Composing Diary: Getting Started

Photo by Hamed Saber. CC-A.
Photo by Hamed Saber. CC-A.

Having sent off the finished version of my latest piece (Dragonfly for Neal Titus, a percussionist at UNC Greeley) a few days ago, I spent the weekend in that comfortable lull between pieces. The bizarre cocktail of accomplished afterglow and postpartum depression that comes with finishing a project is, altogether, a sweet one, and it’s important to enjoy the silences before jumping forward. It doesn’t necessarily count as “rest” – there’s not really such a thing for a doctoral student, I find – but for just a few days, it’s nice to have the answer to “what are you working on?” be a relaxed, peaceful, “nothing.”

But the weekend is just about over, and I’m jumping into the next project: a piece for the unbelievably-awesome new music orchestra Alarm Will Sound, to be workshopped and premiered as part of the Mizzou International Composers Festival, where I’m extremely lucky to be a resident this summer. This kind of project is a new one for me, never having written for an ensemble this versatile (or, for that matter, this awesome). Simultaneously, I’ve been trying to fill this space with words on a much more regular basis, both to encourage readership and to provide myself with much-needed venting therapy. Why not try killing two birds with one stone?

Without further ado, I give you the first installment of my Composing Diary, which will track my various misadventures in writing this piece, from the blank page to the finished score. Follow along if you like, and feel free to chime in with your ideas; I might learn something.

Day 1

My writing process doesn’t really have a starting point, per sé. Few composers, I imagine, have an on/off switch whereby they sit down and enter a technologic “composing mode.” Instead, my composing starts with “pre-composing,” a hazy mess of extremely general and big-picture decisions about what this project will or won’t be. Really, despite the brief weekend of “rest” mentioned above, I’ve been “pre-composing” this piece for months. The pre-composing process is a loose, fluid one that doesn’t take place behind my keyboard. It mostly consists of walks between classes and coffee, last-minute thoughts before bed or on the bus. And most of the time, it creates more questions than answers. What’s the sound-world for this piece? What am I going to explore, and what’s going to be my “home base” of material and tonality? And of course, the big one: what is this piece about?

I don’t have any answers for any of these questions when I formally sit at my keyboard to write. Usually I’ve come up with a few ideas to work with and explore, but not this time. I have no starting ideas. I have no title for the piece. All I have is a mug of freshly-brewed French-pressed coffee, my stuffed fox Hamilton peering at me from his perch on the right speaker, a telescoping desk lamp, and a clear white sheet of staff paper with a pencil and a few different erasers.

The best composition teachers I've ever had: Hamilton and coffee.
The best composition teachers I’ve ever had: Hamilton and coffee.

The lack of a starting point is uncharacteristic… and, frankly, terrifying. I’m not used to writing music without an idea of the artistic, often extramusical, idea I want to explore. One of the reasons my output includes little to no absolute music (music without an explicit non-music program: think “Sonata,” “Rondo,” “Nocturne,” etc.) is because I have a hard time falling in love with musical ideas that don’t suggest a narrative. The music I write is a series of characters, with their behavior influenced by the others around them; the narrative of their interaction is usually conversational and literary. Some people have compared my way of thinking about musical materials to Wagner and his leitmotifs – or if you prefer, John Williams and his. I see the parallel, but it’s not exactly the same. Wagner’s “Hero to Come” and “Dutchman” leitmotifs are associated with those ideas because, well, he says so; and when they appear they’re meant to suggest those ideas, without questions. My musical material starts as the embodiment of an idea, not as much arbitrarily associated with it as it is meant to try and capture that idea in musical space.

The clearest example is Tag!, the third movement of my Piano Quintet: Scenes from Childhood, which you can hear in the Chamber Music section. At about 0:20 of the recording, the cello comes in with this motive:

Piano Quintet III - Cello
The main motive from “Tag!”

This motive isn’t directly representative of anything; it doesn’t suggest “childhood” or “innocence” or any other emotional content the way a Wagnerian leitmotiv might. But it sets the groundwork for the movement’s structure: this is a game of tag, and the musician who’s got the theme is “it.” Only “it” has this melodic material or any variation on it at any given time; everyone else’s material is unrelated to the motive, either freely composed or coming out of other material from the quintet. The motive gets passed around the ensemble as “it” changes; “it” may try to make a grab at another member of the ensemble, and as such they’ll come close to having the melody or variations on it… but if they aren’t tagged, it goes spinning off in another direction, and “it” is left with the melodic material until he/she tags someone else.

It doesn’t have to be overt, and usually isn’t – you won’t find any mention of this in the program notes for the piano quintet. It doesn’t have to be programmatic, and it usually isn’t – I use these systems as a way to enhance my understanding of the materials, not to micromanage the listener’s experience. But every small musical idea I have has a personality, a behavior, and certain tendencies; and until I know what those are, until I know these characters well enough to write their interactions, I can’t conceive of the piece or its structure in the big picture.

Which brings us back to the white page sitting in front of me. At this point in the process, I don’t know where to begin, only that I must. It’s a feeling akin to being stranded in the desert, and not knowing which way the nearest oasis is; you don’t know where to go, only that you can’t stay where you are. When you’re at this point of the creative process, there are only two options: stare numbly and let the crippling nothingness take over, or start walking and hope you find water.

So I start walking.

The first page of free sketches.

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