Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (8)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
8.1. There are at least three models for how composers see their roles:
  1. Master of the Universe model (AKA the "Control Freak"). Some composers see themselves as "masters" or "controllers" of everything they compose. They make a plan for the piece, and they use their skill and mastery to make the music follow the plan.

  2. In Touch with the Universe model. Other composers adopt a more mystical approach; there are countless potential musical ideas floating around out there, waiting to be brought to life by a composer attuned to them. This kind of composer sees her role as the medium through which some of the infinite thematic possibilities can be given the spark of life.

  3. Sometimes the Master, Sometimes the Mystic model. This is perhaps where most composers find themselves. Sometimes a person may feel a sense of mastery over their craft, while other times they feel like they are caught up in something bigger, like riding a wave, hoping to go along with that wave for as long as they can.
Interestingly, the same points of view can be found in different people's attitudes towards parenting; some people seemingly attempt to plan their babies' entire lives before they are even born, while others pay close attention to the growing child in order to try to learn what kind of person they were sent by the universe (or God, or Vishnu, or the Great Mother Goddess, etc.), and try to serve as facilitators who help the child become the person that s/he was meant to be.

8.2. Once an idea has run its course, the way in which you see your role as a composer will likely determine how you proceed.
  1. If you see yourself as the Master of your music, you are likely to have made a plan before beginning; when your idea has run its course, you simply follow your plan and move to the next stage.

  2. Those who prefer a more mystical/intuitive model might choose to listen to the musical idea repeatedly in order to determine where it "wants" to go, or if it has said all it needs to say.
8.3. Both approaches have merit. The value of starting with a plan, even a loose one, cannot be overstated. It is also a very good idea to become sensitive to where music "wants" to go, even if you eventually decide not to take it there (i.e., you may decide to introduce an unexpected element). If you start with a plan, be open to the possibility of changing it as you go. Some of our best musical ideas may be hidden in unexpected places. For example, a section planned as a brief transition between more 'important' musical ideas may turn out to contain a bar that, if developed further, may become one of the best extended passages in your composition, but you don't discover this unless you allow your composition to deviate from the plan occasionally.

8.4. Sometimes (frequently, in my case) we get stuck because our composition is not turning into the kind of piece we had in mind when we started. Perhaps we had intended to write a fanfare, and we discover we are actually writing something with a more subdued, soulful character. Or perhaps we were asked to write a short, relatively easy work for a friend, and what we end up writing is long-ish and rather challenging.

There is no simple solution for this, but options include the following:
  1. Stop the piece you are writing and start over;

  2. Continue the piece you are writing until it is finished, and accept that it won't be as planned, although it can nevertheless be a good composition. Once finished, you could perhaps then begin a new composition that is more in keeping with the original plan; or

  3. Determine where your plan began to go awry, and fix it from that point forwards.
I have tried all three options, and determining which to pursue usually depends on other factors. These include:

  • How much time do you have? An imminent deadline might call for option 2, unless you're not very far along in your piece, in which case option 1 may be feasible;
  • More generally, the percentage of your composition that is complete is an important factor to consider; if you're almost finished, then option 2 would likely be most practical, for example;
  • How catastrophic is the problem? If your perception is that the portion of work completed thus far is basically garbage, you need to step away, clear your head, and reevaluate this perception. It may be that abandoning your piece and starting over (option 1) is the best course of action, but it would be wise to seek a second and even third opinion before choosing this option, because it is also possible that at least some of what you wrote is salvageable, or that you're just having a bad day where your frustrations are colouring your perception. But sometimes starting over works really well; I have had experiences where the "do-over" resulted in a much easier composition process, with ideas that just seemed to flow more naturally and with less effort.
  • What is the purpose of your composition? If writing for film, for example, you may not have the luxury of option 2; your job is to evoke the mood or character that would best fit the scene, and if that's not happening, then you have to keep at it until it does, which calls for options 1 or 3.

8.5. Getting stuck is a common experience when attempting to create something, so perhaps the most important thing to accept is that it is a normal part of the creative process, and try not to make too much of it when it happens.

8.6. If you can figure out a way to get past the point in your piece where you got stuck, the solution you come up with can become the the most inspired part of your composition. The words below may sound corny, but they're true:

Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

Other blog posts on being stuck:
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")


James Bulgin said...

When I'm trying to write a song, I usually start with a relatively specific idea of a scene or mood that I want to evoke, but little plan other than that. I experiment with different instrumentation and passages until I feel like I'm in the vicinity of my aim and let it grow from there.

I can totally relate to what you mean about ending up with a very different type of piece than you set out to create, though, and was planning to mention that in my comment before I'd even gotten to the part where you mention it. I guess it must be a fairly common thing. It certainly happens to me often enough.

I've almost always gone with option 2, since I've usually grown quite fond of the song by that point, and even if it isn't what I intended, I want to develop it further. It helps that I've never had any time or external constraints on what I was composing.

In fact, there's been a specific style of piece that I've been trying unsuccessfully to write for years now, off and on, but each time I try, I always end up with something else. I think I'll be very pleased with myself if I ever get it to come out right, one of these days.

Flutiano said...

I really like the comment you end this blog with: “Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!” I think that that is part of the reason that having a plan helps me; although in a way it also makes the composition process easier (some of the decisions have already been made), it also creates challenge in that it restricts possibilities. When I run out of ideas before the end of a designated section, I have to find new ones (or change the plan), and that encourages inspired solutions.

I also find your models for how composers see their roles interesting. I didn’t initially think I related to any of them, so it encouraged me to step back and re-evaluate how I see my role as a composer. What I decided is that I am trying to be in charge of what I write, as per the Master of the Universe model, but I don’t anybody (me included) can ever be completely in control of everything they compose. I’m not even sure that that is desirable. I identify even less with the In Touch with the Universe model; I don’t think musical ideas float around in the ether waiting to be grabbed and transcribed by some waiting composer, or that there is some all-powerful, god-like force jettisoning musical ideas into people’s brains.

However, I do think that we are all a product of our culture, upbringing, life situations, genetics, etc. and that those factors have very strong influence on our compositional output (okay, genetics might be pushing it – although genetics are related to personality, and personality has an effect on what kind of music a person writes).

Saying all that, I am not sure what to call what I consider to be my role. The “Product of Life Circumstances Attempting/Pretending to be Master of the Universe” role? A new idea for me to ponder . . .