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.]