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.

Getting Started Composing: The Itch

The hardest part of composing is getting started. You need an idea and some kind of itch that you need to scratch, which can only be done by working out that idea and turning it into a composition. You can have a million ideas, but without the itch and the subsequent scratch, it don’t mean a thing, you won’t compose a thing.

More Wild West

(Photo credit: Pulse3)

I think the first time I started try to write down music I was in the 6th (maybe 7th) grade. It wasn’t my music. It was from a commercial on TV that used Western film style music. It had a lot of French horns. I played horn. I wanted to play it or something like it – my first itch. So every time I heard it, I tried to remember it and write down a little more of it. I noodled a bit at the piano, trying to find the notes. Then I wrote down my guesses on manuscript paper (I don’t know where the music paper came from – must have been from my mom, who was once a violinist, but hadn’t played in year. I really can’t come up with any good reason why we had it, but there it was). It was very empowering, taking the invisible notes out of the air and committing them to something you could look at, lift, count. My effort was innocent of bar lines, time signatures, key signatures, and was no doubt mostly inaccurate, but I was tickled about it. I could play (sort of) the notes, with a certain amount of (read: a lot) fudging. Notation = power!