Amy Gerstler and I have come up with a few different song writing ‘techniques.’
The writing of a song might happen like this: We decide “a song could go here…” and one of us brings the other an idea, then that person takes it and runs a first draft (lyric first if it’s Amy, music first if it’s me), and then we start a sort of back and forth process. I love that process. Each collaboration with a writer is different. This is my first collaboration with Amy and I can’t say I’ve ever had an easier one.
But when you work with a poet of Amy’s caliber, there are sometimes songs written that can almost be called a happy accident.
We had been going back and forth on a scene where Alma Mahler (the widow of composer Gustav Mahler) is unpacking things from her old home, and coming across objects that belong to her late husband and her daughter. We felt that this could be a moment that could precipitate a bit of an emotional crises for Alma, who at the time is feeling a bit suffocated by her intense relationship with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, and possibly feeling a bit lost.
So in one of our meetings, Amy pulled out a poem this scene inspired that she thought might have some value, at least in part, as a piece of dialogue, or monologue. I was riveted by this poem – which to me seemed almost like an existential crisis put into words (How many musicals have you seen that have THAT?) – and I ended up composing music very quickly in one sitting, using her poem exactly and in its entirety, with no ‘back and forth.’
I called the song “The Lives of Objects” which is the phrase in the poem that really stuck with me. So it was with great pleasure that I called her and said WE HAVE A SONG. IT”S DONE. And it’s what I hope for in a song: I believe it can do so much more for that scene and for our story and for Alma that any piece of dialogue we could write.