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.


Anonymous said...

Great! All of these apply to me :)

Joe said...

This is a great post, and I'm sure that many non-composers would probably relate to a lot of these things as well!

As I was reading this and thinking about compositional "rules," I couldn't help but be reminded of this funny bit from Pirates of the Caribbean. (near the end)

Mitchell wxhao said...

My favourite thing about being a composer is being able to articulate why I like some music so much, and then being able to use those ideas my own way.

I feel like this ties into the post somehow.

Brad said...

1-4: yes.
5-6: not quite there yet!
7, 14: my life.
8-12: yessiree
13, 15: i'd like to think so!
16: I'm also a rock climber, so yes, rocks are often invading my headspace! haha
17: to some extent.
18: definitely
19. you should've seen me in grade 8.... maybe it's better you didn't..
20-27: yes definitely!!
28. well, i'd like to think not! just... optimistic!
29. hopefully!
30. definitely valuable, though I rarely work this way!
31. hahahah yes I definitely make it up as I go.
32. I definitely buy into the genius thing. Some people just can't be touched.
33: yes!
34: I am content with smaller successes but I often (and this is one area where I am quite flawed) expect more and more of myself with each passing moment.

35. YES YES YES YES YES. This is the goal. Music is incredible and if I can share what's in me and that feeling with the world then I will be a happy soul.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

Had a bit of a chuckle at this. Not only are some of the points funny on their own, but also true! I especially relate to numbers 4, 6 and 14. They're almost my exact thought's sometimes.

I enjoy 26 as well. Though I think that one is how I feel about all musical ideas. Whether mine or someone else. Where exactly do they come from? Especially small and simple things that most likely did require any revision!

Aislinn Dicks said...

I really enjoyed this post. It was good for a late night laugh.

Despite the fact that I don't consider myself a composer, I certainly could identify with many of the points on this list. I've only ever lightly dabbled in composing, but since coming to music school my interest in it has grown exponentially. If I had read this post three years ago, before beginning music school, I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to identify with as many points as I can now. I think most musicians would agree that it's hard not to find yourself thinking some of the things here whether or not you compose.

Evan Smith said...

What am interesting post! Many more of these apply to me than I had thought. I'd never thought of myself as a composer before, or even wanting to. I know it most likely won't be an actual career because I love a good spotlight, but the composing I have been doing lately I've really enjoyed. And definitely change the way I hear other music now as you alluded to.

Jennifer Hatcher said...

Such a funny post to read in the midst of finishing off several assignments (with the end of semester blues raging through, might I add). Although I don't think of myself as being a composer, I could identify with many of these points. I always wondered in theory classes in the first few years of my degree, "what would happen if I did do that..", or "maybe that broken 'rule' would sound good sometimes". Never did I attempt to write music before this course, but I often wondered what went through the minds of composers as they wrote; were all of these theory rules something that everybody strictly followed nowadays? Wouldn't it be fun to break all the rules and make your own rules?
I also prefer working on my own so much more than doing group work, which is why I enjoy this course. These assignments give me the opportunity to do whatever I want (within guidelines, of course), make my own decisions, and rely on nobody but myself.

Luke said...

Identifying as a composer is an interesting idea to me, because I don't identify myself as a composer - at least not yet. I think of myself as a musician who enjoys writing music. Particularly, I first discovered an interest in creating my own music in a contemporary improvisation ensemble, where we were encouraged to experiment with different sounds and ideas on our instrument, and away from it. Likewise, I have always had a deep rooted passion for technology, and from a young age, I dabbled in music software programs creating drum loops and bass lines for pop songs. IT was my formal music education that opened the door to composition. Reading through this list, I felt most of the points applied to me, so I might just be a composer, but my ultimate goal is to make music for myself and share it with others, and hopefully it will have some kind of lasting impact on them.

Flutiano said...

This post reminds me of the question that I sometimes ask myself: at what point does a person become a composer? (Or its question-siblings, at what point does a person become a performer, or a musician, or a . . .?).

For myself, I definitely relate to a number of these (although I did not count), but cannot identify myself as a composer (yet?) having never composed anything that I was willing to listen to. Maybe this means that I have the potential to become a composer—optimistic thought—although I do not relate to some (like 9-“You are able to make snap decisions regarding the value of your musical ideas”). I’m glad that numbers 14, 16, and 28 are not deterrents—my head is often in the clouds (particularly when it’s foggy and I’m outside), has rocks in it, and I’m pretty sure I’m delusional (although that might be a delusion?).

My favourite point is number 23: You don’t mind trying something and failing, because it means you learned something along the way. The learning itself is a type of success, and can be very valuable.

Peyton Morrissey said...

This was an awesome bit of comic relief during the end of semester crunch! However some of these are funny but are simultaneously applicable. For example "your head is in the clouds". While I laughed at this one first, I realized that this definitely applies to me as a composer! I find I compose the best when I let my mind wander and what ends up on the page tends to be a very good reflection of what I was thinking.

I remember when my first thoughts of trying composing occurred. When I was in first year I was working on Stamitz's concerto for clarinet, and I was required to write my own cadenza. It was received quite well by both my applied teacher and my studio. After this I had the itch to start composing something more substantial.

With this discussion we can also open up the debate of tabula rasa vs. innate theories, and whether we are born with the characteristics of a composer, and that is what we are meant to be, or if we acquire these "composer characteristics", and become composers because that is what we have decided ourselves.

Jessica said...

Just as many others have mentioned in their comments, I was quite alarmed at how many of the points I could relate to. I think it might be fair to say that anyone with an interest in music could find points that applied to them. Even if a musician is not really interested in being a composer, they may still find that a point really resonates with them. I find it strangely satisfying to figure out what makes a composition work. Certainly, that sort of discovery makes me want to try it for myself, but it's also a discovery that is useful and interesting from the standpoint of any performer who has no interest in composing. Knowing how a composition works can help in better guiding the listener through the phrasing (and more). At any rate, I found this post to be an entertaining one!

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I can confirm that the majority of these are accurate for me as well! I enjoy understanding the inner workings of successful compositions, dissecting why they work and using that knowledge for myself. I enjoy the process of creation, of making mistakes and taking wrong turns, then finding solutions. I am developing the patience to continue working to improve my skills and take great satisfaction in my own progress. However, over time, I have actually become less interested in, or perhaps simply less concerned with, rebellion and defiance of authority, wisdom, and tradition. The more I compose, the less I care about what the "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts", whether obeying them or contradicting them. And remarkably, the less I try to be an iconoclast, the better music I write. My music is perhaps more original and true to me since I've stopped trying to rebel; when rebelling, I was still controlled by traditions, by my desire to subvert them. Now, I'm free to compose however I choose, regardless of the authority and tradition. And I am very happy!

Robert said...

Most of these apply to me. After working on a piece for a while, or after thinking about working on a piece for a while, people who I am closest with will almost INSTANTLY know that is what I've been doing because conversing with me is like talking to a penguin. I get very caught up in my own mind, and cannot stop thinking about music. I have a million ideas in my head that have been stored there over the last maybe 5 years.
The people I'm closest with also know how obsessed I get when there are ideas on my mind. Over the summer my poor mother definitely learned to shut her ears off as I rambled on and on about some sort of effect I was going to incorporate into a piece.

I think one thing that sets composers apart is that they are drawn to this career (or lack of) path through listening. Many performers I know played classical music long before they really enjoyed listening to it that much. Many are there for the competitive aspect, and the love of playing. Composers are professional listeners. Every time I hear something awesome, it becomes my new favorite thing. It consumes my thoughts. I want to write something that affects someone else the unique way my new favorite thing affected me. And yes, I think music is the medium I am most capable of expressing emotions, I'm still learning (emotion is a hard thing to translate from mind to paper to sound) but I feel this ability just beyond my grasp.

And yes, I have rocks in my head.

Alison Petten said...

I love this! I think many of these are not only stereotypical of composers - but essential in order to be a good composer. If I did not keep a running list of ideas, or if my head was not constantly in the clouds, I feel like I would never write anything different or interesting. At time same time, self-awareness is also very important. I think there is vale in being able to stand back from your work and look at it subjectively, being able to see what is good and what is not.

Pallas A said...

Generally, I think that as a composer, one has to be a very flexible and rigid at the same time. To see the potential in a musical idea and to see that a musical idea has no potential seems like two opposing actions, but they are just two sides of the same coin. Many of the points in the list seem to contradict one another, but a person who is set in their ways can't be nearly as creative as someone who is curious and determined to be a multifaceted person.

Concerning point #5, a finished composition to me is like a book. I don't tend to dwell on what ifs because to me, the story is set in stone. In the case of books, the author has to make a series of conscious and unconscious choices to tell a story and bring the audience to a certain point, and the characters and plot don't exist outside the realm of that book. Likewise, the composer has to make a series of conscious and unconscious choices, and those specific musical ideas only work together in the context of the piece. Though I never wonder about the direction of a musical idea, I do wonder often about a composer's intention, and a composer's consciousness of a certain musical idea. When listening to a piece, there can be a lot to process on the listener's side, so I wonder about the brain power that went into its creation. Music can move us very deeply, so I wonder about the kind of mind space a composer had to be in to come up with those musical ideas and to produce such music.

Duncan Stenhouse said...

I absolutely adore some of these first points. I often find myself wanting to try something new that I’ve learned about whether it be something from class or a video I watched online or maybe a cool beat pattern I hear in a piece I’m listening to. I am constantly trying to intake and focus on new techniques so that my own style and techniques can grow and become better. I can also relate to hearing potential in something unremarkable or unfinished and saving small ideas here or there. There are often times when I’ll make up a small progression or melody and write it down immediately and add it to a little pile of these small motifs that I’ve collected from my brain over the years and have often looked through this when I get stuck in a piece to see if I’m able to incorporate any of them. I also use these ideas when potentially starting a new piece. Regarding wanting to figure out if anyone has tried an idea I’ve had or trying to break out of the standardized way of doing things this is something my friends and I do almost daily. The amount of conversations I’ve had with people like Matt Hardy or Adam Wicks about fascinating chord progressions, extended techniques or breaking out of standardized notation or theoretical practices is pretty much a daily occurrence. For example the three of us religiously send interesting theory videos to each other on a group chat we’ve created and then talk about the theories or analysis’ explained in the videos at nauseum. Some examples of recent videos we’ve discussed that others on this blog may find interesting would be these. , ,, , .