My mother’s heart attack in 2004 helped me to compose a new tune, one inspired by the annoying beeping of a machine in her room. Suffering is said to lead to art, although in this case she did the suffering and I created the art, but was it creativity or simply following the rules of mathematics in music?
The heart attack nearly killed my mother, and she spent several weeks recuperating in Aultman Hospital’s Long-Term Acute Care unit, much of it on a ventilator that prevented her from speaking, beeping when it needed attending to. The ventilator launched into its little air when I was visiting my mother one evening after playing music in Canton. I had my mandolin with me and said, “I’m going to write a tune based on that melody,” so I got out my mandolin and found the notes.
The tune ascended the G minor scale from the mandolin’s lowest note, one of my favorite keys, a key I had used for two other tunes, as if that ventilator were beeping just for me. It was thus easy to remember those notes, and that evening I wrote most of a two-part melody, finishing it the next day. I was somewhat dissatisfied with the tune, the second part seeming anticlimactic after the first, so three weeks later I wrote a third part that satisfyingly crowned the first and second parts, an emotionally pleasing conclusion to the new air.
I wrote “Acute Care Hornpipe,” named for the place of its genesis, in the Italian Baroque style, one that Scottish composers emulated in the 18th century, whose composing techniques I studied in the book “Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century” by David Johnson. Scotland was quite the cosmopolitan center of culture back then, and no firm line of snobbery divided classical from dance music as is often the case now. Composers and players engaged in both kinds of music, on paper and in concert, and, trying to be up to date (and to sell sheet music), they wrote in the styles popular on the Continent.
From Johnson I learned the tricks those composers used to make of a short musical phrase an entire dance piece. My first attempt at writing a tune started as a study in composition in the Italian Baroque style while studying Johnson, done at my desk at my old job less than a week after buying the book. (The company is defunct, so I should be safe making this confession in print.) At home that evening I played the tune, made some minor changes where the melody didn’t flow well, improving the emotional effect of the tune, and to my surprise had an excellent tune. It was a march in G minor, and five months later I wrote a jig with a similar structure.
Being in the same key, the hospital hornpipe fit perfectly with those two tunes, and the result was a short Baroque suite. Much early Baroque music, in the 17th century, was written as suites of three or more pieces in the same key based on traditional dance patterns, and I had a march, jig and hornpipe, not exactly the suite’s dance forms but close.
When I wrote those original tunes I created new music, but other than those few changes I made to improve the melodic and emotional flow I was following three-century-old rules of composition. When I wrote harmony parts I followed the rules of harmony and composition to the extent I know them. Both methods take their form from the mathematics of music. The ventilator provided the basis of the melody, and I created the rest using logic and numbers. In the same vein, if I arrange a tune written in the 1700s I follow those rules, and I’m unsure where math ends and creativity begins, or creativity ends and math begins.
So is it creativity or mathematics? I suspect both are functioning together, and out of a machine’s beeping I created a piece of musical art.