Monday, January 11, 2016

The Potentially-Hubristic Folly of Planning

"Creativity is very messy," writes Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in a Scientific American article entitled, The Messy Minds of Creative People (December 24, 2014).

Well, yeah…

The process that leads to the completion of a composition, or indeed anything you create, is, at least in my experience, rarely linear.
  • There are ideas that don't go anywhere.
  • There are ideas that go somewhere, but not where you want them to go.
  • There are sometimes too many ideas.
  • There are sometimes no ideas, or at least none that seem to be any good.
  • Finding regular, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to compose can be challenging. Kind of like searching for the Holy Grail, or finding a match for all those single socks that dryers produce.
  • When you finally find a block of time in which to compose, the creative well sometimes appears to have run dry. This can lead to…
  • Frustration. And in such large quantities!
  • Every now and then, however, something goes right, which is sweet indeed! However…
  • We may come to believe that what we considered brilliant, or at least pretty darn good, is neither, and in fact may very possibly be complete garbage. (To be clear, it is unlikely to be garbage, complete or otherwise, but the brain sometimes turns on a person.)
  • There can be positive feedback from others, encouraging you to keep doing what you're doing.
  • There can be conflicting suggestions from others, such as:
    • The piano writing is unidiomaticvs. Nah, the piano writing is fine… A good pianist should have no trouble with it.
    • A single motive that permeates every bar of the entire piece? That is PURE GENIUS, my friend! vs. That pervasive motive is fine for a while, but you get pretty sick of it after about the twentieth time you hear it, and by about page five it makes me want to jump off a building! Seriously, dial it back a notch or six; less is more.
    • That middle section makes no sense to me, vs. That middle section is my favourite part!
  • There can be a little voice in the back of your head suggesting that you really have no idea what you're doing, so why keep doing it?
  • There can be self-flagellation. Figuratively, ideally. Otherwise, that would just be weird.
  • There can be happy, joyous times. Oh, what a splendid idea this is! This peppy little minuet will surely get the powdered-wig set dancing! La!
  • There can be self-shaming: Oh, why did I ever think that a peppy minuet was a splendid idea? Hipster kids nowadays are mostly into the bourée, while emo kids are all about sarabandes, at least when they're not listening to the Pavane pour une infante défunte… I feel so ashamed!
  • On good days, there can be the briefly-held and hubristically-based belief that the composition process is really quite straightforward, as long as you focus on executing the plan.
  • There can be a growing sense that your plan isn't working, accompanied by a feeling of increasing dread.
  • There can be creative paralysis upon realizing that not only does the plan not work, your entire piece is basically dead in the water, gone belly up, defunct, bankrupt, demised, passed on, is no more, has ceased to be, expired, gone to meet its maker, a stiff, bereft of life, resting in peace, pushing up daisies, its metabolic processes are now history, it's off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin' choir invisible; basically, what you've got is the compositional equivalent of an EX-PARROT!! [adapted from Monty Python, Dead Parrot Sketch]
  • There can be complaints and seemingly-unrealistic demands from performers of your music.
  • Upon completion of a composition, there can be a sense of accomplishment so profound that, incredibly, you decide to put yourself through this messy process again and begin a new project. 
All of which brings us to the idea of a plan. Here is a cautionary tale, based on a true story, but with abundant and egregious liberties taken:

Chapter One

Once upon a time, there was a student named Sammy (not her/his real name; if you are a student named Sammy, this is not about you. Sorry).

Now Sammy had always composed fairly intuitively, and, while it had often been a frustrating process, it had worked out reasonably well, and s/he was making slow, steady progress.

One day, Sammy got a notion that it would be a good idea to work out a plan for her/his next piece.

Many composers start with a plan, some of which can be really detailed. Insanely detailed! Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez: I'm looking at you, dudes!

A detailed plan could provide many benefits — it could smooth the composition process, since you would always know where to go next within the piece; without a plan, we often struggle when we finish a section because we're not sure where it should go from there. Lots of times Sammy had started pieces intending to take them in a particular direction, only to have the piece go in a different direction! Compositions, like cats, often do not go where we want them to go. A plan would definitely help put Sammy in control of her/his composition, and not the other way around!

Not only that, but a plan would likely result in a work that was well designed, consistent, and organic. No more of this ten-different-ideas-within-the-same-piece nonsense!

A plan could be the key to taking her/his music to the next level.

Chapter Two

And so Sammy began work on the plan. S/he used set theory to work out a pitch system that produced beautiful, non-tonal sonorities.  Actually, it took a few attempts before Sammy was satisfied with this, but the eventual result was most satisfying indeed! When Sammy played arpeggios from this pitch-organization system for his composition class, they were impressed! Sammy's composition teacher was impressed, and immediately thought of cool and wonderful things that could be done with Sammy's system.

Chapter Three

 Sammy worked out related pitch worlds for different sections of the piece. Sammy also worked on the structure of the piece, eventually (again, after several unsatisfactory attempts) arriving at a series of overlapping arch shapes that were a thing of beauty. Approximate durations were assigned to each section, and as well to each subsection. The vertical axis represented intensity, which rose and fell in a series of cascading waves, eventually reaching a climax at the golden mean.

Chapter Four

There may have been more additions/deletions/modifications to the plan after that. Sammy's composition teacher does not remember.

Chapter Five

But Sammy's composition teacher does remember feeling increasingly uneasy as the weeks rolled by and no significant work on the actual composition was presented to the class. Semesters are about twelve weeks long in Canada, the land where Sammy and Sammy's composition teacher both live, and with about half the semester gone, all Sammy had to show the class each week were further tweaks to the plan. To be fair, however, Sammy had sketched out bits of several sections as well. This in no way reflected any malingering, dallying, dawdling, or dilatoriness on Sammy's part; constructing a detailed plan takes a lot of work, and Sammy's teacher understood this, having read about it in a book once.

Chapter Six

Sammy was beginning to feel the crunch, what with the semester half gone and all, and decided to take the leap. The first section took longer than expected, because Sammy wasn't satisfied with the results s/he was getting. The first section! And already it was starting to feel like herding cats! Why must cats and compositions be so willful? Sammy wondered.

That's the age-old question, mused Sammy's composition teacher.

Chapter Seven

Well, friends, I gotta tell ya, Sammy was (and probably still is) a diligent and eager beaver. Literally. No, not literally… the other one… figuratively? Yeah, that's it. But you already know this, because a good portion of chapter five was devoted to Sammy's general lack of dillydallying.

And so Sammy, ever keen, put her/his back into it and herded them figurative cats! Which is to say, s/he completed the first section, and was satisfied with it. As were all those who heard it, and they praised Sammy.

From on high.

The semesters was now about two-thirds complete.

"Hmm," thought the composition teacher, nervously.

Chapter Eight

The process continued as previously, which is to say that it was considerably less smooth than anticipated! Aspects of the original plan — which was quite lovely! — were modified, or even scrapped. The existential angst that Sammy had hoped to avoid was not avoided, and, what's more, it now grew from "I'm not sure where to take my piece in the next section," to "There are aspects to my plan that don't work, and I am stressed – desperately – over this!"

And indeed, Sammy was in a very dark place. Her/his composition teacher, having been in very dark places on occasions too numerous to adumbrate, felt very bad for Sammy. Offers of help were made.

Chapter Nine

And so it came to pass for Sammy that time marched inexorably on, as is its wont despite our best efforts to the contrary, and small compositional triumphs were mixed with periodic setbacks and occasional blows to the psychic solar plexus, which means that some setbacks were worse than others.

Sammy stuck with it, however, and eventually pulled the rabbit out of the hat, which is to say s/he finished the piece, more or less, by the end of semester.

"More or less" in this case means that Sammy was not fully satisfied with the finished product, as its completion involved several compromises along the way — sections that didn't quite turn out as hoped, but with no time to make them "tickety-boo" (this means "just so," in case you were unaware) because it was necessary to move on to the subsequent section in order to finish by the deadline.

The Moral of This Story

Were the challenges faced along the way the product of a faulty plan, or are such challenges simply inherent to the creative process?

Undoubtedly you, as a perceptive reader, already know the composition teacher's view on this, because the title of today's blog kind of gives it away. That, plus opening this blog with, "creativity is messy…" and then following that opening with a list of examples that illustrate ways in which creativity can be messy .

However, the composition teacher hastens to clarify his position by saying that while the creative process can indeed be messy much of the time, even for so-called geniuses, this doesn't obviate the potential benefits of a well-constructed plan. Should Sammy write more plan-based compositions, it seems likely that Sammy's ability to craft functional plans, with built-in contingencies for when things get messy, will improve, and will help her/him improve as a composer.

One key to making plans that work is to understand that most plans have to be changed once the actual work of composition is underway. They are more a guide than a strict road map, usually.

That said, however, it is probable that for any substantial creative project, things will get messy along the way, with or without a plan, and part of being a composer involves learning to accept this, deal with the inevitable difficulties as they arise, and push past them.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry 
(Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire: "To a Mouse," 1785).

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, Scottish National Portrait Gallery


Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

Since I've started making plans, my composition has become much more creatively successful. To look at a blank page with every imaginable option available, and then try to create a worthwhile piece of music is a paralyzing task for me. Without a focus and an anchor, my creativity ends up directionless, and produces an equally meaningless result. My plan helps me to understand what I am trying to express and helps me find ways to express it. It also allows me to impose creative limitations on a work from the start, which not only focus my work but also result in more original choices, since I have to stretch my creativity to remain inside my self-imposed bounds.
Though I often make them fairly detailed, I try to use my plan as a foundation for the piece rather than the blueprint. That is, it provide the basis of the piece, but I don't consider it rigid or unalterable. In the words of Helmuth von Moltke, a German Field Marshal in the First World War, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” A composer must be willing to adapt a plan to fit the needs of the piece as they arise. The quality of the piece must come before all, and while commitment to the execution of one's pre-compositional can result more thoughtful and original musical decisions, if a plan hampers the quality of the piece, then the plan must be altered or scrapped for the sake of the music. A plan is worthless without a result, which is also why one must move from planning to execution in a timely fashion. Creativity is messy; that's why a dogmatic plan hinders, but a flexible plan helps.

Josh McCarthy said...

I feel like with composing music, planning could be either key, or a total disaster, it just depends on who you are and how you work. Me personally, I have never really been one to plan, and I often find myself blocked and unable to start, or have endless ideas that just keep flowing out and I end of creating some rhapsodic disaster with little to no flow. In saying this, I think for my next big(ger) work I might try to actually plan out a map of what I plan to do, hit on elements such as form, harmonic language, and melodic content. But I won't plan to dwell on the actually planning process for to long, because personally if I draw something like that out too long, I lose interest and never end of actually writing anything.

Flutiano said...

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

“To a Mouse” is a great poem (especially with the original language); however, I hope that our compositional plans going awry will not cause grief and pain . . .

I’ve read this blog a number of times since it was posted, because I find it both amusing and strangely comforting. I also find it interesting that the messy aspects of composition have been combined in a blog post with a story about planning.

I love the dichotomies present in the list. Composition can certainly be a very frustrating process! It can also be quite addicting . . . “Upon completion of a composition, there can be a sense of accomplishment so profound that, incredibly, you decide to put yourself through this messy process again and begin a new project” is a very true statement. Hearing something you wrote actually performed is also a strong, and special, experience.

I also find it interesting how, as I get more practise composing, the trouble and frustration do not seem to be getting any less. I start thinking that there was fluke or luck involved with the creation of my previous compositions that I like, or that they really aren’t as good as I thought they were (if I ever had much confidence in them-I still feel like my compositions are amateur sounding, although most of what I’ve heard of them is from the lackluster Finale). However, I also feel like the nature of the frustration is changing a bit. I’m getting better at identifying ideas that I like, and getting more discerning about ideas that I don’t like. Progress!!

On the topic of planning, the main things that I have taken from this blog are; a) planning takes practice (that seems a trend with things that are worthwhile, like composition as a whole); b) creating a composition following a plan is a messy process. Well, if composition is a messy process, then maybe it makes sense that it still is when you add the aspect of planning! It also appears to show the composition process overall taking more time when planning is involved (because so much time is taken in the planning) but that doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing, since that is also more effort into the creative decisions behind making the plan. Even if there are parts of the plan that are scrapped completely, hopefully the process of coming up with them has some sort of benefit for the final product. Additionally, it makes sense for the planning to take more time when you haven’t done much of it; since this was Sammy’s first time trying to write a plan for her composition, and write a composition based on that plan, it makes sense to me that it took a while! Composition With A Plan number 2 will still be a messy process for Sammy, but hopefully it will be a little bit more straightforward.

My hope when using a plan is not that it will make the writing of the piece less frustrating, but rather that it will help me create a better final product. Despite the fact that Sammy’s first experience with planning a composition didn’t go as s/he expected, somehow this blog encourages me to stick with attempting to plan compositions.

Josh Chancey said...

When I started writing, I felt that I always had to have a plan and I also had to strictly adhere to that plan. I often felt frustrated and as though I had no good ideas, because I could never finish a good plan exactly as I imagined it. As I got older, I learned that sometimes it is best to completely ditch a plan if an idea works, and that sometimes, a plan isn't even necessary to write a good piece. I think that my biggest take away from this story is that a plan, although very useful, should not be the doctrine on which you choose to follow 100% strictly. I feel that planning is a great way to become unstuck during composition, but it has its time, its place, and its purpose. As I continue to compose, I will try and keep that more present in my mind.

Jack Etchegary said...

Creativity definitely is messy, and I agree with many of the reasons for why you say it is that way. One of these reasons which stuck out to me was the subjective/contradictory nature of the suggestions made by peers and professors. It is often difficult to establish a satisfactory plan with so many different opinions being offered at once. I have found in my short time as a serious composer that it is pretty impossible to satisfy everyone with your work. I have also found that I usually can establish a compositional plan a bit more easily if I am drawing on ideas that have been in my mind for quite some time. To come up with new ideas and create a rubric simultaneously is quite challenging which leads me to think that time management and time restrictions plays a vital role in ensuring success in a plan for composing.

Robert Humber said...

Planning... it's interesting to hear how much planning the other composers on the blog do.

It's kind of a romanticized idea, but the thought I sometimes choose to believe (and perhaps we all stubbornly do in a little corner of our minds) is that with enough practice I will someday be able to create a plan and then write an amazing piece that fulfills every one of the expectations I start out with. I feel like this is nearly impossible. No piece can write itself based solely on concepts. This semester Dinuk Wijiteratne was a guest composer and lectured our class. It was interesting and I totally respect his ideas and music, he is quite a brilliant man. Despite this, I disagreed with the colossal importance he placed on conceptual planning (like to the point of not writing a single note down until you've spent countless hours/days/possibly weeks just thinking about the piece).

My problem with Dinuk's view is this: planning can only take you so far. At a certain point, you need to write the music (listen up, Sammy). And if you have the most detailed narrative ever in mind for the piece but the music itself is not working as well as you had hoped, what's more important? Should the music be subservient to the plan even if it is affecting the quality/interest of the music?? The answer is... of course not! If we are TOO attached to our original vision, it can chain us down and make us turn a blind eye to elements of the music which in fact could be better with some revision/rethinking. I have been really into David Lang's music lately, and basically I have been totally jealous of the way he seems to be able to take one little concept and just... do it... for a really long time. His music gives the impression that he is in fact able to just create a concept and then sit back and watch the ink magically roll out of his pen. In an excellent interview on his piece "Pierced" he said something along the lines of this (I'm going to butcher the eloquent way he phrased it):

"Many, in fact most composers like to focus on smaller details of the music, like the way a listener will respond emotionally to any given moment. I'm actually not as interested in that. My music often exists as a whole, and I'm not so worried about 'oh, in bar 51 that chord will change' or each individual bar."

I think this leads to the extreme clarity and "cleanliness" of Lang's music. However we can't all write minimalist piece like Lang so I think it is important to be open to a certain amount of compromise when it comes to a plan. I have written crappy music that didn't have a plan, and I have written crappy music that had a plan and stuck with it exactly. Most of the better stuff I have written started with a pretty decent plan but strayed from it in a way that felt necessary and organic. Right now I'm writing a piece that begins with about 2.5 minutes of very sparse textures (in the plan) and suddenly builds up into a pretty random Ravelian "Daphnis et Chloe" crescendo (not in the plan, but felt right).

Verdict: Pretty much what Dr. Ross said. Plans are very useful as long as you don't become imprisoned by them.

Stephen Eckert said...

I completely agree. I think having a clear idea of what your overall, end-product will be is in itself alright but meticulously planning out every bar, phrase and section can constrain your imagination, shorten ideas that are better left extended and trap your creative well as you are trying to conform to your pre-existing plan. For myself, I do enjoy having a loose plan in mind, but this can and basically always does change. I do enjoy incorporating structural elements into my compositions but there must be ideas and phrases already written for such a clear-cut form to be established, and for me these ideas or phrases do not appear as I would like them to if I am focused on writing within the confines of a larger form.

Kat NT said...

This was an interesting read for me as in my second composition, I opted to go for a different approach; rather than working on my piece in deliberate sections, I started working in the middle (or what seems to be the middle) developing a simple motif further. Although the approach gave me a really interesting theme, I am "stuck" as to where to go next and although my result is interesting, this new approach is extremely messy. I think creating at least a road map of sorts to lead you within your composition is a fair approach. Although composing oftentimes in non-linear, some of the best composition, as Dr.Ross pointed out, are well planned. When I compose, I often will come up with little sections at the piano and write those out. Then I have a little palette to choose from.
As many people have pointed out before me. Make a plan. You don't always have to follow the exact path you have laid out for yourself.

Louise Brun-Newhook said...

I agree that you can be too meticulous with composing, almost to a fault. Composing requires extreme creativity and flexibility in what you had originally intended to do. I find it is mostly people who think narrowly and stick to facts that have trouble expanding their point of view and accepting change to their plan. Being musicians, our discipline requires us to think outside of the box and "go with the flow", whether it be in performance or in composition. I personally, as an extremely novice composer, usually start my piece without a plan whatsoever (which is not necessarily a good thing I'm learning) and see where it takes me. This proves to be extremely difficult because it kind of feels like you're walking blindly into something, without a clue. Having somewhat of a plan, and accepting the fact that it will change, affects compositions for the better. Basically, musicians need to be flexible in order to be successful.

Also I just want to mention that I really enjoyed the way these thoughts were illustrated through Sammy and fictional chapters. A great read!

Kristin Wills said...

I'm sure all composers have had the experience at some point of starting a piece with a clear plan, then finding that the actual piece doesn't follow it at all. In my experience, though, this is not always a bad thing. Sometimes while I'm writing a piece, I realize halfway through that I'm writing something completely different from what I originally intended, but often I like the new ideas enough to keep them anyway, or I even like them better than the original ones. So I think it's good to have a plan in mind, but not follow it too strictly.

Nader Tabrizchi said...

Planning is something that have I have not gone into too much when it comes to composing. Most of my compositions are based off a sudden inspiration or moment. This has let me explore and expand upon my creativity while also being happy with what I am writing. There have been times when it was hard to think about what direction the music should go without a plan. I often found that when I had a lack of consistency within sections of my music I would go back and change it multiple times to be satisfied. One thing however that I started doing was saving my ideas and writing them down. When I came up with an idea that I felt unsuitable to the section of a piece I would end up using it within another area while retaining a sense of flow. Planning out the structure of a piece is a great point because you can understand the music more effectively. There will be less jumping of ideas when you can see the layout of the piece, and more clarity in where ideas are changed, and how they have been changed. I guess the big picture is that even a well thought out plan will take a long time and most certainly have areas changed or removed, but it is something that can demonstrate great efficiency and impact on a piece.