In Hollywood films and popular biographies, composers get ideas out of the blue and then dash off compositions pell-mell in a blaze of inspiration. But the reality is that the creation of enduring music can be hard work.
"The tune part is the easiest," composer Mark McGurty said. "The next step is the inventive process. How can that tune be continued? What's interesting about it? The hardest part is to create a convincing dramatic structure. That's what distinguishes concert music (composers) from talented composers who write pop tunes--where it's over in 64 bars and has gone nowhere but it's a great tune."
McGurty, who has composed about 30 orchestral works, said he wrote 300 pages of sketches for his third Piano Concerto, which will receive its world premiere by Keith Clark and the Pacific Symphony on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. (Bryan Pezzone will be the soloist.)
"I wrote the final score twice," McGurty said. "It's 180 pages."
The concerto will be McGurty's fifth premiere this year. Others include his String Quartet No. 8, a piano sonata, a woodwind quintet and a large orchestral work, "Pour un Tombeau d'Anatole," which Clark led in February with the Cathedral Symphony--his other orchestra--in New Jersey.
Clark and the Pacific Symphony commissioned the piano concerto for the Orange County centennial.
Clark calls it "terrific music. There is an openness in this music, a direct communication with the audience. It's an old-fashioned virtuoso concerto, in the best sense of the word, a display piece for a terrific soloist. It is devilishly hard for the soloist, likewise for the orchestra.
"I think Mark is one of Southern California's outstanding younger composers. I take his work very seriously."
McGurty said: "My music is first and foremost about expressivity. But not (about) self- expression. What I'm really looking for is that transcendental experience when, for a minute, we move beyond ourselves. That's different from ego music, beyond being the composer-hero. I don't really see myself that way."
McGurty, 33, studied composition with David Diamond and Elliott Carter at the Juilliard School in New York. He was composer-in-residence with the Pacific Symphony from 1985 to 1986. In addition to "Pour un Tombeau d'Anatole," Clark also led the first performance of McGurty's "Epiphanies" at a Pacific Symphony chamber music concert at South Coast Repertory in 1986.
According to the composer, the Piano Concerto evolves from the opening four-bar theme, which he calls "the motto" of the piece.
"Everything goes back to that opening statement," he said.
The concerto is cast in the traditional three movements and the composer describes it as being "very full of 19th-Century rhetoric. . . . It is definitely a heroic piece in that respect."
McGurty, who does not work at the piano, composes every day, working on five or six compositions at once. "If I get stuck on one work, I go to another," he said. "I fill notebooks."
"For orchestral works, I spread out paper over several buffet tables in my garage so I can get a view of things," he said. "I compose one (musical) line right through and then fill down."
When sketching out the score, he uses several colors of ink--blue, red and black--to indicate "levels of importance--primary lines, counter lines and notes to myself as to what to do here. It's basically a big painting."
As other composers throughout musical history have discovered, creativity can exact a physical toll. In McGurty's case, he now must write in ink out of physical necessity.
"My tendons detached from my fingers from writing in pencil so much," he said. "The doctors said I had the choice of switching to ink or cutting my hand open. I switched to ink, and a whole new path opened up. It makes my music a lot messier, but more colorful," he said, laughing.
McGurty works on a composition "until all the problems are solved."
"That might be a tight six-minute piece or (one) an hour long." It took him five weeks to write the concerto, which lasts about 20 minutes.
No matter what the length of the piece, McGurty believes that "organic development" is essential.
"Does it make sense going from this bar to this bar?" he said. "I'm concerned with being logical. Also, I'm aware of history. I don't want to write a Schoenberg Fifth String Quartet. I'm aware when I'm intruding on someone else's intellectual property."
After a piece is finished, "after all the notes are decided," it has to be copied. "That takes four months, at least."
But McGurty's problems are not over even at that stage, he said.
"When a world premiere of a play happens, the playwright has several months to workshop it. A composer has hardly any time at all. It all builds up to four days preceding the thing when I get to hear the physical sensation for the first time and it's too late to change.