Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #4, 5, & 6)

Question 4 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
4.  On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in your compositional process? (Be clear on what you mean by "form.")
This is pretty similar to question 1, the main difference being that this question allows for a more subjective answer than the first question. Because of this, I'll keep my answer short, starting with what I mean by "form:"
Form: Structure. The way in which a composition is organized, from a large-scale, bird's eye view (e.g., sonata form, or ABA, or rondo) to every subdivision beneath that, all the way down to motivic relationships, thematic structures, sections within a transition or development section, texture… anything at all in a musical composition that is organized, which is to say, everything.
So, no surprise here, but, taking this holistic, organic meaning of form, then on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rank it about a 20 in my compositional process. Or, if that number is unavailable, then perhaps a 10…

That was so short that I'll try answering questions 5 and 6 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post, which are:
5.  Is it better to work out a form before composing a work, or do you prefer to create the form as you go? 
6.  Are you actively engaged in thinking about the form of your music as you write it?
Let me draw an analogy to something about which I know nothing (!), which is the way that a building gets constructed. I understand (from reading about this in Wikipedia) that it goes something like this:
  1.    It starts with a a design team, which includes surveyors, civil engineers, cost engineers (or quantity surveyors), mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, fire protection engineers, planning consultants, architectural consultants, and archaeological consultants;

  2.    They make drawings and set specifications for the building's design. They probably make lots of changes to these along the way, because so many people are involved;

  3.    I would guess that the plans need to encompass every aspect of the building, from the overall design, to floor plans, plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, elevators, stairs, etc.;

  4.    Probably some excavation takes place;

  5.    Probably they lay a foundation;

  6.    Probably they construct a frame using steel girders (or whatever one uses these days);

  7.    And so on, and so on, until all of the other things necessary to make a finished building are added, including exterior, interior, plumbing, electrical, windows, doors, inner walls, carpeting, and probably a whole bunch of stuff I know nothing about, but it's all part of making the building safe, functional, comfortable, and nice-looking, inside and out.
The compositional equivalent to this would perhaps be:
  1.    Create a plan, live with it and tweak it for a long time until (a) it contains as much information about the composition as is possible in a plan, and (b) you are happy with it.  The plan can include any aspect of your composition, such as large-scale and smaller-scale form, harmonic language, rhythmic aspects, dramatic aspects (sections can be characterized by their mood (i.e., the mood you hope to elicit in listeners), such as lyrical, aggressive, chaotic, sad, exuberant, confusing, etc.);

  2.    If you were an architect, you would probably run your plan by a whole bunch of engineers and other people, as described above. Since you are a composer, there is no need for this — the consequences of a bad plan in composition are considerably less dire than the consequences of a bad plan in the construction of a building (!) — but it wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea to ask a few people you trust for feedback, especially if you are fairly new at this.

  3.    Following your plan, start by composing smaller sections, combining and expanding them until they become larger sections. Tweak as necessary. Remove sections that no amount of tweaking can help; they may come in handy later, but if not, have them take a time-out by concealing them in your piano bench, or, if you lack a piano bench with a handy lid, garden shed. If you don't have a garden shed or a piano bench with a handy lid, then place these sections neatly in bottom of your cat carrier, and pray that your cat doesn't mind;

  4.    Add any bits necessary to connect the sections, and then tweak some more;

  5.    Put the finishing touches on the work, making sure all dynamics, articulations, bowings, wind instrument slurs, pedal markings, etc., make musical sense.  [You should have been putting these in as you composed each section, by the way!]

  6.    Write programme notes using the most enigmatic language possible (if struggling with this, consider using computer-generated programme notes from this handy site: CCCBSG);

  7.    Design a cover page using a cool font — If you haven't thought of a title yet, now would be an excellent time to do so;

  8.    Write a three-volume edition of performer instructions in single-digit font sizes;

  9.    Print and bind multiple copies of the score;

  10.    Prepare parts, make sure page turns are in good places, proofread them, print them, and tape them together;

  11.    Get people to workshop it, if possible, and then make any changes necessitated by this, and then reprint score and parts, and try to get people to play it again;

  12.   Think of something profound to say about your composition at the première. If this is impossible, as is always the case with me, say something witty instead. Try to avoid saying, "… and I hope you like it!" at the end of your speech; this will be seen as a sign of weakness on your part by some.  Instead, say, "and I hope the experience of hearing this magnificent work does not render you senseless, doomed to spend the rest of your days unable to function on any level but the most basic. I really do, because, and I mean this with all of the sincerity of a washed-up Las Vegas entertainer, I ABSOLUTELY ADORE ALL OF THE FINE PEOPLE IN… [insert name of town or village you believe yourself to be in here, taking care to pronounce it correctly]!!!" This is how you make a name for yourself.
[Possibly I got carried away there; I will attempt to rein myself in now.]

Starting with a well-formed plan is a fine way to go about composing. Of the composers I have talked to or heard from on this topic, the great majority have indicated to me that they approach their craft in this way. I highly recommend it!

I do not start with a plan, however, so you may wish to take this advice with a grain of salt. ;)  I start with a general idea of how long I want the piece to be (but this can change radically once I get further into the composing process), the instrumentation, the type of piece I want to write (atonal and pointillistic, expressive and moving, light-hearted, virtuosic, accessible to young performers, etc.). I also keep the deadline for that composition in my thoughts; basically, I need to know whether I can compose at a leisurely pace, or if I need to become manic about it and write as quickly as possible.  I virtually never have any idea about the overall form of a piece before I start writing it, so my answer to question 5 is that I like to make it up as I go.

[My "make it up as I go" method, explained:  I start with a small idea, and work at expanding it. I try to figure out where it "wants" to go. If it seems like it wants to go in a direction I don't like, then an argument ensues. When the dust has settled, I continue expanding it, but at various points I begin to wonder where the heck this particular composition is going, and so I analyze, in every sense of the word that I know, what I have composed thus far.  In the course of doing this, I usually get ideas of possible large-scale structures that might be feasible for that composition. As I move forward, I revisit large-scale structure possibilities frequently, essentially asking, "is this working?" frequently. If the answer is no, I attempt to fix things before moving on.]

This works for me, but many (probably most) successful composers prefer to start by drawing up a fairly-detailed plan, and, frankly, their approach makes more sense to me, at least intellectually. I guess I like relying on intuition, while visiting the rational part of my brain periodically (which is where analysis and planning come in), but basically, all composers need to figure out an approach that works best for them.

My answer to question 6, then, is yes, I am very much engaged in thinking about form during the composition process (that's part of "making it up as you go"), albeit at some points more than others.


Becca Spurrell said...

Although my pieces so far are extremely short, planning would definitely be beneficial in any form of composing I'm sure. However, I do neither of what you posted. I don't start with any sort of plan.

The only things I've started with in terms of planning for the projects in the course have been the criteria you give us. The fact that they are a-tonal projects make planning (in my eyes) even more avoidable. The only piece I did any bit of planning for was the one I based around pi, and that was only because, being based around a specific series of numbers, planning was pretty crucial for it to even work out at all.

The reason I avoid planning so much is because it makes me feel restricted. I know I know, "But Becca, a plan is merely a guideline, and if you feel a piece moving away from your plan, it is perfectly okay!" Trust me, I've told myself many a time. My mind just works in very strange ways, and even if I write in bold print at the top of my plan "PLAN IS TENTATIVE" or even "DONT EVEN USE THIS PLAN IT SUCKS!" I will still feel the anxiety of being restricted by them and it holds me back from being able to compose with comfort and ease.

With that said, I do start with something. I start with an idea. I commented on your post about finding time to compose and suggested having a bank of ideas for times when inspiration is not coming to you. I use my bank of ideas in my projects as a place to start composing. This is why the motivic project came so quickly for me, you gave me an idea, rhythm and all!

This is just a personal method, and I would actually enjoy hearing your feed back on if this is a good method and/or other things I do together with this method to help come easier.

Naomi Pinno said...

While composing so far I have not been very deliberate in having a structure exactly, but I have naturally written all of my pieces with an A B A form. It is kind of boring maybe writing everything in the same structure, but I have not mastered it yet, so I will probably keep using it. I may have started using A B A form so quickly because it narrows down ideas, through repetition and only two contrasting sections. It also helps develop ideas because there are less ideas to develop, and being forced to repeat an idea helps me make sure it fits the piece well. However, I am looking forward to working with new forms in the future.
I found it interesting reading about how much you (and most composers) focus on the form of a piece even before it is started. I remember hearing about composers in the 20th century struggling to write new music, because they rejected many of the past styles and had not established a new system for organizing music (for example they no longer used sonata or rondo form). It is an exciting time to be a composer because of the challenge and opportunity to create new forms.

Pallas A said...

I like having some structure established before I compose. For me, this usually includes the main motives and the harmonic language of the work. Last semester, I wrote a piece that used a handful of tetrachords for 5 short movements. I was hesitant to use set theory and adhere to it rigorously because I felt like it would restrict my musical ideas. But I actually enjoyed it. It was nice to have the harmonic language set in stone and it forced me to be creative with the tetrachords through small changes, like like inversion and transposition, instead of larger harmonic changes between movements. I want to get better at incorporating a large-scale form earlier in the compositional process though. It's great to have motives and harmonic language established, but a clearer idea of how the ideas will be distributed and developed at an early stage would help make the music more organic and longer in duration without it getting boring.