific. Haydn, for example, wrote more than 100 symphonies, approximately 75 string quartets, operas, oratorios, etc. His responsibility to entertain the court on a regular basis would only be possible through the improvisational talents of the musicians who played his work. He most likely had something akin to lead sheets at times, not totally unlike what jazz musicians read today. (A lead sheet is a page with a short hand map of the music: melody, rhythm, and harmonic progressions). Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms were all adept improvisers. In fact, the cadenza, a common indication in a piece of music, was for the player to improvise­ to show off his virtuosity. I heard a story once that Beethoven was not fond of any ol’ musician interpreting his music, so he began writing out the cadenzas. Other composers followed suit and eventually the art of improvising was lost to the average classical musician. So I did not learn how to improvise as a young student. I only learned to read what was on the page. And I learned in a very traditional manner, steeped in a mindset of hierarchy, vigorous, competitive, intimidating hoopla that resulted in insecurity.

Everyone has the right to sing and make up melodies without feeling judged.

Music, like dance, is primal to humans. Why are we not dancing and singing like we did as little kids? Because our puritanical culture dictates that only the very good, educated artists have that right. This thinking hurts our collective psyche, our mental and physical health. It breaks my heart when an 8-yeard old piano student says she can’t sing. Someone told her that. Everyone has the right to sing and make up melodies without feeling judged. But tradition is so engrained in us that only the great musicians get to do that. Of course musicians do earn the credit and praise that come with countless hours each day over years to become virtuosic at their instrument and compositional skills. But experts should not intimidate the right to create music out of people.

So I taught myself how to play guitar. At first I bought a few chord books of songs by Neil Young, The Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I learned how to position the chords on the neck, and I started writing my own chord progressions. Then I took a page from Joni Mitchell and began tuning my guitar in all sorts of ways, until I didn’t really know what chords I was playing. I allowed this instrument to be my creative compositional outlet. To this day I don’t know the neck with anywhere near the understanding I have with the keyboard, and I have always liked it that way. (Although I am trying now to become more proficient.) I do improvise on the piano now, a lot, which is how I most often start writing a song. I combine both my love for song and my knowledge of composition to guide me in my music writing.

I know I am not alone when it comes to the intimidation factor of improvisation. A lot of my composer friends had to undergo serious reprogramming after years of undergraduate and graduate study, as I had done earlier in my life. I think a great balance can be achieved by marrying the creative impulses with a plethora of tools in the composer’s toolkit, not unlike a painter who studies how to mix color. More knowledge can lead to various options, making music richer, more compelling. Intimidation has no place in creativity.

On the other end of the spectrum, I grew up during second wave punk, and the mantra amongst most rock and punk musicians I knew was: “I don’t wanna know too much about what makes music,­ the theory behind it; I just wanna play it.” The energy of the music was what was important. The fear of knowing or thinking too much was endemic in the punk rock movement. I think disengaging from the macro­, that puritanical­ culture, played no small role in this mindset. The beauty of not having to know a lot about music theory is that more people are able to play and write music. This mindset broke down the wall of music being only played by well-educated musicians.

A lot of my composer friends had to undergo serious reprogramming after years of undergraduate and graduate study, as I had done earlier in my life.

At extremes, there is a prejudicial intolerance between these two mindsets of musicians that has always bothered me. I see that as a misunderstanding between non-literate musicians (meaning they don’t know the “language” or theory of music) and traditionally trained musicians. I see this rift as a bit of ego getting in the way of appreciation. I’ve experienced this conflict first hand at the college I first attended and later taught at for a cumulative 15 years. The school’s excellent composition program focused on 20th century standard practice, but in the early 21st century the school was inundated with contemporary songwriters in the genres of folk, hip hop, and electronic music—and the faculty had little idea of what to do with them. Some schools have started songwriting programs in the last few years, but the influx of young people wanting to study composition for songwriting is a fairly new thing. Questions arise. Should songwriters learn to write fugues? Should they care about John Cage and Edgard Varèse? Should departments limit their rigorous expectations to accommodate one form of writing? Should all composition students study all musical forms knowing they only want to write in song form? These questions also play into attitudes about music composition and literacy that can get heated on both sides. I think there’s room for all, but academia is going through understandable growing pains.

We are products of what we are exposed to and what we let into our lives. My record, Element 115 (Uup), is a hybrid from a composer and songwriter. I am sure that the experiences I’ve had playing hard rock and composing for chamber ensembles and theater have played a significant role in my songwriting and arranging, just as concert music and pop songs are intermingling more today than ever before. My piano students are reminded regularly that the Mozart piano sonata and the Chopin prelude they are learning are not “songs.” Composers and concert musicians who grew up with a heavy diet of pop songs are bringing those songs into their concert repertoire. In his residency at Town Hall a few years ago, cellist Joshua Roman presented chamber arrangements of Radiohead alongside Messiaen. He intentionally introduced the audience who came to hear Radiohead to acoustic instrumental arrangements and, more importantly, to a 20th century music great. At the same time, he enabled concert hall subscribers to openly hear music by artists they may not have otherwise known about. During Ludovic Morlot’s inaugural concert year at the Seattle Symphony he programmed Frank Zappa next to Beethoven, speaking to the audience and instructing them on how to listen to Zappa. Although Zappa’s Perfect Stranger is not in song form, the artist is widely known for his songs for The Mothers of Invention. This cross-disciplined programming is exciting, and a natural product of the current generation of concert artists’ exposure to pop and rock songs.

Songwriters may or may not have knowledge of the written language, a.k.a. notation and theory, but music is not on the page. It’s what and how you communicate. Good music is good music. A simple three-chord rock song can move me just as intensely as an Arvo Pärt symphonic work. Young songwriters are influenced by the multitude of music available online, and young composers are appreciative and knowledgeable about simple and not-so-simple songs and write in both forms. Amen.

Photo by Angela Castañeda of Gretta with a group of scores and leadsheets.

The Slow Listening Revolution

It’s an Ever-faster-moving, Information-brain-cluttering, Clean-off-our-desktops-in-favor-of the-cloud-inhabiting (we all know it…), Free-music-streaming, Thousands-of-songs-on-a-small iPod-or-mobile-phone-or-tiny-zip-drive, Cloud-platform-storing World.

And then there are 12-inch vinyl records that are bulky and expensive. Musicians making money from record sales is a thing of the past because people don’t buy music anymore. So why would any musician—especially an independent musician with little money and in her (questionably) right mind—ever consider releasing music in a format that is both expensive to make and which yields little to no return? I self-released my first solo record on 180-gram vinyl with full-color artwork 11 months ago. So far the net loss stands at about $1,300. And it was worth every penny.

Like hundreds of thousands of artists before me, I had a painful breakup that inspired music. As I looked for a record company and a producer to assist me in releasing this new music, I came upon two people who would play a crucial role. Christian Fulghum, an old friend and owner of a (then) prolific indie label in Seattle called Fin Records, and the producer Kramer (Mark Kramer of Low, Galaxie 500, Bongwater, Will Oldham, etc. fame). At our first business meeting, after Christian had already heard the music and agreed to finance and release it, I suggested a vinyl release (this was 2013, a bit pre-neo-vinyl explosion). He suggested starting with a digital download and a CD, and if people responded to the music (a.k.a. “bought it”), we could talk about pressing vinyl. It was just too expensive an endeavor for a first solo album. We proceeded to talk to artists about CD covers, finally choosing collage artist Tim Silbaugh of Swell Pictures Design. Christian loved the idea of Kramer producing the record.

Kramer and I met through an introductory email from a mutual friend and we began corresponding, immediately appreciating each other’s dry sarcasm, enthusiasm over music, and love for books. He also liked my music. Kramer lives in Florida and I reside in Seattle, so I knew one of us would have to travel. We scheduled a winter recording session, and so of course it made sense for me to go to Florida. I packed my sunscreen and guitar. (Little did I know it would be colder in northern Florida in January than it was in Seattle.)

Kramer and I set up residence in an empty house on the outskirts of St. Augustine, a soon-to-be home that my brother and sister-in-law had recently purchased but hadn’t furnished or lived in yet. Kramer and I spent our first day setting up the recording studio in a back bedroom, then purchased things like forks, plates, a cutting board, tea kettle, food… Through the week we spent all day and night working, but when he was fiddling with computers and all things techy, I sketched out my idea for the cover. I had clear imaginings of how the artwork should look, and I was excited to work with a visual artist who could make it a reality. There was a period of a few months between our two recording sessions when I oversaw the artwork with Tim in Seattle while plotting the next steps in the recording. When we returned to St. Augustine to finish up the record, I fine-tuned the artwork through phone calls and emails with Tim. Kramer and I mixed the music together and he mastered it for CD. All done. Not so fast. Nearly without warning, and due to the fact that no one was buying music, Fin Records folded up shop mere weeks before the scheduled release of Element 115 (Uup). I was left holding digital masters. The artwork hadn’t been paid for yet. I had a European CD tour booked but no CD, no record company, no tour support, and no money. I was heartbroken. A few days, several anxiety attacks, and many martinis later I had the audacity to decide to go on tour anyway, and reconsider my initial idea: vinyl.

Why vinyl? Commitment. In this mid-second decade of the 21st century, music is being taken for granted on a collective scale. An entire generation of music listeners will never pay for music, nor do they believe that they should. The long form music medium has taken a back seat to song culture, yet the average person only listens to a song for approximately 24 seconds before deciding if it’s worth their time to continue to listen. I ponder the substantive value of something that our capitalistic, corporate-model culture places on “free.” When we can listen to a whole song, or usually only 24 seconds of a song without paying for it, do we really value the music? I wonder if we listeners are as committed to music as we were pre-internet? I really like the internet, so these words are in no way a complaint or indictment, but merely observation.

As a child of the ’70s, I loooovvved records. While still in school and living at home, I worked at a small local record store lined wall-to-wall with vinyl records. My boss handed me my pay in cash on Fridays and I turned it right over to him in exchange for the records that I’d coveted through the week after wandering through the bins, plotting their entry into my library: older jazz releases, like Coltrane and Monk; rock records by Zappa, King Crimson, The Ramones, Led Zeppelin, and Kate Bush; my initiation to Philip Glass and Steve Reich… I remember that there were only about five or fewer new releases per month that were exciting to me.

I got home each Friday and immediately entered my bedroom, closed the door, and began the weekend ritual. I picked up the first new acquisition and peeled the cellophane off of the cover. I slid the record out of its sleeve and carefully moved it between my hands to feel the weight of it, always impressed if it wasn’t floppy. (At some point record companies invested less in the weight of the vinyl and they got floppy.) I smelled the record. I placed it on my turntable and cleaned it. I cleaned the stylus. I carefully placed the needle onto the vinyl. I moved across the room, took my place on the large pillows on the floor, and listened. I studied the artwork. Read the liner notes. Studied the musicians’ names and the studio it was recorded at. Read the lyrics. When Side A was over, I got up, flipped the record over, and sat back down. And listened to Side B. It was a chosen, collaborative world. It felt intimate. Most often I would give that entire record another listen before moving to the next one. I wanted to hear every detail of the music. I often copied the record on to a high fidelity—sometimes metal—cassette tape so I could play it in my car. I had three different styluses, and my records were color-coded. One stylus was for the garage sale records or ones that I played until scratches were audible. Another stylus was for the every day records in good condition. And the third stylus was for the Japanese pressings and rare items. (I think now they might call this behavior O.C.D.)

A black and photo photo of Gretta Harley sitting on the floor examining a pile of LPs; a turntable with an LP on it is in back of her.

Photo by Angela Castañeda

Listening to records was a commitment. That kind of intentional listening and studying music was life school. That same commitment transferred to my piano practice, my school studies, and relationship with people. When I became a composer, that skill, that ability to commit to and focus on, was an essential component of my work. As an educator, I often see a lack of commitment to music activities in my students. In fact, I see a lot of impatience when a piece of music isn’t learned immediately. I try to share my thoughts on how much time a piece of music can take to learn, and how to practice, and stay focused. Some get it. Many feel the need to move on to the next piece before nearly perfecting it—if it gets that far. Most of these students beat themselves up because it takes too long to understand a piece of music, and so therefore they must not be good at it. I don’t relate. I understand, but it’s just not how music ever was for me. Music represents a commitment to life. A deep understanding of something takes time. And the journey is fascinating.

So, after I stopped drinking those many martinis post-record label folding, I realized I needed money to get this record out in the way that I initially envisioned it. I could have released the record on the internet, but that just seemed to not honor the particular music I had made. This thought in no way diminishes the music that is self-released on the internet. It is a fantastic, accessible platform that enables musicians to share music. But I felt that by releasing this particular music– a song cycle– in the full-length vinyl medium, I was asking the listener to slow down and intentionally listen.

[the internet] is a fantastic, accessible platform that enables musicians to share music. But I felt that by releasing this particular music– a song cycle– in the full-length vinyl medium, I was asking the listener to slow down and intentionally listen

The internet, in addition to providing a sharing platform for music, also provides artists with a new way of generating income and startup money for their projects. I had already paid out of pocket for my own CDs through a manufacturing company so I could take CDs on that European tour (sans artwork). I came back to the States and created a crowdfunding campaign called “The Slow Listening Revolution” where I challenged fans and supporters to a slow attention listening commitment.

The crowdfunding campaign was successful, and I was able to pay Tim his initial bid and to re-format the artwork for vinyl. Kramer made minor adjustments to the master. I asked friends and acquaintances a lot of questions about the various logistics of making vinyl, learning many things including that more than 23 minutes of music per side diminishes sonic quality. And that 180-gram vinyl produces higher fidelity than a floppier product. (Speaking of fidelity, there are all sorts of other considerations and conversations worth having about the tastes and quality of sound between digital and vinyl. Maybe for another day…) My decision to produce a vinyl record was a manifestation of a dream. It was a tangible commitment to my own vision of this music. And I felt in control, somewhat, by asking the listener to slow down and take it in without distraction.

When several heavy boxes of records were delivered to my 600-square-foot apartment on a dolly, my racing heart nearly obstructed my voice instructing the delivery dude to place the boxes on a space of floor I had cleared for their hopefully short residence. I opened one box to find five smaller boxes arranged vertically. I took out one, grabbed scissors to break open the seal, and uncovered a stack of ten shrink-wrapped 12” vinyl records covered in bubble wrap. I picked up one and turned it over and over, marveling at the colors and the arrangement of images I had painstakingly obsessed over (even overwhelming poor Mr. Silbaugh, who I drove crazy). I do believe I may have jumped with joy. I unwrapped the cellophane. I slid the sleeve out from the envelope. I turned it over and over in my hands, marveling at the sleeve design and bright colors. I peeled the record out from the sleeve and felt the weight of the record. It didn’t flop. I read the details of the label: date, copyright, catalog number, song titles. I placed the record on the turntable. I cleaned the record. I cleaned the stylus. I carefully placed the stylus on the record. I moved across the room, sat down with the cover and the sleeve, and listened.


Gretta Harley standing on a street corner seemingly hailing a taxi.

Gretta Harley (Photo by Michael Profitt)

Gretta Harley is a composer, songwriter, and music educator raised in New York and living in Seattle since 1990. She co-wrote a rock music play called These Streets about women of the grunge era that played to sold out houses in Seattle in 2013 for which she earned a music award nomination, and was named “One of 50 Women Who Rock” by the Seattle Weekly. Last year she released her first solo album on her own label, Mettle Records. She is planning the second record of a trilogy with producer Kramer.