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14 Dec  

"To understand all is to forgive all, the French saying goes. In "Zoli," a novel about the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, Colum McCann imagines a deeper, darker watchword for this immemorially wandering and persecuted people: to be understood, even in part, is to be violated and destroyed." NY Times review of Zoli by Colum McCann

One of the fascinating themes of the novel Zoli (and I promise all this does relate to composing!), is the difference in attitudes between the Western/White attitude to the meaning and permanence of culture; and that of the Gypsies. Where the non-Gypsy protagonists in the story attempt to 'save for posterity' Zoli's brilliance as a poet and singer, the Gypsies find this very notion absurd and eventually outcast Zoli for what they see as her betrayal of their culture by allowing her words to be written down. At the end of the novel Zoli sends a message to her English/Czech former-lover and documenter who has spent lovesick years trying to find her again. The one thing she has to say to him after all this time is "nothing is ever fully understood" - that the white man's impulse to attempt to understand and document everything is doomed to failure. Culture and meaning are impermanent, incorporeal, impossible to capture. Indeed, like a quantum particle, the very act of looking changes their meaning.

Whilst I am a composer whose method of expression is tied completely to writing down my music, I can't help feeling us 21st Century composers fall far too far into the very trap the book so beautifully portrays. When we fetishize every last detail of how a note should be played, we are trying to turn music into something it is not. Our compositions are not physical, quantifiable things, however much spotlessly perfect CD recordings and Sibelius midi playbacks might lead us to believe they are. The meaning of a piece is passed by a performer from paper to the vibrating air the same intangible way friendship is sustained - through trust and respect, thoughtfulness, attention and understanding. Those are things you can't notate. A good musician will bring those things to your score however many dots and lines you add to a note. And in the spirit of friendship I believe it's important to give that trust back to the player as much as you can. If you love someone, set them free...

10 Dec  

I’ve been thinking about creative tools and strategies recently. This is a result of starting to teach composition at Peabody and because for the last few months I have been writing about my creative process on Twitter. The latter involves me giving status reports and various insights as I write my new piece for the Bang On a Can All-Stars, and has been quite revealing to me if not a little daunting. So, with all this in mind, I thought I’d pass on some tips, tools and strategies that I’ve either picked up from my teachers or have developed over the last few years.

First, I think it’s very important to write everything down, especially when you start writing a piece. The ‘blank sheet of paper’ phenomenon is well known to writers and composers and it’s something that I try to avoid at all costs. So, I just write everything down, even if I know sometimes what I’m writing is a terrible idea. I have a notebook for verbal ideas, a manuscript sketchbook for musical ideas and sheets of A3 manuscript for larger ideas. I write things down in each. It’s a bit of a weird system but I tend to divide my initial writing between the large manuscript and the notebook for a while and then once I’m into ideas I work them out in the sketchbook. Anyway, the important thing is to get everything down. I have a rule: if isn’t down on paper, it isn’t an idea.

The second thing is to play with your ideas. Try anything out, even if you know it won’t work. Especially if it won’t work, as that’s when mistakes are made and I’m sure that mistakes are responsible for a large amount of good, interesting music. Remember that act of composition is not a performance it’s a process. Don’t be afraid to play around with things. Composition at its best is like a sand pit. If you’re lucky enough to be doing it, then you should play with your ideas. Turn things around, try and write the exact opposite of what you just wrote, rescore things, add silence, take silences away, anything that enables you to take hold of your ideas.

The third thing is to listen. As a composer your life involves listening. You should go to concerts and lap-up recordings of all sorts of things. I encourage my students to spend some time each day listening to new things, to engage the ear and the brain. But you should also listen to what you’re writing. When I first started studying composition, listening to playback from Sibelius or Finale was taboo, it was seen as almost tantamount to cheating. I’m not sure why as it isn’t really that different to playing things on the piano. I think this attitude has changed. Certainly most of the composers I know listen to playback because it is a useful tool. It isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, and it shouldn’t be used as a crutch but it does enable you to step back from you music. Anything that helps you to do that is a good thing, in my opinion. Besides, as a colleague said recently, it’s not as if you get a prize when you get your piece played and you composed the whole thing without once using playback!

The fourth thing is to be organised with your work and with your work method. This comes down to a few things:

1)    Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Things can get very daunting very quickly if you don’t break things down into their component parts and set yourself small tasks. You should always try to have a good sense of the whole, but, as you can’t write the whole thing in one sitting, once you have that sense, just work on small tasks for a while.

2)    Don’t throw sketches away, even the things that didn’t work. Revisit them. You may well find with a fresh perspective that there’s something there. If you don’t find that, try to understand why something doesn’t work. That can be a valuable lesson. Go back and look at your initial sketches. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve gone back to look at my initial sketch only to find some compositional nugget scrawled on the corner of a page that has become the key that unlocks the piece.

3)    This is a little thing, but something that I find quite useful: When you finish for the day, leave a little something undone. Nothing that requires a half hour of trying to figure out what you were doing, but something that you need to fix the next day. That way you’ll start up working again more easily.

The fifth and final thing is the use of external creativity tools, something that gets the creative juices flowing, beyond the musical sphere. Some composers read, some go to art galleries, some watch movies, some go for long walks. I suppose I do my combination of all of those but there are things to help that you can find from the comfort of your own work desk. One thing that a friend sent to me recently I haven’t really used, but I’ll pass it on as something that might be quite useful: Brain Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies”. They started life as cards in a pack for use when ideas were at a premium in the studio. You can buy a new edition of the cards, but you can also find them online, here for example:

That’s pretty much it. The creative process is a strange thing and so many things happen along to way to give the impression of randomness but you can control some of the variables. Every composer has his or her own way of working, but most composers that I’ve spoken to do some variation of the above. There will always be emotional highs and lows along the way, just remember that everyone goes through this. That’s part and parcel of the creative process and you can mitigate some of it by trying some of the methods above. If you’re in the throws of creative depression and you want to make yourself feel better, just take a look at Beethoven’s sketches. If trial and error and frustration are good enough for Beethoven, they’re good enough for me.