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.]


Denise said...

I've been checking your blog now and then and this entry is so true. Gwyneth Walker addresses this on her website. She pre-plans a great deal. I can't imagine a serious start on a composition without at least a mental outline of where it's headed.

Olivia Budd said...

Drawing a rough outline of the roadmap of your piece can be surprisingly helpful, particularly if you plan on running into periods of stuck-ness (which most people should plan on because it always happens). It can also help prevent you from continually going off on musical tangents (which tends to happen frequently). Sometimes it can be nice to write freely though, without constraints or rules.

Elliott Butt said...

If there is one thing that I neglect when composing, it's planning. I struggle with this every time I write a new piece, and usually just rely on an A-B-A type structure. While there is nothing wrong with this form, most of the time I wish that I had made a plan beforehand to try and do something a bit different (perhaps the elusive C section).

That said, I do like to see where the music takes me and how the language that I am using can dictate the form of the piece.

Tony Taylor said...

The planning section was something that I sorely missed in my first composition in class. Of course, with time constraints having a full plan before starting to write does provide a bit of a challenge. I wish I had more than just a general idea before I started, so that it would help with where I was going each time I sat down to compose. Your general tips are great, and will certainly provide useful! Thanks!

Mitchell wxhao said...

I so frequently begin a piece without a plan that I've become okay at forcing a plan onto material I already have. However, wording it this way makes me realize that this might not be the best way to go. It's so easy to write a section of a piece and think "I'm stuck. ABA is it then," but when people realize all your music is ABA, then I'm sure that looks less than desirable.

Reading this post has made me think harder about having some semblance of a plan before jumping into a piece. It might work sometimes, but planning will help me be more elaborate with my forms and it will also help me write larger works, I think. If I tackle a composition knowing that I am going to have a rondo-type form, I think I will be able to write longer pieces without running out of steam.

Also, I don't reject the idea of a free-form piece. I often play with having other ways to keep my music cohesive without necessarily sticking to a form... but who knows.

Jennifer Hatcher said...

I always start my compositions with good intentions; I have a plan, I have little ideas written down, and I generally know the direction I want to take it. Does this ever actually happen once I start writing? Very rarely, surprisingly. As I begin to write my mind often races with new ideas that seem better at the time, and in the end my initial plan is nowhere to be seen within my composition. However, the idea of starting that way is great; at least it gets me thinking in the initial phases of my composition. The first assignment we did this semester where we wrote only chords, which we later used to build a different piece on, created a much more stress-free writing process. The basic structure was already written, it was only a matter of adding new ideas to this, which made things a lot easier than starting by staring at a blank score with a blank mind.

Robert Godin said...

I definitely fall under the man without a plan, sort of. Like you, I tend to figure out form as the piece progresses, more so towards the end. Getting the basic materials and then fitting them into place. Kind of like a puzzle, there a bunch little sections that I can fit together and mold them to a certain character. And like you said sometimes the sections don't fit, so I'll just grab a similar piece and try that, or another, till I find one that fits. It can be hassle sometimes, but it's working out for me so far. I should probably try to plan though I suppose...

Timothy Brennan said...

Great post Dr. Ross! Like many of the comments left already, I too tend to begin writing without a specific form in mind. While I have an understanding of where I would like my piece to go and start with a basic outline, I find that tying to stick to a pre-conceived form often limits my creativity and musical ideas. I try to let the piece develop naturally and there will come a point where I can see the form taking shape, so I will follow that when it happens. The composition always ends up similar to my original intentions, but almost never in the exact fashion I intended from the beginning. I'm glad that I read this post as it convinced me that this can be a good way to prepare and write a piece!

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

Although I used to scoff at the idea, thinking that it shackled inspiration, I have tried doing pre-compositional work and I am now definitely a pre-planner. My best work happens when I plan ahead extensively. If I feel as though I have a well-shaped concept for my piece, with a clear understanding of my pre-determined options and barriers, I can almost drape the piece of the structure. Of course, there is still a great deal of detail work and drudgery, but I can spool out a great deal of satisfactory work if I have direction and know what I am trying to achieve with my finished product. Without a plan, I find I'm pretty much bashing my forehead against the keys until they bleed music; I get there in the end, but the process is not enjoyable and the product is less than my best. Since nearly all of my music is programmatic, or at least attempting to express specific emotions, a general understanding of the goal is inherent; pre-planning then lays out how to achieve it, and what remains is the slow but rewarding process of execution. Naturally, plans adapt to the reality of the composition as it is written, and planning is no substitute for compositional instincts during the process, but pre-planning is still my bricks and mortar.

Flutiano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flutiano said...

I have been working on planning pieces this year, and so far am finding it to be very useful. As I am currently working on my plans for a new, larger work, I decided to come to this blog and have a look at what you say about the planning process . . .

One thing that popped out to me while reading this blog post was in the list of aspects to consider before starting a composition, and that was “Performance difficulty level.” I have thought about performance difficulty level when writing pieces before, but only when I was trying to write pieces for a flute method book, and therefore had to be quite easy, at least for the flute line. Other than thinking about playability, and trying to make my music as idiomatic as possible, I don’t think I have thought about the level of difficulty for the performer. I will think about that a bit more as I go about constructing my plan for my string quartet.

I also find it interesting that you mention the Fibonacci sequence under your list of things related to your not planning form, because the piece of mine which I would consider the most strictly planned (the percussion quartet I just finished this week for orchestration class) was based on the Fibonacci sequence. In that piece, I have a gong play on the downbeat of each of measure 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 (the last being the end of the piece), I have changes of instrumentation at certain bars within that section, and within those sections some other instruments play with the same frequency that the gong started with. I also made sure there that the number of struck notes in each bar was a Fibonacci number.

I definitely believe that having a plan helps improve the quality of my compositions. Maybe that will change as I develop as a composer, or maybe not. However, at this point in time I would say that it really helps me make a piece logical, and not just wander aimlessly from one musical idea to another. I also think that it encourages me to think more creatively; fewer options means less possible ideas, and the harder you have to work to find ones that you like. However, by working that bit harder I sometimes find something that I really like that I likely wouldn’t have found if I wasn’t working within a framework. It also adds the act of creativity which is creating a plan.

You also say that you “tend to start thinking about the kind of form that would best suit a particular piece only after the composition is underway.” I realise reading that, that every other piece that I have created a plan for, I had musical ideas first. For the Fibonacci example that I have already been talking about, I had decided on a 144 measure composition with a climax at 89 (based on the Golden section), and had written about a half dozen bars, before I decided to make a more detailed plan. The planning then brought about a serious revision of the part that I had written. Although it was technically much more constrained, I felt much happier with the music I created. However, that is still a bit theoretical as I haven’t heard anybody actually play the piece yet . . . Maybe that’s a hint for me to put more time into working out specific musical lines as I go about creating a plan for this string quartet I’m attempting . . .

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

We are fortunate as students that we receive compositional guidelines for our project which can help map out our plan. One of my biggest personal struggles as a composer is sticking with a format. I am very free spirited and end up just jumping into composing and see where the idea can take me. I realize that this may be good to generate ideas but does affect the quality and success of my music. I think your suggestions borrowing basic stylistic technics of classical forms, thinking of duration, context moods ect… are really great to provide more of a structure and potentially fuel the ideas. I will definitely think of these principles more for my upcoming compositions this semester and hopefully end up with something that will be better crafted. I should write my plan down too instead of having it all jumbled in my brain. Thanks for the tips!