Min Cheng is a senior with a major in Economics and a special major in Sociology/Anthropology & Educational Studies. Min has been involved in music and choral singing from a very young age, but has only recently entered the world of arranging and composition. “more” is Min’s debut composition.
I approached Joe in the middle of the fall semester, telling him I wanted to compose something for Garnet Singers because I had been inspired by Rachel Hottle’s composition “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” I had been arranging R&B, jazz, and pop for my a cappella group Mixed Company for three years, so the idea of composition was not totally foreign, but I still had never taken a music theory course at Swarthmore or composed any choral piece in my life. I set off to find a text, and settled upon a poem called “more” by Maya Kikuchi, a sophomore and fellow member of Mixed Company and Chorus.
Often, artists struggle with finding legitimacy in their efforts. They think of themselves not as powerful shapers of creation, but as undeserving agents of the muses. I had the opposite problem. I had blithely and publicly committed to writing this piece and having the Garnet Singers sing it the next semester without any idea of how difficult it would actually be to sit down and think of something original with only the text as inspiration. Over winter break, I had to do just that. I used working on my composition as an excuse to productively procrastinate on writing the third chapter of my thesis, which was due the day break ended, and was able to invest a lot of time into starting and scrapping many drafts. The melody that ended up becoming the main motif came from me sitting on my bed, eyes closed, willing myself to come up with something. As uncreative as that sounds, such is often the process of artistic creation under deadline pressure.
The first 16 bars that I brought Joe were very much a rough draft, and many tweaks had to be made to make the draft even singable. I had forgotten that singers need to breathe every now and then, and there was more than one occasion that I had asked the singers to sing unreasonably high or low notes at unreasonably high or low volumes. There were dissonant intervals that would be more difficult to tune than they were worth, and seemingly atonal lines that just — they weren’t right. The music didn’t bring out the gorgeous nature imagery of the text, didn’t highlight the introverted reflection the speaker of the poem was performing, didn’t drive the listener to ask — what is more than all of these things? What is the unspoken referent of all of these lines? The piece, while written with the poem as its lyrics, was unconnected to Maya’s text. All that, plus it being impossible to learn, meant that I had to revisit what I had written and implement the changes in my composition process for what ended up being the next 46 bars.
Of course, I am not saying that the piece as it stands now does do all those things with the text that I said my first draft did not do. I think it got closer, but I think the point of this whole process — which I am very grateful to Joe for allowing me to participate in — was educational for me. While I am not a music major and will never go to music graduate school, the composition lessons I have learned from him and from the Garnet Singers and from my peer composers have been invaluable.
Firstly, sing through everything you write. Secondly, try to write in order to bring out something in the text that would not be highlighted via a non-musical reading out loud of the poem. Lastly, and this is most important, do not underestimate the power of the voice as an instrument. Words can lead us to expect certain things, and singers have the ability to do something unexpected to great effect. Rhymes can be subversively constructed. Certain vowels are darker or brighter, and words with lots of fricative consonants or aspirated t’s (like “spitted pits”) sound very different from mellow, soft words (like “tissue skin”). No other instrument can sing words. That is what I find most gratifying about composing for voice.
"more" spoken introduction