composing tip

Composition Tip #23: Systems

regolith graphic score

(Photo credit: g.rohs)

Sometimes ‘systems’ or techniques or styles or rules can make it easier to compose – but be ready to abandon the system for the good of the piece at any moment.

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Composition Tip #22: If You Meet the Buddha in the Road, Kill Him

Gautama Buddha @ Home

(Photo credit: Merlijn Hoek)

“If you meet Buddha in the road, kill him” goes the old Zen koan. I take this to mean: beware of excessive adulation of the Big Experts. Listen and learn from all the experts, all the books and articles and blogs (oh, my!). But don’t let them stop you from making up your own rules, finding your own way. You path to success in composition (and many other things in life) will not be the same as your teacher’s, your colleague’s, Beethoven’s, or mine. Learn what you can from every source, but follow your own instincts as to where your talent is most at home. You will not succeed by trying to be a carbon copy of anyone else (although it’s fine to imitate for a while to learn).

As the saying goes – be yourself; everyone else is taken.

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Composition Tip #19: Different Every Time

Encourage performers to experiment with your notes. They may come up with better ways of doing it than you thought of. It may very well come out different than you dreamed originally. So what? With any luck, every performance will be different in some way. This keeps your music alive, ever-changing and thus interesting, rather than encased in plastic.

Which is more interesting, a live unpredictable grizzly bear or one stuffed by the taxidermist that never changes, never moves, never breathes? Here’s a radical thought (works best in chamber music): include short sections that say “continue [or improvise] for 30 seconds in the style of the piece”.

Below is a recording of a performance of one such piece. My “September Elegy” (written in response to the tragic events of 9/11) for natural horn in Eb and piano has 4 sections: Prologue – Chorale – Reflection – Epilogue. All but the Chorale are improvised (within the mood of the piece). The piece is different every time and different for every performer, but it’s still the same piece and always has something new to offer both performer and audience.

Composing Tip #3: The Ears Have It

Motown 4 album set

(Photo credit: vintage_breda)

School can teach you a lot – about composition, about a lot of things, but mostly about things that are easy to write down. As soon as you can, go beyond this model. Learn all about historical written music, but as soon as you can, learn from the living music all around you as well. Learn from especially from music of oral/aural traditions: country western, zydeco, the Beatles, ragtime, field hollers, gospel, reggae, samba bands, African choral music, jazz, garage bands, Motown. These styles haven’t been written down, but that’s a feature, not a bug. There is too much information there to capture in any inky representation. So you just gotta listen.

Listen to the nuance – if you want a challenge, try to notate this kind of music exactly. Listen to jazz singers – how they may start a little before or after the beat, or drag the first part and hurry up the second part or tuplet-ize something that is written in straight quarters in the fake book.

Learn from every kind of music you hear, whether you like it or not. If you can’t find something to learn from in every piece of music you hear, you’re not trying very hard or your attitude needs an overhaul.

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Composing Tip #2: Write Your Own Music

English: Milton Babbitt in Juilliard School of...

After you have written what you need to for classes, contests, tenure committees, commissions – i.e. what other people want you to write – write the kind of music that you like to listen to, music that you would like to play.

This may be very different music than the stuff you wrote for the other people.

Approach composition as 3 people: composer, audience, performer. Besides deciding what you would like to write, think about what you as a performer would like to play, and what would you as an audience member like to hear?

If you subscribe to Milton Babbitt’s dictum, ‘Who Cares If You Listen,” don’t be astonished to get “Who Cares If You Compose” back at you.

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Composing Tip #1: Dare to Be Bad

The series begins…

The composition of two point reflections is a ...

Dare to be bad – in the initial stages of composition.

If you try to write an immortal masterpiece for the ages, you won’t get past the first bar, or it will stink if you do.

Write for the fun of it, just get something down. Not caring or comparing during the first draft is immensely liberating. You can always edit – or throw out the whole thing – later.

Trying to be impressive, brilliant, erudite, perfect, etc. severely inhibits the creative process. Don’t edit or judge at first, just record your idea any way that you can.