Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Composing from A to Z

Note of Introduction:

The point of this essay is to discuss the development of a musical idea from its inception through to the realization of the completed composition. There is, however, no technical instruction relating to the composition of new music within this essay. While this essay is not about how to be a composer of contemporary classical music, the author invites composers (especially those in training) to read this article in the hopes that they might benefit from an alternative point of view in regards to the approach to composition. For the sake of the essay it is assumed that a composer will already be well versed in the literature of music, possessing a fundamental knowledge of both theory, counterpoint, and harmony (though these will not necessarily be required to understand the concepts presented within the essay).

From Seed ... to Flower

Anything can inspire a composer to create a new work: a beautiful spring day, a reef seen while diving underwater, a painting in a museum, the face of a loved one smiling enigmatically ... or countless other things that stir our hearts as we live our lives. Composers, first and foremost, are humans and, as such, are inexorably tied to the thoughts and feelings that affect our every waking moment. The main difference between a composer or artist and someone who does not regularly express their feelings through something as permanent as music is that creatives focus on distilling their feelings down to something that is far more condensed and, essentially, purified than that which is encountered under normal circumstances.

Rather than declaring “I love you” to the woman they love a poet will write a poem – sometimes a rather long declaration of their undying devotion to the woman in question. When depressed about the death of his child Gustav Mahler composed one of the iconic works the repertoire, Kindertotenlieder.

At the same time, since it often takes extended periods of time to create large scale works, composers and other creatives must deal with the issue of creative continuity – or consistency – when returning to the same piece over a period of months or, perhaps, even years. The reason is quite simple: as time continues its relentless march we all change; it is inevitable, irrevocable, and something that we would not want to prevent regardless – without change we would stagnate and die. At the same time, artistic change is something that can render a composition musically unsatisfying for the simple reason that the composer that began the work is not the same one that completed the piece. The inconsistencies cry out like a sore thumb.

Maintaining the cohesiveness of thought from the beginning of a long project through to its end is one of the great challenges that composers face when composing large scale works, but it is something that is incredibly important if we are to maintain a sense of musical context and integrity throughout the work. There are several things that can assist in maintaining cohesion through a project that takes an extended period of time to create, some of which may be helpful to some while other composers will find other strategies are of use; the important thing is to aim for consistency in what is being composed, otherwise we risk producing work that sounds unbalanced and, perhaps, unprepared.

The biggest mistake that young composers make (though this is an issue that can certainly be applicable to mature composers as well) – that most creatives make when starting a project – is that they do not imagine what the final version, the outcome of the work, is going to look – or sound like when all has been said and done. This is, perhaps, one of the most important things that we can do as creative artists: envision the final form of the work before it has been completed. If we can “see” (or “hear”) how the composition is supposed to turn out we then have a much better idea of what we are pursuing in the work that we are doing. It is also a critical step in the development of the strategies that will get us to that point: how are we going to accomplish this goal? What must be done to get from the opening of a work to the final notes of the piece? Once those questions are answered (in our minds) we are in a much better position to begin the work on the piece than we had been only moments before.

Yet, the question remains: if we all change, even over short periods of time, how are we to prevent this from adversely affecting the quality of our music?

The compositional process is not something that can be described in terms of a specific form that works for everyone: as each individual approaches their own ideas, the methods for the development of compositions will similarly be expressed in as unique a fashion as reflected by the individual undertaking the work being done. The evidence of this is heard in the variety of music that is composed by composers around the world: after studying a curriculum of “classical” foundations the “rules” of music are used to produce a myriad of different outcomes – many of which still have not been heard.

It is not the process itself that we are overly concerned with, however, but the manner in which that process is approached: it is the consistency with which a composer faces the task of composing a work that will ultimately determine whether or not a composition sounds coherent or fragmented. Fortunately, there are several strategies that composers can use that will help maintain the “frame of mind” in which a composition was composed.

Using the horticultural metaphor of the seed, let us continue with the idea that an idea, once it has been turning over in our heads for awhile, has begun to “germinate” ... in essence, it begins to sprout. The obvious first step is to compose: discipline, on the other hand, leads to greater planning and, in the case of a large scale work, sketching out the ideas that will make up the entire work. As mentioned before, for as many composers as there are there are different approaches to composition, so if you are not the type of composer that works from a detailed plan, do not be discouraged: this can still help you a great deal.

There is a big difference between a detailed plan for a work and sketching, the greatest being that in sketching we are less concerned with the individual elements such as rhythm, thematic development, and specific instrumentation, which would be indicated in a detailed plan. A detailed plan for a work, in essence, may be considered to be somewhere close to one step below the first draft of a piece (again, some composers do not compose drafts – that’s fine as well); it is something that will be immensely valuable to the composer who prepares it for the reason that it presents the majority of the musical materials to be used within the composition (both melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal).

In lieu of a detailed plan, for those composers who find such a thing to be too onerous, the use of the sketch is highly recommended to capture the essence of the germinating idea in an effort to maintain coherence throughout the composition. Since a sketch pad is the constant companion of the author, this happens to be the preferred method, though detailed plans have also been prepared, they have often been constructed during the compositional process, in an effort to re-spark the creative flow if there happens to be a lull in the creativity.

Sketching is, essentially, jotting down any musical idea that comes to mind when we do not have an opportunity to write them down in a composition. Beethoven was always carrying his sketchpads around with him, composing notes for future works out in nature or wherever he happened to be; it is a great way for composers to make sure they do not lose anything important that happens to come to mind. In the case of sketching out an idea that has begun to sprout to the point that it is almost ready to become a fully fledged composition, the sketch is something that need not be overly detailed, but should contain enough material so that the composer can use the material to return to the state of mind that they were in when they began the process of composing that particular piece.

Due to the fact that we are constantly changing as individuals, and especially as creative artists, the person that began the composition of a multi-movement work in January is not the same person that completes it ... whenever it happens to be finished. This is where the idea of the frame of mind, or state of mind, becomes so important to both composer and composition. If we are writing a deeply emotional work that draws upon passionate feelings it is of paramount importance that the composer is able to touch those feelings within themselves, otherwise the music will be devoid of the one thing the music cries out for: passion. When the composer returns to their work, of course, it is necessary to return to that state of mind – to that emotional state – so that the music being composed at that moment is of the same emotional intensity as that which was already composed.

Sometimes it is necessary to leave a work for a day or more before returning to it, in which case the idea of returning to the same state of mind we were in when last working on it is not such a difficult idea to embrace, but what happens if there is one month – or longer – between the time working on a piece? How can we return to a state of mind that existed 30 days or more before? While referring to the sketch, or detailed plan, will refresh the musical memory it may not be able to fully transport us to the emotional “place” where we had been at that time; in order to do that it may be necessary to try something else, to try something that is as easy as breathing, but takes a little more thought: meditation.

When speaking of using meditation in order to re-focus our mind for the purpose of composition it is important to note that we are not speaking of that which is normally associated with “Eastern mysticism”, or having anything to do with the New Age. Meditation is, quite simply, a quiet contemplation; it is a tool through which the mind is able to focus itself and, depending on the techniques used, access a particular emotional state – even if it is a state from quite a while ago. For the purposes of composition, the simplest way to meditate is, perhaps, the most effective, and it all begins with the breath. Just as many musical instruments rely on the breath of the player to provide their sound, we rely on our breath for everything that we do, but, as we go through our lives we usually pay very little attention to the vital importance of the breath and breathing in general. Ultimately, however, when we focus on our breath – when we focus on the actual mechanics of what we are doing – it becomes possible to influence the entire organism.

It all begins with one breath. You take a deep breath in through your nose and, very slowly, fill your lungs. The important thing here is that as you are breathing in, visualize your lungs being filled as though you were pouring water into a large container: it fills from the bottom first and then the water rises to the top. Imagine your lungs filling up slowly, filling from the bottom to the top until you have filled them like two large barrels, filled to the brim. Hold the breath for a few beats ... and then exhale, slowly, through your mouth.

In through the nose, slowly, filling the lungs from the bottom to the top ... holding for a few beats ... exhale through the mouth. Slowly. This is not a race, nobody wins a point for finishing first. Now, when you have taken a few cleansing breaths, close your eyes and picture in your mind how you felt when you were composing the piece you are working on – hear it in your mind’s ear – feel the music as you take in each new breath – allow the music you have composed to meld with that which has not yet been written until you are sure that your present state of mind is sufficient to continue the work on the piece without changing the style or continuity of the piece. After you have tried this a few times you will realize, quite quickly, when you have attained that state of mind that you have been seeking. If, on the other hand, it takes more to enter this state, it may be necessary to use more advanced self-hypnosis techniques (essentially the same as meditation, but more intense).

The individual practising self-hypnosis, or the modified form as described here is merely, for all intents and purposes, meditating at a deeper level. The only real difference being that with practice, it is possible to introduce triggers or “suggestions” to yourself that will assist when it comes to the fulfilment of a specific goal. People have used self-hypnosis for many years as a means of helping with weight loss, smoking cessation, and all types of other issues, but many musicians are introduced to it in order to help cope with performance anxiety, otherwise known as stage fright. It is one of the most widely used non-medical options for dealing with some situations that may also be treated with medication.

Rather than taking a Beta Blocker, which is a common type of medication prescribed to assist with performance anxiety, or even a low dose of an anxiolytic drug such as those found among the benzodiazepine group of medications, it is possible to cope with this increased level of stress with self-hypnosis. All one has to do is, again, breathe ... and, in this case, follow a script specific to the situation being addressed. A typical self-hypnosis session will begin with the deep breathing exercise as previously described and then the script will gradually shift to having the individual become more and more aware of how their body is feeling. This is not about how you are feeling physically, per se, but rather how the body is feeling, in the physical space that it is taking up at that moment.

There are many methods to achieve self-hypnosis, with a full examination of even one method being far beyond the scope of this essay. It shall suffice, for now, that the use of self-hypnosis can be very effective in achieving the aforementioned goal of realizing a state of mind that had existed at a previous time. With practise it is also possible to use the deep relaxation techniques to such an extent that a state of near self-hypnosis is achieved; it is merely a matter of putting your mind to it and allowing a “script”, internalized or recorded, to run through your head as you are performing the exercise. As with all things, the more you try it, the better at it you will become.

By getting the mind to concentrate so intently on the present, on the “here and now”, it becomes possible to access those feelings that we experienced – or were experiencing – at other times, and that is the key to recovering that mental state you were in when you last worked on the composition. By doing this it makes the act of composition something that some might describe as a near spiritual experience, but do not fear, we are merely focusing on the oldest impetus there is within humanity: the desire to create.

Once we have achieved the appropriate state of mind, the real task – the real fun – begins. Now, we’re composing. Taking an idea from its inception to the final form is not always an easy task. Some pieces, it would seem, “compose themselves”, requiring very little intervention on our part ... at least, from the perspective of the composer, that is how it sometimes feels. You start with a blank page and an idea and the next thing you know the page is full of music and the only thing you know is that the coffee in your cup is cold and the sun has shifted in the sky. Save for the passage of time it is almost as though someone else has composed the music in front of you – that you were only a conduit to what is now on the page ... and that is how it is, sometimes.

At other times the notes seem to be struck with a timidity that makes them hide from you, making it difficult to hear how things are supposed to be going. Rather than having things flowing into place, this time it is more like dragging a log up a hill rather than having the flower blossom, as though by magic, right before your eyes. So, what can be done when the music is not flowing so easily? Do we surrender to a lack of inspiration and only work when in this “mystical” state? Of course not. Composers are very much like writers of literature: we are using our own language – the language of music to express our ideas; sometimes, with writers, things come out with great fluidity, very easily, as though it was writing itself but, at other times a writer must sit there and work at their craft – and it is a craft, just as composing is a craft.

Composers must never become complacent about the ease with which a musical idea or composition might come to them for things have a tendency of changing, even for the most prolific of composers. We must understand, however, that when we do “work” on our craft there is nothing that will be gained by banging our heads against a stone wall. If things are not working out and we are unable to figure out where a piece is supposed to be going, then it is time to take a break. Sometimes it is necessary to take more than a small break from a composition in order to regain our perspective, something which can easily be lost when we are too close to the piece.

When we have regained our sense of perspective, after a few days – or even weeks – then, when we return to the composition it will be with a renewed energy, a renewed desire to complete that which was previously started. Above all else, we must not become discouraged when a composition is not completed at a particular time. Composing is a process, it goes from one point to the next and will ultimately arrive at the end when it is ready to, not a moment sooner. When a work is completed it is as long as it needs to be, or as short as needed to convey the musical idea that the composer had at that time.

One of the methods that has worked particularly well for me personally when composing anything with more than 3 parts is what may be called the “Layer System” ... or, the Onion. While composing a piece for multiple instruments the first thing that will be done will be deciding where the active voice for that section is: what instrument is the most important. Once that part has been composed (either an entire section or several measures at a time, it all depends on the context of the composition) the next step is to start “filling in the blanks” in the score – composing out the remaining parts, one instrument at a time.

It is generally advisable to establish the harmonic content of any measures first as that (the harmonies and implied harmonies therein) will help determine the choice of the other notes used in the section. At this point it does not matter whether or not you are composing tonal or atonal music: your “harmony” will be based on your own musical choice, be it post-tonal or tonal, so long as the choices are well made and musically logical. As each layer is completed it is possible to begin to see the growth of the blooming flower – or whatever it is meant to be. At some point in this process you will come to the realization that you could add more notes, but you don’t have to for the section to be complete. Follow your instincts. It is very easy to “over compose” while using the layering method, but do not be afraid of allowing your instruments to rest if necessary.

It is always dangerous when writing for a large ensemble to use the Tutti for prolonged periods of time without relief. While we do not want to have instruments sitting on stage for too long without playing a single note, it must also be acknowledged that Tuttis can be potentially very tiring when heard over extended periods of time. If you are composing for a large ensemble consider the number of pairings, of trios, quartets, etc. within the ensemble that might be exploited for the colourful effects and musical challenges they may offer. By varying the ensemble it becomes possible for the composer to vary the musical material by simply re-scoring it rather than recomposing something. It is, in essence, one of the simplest forms of musical variation: restating a musical idea in an alternative scoring.

What do we do with musical ideas that do not fit? Fragmented ideas that are too good to toss out, but not right for what we are working on at the time? These are called “Fragments of a Dream”, or FOADs for short. There will be times when an idea emerges, but it just does not fit into what is being written: what should be done? There are two things that work very well, the first being the aforementioned sketchpads and the second being the use of a second document in Finale, (or whatever program the composition is being composed in, if it is being written on a computer). When writing a piece entirely on paper it is sometimes less obvious when new material does not fit, which is one of the advantages of using a software package like Finale or Sibelius as they have the ability to provide an instant playback of what has already been written, giving the composer a much better idea as to how the music may sound when realized by live performers.

Whichever way you compose, the most important thing that you must be aware of is the importance of being able to edit a composition without feeling as though you are cutting off part of your own body. When we write something we are so close to it that making any changes, or hearing a criticism, can be exceedingly difficult; we are too emotionally invested when the project is only just completed in order to be able to approach it with a detached perspective, with the emotional clarity that is needed to be able to make the difficult decisions regarding how to make it a better piece. Self-editing is, without doubt, one of the most difficult things any creative individual can ever do for the simple reason that it feels as though we are attack our own work, until we come to the realization that there is nothing personal about what is being done: the goal is to produce the best quality piece in the end. If that means cutting a little bit here, fixing something there, then so be it: it is all part of the process.

While it is helpful for composers to take advantage of the features of these compositional tools it must be stressed that they are just that, they are tools; neither Finale nor Sibelius, nor any other music program will take the place of the experience garnered over many years of study and applying what has been learned to the craft. Composing music is much more than following a formula or filling in some blanks on a page, it is about creativity, it is about making something where there was nothing but silence before; composing music is a form of communication that is codified on paper, as a language to be transmitted for a future generation to discover.

The tools of composition will not make up for the skills, or lack thereof, that any particular individual may or may not have. When someone approaches a composition software package like Finale or Sibelius they not only have to learn how to use the program (the learning curve on Finale is quite high, it is a fairly difficult program to master, but a very powerful program, used by many professional publishing houses and professional composers), they have to know what it is they are trying to input into the program: Finale will not accept improperly formatted music, it has to be entered correctly or it “won’t fit” into the template. Technology is only an aid to contemporary composers: it does not replace the tools we need in order to write something down on paper.

Ultimately, what a composer is able to do with an idea will not be determined by the program they are using or any of the peripheral things associated with the piece; it will come down to the musical ideas that they are able to generate themselves: how well are you able to manipulate the seed from which the original idea was born? If the seed is not yielding what you had been hoping it would do not get upset; take a step back and regain your perspective before trying again. If it still does not work, plant another seed.

Do not be afraid to have a piece with multiple “seeds” as the foundation; having a piece that stems from only one idea, quite frankly, would be the exception, not the rule, though you could derive a second theme from an idea relating to the initial idea, which could also lead to a third theme, and so on. Most importantly is that the secondary ideas (the second “seed”) should flow together in a natural, organic manner, that compliments the other ideas in the composition. When the music is forced it loses the sense of freedom that it could otherwise have, a feeling that is difficult to articulate, but is often easily recognizable when heard.

How do we know when the composition is completed? If you have been using the “onion” or layered approach to the compositional process then there are times when you may think the piece is finished, but you return to it to add something else here and there, little things to touch it up. When composing a large work for chamber orchestra it was especially difficult to come to that final ending without constantly revisiting certain parts over and over again. What it finally comes down to is the discipline to be able to look at the piece and make the decision that “it is finished”, even if more could be added, it does not have to be added.

In this instance using Finale to compose is an advantage as it can provide a reasonably decent playback of what has been written, providing an excellent idea of how the piece will sound for the composer. With that assistance it is possible for a composer to know, with much better certainty than when composing on paper alone, how a piece of music will sound during a performance; it is also possible to make renderings of these pieces to be shared as sound files, so composers can share their music not only as scores but as audio files as well.

By accessing the technology available today it is possible for a composer to hear their music without using live musicians, though that is, of course, the goal for any composer who wants to see their music come to life on stage. With the use of technologies such as Finale and a third-party instrumental add on, however, a composer may easily create a recording that can rival that of some professional players ... or, at least, they can create a recording that will reproduce everything that the composer puts in the score. The music heard from a rendering by Finale will be limited to what the composer has designated in the score; if there are no indications for dynamics, the piece will sound accordingly. If no phrasing is indicated, none will be played. Live players can only be emulated when enough information is given that the performance will sound as though someone is making musical choices during a performance.

A composition is completed when you have entered enough information on the score so that the only question that has to be asked about the performance is: where would you like to sit? A score is a road map for the performers; do not be afraid to provide them with enough road signs and markers to give them everything they need in order to produce the performance you want. The less there is on the score means that much more for the performer to decide upon during the preparation of the piece. That may work for a solo work, or a piece for two players, but when dealing with a work for several players or larger ensemble the idea of leaving things up to the performers will lead to confusion, unless the work is conducted and the conductor makes the decisions for all the players.

Some composers have indicated that putting too many indications on the score is “over controlling”, but this is only the case when taken to the extremes of certain composers. We are not talking about having an articulation or dynamic marking over every single note, such as has been done by some composers in the 20th century: that is definitely on the excessive side of things and could well be seen as over controlling. However, indicating where a player should be playing a crescendo or decrescendo, and the specific dynamics in different sections, that is definitely not over controlling the score, it is directing how you see – how you hear – your piece. It is part of the language of music, it is part of the process. After all, it is what we do. When that is done, when you can look at a piece and say, “they will know how it goes” when they look at the score, the job is done.

The following video is of a piece I composed called “46664: The Number of a Man” - a work based on the number given to Nelson Mandela when he arrived at Robben Island in 1964.

To listen to some of my other compositions please visit my SoundCloud page.

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