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This 21 message thread spans 2 pages:  < <   1  [2] 
  Re: Compositional technique  scott_good at 09:27 on 31 January 2009


i have composed lots of music on the train, or back seat of a car, or ...

the basic "methodology" is simple - break down composing into sections, and pick away at the piece. just starting a new work? well, then forget the staff paper and just dream with a note pad - how does the work start? what do you want it to say? how will it end? tempo? feel? you can sketch ideas as a graphical interpretation, or just words? in essence i am talking about form without worrying about notes - form of density, contour, motion and emotion. heck, you can sketch an entire work in a short time. just let your mind be free, and know that anything can change with further inspection.

if the notes aren't coming, why not just think about rhythm and meter. notate some rhythms and sing them in your head again and again - is it just right? tweak it - change things.

melody? sure, this shouldn't be hard. you can always check it at the piano later.

harmony? well, start with a note in your head and build the chord with your imagination - write it down and study it. where will each voice go? sing it in your mind.

doing some orchestration? well, just meditate on one bar and find the perfect sound in your mind. for me, if i can find the perfect orchestration for one small bit, it will inform the entire work. in fact, this goes for all of these methods.

busy lives require time efficiency. i say do lots of your composing in your head when you can. the more of this you do, the easier it will come, as the instincts get honed.

the main points are: you can always change anything later, so be free in your mind to explore. practice makes perfect, so compose in your mind as much as you can afford to. and also, any device (such as a piano or computer) can spoil ones imagination, so this is quality composing.

once again, i get lots of my composing done in transit. i love it, as it makes the time go productively.

and yes yes yes, just a bit of practice each day can do wonders, but, it has to be good practice. like above, isolate techniques, and work them. also, instrumental practice can be done in transit without an instrument - "play" through the music in your head and "feel" yourself doing the motions. i learn lots of music this way. call me a geek, but i even "think" through etudes just to practice. i'm telling you, it works. the mind and body are of course, connected, so mind practice is to a degree, physical practice.

ok, to bed...

  Re: Compositional technique  Misuc at 14:30 on 31 January 2009

That is all very well, but if you don't already know what music you want to come into existence is there any particular reason why it should?

  Re: Compositional technique  scott_good at 22:16 on 31 January 2009

is there any particular reason why it shouldn't?

i guess i don't understand your question or concern, but, please elaborate.

  Re: Compositional technique  Misuc at 14:13 on 01 February 2009

Scott, your advice is very helpful. To find ways of using every precious moment productively seems a very worthy idea to me.

But then there is the contrary idea: does there not also seem to be something demeaning about the vision of loads of uninspired people putting virtual notes together in the manner they might while away long train journeys doing sudoku?

Isn't there already far too much functionless music which only exists because there's no particular reason why it shouldn't? (... and the same for words, films, cars, food, money, people?) Is productivity a virtue in itself? [especially in a world which is over the precipice of an unparalleled cataclysm of overproduction. Does an unconceived idea have a right to be brought into existence?

Like the way of mental/physical practising you mention, sometimes kinds of problems arise where I tell my (verese pagesy young) piano pupils:

..."OK.[and maybe: "close your eyes, spin round, open them again] Now"] Put your hands on the top of your head: look at the piano keys: when the keys start silently screaming at you: "play me - play me!" bring your hands down in one sudden movement and play them - but only then! And no correcting!"...

In the same way shouldn't music only be composed when the notes are screaming out: "Compose me! Compose me! I demand the right to exist and be heard!"

I know that there is nothing in what either of you has said that contradicts the above in any way. I am fully in support of using any and all of the methods you suggest, but there are perhaps people reading these pages who need reminding that music of all kinds is serious and elemental.


(misprint on end of paragraph 4 inside the brackets should read "very young")

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 09:22 on 02 February 2009

There is a danger of writing too fast, particularly when not inspired by the muse, at it were. But I do not think this is a problem if you follow my oft repeated advice of having a large litter bin. In the baroque period composers improvised multi part fugues, though there were tricks which allowed them to do this and they might not always meet our modern criteria for originality.

The planning that Scott mentions is very useful but certainly for me it is the smaller detail of the themes, tunes or 'points' or hooks of the music, whatever you want to call them that cause all the trouble and the most litter bin activity. If these are poor, or unmemorable the piece can never be any good.

One thing about the structure of pieces which is not often mentioned is that only memorable features can be a realistic part of structure. If you can't percieve that a theme has occured before even though you could read it in the score and see that it was related, if you do not hear it readily then the repetion or transformation could just be an unstructured mess.

To come back to the discussion of what is wrong with contemporary music, so much of the theory is actually notation-derived. We forget that notation is just notation and is not unique, even though it is definitely a magic tool. I believe theory should have the brain as its starting point and work backwords from there, not forwards from the notation. This does mean that scribbled bits of non standard notation on old envelopes might actually be a better starting point than manuscript paper.

  Re: Compositional technique  Misuc at 14:30 on 02 February 2009

Martin, your comments about written note-fetishism takes us back to some of the points we were discussing about 'ornamentation' etc.

Elementally music does not come to us or affect us in the form of notes or even isolated abstract pitches, durations etc. it comes in gestural packets/figures e.g vocal gestures such as can be heard in the cradle, the bath, the playground, swimming pool, football field, angry traffic jam, Parliamentary question time etc.: cooing, calling, shrieking, hallooing, scoffing, mourning, comforting, cajoling. The precise acoustic features which distinguish a scornful laugh from a sympathetic one would be extremely hard for the most sophisticated computer notation programme to define. But a baby will recognize the 'affect' almost instantaneously.(Perhaps this is partly a survival thing: enemy or protector?)

These elemental 'affections' form the basic units even of the most 'abstract' music. Those who have not been excluded from active participation in the development of our human cultural heritage acquired great sensitivity to tiny variations of pitch, timing, timbre etc. for which an exact notation would be be virtually impossible and in any case inappropriate. But the very terms they used for tempo indications etc. show that it is the emotional meaning and not the indication of speed itself which has always counted. Beethoven welcomed the metronome but never abandoned expressive tempo indications and only raged at performers who got the expression wrong not the notes.

Now demonstrating an awareness that A flat is higher than G sharp means showing sensitivity to musical/expressive meaning: the function of each is different. Dividing notes inegales into proportions of 4:3 would be the opposite of sensitive: it would be a misguided exercise in abstract scholasticism (since this particular ratio - in this context - has no musical/affective significance).

So,to move away from scholastic considerations and talk about the act of composition, I was struck by a description I heard of how Gluck (one of my all-time favourites) composed. People outside the room could hear him pacing to-and-fro speaking and singing in all kinds of voices and accents with all kinds of intonations and plonking a few chords etc. allegedly acting out the whole opera in his before committing a note to paper. I could not do that, and I suppose, in truth, that the task we have of reinventing the musical language afresh each time is harder in our situation than when Gluck had to do the same thing.

But I think of the concept of the 'splurge' or 'moment of truth'. Every piece of music is the crystalisation of a process of accomodation of irreconcilable musical forces. There are pieces in which this absurd dramatic conflict is made manifest (the musical equivalent of, say, the mad scenes in King Lear). Look at the repeated superimposed 2nds in the E flat String Quintet of Mozart or the discordant bangs in the Eroica Symphony or the moments in Berlioz where different themes are superimposed or the last movement of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto where you finally are forced to hear that all the tunes in all three movements are sort of the same or...... there are thousands more, although in the vast majority of pieces such moments are kept in reserve as mere potential outcomes. Bearing the perceived 'interplay of forces' in mind, and perhaps one, two or more of these kind of potential 'splurges' will help preserve inspiration (i.e. the need to be composed) and give ideas to enable you to hold what might be a relatively complex structure in your head.

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