Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 3: Multitasking

Third in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

It’s not uncommon for students to come into composition lessons brimming with ideas and music. This creative enthusiasm is, of course, most pronounced at the outset of a semester, well before the burdens of the average term begin to weigh a student down. As discussed at some length in my previous blog post, part of the reason that students begin to experience a let-down in creative activity is due to their failure in differentiating their “work” (i.e., composing) from their obligations. However, there is another factor that may contribute to the inevitable slow down of output. Simply put, students may be too discursive in their creative energy. Very often, students will bring in bits and pieces of several pieces they are working on: 10 measures of a string quartet here; a few bars of a piano sonata there; a diagram of the form for their proposed orchestra piece, etc. In showing me all these musical fragments, the student will express frustration in not knowing how to proceed or “being stuck” or even experiencing the dreaded “writer’s block.” Their frustration leads to questions such as, “How can I organize these ideas? How do I overcome this block?”

When thinking about how one writes music I usually do not focus on the actual creative act itself. For me, this is a mystery. It is something that is essentially unteachable. One moment there is an empty stave and the next, there are a series of notes; one carefully placed after another. Where did those notes come from? How were they selected? Why are they in that order? Do they have to be in that order? Why are those notes designated for those particular instruments or voices? How is it that one minute there is nothing and the next, music appears? How exactly did that happen?

These are questions I have a hard enough time trying to answer for myself let alone trying to answer for someone else. In fact, I would never try to answer for another composer. Once a series of notes is on the page, I can look at them; analyze them; rearrange them; and begin to discern a pattern. Once there are notes, I can help a student composer begin the process of refining his or her craft. But how to conjure the music up in the first place? As I’ve touched on in previous articles, creating something out of nothing requires a good imagination, the drive to communicate something, having something one feels is worthwhile to say in the first place and the skills to effectively translate ideas to someone else.

Every creative artist knows what I’m talking about when I say there is a very lonely moment early in the creative process where no one can help you. It’s the moment of the blank page. No one can give you creativity. No one can lend you talent or determination. No one can pop open your skull and pour in the imagination and experience you need to draw upon to create. A person is alone in this endeavor and absolutely alone at the moment of creation. This is where the “Inner Artist”dwells.

However, this series of articles concerns itself with the “Outer Artist.” So stipulating that I really can’t help someone be “creative,” let me circle back to the point of frustration expressed by student composers. How can they proceed when they are “stuck?” In these cases my advice to the student is always the same: “You cannot actively work on more than one piece at the same time.” Part of the frustration a composer feels may well stem from actively trying to compose several works simultaneously. Inevitably, a composer will begin to drift towards one piece over another. Seeing a look of disappointment in their eyes when I share this view with my students, I quickly add. “I want you to hear me clearly. I do think you can - and should - work on more than one piece at a time. You just cannot actively do so.”

So what’s the trick then? For me, it helps to consider that there are five distinct stages in music composition:
• an idea;
• active writing;
• notation/score & part preparation;
• rehearsal; and
• performance practice.

In the first stage, a composer is struck with an idea. It may be nothing more than the desire to create a work using a particular instrumentation. Perhaps the idea is to compose a piece for a friend. In my case, an idea is planted in me the moment person or ensemble commissions a new work. I have recently been commissioned to write works by several groups. For each one, my imagination immediately began working on basic ideas of shape, form, duration, timbral possibilities. I find myself shifting my thoughts from piece to piece; rolling ideas around in my mind like beautifully polished gems in my hands. Not a note has been written, and yet - at least imaginatively - I am already “composing.” My aural imagination works quickly, almost effortlessly, fueled by over 30 years of experience in composing, performing and listening. It is also fueled by a lifetime of reading, writing, drawing and viewing as well. The larger the aural imagination, the easier it is to “compose” in stage one.

Having developed my ideas internally, I find that when I move into stage two - active composing - the music seems to flow a bit easier. This is the stage where decisions about actual notes happen. It’s the active stage of writing music into blank music staves. Of course, the work does not always progress smoothly in this stage. I often have rolled up pieces of paper lying about my feet and a seemingly endless stack of sketches before working out exactly what I want to say. For me, this is the hardest stage. However, I can’t imagine how much more difficult the process would be if I had not had some initial ideas to prime the pump.

Once a piece is completed, I move into stage three: notation. This is a stage that seems foreign to many composers now because so many use a computer to compose music. I am just old enough to have begun my career before computer notation was viable. I learned all about the proper rules of notation from the master music calligrapher, Eric Benson, while a doctoral student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since all my compositions began as hand-written pencil manuscripts, it was simply part of the process to spend a great deal of time notating them by hand as well. Even when I moved away from inks and vellum paper and finally embraced computer notation, I never lost the sense that notation was a separate craft from active composition. To this day, most of my music is still hand-written. The advantage of treating notation as a separate activity is that it also serves as another stage in actually composing music. As I carefully notate a piece that has already been hand written, note by note I am essentially proofreading my work as well. Often during this process, significant alterations are made and mistakes are corrected. By making the piece better, I am still composing. For those students who actively write at the computer in stage two, I urge them not to worry too much about notational issues such as formatting pages, correcting weird looking articulations and phrases, etc. If they work at a computer, my advice is to try and write in a landscape view to escape the temptation of integrating format with active composing. Trying to notate while actively composing may slow down the creative process. Allowing for the luxury of a second pass through the piece, once fully written, to deal with proper notational issues provides the same opportunity I enjoy by going from hand-written score to computer notation.

Valuable rehearsal (composing) time! Yours truly pictured
at a neoPhonia dress rehearsal on Feb. 17, 2014. We were
working on "Cavafy Moods" by Yiorgos Vassilandonakis
premiered on Feb. 18, 2014.
Once a piece is finished and beautifully notated, the composition process is still not complete. I consider rehearsals to be a very valuable opportunity for refining a composition. It is so valuable that I consider it the fourth stage in the creative process. We all know how awful  a computer-generated rendition of acoustic music can sound. Therefore, even though a compeer may think he or she knows what an acoustic piece is going to sound like, a first rehearsal can still be surprising. It is in rehearsal that performers can (and should) be allowed to refine the music.  (Don’t worry about conductors. They will most definitely refine the music!) Most often it is dynamics that need to be adjusted. However, I have often made even more substantive changes on the fly during a rehearsal based on conductor or performer comments; altering the actual notes in a phrase; changing octaves; etc. This is still composition! In fact, it is perhaps the most exciting type of composing. It is an opportunity to receive instant feedback. Even if a composer is not present for rehearsals, sometimes just asking the players remotely for their input is valuable. As a composer gains more experience, this stage may become less critical. In fact, I often tell my students that a long term goal should be to reach a point where ideas and clarity of musical notation are so precisely presented that a composer should arrive to a premiere having never worked with performers and still be happy with how the piece sounds. Yet, think about how far so many of us are from that! Only by working with performers and learning in the rehearsal process do we begin towards that lofty goal.

Great way to assess my music! The
recently released solo album by
trombonist, Jonathan Whitaker

Features my work, "Tonoi VIII."
The final stage in the composition process is a retroactive assessment of a piece. Once a work is performed, the composer hopes for repeat performances and/or a very good recording that can be shared either through traditional distribution channels or via more personal means such as YouTube, Soundcloud, etc. (Always with the understanding that players have agreed to the distribution of their performances.) A good solid recording certainly aids other performers interested in performing a work. However, I always find it fascinating to hear different interpretations of my music in live performance. It is inevitable that different performers will be bring unique elements to a piece. If that were not the case, why are there hundreds of recordings of Beethoven symphonies? While I am not a big fan of major revisions to a piece after a premiere (I tend to preach a “fix-it-in-the-next-piece” approach), I nevertheless can learn from pieces that get several performances. It is in this context that I learn whether or not what I’ve written is simply unplayable and not particularly idiomatic or whether my initial assessment of a work is the result of an aberrant poor performance. This critical listening aids my aural imagination. I am therefore better poised when again entering stage one of the composition process.

So, by my way of thinking, it is actually possible to work on more than one piece at a time. My caveat is that each piece should be in a different creative stage. During the course a hypothetical (and extremely wonderful) day, a composer could be thinking about an upcoming piece (stage one), actively composing a work (stage two), working on the notation for a finished work (stage three) attending the rehearsal of another completed work (stage four) and going to concert where an older work, with some kind of performance history, is being performed by players who have never presented the work. Admittedly, that would be a pretty good day. However, I hope it illustrates my point. 

“How” to write music is obviously a complex question. Yet, it has been my experience that when students are curious, fill their aural imaginations, embrace the notion that composition is their work, elevating its priority in their lives, and furthermore try to compose within the five stages of creativity outlined above, their music seems to flow better. They have less creative blocks and seem to make real progress as creative artists. Thinking this way sure hasn’t hurt me, either. 

Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s not a one-size-fits-all theory; just a way of thinking that seems valuable to me. How does it strike you? Next month, I’ll be back with part four! If this post interests you, be sure to check out the other entries in this series: “The Outer Artist Part 1: Taking Stock” and “The Outer Artist Part 2: Due Diligence.” As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!