San Francisco Bay Area–based composer Peter Alexander is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America and graduate of the Academy for New Musical Theater. Peter’s compositions reference styles ranging from J.S. Bach to Jason Robert Brown. His lyric writing pays tribute to such luminaries as Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell. Peter was the composer and co-lyricist for Can’t Say I Do, a musical romp through the subjects of family and gay marriage and recently wrote book, lyrics, and music for In the Hands of the Raven, a love-story musical about grief, guiding forces, and letting go. We are old friends from my years living in California.
Brent: When you write the book, lyrics, and music for a work like In the Hands of the Raven, do you think about how the performers will commit their parts to memory?
Peter: The short simple answer is just, no. I never think about memorization when I’m writing. It’s when I’m editing that memorization even enters my thoughts, and even then it’s not until I’m editing during the process of working with actors and singers.
Brent: Interesting. Can you elaborate on that?
Peter: When a theatre piece gets to the workshopping stage, or when I’m asking a singer to learn a song for me, then I really pay attention to the places where they stumble, get tongue tied, or have any kind of trouble. This points at the problems in the writing.
Brent: That speaks well of you, that you’re open to change. Any other occasions where this is the case?
Peter: This also holds for when I’m trying to learn something, or for example, when I’m trying to make a demo recording. If I have trouble learning something, I generally know that it’s not right yet. If I see or hear an actor struggling with a certain passage repeatedly, I always ask myself, “Is the difficulty in the passage?” The difficulty is usually not with the actor.
Brent: You’ve written emotionally charged shows about social issues, like Can't Say I Do, which called for legalizing same-sex marriage. What do you think makes musicals an especially powerful medium to memorialize experiences?
Peter: Musicals (and really all theatre for that matter) have to be about personally charged issues. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t want to watch them. Someone famous once said, “When words fail, characters sing. When singing isn’t enough, we make them dance. When dancing isn’t enough, we make them do all three at the same time. That’s how you get musicals.”
Brent: That’s brilliant. Any idea what the origin is?
Peter: Sorry, but I have no idea who said this, and I’m sure that my quotation is not very accurate. Nonetheless, people connect to music on a visceral level. It engages something in us, reactions that frequently we are not even aware of.
Brent: Sounds like you have some specific instances in mind.
Peter: I’m reminded of an experience I had shortly after seeing the movie Arachnophobia, which uses parts of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique in the score. A roommate who had seen the movie with me stepped into my room to visit while I was listening to the Berlioz sometime during the week after we had seen the movie. A few minutes after coming in, she left, and the next day she told me that she felt all creepy all of the sudden but had no idea why. I thought immediately that she had been taken back into the movie by the music.
Brent: Music can be transporting that way.
Peter: Similarly, there’s an old Noel Coward directed film, Brief Encounter, which uses the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto as underscore throughout the movie. Whenever I listen to that piece of music now, it takes through the emotional journey I experienced the first time I saw the movie. By today’s standards, the movie feels pretty overdone, but when I first saw it, I went right along for the ride.
Brent: I know what you mean. I’ve seen the stage version of Brief Encounter and recall it viscerally. In fact, there’s a fascinating reversal at one point. A character experiences a profound romantic loss, and the Rachmaninoff swells up dramatically, off-stage. The music continues playing into the next scene, but it’s no longer mood music; it’s coming from a blaring radio on stage.
Peter: Yes! Every time I hear that concerto, I go on the same emotional journey from the combination of the film and the music.
Brent: How do you perceive the flow of your own compositions? Do you think of the notes progressing in linear fashion like the plot of a story?
Peter: This feels like a very odd question for me. I don’t think I’m really able to perceive the flow of my own music. I’m too close to it. For me, one of the advantages of being the composer is that I don’t have to memorize my own work. Generally, I find it much more difficult to memorize my own work than that of others. I’ve always told myself that it’s because my own work changes so much while I’m writing it. I’m a very fussy lyricist. I change things a lot. I have also written many songs, which have several different versions.
Brent: Give me an example.
Peter: “Here With Me” is one of the songs from In the Hands of the Raven which begins, “Here it is again, June 17th, another candle on your cake.” This is a re-lyric of a personal song I wrote which begins, “I still imagine ev’ry August 4th, another candle on your cake.” When I’m writing them, my songs are like jigsaw puzzles. Sometimes a chorus idea that I jotted down three months ago goes with the verse I just heard this morning. My writing process is not very linear at all. Again, linear comes into play when I’m editing, which I told you about earlier.
Brent: Do you ever associate visuals with music or lyrics to remember them?
Peter: As to visuals, yes, I’m a very visual person. As I’m writing, I visualize stage sets, even actors’ blocking. Frequently, it’s very cinematic in my head, but that’s just what keeps the characters real in my head while I’m writing. I don’t really use it consciously to help me with memorization. Maybe if I did, I’d be better at memorization!
Brent: When there is repetition of certain phrases or melodies, do you ever get confused about what particular line comes next?
Peter: Of course. The first thing that comes to mind is Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company:
Somebody hold me too close.
Somebody hurt me too deep.
Somebody sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
The rhyme, the structure, and the alliteration all help me with memorization, but it’s a sort of mental pathway of ideas that I have to find for myself that really gets me through the whole song. Like this: “hold me too close” (what will that do?), “hurt me too deep” (how do you do that?), you “sit in my chair,” then you “ruin my sleep,” which all “makes me aware of being alive.”
The next verse begins, “Somebody need me too much.” And the final verse with “Somebody crowd me with love.” And if I sing “need” when I’m supposed to sing “hold,” then I’m going to sing the rest of the verse that goes with “need.” Sometimes if feels like a giant game of Russian roulette inside my brain. And I just get to follow it around in circles.
Brent: You’re not alone. It can be easy to take the wrong fork in the road. Some of the ways to make lyrics stick are either to visualize the progression in some crazy over-the-top way or make up an acrostic that uses the first letter of the primary changed words.
Peter: I’ll have to give that a try!
Brent: Do you have any theories about the relationship between music and memory?
Peter: The relationship between music and memory is something I marvel at more than I think I understand or can explain. One of my grandmothers had water on the brain, which presented a lot like Alzheimer’s. I often wonder what it was like for her. But what I can’t forget is one time when she was in my car for about an hour at Christmas time and I had a CD of Christmas music playing in the car. She knew every word to every Christmas carol, including “O Tannenbaum” in German. During the five seconds between each song, she was almost frantic about what was coming next, but the minute a song started, she was singing, she was in it. She wasn’t thinking about what came next, she just kept singing.
Brent: The long-term memories were more deeply rooted in her mind; that’s pretty common. It was the uncertainty of the silence and its unknown duration that caused her to panic.
Peter: That’s a good point. In my own personal experience the biggest barrier to memory is fear and panic. When I get worried about what my next line is, or when I’m thinking, “will I remember the next lyric?” That’s when I forget. For me there’s a certain amount of letting go that helps me remember. I have to study the lines or lyrics. I have to know that I have rehearsed properly. But in performance, mostly I have to trust that they will be there. And when I do (trust) they are (there).
Brent: Thank you so much, Peter. You are gifted with sensitivity and creativity.
Peter: I may have gone off topic a bit, but this was fun!
Visit Peter’s website to learn more about his compositions. He can even create a customized jingle for you for any occasion!