Monday, August 1, 2011

On the perception of progress

How do you measure progress when composing?  I sometimes set durational goals for myself, like thirty seconds of new music every day. The value of this approach is that it can provide an incentive to create some quantity of new music every day, even if it sometimes feels like you're "churning it out."

But wait!  Is "churning out" some quantity of new music every day a desirable goal?

Let's consider some arguments for and against this approach:

  1. Writing music every day (or at least most days), is, like practicing your instrument or singing daily, extremely helpful (probably essential) in becoming a skilled composer.  Giving yourself daily duration goals can help motivate you to achieve this.

  2.   Working on your current project daily also keeps it fresh in your mind.  You will likely find that your piece stays in your thoughts when you are not actively engaged in composing.  One value of this is that it allows your subconscious to be involved in your creative process; you may be reading, exercising, or falling asleep, and suddenly get a good idea for your composition because your subconscious is keeping your piece on the "back burner," as it were.  Having your music fresh in your thoughts every day when you sit down to compose also makes the process more efficient; if you are too long away from a project, you may find yourself struggling to remember where you were going with particular musical ideas, or wondering why you wrote what you did. Writing a composition sporadically is possible, but not much fun.

  3.   There is value in being able to compose quickly.  Surprisingly (to me, at least), it doesn't necessarily result in lower-quality writing.  I think we sometimes get too obsessive about small details in our compositions, at the expense of the big picture; this can be fixed by working at a steady (and fairly brisk!) pace. As a general rule, I think it is much more valuable to try to "churn out" music for a period, and then, perhaps when you get stuck, you can go back and work on some finer details such as links, general improvements, and score details. This isn't quite the same as saying, "don't sweat the small stuff," because details are very important in a composition.  Instead, I am suggesting that there is a time to concern yourself with details, and there is a time to concern yourself with the big picture; if you spend too much time on the former, the latter may suffer, and vice-versa.

  4.   If you make a habit of challenging yourself to write music every day, you will find it easier to do so; it can help ease the existential pain that sometimes accompanies composition (see my previous blog entry for more on this topic).  You are also likely to find that you are writing music with which you are satisfied, for the reasons given above.

  5.   If you go on to a career as a composer, there will almost certainly be times when you have to compose quickly in order to meet a deadline.  If you write music for film, television, or commercials, writing good music quickly is a basic requirement; an inability to deliver quality work on time will quickly close the door on future opportunities.  The only way to develop this proficiency this is to spend years challenging yourself to "churn it out" on a regular basis.
  1.   A daily duration goal can be useful, but it can also be counterproductive if (a) you are meeting your goals but writing music with which you are not satisfied, or (b) you are satisfied with the quality of your music, but not meeting your daily durational goal. Both can be discouraging. The most important objective is to be satisfied with the quality of your music, irrespective of how much you compose every day.

  2.   A daily duration goal is not always practical; some sections of a composition require more work than others.  I often find the beginning of a work very slow-going, but once some progress has been made and I am happy with it, things often proceed somewhat more quickly, albeit with slower progress when new challenges arise (which is often).  A particularly thick or complex texture can also slow you down, as can contrapuntal textures, fast tempi, and avoidance of repetition in your music.

  3.   Other aspects of the composition process are as important as writing new sections.  At the top of the list, perhaps, is revision of earlier sections.  Each new day brings fresh perspective to one's music; what seemed like a brilliant idea the night before might seem pretty weak the next day, and if this is the case, revisions are necessary.  For what it's worth, my own approach is to generally start my composition sessions by revising earlier sections, followed by working on new material.  For me, everything is subject to revision until the piece is done, which means I might still be tweaking aspects of the first few pages as I work on the final pages.  

  4.   Likewise, an essential aspect of the composition process is editing your music, which includes adding dynamics, articulations, written instructions, slurs, bowings, etc., and this too takes time, if it is to be done intelligently. In general, I recommend editing your music as you go, more or less, but the way I actually do it is that I compose new music until I get stuck, or feel that a section is relatively complete, at which point I go back and edit/revise/improve earlier music.  I have discovered that sometimes the reason I feel stuck is that aspects of previously-composed music are not sitting well with me, and it can be hard to progress until I fix them.

→ It is important to feel you are making regular progress on your compositions, and one way of doing this is to set achievable goals for yourself every day. These goals can be durational, but they can also relate to other aspects of the composition process as well, such as revisions and editing; you could aim to put in dynamics, phrasing slurs, articulations, bowings, etc., for x many pages or bars, for example.

→ Similarly, your daily or weekly goals can include other tasks that are important for a composer, such as applying for grants, copying (and editing) parts, inviting people to an upcoming concert where your music will be played (using social media and other methods, such as E-mail), making and distributing posters for that concert, and communicating with your performers to ensure that (a) they are prepared to perform your music, (b) they don't have any questions or concerns regarding what you have written thus far, and (c) they know that you welcome their input.

Goals are useful when they help motivate you to achieve something, but counterproductive when they make you feel you have failed if you did not achieve them.  Set modest, achievable goals, and then see how they work out. If they are easily achieved, then slightly increase the difficulty, and vice-versa if they are not. Be flexible; modify short-term goals if necessary in order to better reach a long-term goal. We are all capable of achieving wonderful things, and setting a series of smaller goals can help us get there.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh, the pain of it all!

Is composition sometimes painful for you?

A former composer-colleague of mine once told me that you have be a masochist to be a composer.  That might be overstating things, but perhaps not... It got me thinking, anyway.

Many things in life are painful, yet we do them anyway.  Perhaps the most extreme example of this is giving birth, which, as I understand it (for alas, I have thus far failed to accomplish this, despite years of trying...), can be profoundly painful.

And yet, despite this, many women knowingly and deliberately give birth, often more than once.

Are they masochists?

I don't think so.  I suspect that the motivation is simple:  Their desire to have children is so strong that they are willing to endure the pain that comes with giving birth, and the further frustrations, stress, and challenges that come with raising children.

I think it is similar with composition.  Sure, you have your good days where you feel you are making progress on the piece, and you like what you have written, but you also have periods where you struggle, perhaps to the point of wanting to give up, and if you struggle a lot with a composition, you might well find yourself wondering why you ever thought it would be a good idea to write music in the first place.  Wouldn't lying on a nice beach in the tropics be preferable?  Or playing video games?

Every composer must discover and own their motivation for writing music, but I suspect for most of us the motivation is similar to the desire to have kids: At the end of an often painful process, you will have in your hands something that came from some mysterious place inside you, about which you can hopefully feel good for the rest of your life.

And, speaking only for myself, there are few experiences in life that can compare to the satisfaction of a completed composition that I like (as opposed to a completed composition that I don't care for very much!), which is why I keep at it.

But still, the pain of it all can be daunting at times.  If you find yourself feeling discouraged, it might be comforting to know that most, and probably all, composers have experienced what you are feeling on a pretty regular basis.  It seems to go with the territory.

I think overcoming discouragement can be particularly challenging during the first few years of composing, since after going through all the labour pains involved in creating a composition, the completed work often does not turn out to be as good as we had hoped.

You almost need to be delusional to persevere beyond these disappointments! Or, if "delusional" is an attribute not held dear to your heart, perhaps "really optimistic" is a better descriptor... The point is, when you begin developing your skills at anything, you tend not to be as good at it as you will become if you persevere doggedly for several years, and it helps if during this early period you can find positive aspects to ensure you are sufficiently motivated to continue.

So, rather than dismissing the results of your compositional efforts ("OMG, my piece sucks!" Or, "how embarrassing!  Won't somebody PLEASE drop an anvil on my head?"), it is useful, even essential, to identify the positives ("I really like the tone colour (or harmony, or texture, etc.) of that section!" Or, "The first thirty bars turned out better than I expected!"), while at the same time recognizing that some aspects of your composition(s) need work.

A positive attitude and a good work ethic may be two of the most essential qualities in becoming a good composer, but, unfortunately, the former can be the greater challenge.  And it is probably something that all composers struggle with.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I love it when a plan comes together...

The title of today's blog was the weekly catch-phrase of John "Hannibal" Smith, a character on "The A-Team," a popular television series that ran from 1983 to 1986 on NBC, and a 2010 film of the same name. You don't need to have been a fan of "The A-Team" (I was, mainly because I'm a foreign television buff), however, to agree that it can indeed be wonderful when a plan comes together.

This, friends, is what John "Hannibal" Smith looked like:

Notice the "thumbs up" sign, as well as the well-chomped cigar, and generally-roguish demeanor. This is part of what made the show popular. The other big reason was Mr. T, but this blog is not about him. Sorry.

What got me thinking along these lines is that I work at the Memorial University School of Music, and, as with any music school, when you walk down the hallways you get to hear random musical fragments of whatever students and faculty are working on. Some might find it disconcerting to be exposed to brief excerpts of completely different repertoire in quick succession, but not me; I have always enjoyed this aspect of my work environment.

In fact, I don't even have to leave my office to experience this, albeit on a smaller scale. I am surrounded by performance faculty offices, with piano studios on either side of mine, and trumpet and low brass studios across the corridor. Don't get me wrong; the soundproofing in our building is surprisingly effective, and when I am in my office I cannot hear sounds from my colleagues' studios particularly well, but, especially when my door is open, I do get to hear some of what my fellow musicians are working on.

Mostly, I never hear complete pieces; I suspect most teachers do just as I did when I taught classical guitar: You stop the student at various times during their lesson, and say, "let's work on that." Sometimes you spend a whole lesson working on a few notes, trying to find a strategy that will result in a better performance of those notes; small snippets of music are often played many times, and the student is often told to continue this small-scale repetition during practice sessions in advance of their next lesson.
→ That's they way we learn music. We break it down into smaller sections, practice them repeatedly until mastered, then gradually start reassembling these fragments into longer sections, which we practice numerous times, and repeat the process in ever-increasing sections until we can play the entire piece cleanly, with musical understanding, and hopefully with something personal in our performance as well.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been hearing complete composition performances in the studios around me. This stands to reason, because we are at the end of our school year (today is the last day of classes), which means that students will soon be playing end-of-year recitals and performance exams. This is the time of year when their performance levels should be peaking; this is the time of year when, hopefully, every student can feel as though months of planning and hard work are coming together, and, like John "Hannibal" Smith, feel pretty darn good about it. I love it when their plans come together!

Well, this being a blog about composition, you might already have some idea of where I'm going with the preceding tale... There are at least two parallels with the composition process:

1. The repetitive aspect. You can spend hours trying to get a few notes "just right," tweaking minute details such as dynamics, articulations, pitch, texture, rhythm, and register, perhaps feeling that you're not making much progress along the way. Someone not familiar with the amount of drudgery involved in the creative process might be profoundly unimpressed by all this. Yikes! That sounds very much like a dog's breakfast! they might think to themselves (although, like most of us, they probably have little idea of what a dog's breakfast actually sounds like).

In short, hearing a small section of music played over and over might well leave the casual observer nonplussed.

But, hopefully, any musician would get it. I suspect that any good musician (or, for that matter, anyone who has reached a high level in any endeavour) knows that the creative process involves an extraordinary amount of drudgery. If your goal is to become a good or even great composer, I believe it is essential to accept and understand this. Your initial ideas may be fine, or not, but they very often go through hundreds of transformations until they reach the final product, which is the completed composition. You need to have the patience and tenacity to see the process through to the end.

2. Just as having a plan was vital to the success of The A-Team (every week, the bad guys would get blown up in spectacular fashion, and those lovable rogues on The A-Team would triumph! How awesome is that?), having a plan for your composition can be a very useful thing.

Now just hold on a sec! you might say in your folksy way (if you speak in a folksy way, that is). Since when do YOU [meaning me] have a plan, let alone follow it?

Here's the thing: Plans comes in many varieties. Some are very specific, and some are less so. Mine, admittedly, tend to be less so, but some aspects that are useful to consider before starting a composition include:
  • Instrumentation (kind of a no-brainer, but it helps to establish this before you start!)
  • Duration (again, fairly obvious, but the length of your composition has tremendous bearing on the kind of piece you can write);
  • Performance difficulty level;
  • Context (will people dance to it? Will it be "background" music? Is it for a recital?);
  • Mood(s) or atmosphere you wish to evoke; 
  • Genres you want to draw from, if any (e.g., blues, tango, minimalism, etc.);
  • Specific techniques, materials, or processes you want to use (polymeter, mixed meter, compound meter, polytonality, exotic modes/scales, free atonality, a sequence of non-tonal chords of your own invention, stochastic music, etc.); 
  • Compositional attitude (is this "serious" music, or playful? Or both? Is it "functional" (e.g., music for marching band, or music for a specific occasion like a wedding or funeral), or "art" music? Or both?  Do you care what people think of your music, and if so, how will that affect the kind of music you write? Who will the audience be?).
Perhaps strangely, I don't spend much time thinking of form before I begin, even though I believe that the structure of a composition is integral to its success. I think this might be related to three things:
  1. I like the sonata principle.  I virtually never set out to write a sonata-form piece, however.  Instead, I find myself borrowing some of the concepts of sonata form in the music I write, such as:
    • A mix between sections of greater and lesser stability, where stability can refer to thematic identity, pitch centricity, mood, or anything else you can think of.  This is at the core of classical sonata form, and the concept can be applied to modern music too;
    • Some degree of the unexpected — one of the things I like about sonata form is its flexibility, and particularly the number of times composers introduces unexpected elements, such as a new theme in the development, no bridge, an unusually long bridge, unexpected modulations, etc.;
    • A return to some aspect of the opening material towards the end; and
    Codas that may be lengthy and contain further surprises.  
  2. I like the Fibonacci sequence, and the Golden Ratio, and these are often somewhere in my thoughts as I compose (and they can be applied to form, as well as many other parameters, such as rhythm and intervals). 
  3. I tend to start thinking about the kind of form that would best suit a particular piece only after the composition is underway.  I do not argue that this is a good (or bad) strategy; I do it because it happens to work for me.  Some might say this is a bit like beginning to construct a building with no architectural plans, and only drawing up plans once the first couple of stories have been finished.  To that, I say this:  A composition is not a building.  It is, I think, very important to develop a plan for the form of your composition, but sometimes you don't exactly know what the possibilities are until you have worked with your musical ideas for a while.  Remember: One of the many things a composition is not, is a building.  But you probably already knew that... 
Some composers like to represent musical form on graph paper. I have tried this, and it is certainly useful. Some prefer to describe the structure they wish to use with words. Many use letters or numbers to designate sections within a form (e.g., A B C B D A B). There are many approaches to planning that work, and the key is to try different ones until you discover ones that work for you.

I don't tend to have very specific pre-compositional plans about scalar and harmonic resources, but, within any section, I generally aim to be consistent. There is no rule saying you have to be consistent in this or any other aspect of a musical composition, of course; I just happen to like what I write more when it is consistent. If you didn't start out with a plan for scalar, harmonic, and motivic resources, it can be useful to look at however much of the composition you have already written, and then try to deduce what sort of harmonic language you have been using.  Subsequent sections can then be consistent with the pitch collections of earlier sections, if you wish, or you may choose to use contrasting language.

I suspect that most composers devote a significant amount of time to pre-compositional planning, and I can understand why: It can make the difficult process of composing somewhat easier, and can result in a better composition. There have been numerous times when I have been stuck at some point in a composition, and wished I had a plan, because I believe it would alleviate at least some of the stress (and even helplessness) that comes when you feel as though you have absolutely no idea where your composition should go from a point of impasse.

My main caution on this topic is this: While it can be is useful to have a plan before you start composing, the plan needs to be flexible. If something is going according to plan, but not working, then it stands to reason that the plan must be changed. You could even build this flexibility into your plan; if option x doesn't work, then try y; if y doesn't work, then try z, etc.  I think this is what the adage, plans were meant to be broken, is getting at.

I recommend giving it a try, and, like anything, you may need to try it several times before you feel you are starting to get the hang of it. Then, if you have planned well, you may experience something of the smug sense of accomplishment conveyed weekly by A-Team's John "Hannibal" Smith... or if that is perhaps aiming too high, then perhaps at least some sense of satisfaction that your plan came together!

[This blog was only very loosely planned.]

Friday, March 4, 2011

You might be a composer if …

How many of the following statements apply to you?
  1. You are curious as to how compositions work, and when you make personal discoveries in this direction you are more likely to think, "cool! I'd like to give that a try!" than "cool! I'd like to publish a paper about this one day!" (Not that there's anything wrong with this second impulse, and some composers do both successfully.)

  2. You hear or read that "X is a dead-end," where "X" can be minimalism, serialism, or any musical movement or technique, and, even though you may never have written a piece using this technique, you give it a try to see if there are aspects yet to be explored.

  3. If music theory books say you "can't" do something (e.g., write parallel fifths, follow a dominant chord with a subdominant, leave chord sevenths unresolved, etc.), you feel you must do it.

  4. You are told there is no future in composing, and think, "That's probably true. But it doesn't apply to me."

  5. You hear music by great composers, and think, "Nice. But I wonder what would it sound like if [some particular musical idea] had gone in a different direction?"

  6. You hear unrealized potential in otherwise unremarkable compositions.

  7. You catalog (mentally, or in a notebook) cool ideas for possible use in future compositions.

  8. You think, "I wonder if anyone has ever tried this (some musical idea) before, and go ahead and try it even if you discover that others thought of the idea long before you did.

  9. You are able to make snap decisions regarding the value of your musical ideas.

  10. Your snap decisions regarding the value of musical ideas prove to be good, at least some of the time.

  11. You are not deterred when you realize that some (or even a lot) of your musical decisions were bad. You try to identify the problems, and begin the work of fixing them. Or you trash the piece and start over.

  12. You are deterred when you realize that the composition on which you have worked for a month or more is crap, but it doesn't stop you from either trying to fix the problems or starting over.

  13. You see potential in musical ideas that others might dismiss.

  14. Your head is in the clouds.

  15. Your feet are planted squarely on the ground.

  16. You have rocks in your head.

  17. You are an iconoclast.

  18. You have a healthy respect for tradition, but don't feel confined by it.

  19. You have trouble with authority figures.

  20. You feel the need to express yourself, and music is the best way you know how to do that.

  21. You don't mind working for long periods on your own. You probably prefer working this way.

  22. You have the courage of your convictions, but are open to honest criticism from others.

  23. You don't mind trying something and failing, because it means you learned something along the way.

  24. You are not afraid to try new things.

  25. You are not deterred by the fact that, in the early stages, your composition might be embarrassingly bad, because you know that you will figure out a way to improve it. You understand that even great art can be pretty terrible in the initial stepts of the creative process.

  26. Your musical ideas startle you sometimes, and you wonder where they came from.

  27. You are honest about the flaws in your creations.

  28. You are delusional.

  29. You hear something amazing, and think, "I could do that."

  30. You believe in the value of having a plan before beginning a composition.

  31. You believe plans are for suckers, and prefer instead to make it up as you go.

  32. You don't buy into the "genius" paradigm, preferring to believe that "masterpieces" are the result of (a) an extraordinary amount of hard work, (b) a long period of learning one's craft, (c) a certain amount of cleverness, and possibly even (d) a good (or just relentless) marketing campaign.

  33. You are prepared to put as much work as it takes to become the best composer you can be.

  34. You aspire to greatness, but would settle for goodness, or even competence, at least in the short-term.

  35. You are moved by music in ways that words cannot fully express, and aspire to write music that can touch others in this way.
This is just a silly exercise in trying to identify some of the characteristics of composers. A couple of disclaimers: (i) This list is not exhaustive; I'm sure there are other qualities that could be added (and I welcome any suggestions you may have!); (ii) You may have many of these attributes but not be interested in composing, or, theoretically, you may feel that none of these statements apply to you, in spite of the fact that you are a composer. I'd especially like to hear from anyone who feels this way... I am of the general belief that most composers share at least a few attributes (beyond universal ones that all humans share, such as needing to eat, sleep, and drink, and a desire to avoid being kicked by a donkey any more than is absolutely necessary, etc.), but I could be wrong about this.