Glenwood Springs composer learns to capture his ‘moments of bliss’
Vail, CO, Colorado
For James Belling, there were two essential components to writing music. One was the initial spark of creation when the music would first present itself, sometimes in its entirety, with melody, harmony and rhythm appearing as a whole. Belling refers to this aspect of composition as “this moment of bliss.”
The other side of composing might be called the grunt work ” trying to recapture that creative burst in that complex, esoteric, time-consuming process known as notation. At times, that moment of bliss might survive long enough to make it onto the page, in a series of dots, lines, squiggles and instructions. Those occasions are rare and special enough for Belling to remember at least one in detail. It was the night his first granddaughter was born.
“There was a lot of joy in that ” feeling it, and there it is, 15 minutes of hand-scratching it out, and then singing it right away after to my wife. It was a touchstone moment,” said Belling, a hippie-ish Glenwood Springs resident with a long, grayish ponytail who is likely in his 60s (he claims to be older than dirt). It was one of those instances when “the whole thing would just flow out, choruses and verses and everything. An amazing process, where you’re not even involved. It’s: ‘Who am I?'”
More often, though, Belling would find himself wishing he truly was not involved. The interval between inspiration and notation could be a maddening time, when harmonies went out of tune, textures and accents were lost forever. Belling found that rhythms were particularly susceptible to being forgotten in the interim.
“Songs would come flying out in five minutes,” he said. “I’d try to remember as much as I could, and in the process of notating and returning to it, it would get lost. You’d create in this moment of bliss, then spend an hour trying to find it again in a form that your brain could reproduce. It was very frustrating. Every 20 measures the rhythms in my head would start changing.”
In one instance, Belling reckons he broke some traffic laws when he pulled over, in the middle of a bridge, to get out of traffic so he could get down a tune that came to him.
Belling has found a solution to the problem that doesn’t involve praying for more of those moments of clarity. Instead of writing five-minute folk songs, he has begun focusing on longer compositions ” ones that are built out of smaller segments, that are easier to get down quickly on a page ” that are intended for the concert hall. Since 2004, he has composed a small handful of these pieces.
This weekend, Belling gets to hear what one of those more recent works sounds like in the hands of a live orchestra. Symphony in the Valley’s “Comedy Tonight” performances ” set for 7 p.m. Saturday in Parachute, and 2 p.m. Sunday in Carbondale ” will feature his 10-minute “Symphony Sampler,” among other humorous musical pieces.
Belling, a native of Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, has been on the creative end of music since the age of 5, when a guitar found its way into his hands. At Seattle’s Cornish School of Allied Arts, he began his studies in the hard sciences. One day he was standing in line at the federal employment office, looking for a job; just ahead of him was a man who had a Ph.D. in physics. “And here I was, struggling with basic math and science. I figured if he couldn’t get a job, maybe I should switch to something I loved,” said Belling. He moved into the music department, with an emphasis on composition. He also took a class in calligraphy, to sharpen his abilities with pencil and paper: “It was the only way to get the music down,” he said.
Music, however, was not to become his livelihood. Belling took jobs as a commercial fisherman, as a general contractor, and with a high-end cabinetry shop. Currently, he designs homes and light commercial buildings.
Music has always lingered off to the side. In the ’70s, in addition to teaching some music, he played in casual pickup groups and solo, in folk clubs, with a repertoire of ’60s and ’70s folk. A few years later he began playing the lap dulcimer. In the mid-’90s, he had his most serious foray with music, playing a regular weekly gig for several years in a Suquamish coffeehouse with a group of friends. It was during this time he began writing his own material, and discovering the divide between the moment of inspiration and the chore of notation.
After moving to Glenwood Springs in 2000, Belling’s interest in music took another leap. He joined the Aspen Choral Society’s Glenwood Community Chorus, in which he sang bass, and a barbershop quartet, Mountain Sounds, in which he sang both tenor and baritone (“I have a three-octave range when I’m in shape”).
“Singing with a big chorus and a professional orchestra, and having a big audience, was an exciting, attractive place to make music,” Belling explained. “So I started putting my attention on writing something bigger than songs.”
He went back to musical themes he had used in college to create the 2004 choral symphony, “That I Am.” Belling found that the longer, more structured form suited him better than the song form. It helped that he had come across the Finale notating program, computer software that goes a long way toward doing the notation for you.
“The difference was, writing a longer piece, you don’t hear it all in five minutes,” he said. “If you try to hear 35 minutes of music all at once, you go nuts. Instead, it pours out over a period of two or three months.”
With elevated hopes, Belling shipped the score for “That I Am” to several orchestras. Only one of them, the Colorado Symphony, even responded, and asked him to submit a different piece for an all-Colorado program they were putting together. Belling composed another work, “Two Love Songs and a Prayer,” and submitted it, but it got squeezed out of the concert.
“Symphony Sampler” is a perfect fit with the Symphony in the Valley’s Comedy Tonight program. The concert features such offbeat pieces as Robert Hirsch’s “Concerto Gross,” for kazoo ensemble; David Baker’s “Concertina for Cellular Phones and Orchestra”; a John Cage piece for radios; and humorous works by Haydn, Mozart and P.D.Q. Bach.
Belling’s piece is meant as a showcase for the different parts of an orchestra, perhaps akin to Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” “The idea was that if a young person heard it, they’d get a sense of what each instrument did, what it sounded like, and maybe they’ll pick out an instrument they’d be interested in trying.”
The appeal to children is heightened by a wacky sense of humor. It one segment, the woodwinds and brass do a rendition of the drinking song “How Dry I Am,” in a style that suggests that the musicians have been hitting the bottle themselves. The strings then answer with a more proper version of the tune ” “like they’re thumbing their noses at each other,” said Belling. The trombones respond with a Bronx cheer. There are other comedic elements that will lose their effect if detailed here. “Symphony Sampler” ends with a chord progression, known as “four of four to one of four,” that Belling says might remind listeners of the Beatles.
Belling is also at work on a concerto for tuba (he doesn’t say if that’s meant to have a comedic element) and a few jazz numbers. His design work has kept him busy enough that he isn’t thinking about all those songs that were lost in the time between thinking of them and remembering them. It isn’t bothering him much; he understands the nature of musical notions.
“Ideas come and go. They rocket through your head,” he said.
Symphony in the Valley’s Comedy Tonight, featuring James Belling’s “Symphony Sampler,” will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Grand Valley High School in Parachute; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org