3/10/14 - Mise en place (Composer Edition)

I listen to a lot of audiobooks during my daily commute to and from Gettysburg. Thankfully our local library system has an awesome selection and I have gotten lucky on a few random picks over the past several semesters. The most recent of these impulse reads was Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential - an exposé on the professional cooking industry and the book that helped launch him into the pop culture stratosphere. I've been a fan of Tony's work for the past decade or so through his show "No Reservations" (and, recently, "The Taste") so it was an easy decision to pick up this book. The audio version was narrated by Mr. Bourdain himself, which was a nice touch. The writing style was engaging and the material was honest, if a bit light on details other than the highest points of his career.

Since I was reading this book 14 years after its initial publication, some of the revelations that were scandalous in 2000 are quite well-known facts today. One of the things that did stick with me is the concept of mise en place in the kitchen. Tony talks about this several times when describing his work environment, as well as outlining the typical set-up for prep cooks. For the non-Francophiles amongst us - or for those of you like me whose French is, how you say... n'est pas bien - the phrase translates to "putting in place." Before the lunch or dinner rush begins, cooking stations will have pre-cut garnishes, pre-made sauces, warming sticks of butter, and a lot of dish towels at arm's length in preparation for the onslaught of orders. This workspace is designed for maximum efficiency and, according to Tony, reveals quite a bit about the character (and mental state, however fragile) of the cook in question.

Each time mise en place was mentioned in the book it got me thinking about the benefits of familiarity when sitting down to compose. Contemporary composers are lucky in the sense that there are quite a few tools at our disposal to help us create content regardless of location. Recording ideas for later playback is quite common, as is carrying around manuscript paper in case of creative emergency. The portability of DAWs and notation software also makes it simple to sit in your favorite coffee shop and create a masterpiece in plain view of your worshipful audience. Personally, I don't go anywhere without a Moleskine notebook and writing utensil within arm's reach. I am also a heavy user of smart phone apps for (text) note-taking: ColorNote for quick things and shopping lists, with Evernote for longer manifestos. This has thankfully replaced the awkward act of texting myself while out in public and an idea strikes or a useful theory example plays over the public sound system. (How DID we live without smart phones, anyway?)

While the creative process can sometimes be fickle and quite fragile, I do not always have the luxury of waiting for a perfect setting to get work done. Many measures have been written under the duress of screaming babies in a cramped office, pianists loudly practicing Rach 3, and nosy cats stealing pencils or stepping on manuscript paper:


Each time I changed apartments in graduate school I wondered if it would be possible to re-capture the magic that I stumbled upon sitting at the kitchen table for the pieces written during the previous year. (Spoiler alert) - turns out that notion of "magic" bound to a certain place was, like Dumbo's feather, just a mental placebo. The real magic seems to be achieving a comfort level with yourself and your environment to allow for the best possible work to be done. I am thankful that this is the case, as we have now graduated from slum lord apartments to living in actual houses; I would hate to be stuck living in a place named Crosswinds or Haverford Place with 13 neighbors just to get my music fix...

Julia and I currently live in a small two-story house with an unfinished basement. It's the perfect size for us at the moment, but I do miss the man-cave basement and large desk we had during our year in Kansas City. My current office also doubles as the spare bedroom, so I've been forced to be creative with my use of space. Also, we haven't bothered bringing her piano along during our moves since my teaching positions have not been permanent thus far. Regardless of the small space and horrid Casio keyboard, it's very comfortable for me and I have been able to get some quality work done in my little corner of the house. Here's what it looks like in the middle of composing a piece:


Since we have lived in the same place for quite some time, my routine has solidified into essentially the same process when working on each piece. I accumulate sketches and notes as each piece progresses like a rat making its nest from shredded newsprint. Important pages are taped above and around the writing space, and random sketches live on the right side of the portable desk. Let's take a closer look at the ingredients of my composerly mise en place:

* Desk: This was stolen from Julia's old office, it's a wonderful adjustable desktop that also rolls. Also works great swinging around for note entry at the laptop desk on the other side of the room.

* Paper: I compose everything by hand on 11x17 paper I made myself in Sibelius. Random sketches and ideas are on standard 8.5x11 pages to not waste resources. Short scores are kept after entering into the computer; everything else is recycled once I am sure the piece is finished.

* Writing Utensils: Working with Jim Barnes taught me to love the #1 pencil; these look like ink when copied and are wonderfully smooth. The only down side is trying to find the bloody things - Scantron tests mean #2 pencils dominate the office supply landscape. I use a stick eraser for small edits and the big white gum eraser for larger real estate renovations. There are also two large green triangle rulers purchased at a craft supply store that I could never live without.

* Coffee: Forever and always. Only one coaster so I don't hoard dirty dishes. Sadly the cup in this picture is not bigger on the inside.

* Long-Range Goals: I always have some sort of plan laid out for individual movements and this is the first thing to get taped to the work space. These have various amounts of detail depending on the project, and serve to remind me where I am going (and where I've been) as the piece progresses. Very handy to be able to see at a moment's notice.

* Miscellany: On the bookshelf are a metronome, paper clips, guitar picks (I tend to write mainly on guitar these days), and a large stack of Post-It notes that is invaluable to my writing process. I write orchestration ideas and little notes to remind myself where the piece is heading at the end of each session. Finished notes are simply stuck on the shelf and recycled when the piece is done:



While I would love a bit more space to spread out, I do like the minimalist aspect of the portable desk combined with a permanent laptop station. Too much space just means more dusting and more surface area to pile unwanted flotsam. It's not John Mackey's or Hans Zimmer's studios, but there's no place like home. What's your ideal mise en place for maximum creativity? Hit me up on the Tweeters.





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