Monday, September 22, 2008

Creative Angst... Welcome to the club!

Another entry based on a reply I just made to a student journal entry...

Some of you may be finding that you are not content with a composition; you know it could be better, or perhaps you feel it ought to be better, but you're not exactly sure how to achieve this. And meanwhile, there's a deadline fast approaching... Yikes!

We tend to want our music to be not only good, but personal as well. After all, people who hear unfamiliar works by well-known composers can often recognize who wrote them, which suggests that there is something of ourselves — almost like a strand of DNA — in the things we create; or at least this seems to be the case in the hands of most composers, bands, and artists in general.

And so, knowing that what we create is in some way a reflection of who we are, we sometimes find ourselves wishing our compositions were better, but perhaps feeling stymied as to how, exactly, we should go about making them better.

If it is any consolation, this "creative angst" is a normal part of the creative process. I suspect that even professional composers (or, more generally, all people who create things) experience this on a fairly regular basis.

The more you compose, the more developed and sophisticated your compositional skills become, so if this project is one of your first forays into writing music, rest assured that your ability to write the kind of music of which you are capable will grow in leaps (and possibly bounds, too; who knows?) as long as you keep at it.

Regarding your weekly composition projects, I would just encourage you persevere until you're pretty sure that each one is as good as you can make it for now, and then move on to the next piece.

When you start out as a composer your musical taste generally exceeds your compositional abilities (which is the compositional equivalent to the adage about one's reach exceeding one's grasp), so it is nearly impossible to reach a point where you are 100% satisfied with your creations. "I know what good music is," you might think to yourself, "and this [our composition] isn't it!"

Maybe. Or maybe it's better than you realize. But, more importantly, remember that your skills as a performer/music connoisseur weren't developed overnight, and the same is true of your compositional skills. If you keep at it, you will eventually reach the point where you become better able to express what you want through music, and therefore become more content with what you compose. When this course is over, you might even surprise yourself by how good some of the compositions you created are.

And they'll just get better if you persevere.

There is also a beneficial aspect of creative angst: The points in a composition that gave you the most grief in the composition process can become the sections of which you are proudest when your composition is finished. These "angst-ridden" points may turn out to be the most inspired, since greater inspiration is often necessary to work through creative roadblocks. Read more on this in "Running into a Brick Wall," if you like.


Mathieu Lacombe said...

Ones music software abilities are also in need of development. I found that the hardest part of achieving some satisfaction with my piece was learning to use the software. Much time has been spent on one bar trying to get the right rhythms, dynamics, etc...I ended up with somewhat simple rhythms and handwritten dynamics.

Melissa said...

I listen to the compositions being played in class and always think that I am the only person who finds this hard. But that is obviously not true. My first attempt on my piece was my first compositional attempt ever! And I was very naive to think that it would come easily. I can already see how it will get easier, but also bring about new challenges as I dive deeper and deeper into my compositions.

Michael Bramble said...

Sometimes I cough or even sneeze on my compositions, so I believe very faithfully that they contain my DNA, haha.

I find that re-working pieces can be very fruitful sometimes. Often when I am reworking a section or part I come up with a new motif or texture or something of the sort that I sometimes even take out of the piece and put on a board for another time. I feel there is always room to improve a piece, even if it means writing in an accidental or such just as a score is being handed in. Our works really are only going to be judged once, so as music writers we'll have to try to make that performance the best we can. Just my two cents.

Robbie b said...

That pretty much sums up how I'm feeling about my compositions right now!
I've never really sat to and wrote an atonal composition before let alone taking the time to write it out and observe it. I'm finding that the ideas I hear in my head and sometimes play on the piano are quite a bit more advance than my ending result. and that's kind of frustrating in the beginning because you feel as if you have just 'dumbed down' your composition.
I've also been finding the musical software quite tedious to use as well. It looks so much cleaner and it gives you a preview of what you have written out at the cost of taking twice as long to finish a piece.
It all comes in time I hope!

James Bulgin said...

I can definitely related to this.

In fact, I've found my compositional abilities to be a bit capricious over the years. I'll sit down and write something and it'll turn out great. I listen to it later and go 'Wow, how did I even manage to write that myself?'. And then the next time I try to write something, I'll feel completely inept. Nothing comes out how I want it to. It's quite frustrating, actually.

I guess all there is to do is to keep composing, and (hopefully) grow in one's ability to be consistent.

Kim Codner said...

Its interesting to see everyone's comments being so similar to my own thoughts. I can completely agree with this post of "creative angst" as well! I find that i can come up with good compositional ideas and then not know where to take them in my writing process. That.. is so frustrating. Especially with a deadline. However it is so satisfying when you get a lightbulb moment and write something that you like!!! Its like "woah!! i wrote that? WICKED!" - those would be my exact words, in fact!
I find that when im frustrated, just taking a 5 minute break to improvise on piano helps alot. Then when i go back to writing, Im not as stressed. Sometimes that helps as well, just fooling around with notes on the piano sometimes gives me my best ideas for composing!

meg293 said...

I found that the first week was really difficult. I felt like I didn't know where to start, and everything I wrote just sounded like a random thought that I didn't now how to string together with the other random thoughts on the page. I definitely found this week a lot easier though, I finally found a thought process that was much more connected and practical than last week. While I know that I'm still going to struggle with writing some weeks, I agree that by the end of the course I should have some solid skills and know much more about myself as a composer.

Jill A. said...

I'm glad to see that many of us are on the same page! While listening to works by my fellow composers it's hard not to think that others have a better grasp on these projects than myself.
My attemptes at the first character piece seemed so difficult and were very time consuming. It was also very nerve wrecking, hearing it performed in class for the first time.
My second piece was a lot easier to complete, and I was extremely happy with the results. I was so pleased with the piece that it took me forever to write the last one. Everything I would compose wouldn't sound good enough as if it couldn't match what I had previously completed.
I guess this is something that I will get used to as I continue composing, but that doesn't make it less frustrating .

Melissa said...

Again, in hindsight. It doesn't seem to get easier. I just wrote my own blog on this, its virtually impossible to compose something you are 100% happy with, but I'm still naively waiting for that day. haha. This has been quite the experience, composing for the first time, and even as I understand more and more about how to compose, the actually process and mental going's on's will never slow down. That is just another face of life that we have to face!

Philip said...

When I write, I kind of like to develop my ideas, work on them a bit, do the best I can, but most importantly I like to move on. Maybe I have a lack of motivation, but I also think that staying on one piece too long can never be too good either. I find the same thing when practicing my trombone. I could sit for hours playing long tones, trying to make the "perfect sound." after a while, its just not going to get better. You often need to just move on. In fact, working on different things in other pieces can often help you in ways you don't expect by developing your skills in other areas. Just keep working on SOMETHING! You're bound to get better!

Philip said...

I have another comment to make about this blog. It talks about the personality of our music... the personal touch, with our "DNA". Firstly, I think your "personal" touch will much longer than this course to develop. Perhaps some of your music will have similarities, but I think a compositional voice will take years, and many compositions to develop!

On a totally different note, I don't really know if I really want people to be able to identify my music as mine. I've taken on a goal which comes partly from what Dr. Ross has said many times in our composition class. My goal is to write music that I like, and that satisfies me, both aurally and intellectually. But I guess even saying this speaks to the personal aspects that I include in my music.

David said...

As I sit here in front of the piano two nights from the deadline for my first of the atonal character pieces, I feel as though this blog read my mind! I feel like this is some kind of therapy and I guess in a sense it is. Either way it's encouraging to know that I'm not alone.

Joshua White said...

As I'm trying to revise and turn each of my three pieces into a "final product" I begin to put more pressure on myself to make it perfect, and an exact representation of the mood I'm trying to create through it.

I am beginning to find some satisfaction through some transitions i was stuck on, and some of them actually make the piece more cohesive and help bring out the character I think. Which i guess brings truth to this entry, the more you do something the better you get at it.

Tim Purdy said...

Something that I have had a hard time coming to terms with this year is noted in this blog and has to deal with the expectations we often hold ourselves to. After working in a certain craft for most our lives, we feel that something that is related should come naturally, without much work at all.

Just a couple of years ago I was in the upper strings techniques course, and after the whole year working at it I could not even attempt something more difficult that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This was incredibly frustrating because I would then turn to piano which I have been studying for most of my life and be able to play fairly complicated works.

I felt like the violin should be "easier" for some reason. I am finding this year that my similar frustration / battle is with composition.

It was encouraging when I was reminded of how I did not need to have everything absolutely perfect. My first real composition was at the start of this year, and I have learned very much. I believe my second one that I am working on now will be better in some respects. As I continue to keep composing, I know that the craft will become somewhat easier and I will be able to establish my ideas more coherently and effectively.

Aiden Hartery said...

In the past couple months, after having some of my pieces performed in front of an audience, I get the comment: "So what is your compositional style?" I am always stuck when asked this question, and I then process to fall into a pit of self questioning....what is my style? Do I have a style? If so, what is it, because I certainly do not know. I know that I am more interested in some compositional approaches that others, so maybe I gravitate more towards that avenue that others. I am "trying" to attempt different compositional methods with each new piece that I begin, to see what works for me, and what doesn't. It is obviously a slow process, but I think that I am just now, after a year and a half of composition course, beginning to see a glimpse of my niche.

I do think that my music is a representation of myself. If someone goes to a concert and listens to one of my pieces, I have left an impression on that persons opinion of what he or she thinks of me and my music...whether I like it or not. These are things that I think about....maybe only a little...when I write or listen to my pieces. I'm not 100% concerned if every person loves my work, but it is something that I think about a little.

Olivia Budd said...

Do you think that a composer is ever totally satisified with their 'finished' product? I don't think I ever am - there are always little changes that could be made, even after hearing it a hundred times (although I'm lucky to hear it by real players just once). Even the very best composers ever, I wonder if say, Bach, would change any of his pieces. I think it would be pretty hard to be totally absolutely certain that a piece was done.

Jenny Griffioen said...

It IS consoling to know that "creative angst" is normal! I'm always interested in other people's compositional processes, and it's strangely comforting to realize that everyone struggles with these things. I don't know that I'm completely content with my piece, but it is what it is now - with the recital in just two days.

I can also relate to Tim's comment, comparing learning composition to learning a new instrument. I'm taking organ techniques this semester, and though it's similar in many ways to piano, it is also hugely different - it can be frustrating to work through relatively simple pieces, held back by my limited abilities on the organ. Similarly, in composition, it can be hard to nail down the ideas in my head and put them down to paper - it never quite sounds the same. I'm limited by my compositional abilities. I need more practice!

What I find encouraging here is just that: with practice, it will improve. This is all a huge learning experience, and really, that's what I'm here for. If things like this came too easily, there'd be no challenge, no room for improvement, nothing left to learn - and that would be no fun!

Dominic Greene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dominic Greene said...

After reading these comments, I am happy to realize that creative angst is normal! I can totally relate to this thought, as I often feel that I am the only person in my composition class to experience this. At this point, I find that composing does not come very naturally to me. I feel like I can sometimes create some nice musical ideas, melodies, harmonies and rhythms, but struggle in stringing these ideas together into a legitimate piece of music. Many times I can create an image in my head of what I'm trying to accomplish musically, but putting it to paper is a totally different process! Most of the time, I am actually intimidated to have my compositions played in class because I feel they are inadequate compared to the rest of the class. After reading this blog entry, I feel much more comfortable about my own composing. The more I work at it, the more naturally it will come to me.

Josh Penney said...

This is easy to relate to. Before taking the intro to comp course, I had very little, if any experience composing. I think the biggest reason for that was because I would start working on a piece, and not know how to create what I was hearing in my head.

This created frustration and, hence I did not pursue the skill further. Having to compose for assignment marks has forced me to discover ways in creating the sounds that I want, and gave me a process in working with my pieces until they are something that sounds like the style I'm trying to create. The greatest thing I've learned is that the harder something is to compose, the more likely the skills gained from it will be of big value in the future.

Peyton Morrissey said...

Previous to reading this blog post I never knew what to call what I was feeling when I composed, but "creative angst" sums it up very precisely. Much like many people who are taking Intro to Comp, composing was a new experience for me. I wasn't sure entirely where my attempts at composing were going to start taking me, and to no surprise it was a very different direction than what I had anticipated! Since our semester is beginning to wind down, we've been working on a few different projects, and I find for some assignments I can sit at a piano and ideas come to me so fast and furiously that I cannot get them written down fast enough, and others I can imagine how I would like my piece to sound, but am not sure how to get them onto the paper.

For one of my compositions I presented in class (the Messiaen style), the comment was made that it seems like I have some good ideas in the piece, it's just that there's too many and they seem sort of incoherent. I feel my piece probably came across this way because that's where my brain felt as I was writing-scattered, and full, with ideas of what I wanted, but the inability to reproduce those sounds in notated form. When I revisited the piece some time later, I found it easier to centre in on the ideas I really liked and could make them all blend together instead of it coming across as errant thoughts that came and went too quickly to develop into a holistic piece.

On the comment of DNA being somehow being in our music-this idea is very intimidating to me! The fact that someone can hear a piece of music and identify it as being characteristic of you seems so incredibly personal, as if they know you on a deeper level, and it's out there for the whole world to hear! It leaves you quite vulnerable. I think this may have held me back at the beginning of the semester as I was just entering the unfamiliar territory of composing. As the semester progressed, however, I think I began to grow more comfortable with the idea of the music I was writing being a reflection of the thought process I had while writing, and allowing my classmates to hear my DNA (a very strange concept).

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

Disappointment with one's own work is an inevitable result of being involved in the process of its creation. We hear the polished, finished versions of the works of famous composers. We don't hear the mistakes and dead ends, the unused ideas and discarded decisions. We hear a single version of the piece, which is presented as “THE PIECE”, inherently correct in and of itself, the piece as it should be. With “great” works, it is often considered flat heresy to suggest that other directions could have been as good, or better. Indeed, few of us think of the lost and changed moments of the music; we simply accept it at face value. And yet when we measure our own work, we bring with us all the baggage of knowing the process of its creation, assessing it against non-existent, theoretical versions of the piece that we are convinced would be better, rather than listening with fresh ears and an unbiased mind. The angst, therefore, is largely unfounded. The composer spends far more time with a piece than the listener, and each come to it with different hopes and expectations. The ideal held in our minds will never be translated exactly into reality, though as our skills improve, we close the gap between vision and execution. It is necessary for us to accept our own biases with regards to our works and to simply do what we can, rather than what we wish we could do.

Pallas A said...

I sometimes find myself feeling dissatisfied with my composition, not because I think that they are terrible, but because I didn't like how an idea developed but I don't know how to fix it, or the overall style was one that I did not mean to achieve. I often ask myself if I would like the piece as much had I not composed it. As stated in the post, composition requires practice and experience to develop a distinct style. In order to keep a relatively positive attitude when it comes to composing, I try not to focus on my overall thoughts of the piece, and instead I focus on the small things that I liked, whether that be a certain chord, rhythm, or melodic motif. At this stage, it is not necessary that I like all of the music that I compose; what is important is that I use the skills and criticism received from each composition project and start gathering tools for my compositional tool belt. In my opinion, it is probably more beneficial to create and learn than to be caught up in making one piece match my musical expectations, since if I were to follow the latter scenario, I would not be able to write more than a single piece!