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Blog » Pre-composition is composition!

14 Jun  
  by  scott_good

This topic came up earlier, in Jim's Tap The Knot post.  I wanted to respond to it, but was very busy - luckily with a good thing - playing music. 

T'any rate, I wanted to put in the good word for the so called "pre-composition".  It is an integral part of my process in order to arrive at the final piece of music, so I must give it thumbs up.  We have lost a commonality.  To approach a new piece of music requires the jostling of many issues, at times conflicting.  But I love the entire process of developing the sound of my new compositions and projects.  It is there that we can play ideas of sound off ideas of philosophy - or choosing to make sonic relationships with other art objects, or natural subjects.  It can intertwine with other performing, visual, or literary arts.

There are many things new in our time compared to "theirs". The full inclusion of all sounds, electronic processing, and highly developed tonal, rhythmic, and formal methods provide powerful new forces and sonic possibilities to the composer.  But "pre-composition" is also deemed new.  Well, it is true that composers of old had a more restricted palette shall we say.  And because of this, we need to spend more time developing a musical syntax for our pieces - something that was already established, to a degree, for the composers of old.   But, the system was very flexible, and large scale forms were realized that are hard to believe simply sprung off the pen.  Even within the highly structured vocabulary  functional tonality and traditional form, that Wagner did not "pre-compose" with the Ring, Bach with the Art of Fugue, Beethoven with the Pathetique Sonata, or Schubert with the Gmin Quartet. 

Does the sculptor just sit down and start chipping at rocks?  I suppose it is possible...but I would gather that paper sketches are the norm.  Does the novelist just start writing?  Or perhaps, do they develop characters and plot lines first?  Don't you think it best that they develop the character, so the very first words about them come from a deep understanding of who they are, where they have been, and where they are going?  Yes, the reader discovers the character, but should the author as well, at least to a degree.  Can we not see the relation to this in music composition?

I would never say that pre-composition is a must do list.  But under a certain kind of perspective, it is always there. The notes...the sounds come from their history. 

Most often for myself, some kind of structural plan has been thought out - notated to a degree, but rarely complete - graphic at times, and others in words. Likely, some kind of pitch structure is established to form a basis - at times rigorous, others very loose.  Orchestration is often mapped out, but, all relating to form.  Form is key - it is the reason.  Reason is key - it is the form.

There is also subjectivity and music.  It can challenge parameters. Certain subjects need appropriate sounds and structures, and one bends or discovers new technique to realize it.  The subjective impulse bears down on the objective realization, experimentation, trial and error.  It takes study - comparative and contrasting.

This is a process I like to embrace, not be scared of.  I find the western classical tradition is a powerful beacon through the murky waters.  The richness and depth of it holds much to contemplate, and the ability to coordinate musicians by the score is if nothing else, fascinating.  There are many exceptional figures in the cannon.  The rigor it demands as a performer help increase facility and ear training.  And yes, the functional tonal system is indeed, an incredibly potent development of the human conscious.  There is much to learn from this system and how it was used, and how it has changed and evolved.  I believe it's fundamental logic can reach to many people - it has a kind of universality in its expressiveness.  Markets may not bear all this witness, but they show habits, not importance.  And I also believe that the classical music traditions over the world provide great structures for musical learning and development - many rich traditions.  There is so much to learn - again, not scary, but rather exhilarating.

Pre-composition is all of those stages that lead you to that note on the paper (dot on the screen).  In the end, a choice must be made - but how was it made?  To be a composer one is a composer.  Ok, Jedi geek stuff, but, well, true.  Embrace the journey to the composition.  Love the work.  Learn and explore in life and in music.  "pre" Compose till your heart's content.  Work out harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, formal structures etc - but always with a reason in mind, guiding the process.  Lots of playing, singing, pacing, scribbling, walking, typing, doing.  Work on ideas - develop or scrap them.  Keep it flowing.  The more you do, the better you get - it is essentially inevitable. 

I have heard, in various incarnations, statements like "I think the problem with modern classical composers is they think too much". 

Ummm...sorry...gotta go. Back to work.


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 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
18 June 2010 at 01:44

Precomposition? It all depends on what sort of precomposition.

There is a lot of thought behind what some people can do 'naturally' or 'spontaneously'. Sometimes this has been thought-out abstractly in advance. In music that appeals to the imagination it is always the result of imaginative leaps: of internal if not external improvisation.

Nowadays everything is up for questioning - even the very notes and scales we use etc. But when was it different? For example, classical composers usually played instruments. And they had to tune them. And they frequently had to decide which tuning system they were going to use and always to be sensitive to the differences. What we now call common practice is largely a myth. It wasn't always common. It all looks so cut and dried after two hundred years, but it was the work of the many layers of people who were practically and theoretically involved in the process of thinking about, performing, commissioning and composing music. It is just that nowadays composers have to take on roles that used to be done by other people, before them [history] and around them [society] [and they have to try to take care of the future too]. Just how history and social context started to become part of the actual material of composition as they now inevitably are, whether the composer is aware of the fact or prefers to remain ignorant: this is a history in itself. It is social history: the story of the new question of who decides on the status of the composer and what his music is for. In musical terms i.e. with the isolation and small-entrepreneur status of the composer: it begins perhaps with Beethoven's and Berlioz' idea of 'antique' modes and music, or Schumann's fantastical and satirical take on the Baroque ('Kreisleriana') etc. [Incidentlly are the openings to the 'Sonata Pathetique' and the 9th symphony echos of the 'French Overture'?][...and look at Beethoven's sketchbooks for how he worked out section-lengths etc....A generation earlier, as Quantz explained, section-lengths had to be decided as a question of social etiquette ]

But at all stages in the development of musical systems and languages, there have been amazing leaps of the imagination which have now been reduced – like sliced bread - into depersonalised 'facts' and 'units' which we take for granted and don't fully appreciate – we don't know or much care where they come from and what they really do - and we don't even grasp what there is about them that one has to struggle to understand.

Take a very routine 'simple' idea. Here is how Thomas Morley's 'Plain and Easy [?] Introduction to Practical Music', begins to explain::

A table containing the usual cords for the composition of four or more parts

If the treble be A unison with the tenor
and the bass a 3rd under the tenor
your alto or mean shall be a 5th or 6th above the bass

But if the bass be A 5th under the tenor
the alto shall be a 3rd or 10th above the bass

Likewise if the bass be A 6th under the tenor
then the alto may be a 3rd or 10th above the bass

And if the bass be An 8th under the tenor
the other parts may be a 3rd, 5th, 6th, 10th or 12th above the bass

But if the bass be A 10th under the tenor
the mean shall be a 5th or 12th bove the bass

But if the bass be A 12th under the tenor
the also may be made a 3rd or 10th above the bass

Also, the bass being A 15th under the tenor
the other parts may be a 3rd,5th,6th,10th,12th and 13th above the bass


If the treble be A 3rd with the tenor
and the bass a 3rd under it
the alto may be a unison or 8th with the parts

But if the bass be A 6th under the tenor
the altus may be a 3rd or 10th above the bass

And so it goes on for a page and a half struggling to try and extricate the idea - have you worked it out? - of a TRIAD.

New ideas do not come easily. Morley simply could not see how the whole was more than the sum of the parts. He saw things from the perspective of the individual performer - not the listening public.

And here is how composers almost two centuries later reacted to the first tentative ideas of what became the 'tonal system':

Benedetto Marcello wrote sarcastically [in Teatro alla Mode'] about the requirements for a 'modern composer: “He will not know the names and number of the modes or tones, or how they are classified, or what are their properties. Rather he will say on that subject 'there are only two modes, major and minor, the major, the one which has the major 3rd, the minor, the one which has the minor 3rd,'...not rightly perceiving what the ancients meant by major and minor mode”.

What I find distasteful about precomposition in so much contemporary music is when the evanescent flow, the intangible dialectical processes of musical thoughts and feelings, the transitional states of emergence which has always been essential to what music is...when all this is reduced to a sequence of notational 'facts' – or even mere digits. [I was at Darmstadt when Stockhausen, in the days when he affected to care about precise detailed precomposition of every 'parameter', asked his students to come up with ideas for the next day's class, and then sent away anybody who had not written out table of numbers/permutations.

What he was asking for was that Thomas Morley's failure to be able to take the required leap of the imagination should be made into permanent law.

Genuine precomposition involves practical know-how, memory, improvisation, mimicry... it requires work on developing the imagination – i.e on the ability to conceive of things and ideas (sounds and relationshipsof sounds) not yet heard.

 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
18 June 2010 at 09:32

PS I should add something, as a corrective.

Nowadays most of us have left most of the work of precomposition to the piano-tuner. Marcello's caustic remarks about major and minor 3rds depend on the acoustic fact [well-known e.g. to Leopold Mozart in his book about violin-playing] that there are several different kinds of minor and major 3rd - that e.g. b flat is higher than a sharp etc.

The composers who made the great leaps of the imagination were a] those who, like Beethoven were not too good at the etiquette b] relatively uneducated untheoretical popular and dance composers like those as early as in the 16th century produced lute and other tablatures which already made no distinction between different kinds of 3rds etc. and which already specified triad accompaniments etc. It was the rigid precompositionists who got stuck and lost the wood for the trees.

 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
18 June 2010 at 20:02

I don't want to outstay my welcome, but here is an example to show what I really mean. Have you seen the work of those ancient Chinese painters who were said to walk into the mountains at the break of every day for 30 years. Then suddenly one day - without thought - they would [have developed the imagination and technique to] make one instant brushstroke which would contain a lifetime's observation and experience.......

 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
25 June 2010 at 11:56

...just to carry on talking to myself for one more moment....With my above remarks, I didn't tell the whole story - of course.

By yielding the precomposition work of elaborating intonation systems to our piano tuners we did indeed impose severe limits on decisions relating to musical language and style etc.:

Thus:genuine differentiable modality was rendered impossible-tonality [incorporating the means to enharmonic equivalence and therefore universal transposition] was made possible and the eventual development of some form of dodecaphony made inevitable as a sort of 'logical conclusion']

This has not absolved from the necessity of making decisions. It is has only shifted the decision point backwards [or forwards, depending on how you look at it]. The parallel with spoken language still applies.

We don't have to precompose the rules of grammar and syntax etc. when we want to express a thought to ourselves or one another. But in music, increasingly we do. Existing musical languages are not capable of conveying enough [at least not without considerable personal tweaking]. In order to be able to express the simplest musical idea we have to give it its historical/cultural/social/musical context - i.e. provide it with a musical 'grammar' which does not so-to-speak 'emerge automatically' from the notes. To do this requires great experience of and feeling for many different 'musics' and a great deal of insight into the general question of how musical 'languages' and 'systems' arise, develop and are transformed: how it has happened and how it could happen. It is only when all this has been internalised, when it comes up to the fingers and/or imagination spontaneously in the form of a florescence of musical ideas and images that it is even possible to begin. At that stage there may be some need for further pre'planning, but not much and not too detailed.

When writing this comment, for example, I knew in general what I wanted to say in more or less what order, but I didn't know what words I was going to use. I didn't precompose phrase-structure or whatever. I don't see that making music is intrinsically different to writing blog-comments

 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
04 July 2010 at 10:10

I'm not going to stop talking to myself. Somebody may find these words some day and find them useful. But whether they do or whther they don't, they still ought to be said. This is the attitude a blog commentator and a composer could both well have if they're going to contribute anything that's any good

I repeat: it all depends on what you mean by precomposition.

To get to know your material: that is essential. This means, in musical composition terms, to understand the properties and inherent formal implications of the melodic,rhythmic, harmonic or whatever units of your idea - and how their respective combinatorial properties.......

To get to understand these implications means exploring - testing out - in advance: thoroughly immersing your imagination. They cannot be derived through purely abstract mathematical or statistical reasoning - i.e. by dots, numbers etc. on staves. Or rather far too much can be derived this way for the imagination to be able to cope with.

Apparently, I read, there are some 46,000,000,000,000,000 solutions to Mozart's Wurfelspiel Menuet (give or take a million or two). Not one of them will give you a menuet as appealing to the imagination as any that Mozart created out of his imagination.

The implications are inherent in the 'language' you are using. Learning that [new] language is precomposition in its most useful sense. That is what is essential and quite hard. It is especially hard to cling on to what your imagination [ear - understanding] is telling you and to use just so much of the limitless range of possibilities that gives your idea a consistent and expressive meaningful shape....... and no more. The clue is to prepare, sure, but no too much: write fairly quickly before your imaginations leaps over all boundaries or before you have gone over the ground so many times as to erase the tracks....

 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
11 July 2010 at 19:21

In case posterity looks at this momologue, don't believe it. I was just being grumpy. Of course you've got to prepare.

It's just that the world - and these pages - are so full of b-s-: verbiage which presents what the composers thought they were trying to do, whether they could hear it or not - to people who are incapable of and uninterested in listening to it. For years I worked for just such an establishment, full of people who made a virtue of knewing nothing but knowing everything about everything ('Time Out')

I don't understand a lot about football, but I've been watching the world cup final You've got to assemble and train a team. You've got to be fit and work out strategies and techniques, and you've got to prepare for who you're going to come up against. But you don't know who's going to win, do you?.

 Misuc commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
02 August 2010 at 19:28

I don't intend to give up yet.

To illustrate my point, just look at the career of Stockhausen. Foy decades everything had to be so well precomposed that his Darmstadt students, when asked to come up with ideas for composition were turned away if they came with musical notes. He insisted on numbers - series and permutations.....

And then he discovered that the greater the precomposition the more random the effect, and you could get the effect randomness much easier.....

This is not an argument against precomposition, but against exaggeration.

 gr8guitar commenting on Pre-composition is composition!:
06 November 2010 at 16:48

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